It is a Sin to Start a Family: Motherhood and Radicalism in Revolutionary Russia

*For the full article, see Litterae Mentis out in September.


In honor of the true spirit of Mother’s Day, here’s part of an article on motherhood in the Russian revolutionary underground.

Motherhood is never easy; the struggle is that much greater whilst simultaneously trying to overthrow an all-pervasive, centuries-old system of government. Revolutionary women, often neglected by history, are stereotyped as divorced from personal concerns. This view is both limited and inaccurate. The mainstream narrative of the Russian Revolution, whose centenary began in March, suffers from this misconception. When their personal lives are remembered, it is usually their sexual relationships with men, while the deep tenderness of motherhood is ignored despite its reciprocal influence on revolutionary activity. Motherhood is largely missing from women’s memoirs; it was regarded as less worthy than political achievement, and the subject was often painful. Their love for their children compounded by loss made them unwilling to dwell in their recollections, and their determination to be seen as worthwhile revolutionaries meant they avoided the less respected subject of parenthood. The threat of separation was constant. These women had to decide how best to balance their roles as revolutionaries and mothers, or whether balance was possible. Inevitably, absence permeated these relationships. As Vera Broido noted in her memoirs, “Mother was a good and loving mother when she was there… Most of the time she simply was not there, nor was Father” (27-28DR). Party affiliation made no difference: Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, and Olga Liubatovich (People’s Will), Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand (Bolshevik), Ekaterina Breshkovskaya (Socialist Revolutionary), and Eva Broido (Menshevik) all faced combinations of such challenges, whether their children were taken away, given up, or kept alongside them. The absence of love, real or perceived, irrevocably shapes their lives.


The People’s Will was one of Russia’s earliest terrorist organizations. Begun in the late-1870s, its primary aim was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and the overthrow of the autocratic system, to be replaced by a socialist order for the people. A number of women joined, taking active part in planning attacks, building bombs, distributing leaflets, and managing safe-houses. This group contained illustrious figures like Sofia Perovskaya, first woman hanged in Russia for a political crime, and Vera Figner, who took over Perovskaya’s leadership role and was incarcerated in the Schlusselberg Fortress for two decades. Also members were Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, and Olga Liubatovich. These women, in their twenties and dedicated to the cause, all became mothers. They also lost their children as a direct result of their political work.

Gesia Gelfman

Gelfman and Yakimova, gave birth in prison, in almost unbearable conditions. Tsarist prisons were renowned for inhumane treatment of prisoners, from the conditions of cells to vermin to corporal punishment. Gelfman and Yakimova were both arrested after the successful assassination of the tsar on March 1, 1881; Gelfman, and her comrade Sablin, had operated a safe-house for members of the People’s Will to meet and plan and hide, while Yakimova had been largely responsible, along with her comrade Isaev, for building the bombs which would kill the tsar. Both women were condemned to death, but due to their pregnancy were, unlike Perovskaya, spared the noose. Gelfman’s story is recalled by her fellow terrorist Olga Liubatovich:

At the hands of the authorities, the terrible act of childbirth became a case of torturer unprecedented in human history. For the delivery, they transferred her to the House of Detention. They gave her a fairly large cell, but in it they posted round-the-clock sentries – a device that had driven other women, women who weren’t pregnant, insane. […] [B]ut Gesia didn’t go mad – her constitution was too strong. The child was born live, and she was even able to nurse it. Under Russian law, Gesia’s rights as a mother were protected, even though she as a convict; no one could take her baby away. But…one night shortly after the child was born, the authorities came in and took her away… In the morning, they brought her to a foundling home, where they abandoned her without taking a receipt or having her tagged – this despite the fact that many people (myself included) had offered to raise the child. The mother could not endure this final blow, and she soon died. (186-7FS)

Gesia herself died in her cell less than a week later (277FD), from strain or medical complications, likely both. She had run away from home rather than endure an arranged marriage, trained as a midwife, been imprisoned, managed the domestic necessities of the People’s Will, and, at the time of her arrest, watched her comrade Sablin (the father of her child) commit suicide rather than face arrest. Liubatovich’s estimation of her strong constitution almost seems an understatement in light of all she withstood; and although it is impossible to speculate how Gelfman envisioned her revolutionary life would progress after the birth of her baby, it is clear that the stress of the pregnancy, birth, and separation in such conditions did the greatest damage of all.

