Love and power in the land of the Soviets

Nadezhda Krupskaya

Nadezhda Krupskaya: Propaganda speech in 1920 during the civil war. (© RGASPI Moscow)

Magali DelaloyeMagali Delaloye is Junior lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences.
David Spring / Allez savoir!
In her book Une histoire érotique du Kremlin (An Erotic History of the Kremlin), researcher Magali Delaloye retraces the life of women who gravitated to the heart of Bolshevism. Campaigner for free love, adored daughter, self-effacing, trapped or voluntarily exiled wife: what path did these women tread alongside Lenin or Stalin?

The Kremlin was a male bastion during the Soviet era and particularly during the time of Stalin (1929-1953). And yet women lived and were active within this circle of power, a dangerous space where public and private life constantly intermingled and where neither love nor friendship was a safeguard against prison (or worse). A recently published work by Magali Delaloye, junior lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies (Faculty of Social and Political Sciences), recounts the fates of these little-known women. Following on from her thesis submitted in 2012, Une histoire érotique du Kremlin runs from Tsarist Russia until the end of the Soviet Union. The book draws in particular on her painstaking research in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) in Moscow. Below are a few of the threads followed from four different periods.

1. A time of militants

An ‘extraordinary’ character, Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) is one of Magali Delaloye’s favourites. Born into the minor aristocracy, she rejected the husband her parents wished to impose on her. ‘This beautiful woman, who always looked younger than her age,’ married her penniless cousin, Vladimir Kollontai, with whom she eloped. Alexandra Kollontai was well educated and a polyglot. She held ideas verging on the revolutionary and, as a result, was part of an ongoing movement of populist thinkers (narodnichestvo). These people were intellectuals from comfortable backgrounds, who sought to liberate the Russian peasantry during the time of the last tsars.

In 1898, the rebel-minded Kollontai travelled to Zurich, at the time a hotbed of revolution, and made contact with German Marxists. There she began a passionate affair with the trade unionist Alexander Shliapnikov. ‘He was from the proletariat, something she recounted with delight in a letter to a female friend. She added that, thanks to her lover, she understood life and the needs of the workers,’ notes Magali Delaloye. ‘Her sexuality has a political element.’


Alexandra Kollontai in London in 1925. (© RGASPI Moscow)

On this subject, Alexandra Kollontai put forward ideas that irritated the Russian Bolsheviks. She railed against ‘the double standards of bourgeois society that allowed men to sleep with whoever they wished, whereas women were forbidden from doing so.’ This militant woman advocated ‘love-friendship’, devoid of jealousy and guided by self-discipline. Beyond this, she subscribed to the thinking of social democrat August Bebel (1840-1913), developing her own theoretical writings in which she defended the emancipation of women. At the end of 1917, just after the Revolution, she became People’s Commissar for Social Welfare for several months. She created the zhenotdel, the equivalent of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, with Inessa Armand, mistress of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The latter, who himself practised ‘double standards’, loathed Alexandra Kollontai, who was gradually distanced from power. She was appointed ambassador to Norway in 1923, followed by Mexico and finally Sweden. Shortly before her death in 1951, she wrote to Joseph Stalin to ask permission to place her personal archives in the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow. ‘The correspondence between these two people who had only a few months to live is marked by nostalgia. They are two old, solitary fellow travellers who are meeting up,’ comments Magali Delaloye. Their relationship must have been special for the irrepressible activist, whose ideas often ran counter to Bolshevik orthodoxy, to have escaped the firing squad.

Another female figure stands out during the same period: Nadezhda Krupskaya (1869-1939), Lenin’s comrade-in-arms and wife from 1899. A tutor with a brilliant mind, Krupskaya became ‘the first lady of the Red Kremlin’, as Magali Delaloye puts it. The researcher goes on to add that ‘She produced her own theoretical texts, notably on education, while supervising those of her husband.’ In addition, as a militant campaigner, she dealt with the correspondence of the newspaper Iskra, organ of the party, and led a campaign against illiteracy in the countryside during the civil war (1917-1923).