Anna Yakimova
Anna Yakimova

Yakimova had been a revolutionary for ten years by the time she became a mother. She joined the People’s Will and worked alongside the bomb-maker Isaev; when he injured himself too badly to work, she took over. They often posed as husband and wife to fool the authorities, and prolonged periods in close proximity produced an intimacy which nullified the deception. Yakimova was pregnant by him at the time of her arrest in 1882. Instead of hanging she was sent to Trubetskoy Dungeon where, like Gelfman, she was kept in an underground cell riddled with damp, “where it was almost completely dark and the mildewed walls ran with water; the floors were full of deep holes through which rats swarmed” (202 AT). Her son was born in these unbearable conditions. Unlike Gelfman, Yakimova was allowed to keep her baby which gave rise to its own set of problems, “watching over him night and day to protect him from rats, trying to warm him with her breath and watching him slowly die as she ran out of milk” (278FD).

Inadequate care for the mother impacted the infant as well; poorly fed herself, it was impossible to properly feed her baby, and the unsanitary conditions spelled certain death for him. When, in 1883, she was transferred to the Kara prison mines for hard labor, Yakimova knew it would be impossible to keep him with her. The journey north, on foot and by sledge, took two years; he would never survive. Revolutionaries in Russia often received something like celebrity status, garnering admiring crowds as their notoriety spread. Such a crowd was present the day of Yakimova’s transfer. Knowing it was her son’s only chance, she “gave him over to some well-wishers who had come out to greet the prisoners with messages of support and tears of sympathy” (278FD). She never saw him again. Whilst at Kara she met Ekaterina Breshkovskaya, a Socialist Revoutionary who had already been in exile nearly a decade. She had similarly given her son to relatives. The decision left her “torn into a thousand pieces”, but she felt the decision a necessary evil.

The conflict between my love for the child and my love for the revolution…robbed me of many a night’s sleep. I knew that I could not be a mother and still be a revolutionist. Those were not two tasks to which it was possible to give a divided attention. Either the one or the other must absorb one’s whole being, one’s entire devotion. (40CB)

No doubt Breshkovskaya provided Yakimova consolation as well as solidarity. It was easier to bear the absence of children alongside women with similar burdens, for the same cause, without judgement.

Olga Liubatovich
Olga Liubatovich

Olga Liubatovich was sixteen when she left home. Russian women weren’t permitted to pursue higher education, and her desire to be a doctor meant she’d need to leave the country to take on the necessary training. Zurich was a hotspot both for women’s education and revolutionary activity; many of the women who took up the socialist cause in the 1870s and 1880s met there whilst studying science and medicine. Liubatovich joined such a circle, and returned to Russia a revolutionary. She joined Land and Liberty, but when the party split into factions three years later she joined its terrorist wing, the People’s Will. One of her comrades was Nikolay Morozov, a founder of Land and Liberty and ardent terrorist.

Her memoirs are a glimpse into the dynamics and philosophy of the underground at the time but deliberately obfuscate personal matters. She describes her first meeting with and impressions of Morozov, their alignment with People’s Will, and mutual disillusionment with the movement’s authoritarian turn. Both she and Morozov left for Geneva, and she records little of their time there until he returned to Russia to distribute his pamphlet Terrorist Struggle and was promptly arrested.

I nearly collapsed from grief. […] I wasn’t sufficiently careful when I walked into my room, and I woke up my baby daughter. Her crying finally brought me to my senses, and I calmed down and fed her. But what venom I must have given her along with the milk from my breast, when I would rather have been holding someone else! (181FS)

These are the first indications that her feelings for Morozov were deeper than friendship, and the first, surprisingly casual, mention of the child he fathered. Yet as much as Liuboatovich tried to keep her memoir focused on her work and the movement, the depth of her love for them both made this impossible.

With Morozov in prison, Liubatovich returned to Russia to liberate him. Sergei Kravchinsky, famous radical and author, attempted to dissuade her, but Liubatovich was adamant. “Sergei pointed to the baby, as if that would clinch things. ‘It makes no difference, even now I can’t feed her. I’ll leave her with you and your wife in the meanwhile, and we’ll decide what’s best for her later. I hope to be back soon.’ Sergei made no more objections.” (182FS) Liubatovich had never been anything but strong-willed. Kravchinski made arrangements and Liubatovich’s was left alone to say goodbye to her daughter. “Her face, pink from sleep, was peaceful and filled with the beauty of childhood. […] Not daring to kiss her lest I wake her up, I quietly walked out of the room. I thought I’d be back; I didn’t know, didn’t want to believe that I was seeing my little girl for the last time. My heart was numb with grief.” (182-183FS)

When she recovered and crossed the border, driven by concern for Morozov, Liubatovich went to see her father to draw from her funds.

When Father learned that I had a child and that I’d left her abroad, he became extremely upset. An intelligent and well-educated man, he naturally understood…that a child born of a mother living underground couldn’t be legitimate, and he suffered, both for my sake and for the child’s, suffered from my grief and from the impossibility of helping me. […] Now I understood…that I had to bear a double burden in life – the heavy burden of a human being and the burden of a woman as well… (193FS)

Liubatovich follows Breshkovskaya’s stance to its conclusion: women’s struggles were rooted in the social structuring of their biological function as child-bearers into carers, barring them from work by necessitating tremendous emotional sacrifice.

The blows kept coming: soon a telegram arrived from Kravchinsky to say Liubatovich’s daughter was dead, a victim of the meningitis epidemic sweeping Europe. “I sat over [the] telegram for hours on end before it fully registered on me that my daughter was dead. I didn’t cry; I was numb from grief. For some time thereafter…the sweet, happy faces of small children tore at my heart, reminding me of my own child.” (196FS) Her grief made her careless, as she struggled to read people and assess her surroundings. Morozov was moved to a new prison, the trail fell cold, and Liubatovich was arrested and exiled. We know little of her life after that. Like Breshkovskaya, Liubatovich felt children were not the business of revolutionaries. “Yes, it’s a sin for revolutionaries to start a family. Men and women both must stand alone, like soldiers under a hail of bullets. But in your youth, you somehow forget that revolutionaries’ lives are measured not in years, but in days and hours.” (196FS) Liubatovich, always vague when it came to personal matters, never explained just what her sin was. Loving, getting close to others, thus creating risk, pain, and distraction from the revolution? Or selfishness, perhaps, to have wanted a family, or have tried to stretch her love – for Morozov, daughter, and revolution – too thin.

Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai is among the most famous of Russia’s revolutionary women. She spent decades agitating, writing books and pamphlets, before earning a position in the Bolshevik cabinet and then as Soviet ambassador, one of the first female ambassadors in history. Like so many women of the Russian revolutionary movement, Kollontai came from a bourgeois background; she married a factory inspector, and gave birth to a son, Misha. She loved her boy, minded him herself rather than passing him off to a nanny as so many of her peers did, but grew dissatisfied with the limitations put on herself. “Motherhood,” she said, “was never the kernel of my existence.” (11AK) Kollontai wrote fiction, read widely, and was increasingly politically engaged; occupying herself solely with house and home was not an option. “I…loved my husband, but the happy life of a housewife and spouse became for me a ‘cage.’ More and more my sympathies…turned to the revolutionary working class of Russia. […] I could not lead a happy, peaceful life when the working population was so terribly enslaved. I simply had to join this movement.” (11AK) She left her husband but kept her son, only dabbling in the underground lest her activities endanger him. Kollontai was trying to live two lives, and struggling to make a success of either. By 1903, she accepted that Misha had to live with his father.

Now I had the opportunity to devote myself completely to my aims, to the Russian revolutionary movement and to the working-class movement of the whole world. Love, marriage, family, all were secondary, transient matters. They were there, they intertwine with my life over and over again. But…immediately it transgressed a certain limit in relation to my feminine proneness to make sacrifice, rebellion flared in me anew. I had to go away…otherwise (this was a subconscious feeling in me) I would have exposed myself to the danger of losing my selfhood. (11-13AK)

She was anxious to keep Misha away from politics and the dangers her own choices had put upon her, even diminishing his presence in her memoirs not only to emphasize her priorities but to protect him from the retribution of Stalin. She was largely successful in these efforts.

Yet despite Kollontai’s physical absence, Misha’s relationship with her was remarkably close, even during her years underground and in European exile. They visited one another, wrote letters constantly, and she remained a supportive and loving figure. She kept up with his education and his needs, writing in 1909, “It’s unbearable not seeing you. These last months I’ve been living a life of such heightened intensity. […] Yet all I want is to be at home with you…” (159CP) She never fully reconciled herself to her decision to give Misha up, though she often took breaks from writing or speaking tours to holiday with him. They were in Germany when war was declared in 1914, and arrested together (Russians being classed as enemy aliens, though Kollontai’s status as exiled revolutionary worked in their favor). Kollontai had been a Menshevik, but her militant anti-war stance led her to join the Bolsheviks; one wonders whether, in addition to her recognizing the political, economic, and social detriment of the war, her dread that Misha might enlist or be conscripted had anything to do with her pacifism. “This week I saw what a strong, sensitive, thoughtful person he is…” she wrote the following year. “Life is so hard for poor Misha, he is burdened with so many adult worries I should have taken responsibility for…” (210CP) Her guilt was constant, but she could compartmentalize it, aided by her shrewd self-knowledge. Work engaged her more than domesticity. Before the October Revolution gave the Bolsheviks legitimacy, Kollontai fled to Moscow, working diligently and writing frequently to Misha to ensure he was safe in the capital rocked by revolutions.

Darling…I can’t tell you how much I miss you and long to talk to you. I wanted to take a few days off to dash to Petrograd and visit you, but as soon as I got back to Moscow I was inundated with work for the women’s congress. It’s the same old story. My heart longs for you, but work holds me back. And so I must button myself up tight and not let my emotions get in the way. (322CP)

Her choice of words reveals her dilemma  – when motherhood had been her primary responsibility, it held her back from the work she loved, and yet when she longed to take on responsibility for Misha, work kept her from doing so.

Kollontai’s global influence was an asset to him, helping him and his wife find work in lean times. Nevertheless, she worried. In the 1920s her position in the Bolshevik government became tenuous due to her support for the Worker’s Opposition, which protested Lenin’s more extreme dictations. As usual, her fear was not for herself, but for Misha. Yet Misha was always sympathetic. “You know what she’s like. She won’t let anyone tell her what to do. Work is the most important thing for her.” (440CP) More so than her own health; when she suffered a stroke in 1944 Misha was her carer, guaranteeing she did not overwork herself – much to Kollontai’s chagrin. By the 1950s Kollontai and her son’s family had settled in Moscow. She was not well enough to carry on her ambassadorial career, but she continued writing, and minding her grandson when Misha was working. They spent summers at a rest home in the country to treat their heart problems, relax, and bond.

Kollontai’s great success in the party, not to mention her blind determination, helped balance all-consuming work and all-consuming motherhood with comparative ease. She recognized these dual impulses and the impossibility of their mutual fulfillment in the current society; her socialist ideals were built on a feminist foundation, to free herself and future generations of women from the pain of sacrificing either their professional or maternal instincts.


Even when revolutionary mothers kept their children with them, they were never guaranteed to keep them for long, nor to remain emotionally close to them.

Eva Broido

Eva Broido was unhappily married with two children when she discovered socialism, and from that moment doing anything else was inconceivable. After her divorce she took care of her daughters Alexandra and Galina, aided by her mother Sara. Her re-marriage to Mark Broido, childhood friend and fellow revolutionary, on their way to exile resulted in two more children, Daniel and Vera. Broido, like Liubatovich, Breshkovskaya, and Kollontai, talks little of her children in her memoirs; given the pressures women faced in the revolutionary movement as well as society, it is unsurprising they kept their emotions about motherhood vague or hidden.

While Mark awaited trial for his role in a revolt, Broido sent her mother and newborn Daniel home. She was conflicted, even decades later, about her decision. “My mother’s departure set me free to help the comrades in prison, but unfortunately there was now nobody to look after my little girls of five and six when I was away at work.” (47EB) Sara’s presence had been a great help, minding the children while Broido worked; in truth it was Daniel’s departure which liberated her. But to say so would have been inconceivable, even for a woman as practical and forward-thinking as Broido. Her solution was unorthodox:

[O]n my way to work I took the little girls to the gate of the prison and handed them over to the sentry who…conducted them into the…wing of the prison [for participants in the revolt]. Needless to say various notes and letters were carefully hidden in the belts and hems of their dresses. The children…were terribly spoiled by the comrades. […] Many years later, in St. Petersburg, one of my little girls was asked once where she liked it best and without hesitation she answered, ‘in prison’. (47EB)

Such unusual scenarios played out in other families, in other eras, by women of other political parties. Barbara Evans Clements wrote of two other women, both Bolsheviks, who brought their children to prison with them, and “Elizaveta Drabkina…remembered a childhood friend who had spent so many years in jail with his mother that he was afraid to walk through an open doorway without permission”. (89BW) None of these children seem to have enjoyed the same treatment afforded to Broido’s.

Mark escaped from exile, and Broido made arrangements for herself shortly thereafter, first sending her daughters to her mother in Lithuania. Broido would spend months knowing nothing of her husband or children as she moved from Siberia to Germany, and eventually England. But Broido could not keep still, and her return to Russia appears to relegate her children to her mother’s care; for the next hundred pages of her memoir they disappear. Her next reference is a confession to having given up “all work in the party and in the labour movement…unable to resume for three whole years, from the end of 1907 to the end of 1910.” (138EB) While Broido cites Mark’s re-arrest, the more likely cause was the unmentioned birth of her final child, Vera, on October 10, 1907. Such reasoning was common. According to Anna Hillyar and Jane McDermid, “The existence of children generally becomes known from biographical accounts where female revolutionaries’ absence from active political life was explained ‘as family circumstances’.” (15RWR) Vera’s relationships with her parents were fractured by their revolutionary activities, although consistently very loving. Nevertheless, she identified their grandmother Sara as the most consistent figure in the children’s lives.

It was Sara who again took the elder children when Broido was imprisoned for her opposition to the war. She was sentenced to another Siberian exile, but granted a week to say goodbye to friends and gather her youngest children to accompany her. “She was so often away from home for long periods that I hardly noticed her absence,” Vera said,

and no-one explained what had happened to her. So it came as somewhat of a shock when one morning Mother reappeared unannounced. […] She quickly came in, closed the door behind her and drew me to her. We both sat down on her case and cried. I always cried when she reappeared though I don’t think that I cried or missed her very much in between. Each time she seemed a stranger at first and I felt a bit shy of her but a good cry seemed to bring us together again. (42VB)

Vera points out the cost of travel for the three of them, which Broido took upon herself, was exorbitant. But Broido’s real fears lay deeper.

I had not yet recovered from my sun- and air-less existence in prison and the emotional strain of parting from my relatives and friends. And I was worried about our future. […] When I returned to our compartment in the train and looked at my children, my courage failed me, my feet gave away under me and I fell into a dead faint. […] My children were terribly frightened. But I quickly recovered and I had myself under control from then on. (144EB)

Broido would never let her fear get the better of her, especially in front of her children. She spent all her time with them in exile; Vera records this period of their lives as “idyllic”. (52DR) And they were supported by other exiles like Ekaterina Breshkovskaya, now dubbed the “little grandmother of the revolution”, playing mother to younger comrades who turned to her for guidance.

Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya
Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya

In 1916 word came that Galina, Broido’s second child, was ill with meningitis. Trapped in Siberia, Broido applied for leave to attend to her, but was refused, and Galina died. Vera observed her mother’s reaction.

I never saw Mother so shattered. She did not speak of it, did not share her grief with me, went about her work as usual, and I could only guess at her thoughts and feelings. Did she blame herself for having chosen a way of life that often took her away from her children, even when they needed her most? I suspected that she did, though I also thought that nothing would make her leave her chosen path. I sympathized… I had acquired a romantic admiration for political exiles… I thought it right that Mother should be just like the best of them. (70-71 DR)

Vera’s absorption into the revolutionary ethos is common among the children of revolutionaries. Elizaveta Drabkina, daughter of revolutionary parents, followed in their footsteps, as did, to somewhat smaller degrees, the daughters of Inessa Armand. But for all the agony Broido suffered, she never records it in her memoirs. In fact, from her writings it’s difficult to know precisely how many children she had, and Galina’s death is never mentioned. She could no more record Galina’s death for herself than discuss it with Vera, and it is easy to understand her reluctance, particularly in light of the wedge it drove between her and her daughter Alexandra. Alexandra was consumed by bitterness, declared that she hated all Mensheviks, and befriended Bolsheviks out of spite; she even became engaged to one. (71DR) Interestingly, her revenge never consisted of abandoning the revolution; like Vera, she had absorbed her parents’ revolutionary ethos. But she avoided the family, particularly her mother, and angrily referred to Vera as “Mother’s pet”. No doubt Breshkovskaya’s presence was a great comfort to Broido; her son had no sympathy – in fact, open disdain – for her political work. Like Yakimova, Broido found solace in an empathetic comrade.

Among this family turmoil the revolution erupted, and the exiles returned home.  The idyll was over. Alexandra reluctantly watched Daniel and Vera while their parents struggled to assert Menshevik dominance in Petrograd. After the Bolshevik coup in October the family was fragmented for years; Broido fled to Moscow with Vera, and Sara disappeared. By 1920, remaining in Russia was impossible, and she took Vera across the border to reunite with Mark. This exile, a challenge for Broido, was a joy for Vera, who felt a part of a family for the first time.

I had Father all for myself and was not afraid that tomorrow or next week he would again disappear. […] My dark-haired, dark-eyed Mother was of quite a different make, dearly as I loved her. Of course I really knew neither of them very well and it was only years later that I came to understand them properly. (140-141DR)

But Broido knew no rest; like Kollontai (indeed, all of the women of the movement) it was simply not in her nature. She joined a Menshevik journal, and their home was soon the centre of an exiled Menshevik colony.

But domesticity could not hold her indefinitely. Broido worked as a dressmaker when Mark lost his job, and even opened a salon. By 1927, once its success was established, she handed control over to Vera. It was a final maternal act: having provided for her daughter’s future, she announced to a baffled Mark and Vera that she was returning to Russia. The Menshevik Delegation in Exile needed a representative to contact members in Russia. The job demanded someone with experience and authority and Broido was the ideal candidate. It was meant to take six weeks. She never came home. Broido was caught and spent three years in solitary confinement before being exiled to central Asia. She was able to send occasional letters, although they were severely censored. “While in Suzda’ she was allowed to receive just one visit, from [Alexandra]. The only detailed information we ever received about her life came from [Alexandra] after that visit.” (210DR) Given the previous difficulties between mother and daughter after Galina’s death, one wonders about their meeting, their conversation, and whether or not the gap was ever bridged. Broido was tried by a military tribunal and shot on September 14, 1941.

Inessa Armand

Inessa Armand’s reputation as Lenin’s mistress precedes her, though it is her least impressive accomplishment. She was a dedicated socialist from a young age, and a dedicated mother of five. It was her maternal instinct which first got her into real trouble. She had taken in a young student named Vanya; he helped with the rent, but was also a weapon-toting Socialist Revolutionary. Despite their difference in ideology, she couldn’t bear to set him adrift, but it was only a matter of time before the police came looking for him. Inna, Armand’s third child, recalled the scene clearly: “I was woken up that night by a sudden noise, and found police searching our room, turning everything upside-down, even the beds of us children. Mother stood nearby, absolutely calm. She smiled at me and made a sign not to cry.” (33MP) Vanya’s room was full of SR literature, but they found his revolver and ammunition in Armand’s room. She took responsibility and was arrested. Armand had known this was a possibility, warning the elder children beforehand: “Do not show you are scared and do not say anything. If necessary, look after the little ones”. (33MP) Inessa would not see her children given to strangers, at any cost. And to little Inna she had special instructions: ‘Don’t tell anyone I have been arrested.” (34MP) While this seems quite a demanding request of a six-year-old, she was more than capable, which might explain her closeness with her mother in the years before her death.

Such expectations of revolutionary children was not uncommon. Secrecy was the stock-in-trade of the radical movement, and if the children weren’t indoctrinated early they could undo valuable work and even risk their parents’ lives. In Clements’ book Bolshevik Women, we are treated to an anecdote from Elizaveta Drabkina about her own loose tongue. Feodosia Drabkina solved the problem by spreading hot mustard on her daughter’s tongue. “Thereafter she could silence her daughter up by simply looking at her sternly and saying, ‘If you don’t shut up, you’re going to get the mustard.’ This threat seems to have worked… ‘My poor Mama,’ Elizaveta wrote later, ‘I caused her so much grief, care, bother, and trouble.’” (89BW) Children seemed trapped between idolizing their parents, more so than usual due to the grand, secretive nature of their monumental work, and sensing their own potential from holding them back.

The difficulty of managing childcare and full-time work – revolutionary or otherwise –strengthened the feminist base of both Kollontai and Armand, particularly their calls for crèches and communal housing. Armand was significantly more torn than Kollontai about her conflicting roles; motherhood was not the centre of Kollontai’s life, but had been for Armand for several years, quite happily. She wrote to a friend that the “friction between personal and family interests and the interests of society…is one of the most serious problems facing the intelligentsia today.” (45-46MP) Upon her release she kept them with her in the capital but there was no more dangerous place for them, and it took her some time to realize that the arrangement could not continue. It was a moot point: Armand was arrested again. Elena Vlasova, friend and cellmate, said: “She missed them infinitely but she never spoke of them. But we knew that all the embroidery and knitting was destined for them”. (52MP) We see links with Broido in her refusal to speak of maternal pain, as if to voice it was to be defeated by it.

Parenting from a distance was a fact for nearly all revolutionary mothers at some point. Armand’s letters to her children from Siberia are tender, full of false cheer, laced throughout with concern for their physical and intellectual welfare. And always, her longing to be with them and see them grow well – and to avoid the pitfalls of her own life. “I dream about summer, when you can come here because the ship arrives then. […] I implore you, though, not to follow my example. Only in this. In all other ways, as is well known, I am perfection.” (65MP) She tried to be flippant, but couldn’t grasp two years without them, and hoped the authorities would let her move to another settlement so the children could join her. When Alexander was arrested and the authorities refused to resettle her, she knew completing her term in exile was impossible. She escaped from Siberia in 1908 and fled to Paris. And it was there that she met Lenin.

Much has been written of her relationship with Lenin, and about the possible ménage à trois between them and Lenin’s wife, Bolshevik Party secretary and lifelong socialist Nadezhda Krupskaya; to recount it here is superfluous. What is more curious even than their salacious personal dynamic is how Armand’s children were incorporated into their domestic arrangement. Safely abroad, they visited frequently, staying with her and often with Lenin and Krupskaya, who were affectionate toward them. Krupskaya in her memoirs recalled that they occupied a prominent, if not predominant, place in their mother’s thoughts. “She told us a great deal about her life and…children; she showed me their letters and in speaking about them she seemed to radiate warmth and ardour.” (104-105MP) When the children were not with her Armand wrote to them constantly, and she was separated from them increasingly often. She spent much of 1912 trying to arrange having them sent to her, but struggled to settle in any one place, largely due to the tempestuous nature of her affair with Lenin. It devastated her, but she accepted it as a necessary consequence of her nomadic life.

The following year Armand returned to Russia at Lenin’s behest with the impossible task of singlehandedly agitating for Bolshevik power in the Duma, delivering his edicts, and whipping his paper Pravda into shape. Unsurprisingly, she was imprisoned, but bailed out by the indulgent Alexander. She left immediately for Austria to reconvene with Lenin and Krupskaya; this time, she took her children with her. But the outbreak of war put a swift end to their joyous holiday (as Russia and Austria were now enemies), and she sent them home to avoid the trouble Kollontai’s son faced in Germany. They would be separated for three years, the longest they ever spent apart, and she missed them within the first week of their absence. “I went back [to our villa] with a sore heart. It was so empty and I was sad…not to hear your jolly voices and your laughing. I was sad to look at the things you left behind, sad to enter your rooms now so empty…” (125MP) Armand often said in letters to her children that their absence was difficult not only personally but professionally. She found it difficult to work when she was isolated.

It is worth noting a key difference between Kollontai and Armand, who are so often compared in their aims and viewpoints but were typically at quiet loggerheads over different methods and personalities. Kollontai’s work on feminist theory stemmed from her personal sense of being hemmed in by society’s expectations of women, particularly of her class; although her writing aimed to ease the domestic (including romantic and maternal) bonds of womanhood across the classes, it was instigated by her personal discomfort in the limited roles assigned to her. Armand’s work on the women question, however, came as a direct result of her daughter Inna’s questions about love, marriage, and sex. (127MP) As Armand replied to Inna, advising from a distance, she recognized the need and desire to address them to all young ladies asking the same questions. She had already synthesized her thoughts in letters; the next step was a pamphlet on the woman question. Armand would supply maternal advice to all the daughters of Russia.

With the revolution in February 1917 and the Bolshevik coup in October, Armand was busier than ever, including, in 1919, becoming director of the Zhenotdel, or women’s department. She had established the Zhenotdel with Kollontai, and there was a sense among certain circles that Armand’s leadership role was a direct result of Lenin’s continued affection for her; as it was, she was only in charge for a year. Overworked, suffering from strain, Lenin sent her on holiday to the Caucuses with her youngest child Andre. Armand was exhausted; she, like Kollontai, had become involved with Worker’s Opposition, who considered many of Lenin’s new policies damaging to the principles of their hard-won socialist revolution…yet she loved him still. The cognitive dissonance necessary to maintain these two conflicting pillars of her life nearly broke her. In her diary she recorded: “the only warm feelings I have left are for the children and V.I. [Lenin]. In all other respects, it’s as if my heart has died…I have no one apart from V. I. and my children”. (214MP) Work and Lenin are one and the same; only her children are spared the deadening of her emotions. As they fled from warring factions during the Civil War, her concerns shifted from politics to her youngest child, as if she sensed she was running out of time to care for him.

I’m only worried for Andrushka, my little son. In this respect I am weak – not like a Roman matron who could easily sacrifice her children in the interest of the republic. I could not. I am terribly worried about my children. I was never a coward for myself, but I’m a big coward when it concerns my children, especially Andrushka. […] We are still very far from the time when the personal interest and that of society will coincide. Now there is no personal life because all our time and effort is devoted to the common cause. Or maybe other people can find a bit of time and a little corner of happiness. I don’t know how to do it for myself. (215MP)

She had resumed musing where and whether the political and the private could meet. Shattered and unwell, she was free to voice the griefs and anxieties about her children which other women were so reluctant to admit. Armand, who struggled to stop working at the best of times, contracted cholera at a local committee meeting and died days later. For the rest of their lives, Lenin and Krupskaya looked after Armand’s children, which protected them from the political upheaval of the coming decades.

Women in the Russian revolutionary movement loved their children; such a statement is neither novel nor surprising. But to be a mother and a revolutionary required vastly disparate lifestyles, and the absence caused by one invariably hurt the other: either the work suffers, or the relationship between mother and child suffers. In a movement where women already struggled for acceptance (even among the Bolsheviks who, with the help of staunch feminists Kollontai and Armand, were the first to recognize the value of the galvanized woman as a revolutionary force), women with children faced extra challenges. Women’s personal lives are skewed toward sexual love, rather than the maternal connection. Yet in many ways their position as mothers is precisely what made them such key fighters in the movement: they sought to build a better world for the working class with room for women’s specific needs. Certainly today as feminist issues (which impact men and women alike) and reproductive healthcare are undermined, underfunded, and misunderstood, these women who were heralded as pioneers a century ago are still particularly relevant.



Breshkovsky, Catherine, The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution: Reminiscences and Letters of Catherine Breshkovsky, ed. by Alice Stone Blackwell (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1919)

Broido, Eva Memoirs of a Revolutionary, trans. and ed. by Vera Broido (London: Oxford University Press, 1967)

Broido, Vera, Apostles Into Terrorists: Women and the Revolutionary Movement in the Russia of Alexander II (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1977)

Broido, Vera, Daughter of Revolution: A Russian Girlhood Rememebred (London: Constable, 1998)

Evans Clements, Barbara, Bolshevik Women (London: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar, the memoirs of five young anarchist women of the 1870’s, trans. and Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1975)

Hillyar, Anna and Jane McDermid, Revolutionary Women in Russia, 1880-1917: A Study in Collective Biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)

Kollontai, Alexandra, The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, trans. by Salvator Attansio, ed. by Iring Fetscher (New York, Schocken, 1975)

Pearson, Michael, Inessa: Lenin’s Mistress (London: Duckworth, 2001)

Porter, Cathy Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014)

Porter, Cathy, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (Virago: London, 1976)



Doctoral researcher and writer, currently researching women of the Russian revolutionary movement.

One thought on “It is a Sin to Start a Family: Motherhood and Radicalism in Revolutionary Russia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s