Perfectly aware of the relationship between ‘her’ Lenin and Inessa Armand, Krupskaya went so far in her devotion as to keep Armand’s children. They formed a triangle of love/friendship that was out of the ordinary. Lenin’s lover died prematurely, however, in 1920. Vladimir Ilyich, who died himself four years later, remained ‘crushed by sadness’, according to the account by Alexandra Kollontai.

2. A time of wives

Everything changed when Joseph Stalin came to power. Nadezhda Krupskaya was on very poor terms with the ‘father of the people’, who threatened to find a different widow for Lenin. The message was clear and the activist withdrew. She is far from being the only woman to have been sidelined at this time. The Stalinist era is marked by the gradual effacing of a female presence in the Kremlin, a phenomenon described in detail with numerous examples in Magali Delaloye’s work.

The circle surrounding ‘Koba’ – his pseudonym from his underground days – was made up of his friends and comrades in the struggle. Their wives, often from very simple backgrounds, were Bolsheviks of the brightest red but were not intellectuals. For a few years, however, this microcosm of friendship and family pursued a somewhat carefree existence. Their private and public lives were intertwined.

Red princesses

Two little girls, both called Svetlana, scampered about the Kremlin. Born in 1929, the younger was the adored only child of the Molotov couple – Polina Zhemchuzhina Molotova and Vyacheslav Molotov. The other girl, her elder by three years, was the daughter of Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Stalin. The latter doted on his child, feelings that are confirmed by numerous testimonies and photographs. Until the war, the Master of the Kremlin amused himself with a little game he had devised. Describing his Svetlana as ‘little mistress’ (khozajka), he asked her to give him orders, such as to take her to the theatre or cinema. And ‘Koba’ obeyed these instructions, indulging (almost) all of the little girl’s whims. When one of the child’s aunts – delicately – broached the subject, the father defended the child, pointing out that ‘she had lost her mother so young’. The passionate relationship which he had had with his second wife, Nadezhda, had in fact ended with her suicide in 1932, after a violent spat.

Svetlana, daughter of Stalin with her father at the dacha, first half of the 1930s. (© Stalin’s private collection, RGASPI, Moscow)

The special relationship between ‘little daddy’ and his ‘little mistress’ did not last. As an adolescent, Svetlana fell in love with the Jewish actor Alexis Kapler, aged 40 at the time, which greatly displeased the potential ‘father-in-law’. The man unlucky enough to be so loved found himself deported for a period of more than ten years.

Other events subsequently soured the relationship between the Master of the Kremlin and his daughter. Svetlana had been raised by Stalin’s sisters-in-law, but he sent two to the gulag and had two others shot in the 1940s. Why did he do this? It is true that the sisters had had close dealings with the dictator when he was in despair following Nadezhda’s suicide in 1932 and, according to him, they talked too much. Magali Delaloye has no explanation for these crimes. One reason might be that ‘for these old Bolsheviks, who had known a clandestine existence under the tsarist regime and distrusted everyone, silence was important.’ The mystery remains.

3. A time of terror

Everything changed in a few weeks at the beginning of 1937. To ensure the unconditional loyalty of his entourage, Stalin had several of his friends from the circle closest to power arrested. Some committed suicide, others, like Bukharin and Enukidze were liquidated. The subsequent purges saw millions of Russians condemned to deportation or death. Other figures, who owed everything to the tyrant in the Kremlin, increased their power. These included Nikolai Yezhov, architect of the Great Purge and head of the political police, the NKVD. With this hated figure, a new instrument came into force: the wife as a tool of entrapment.

Yezhov was himself to fall victim. This terrifying figure was the third husband of Yevgenia Solomonovna, a Jewish woman who had travelled extensively in the Far East in her youth. He discovered that she had a lover, Isaac Babel. Mad with jealousy, the police chief opened a file on his rival to make out he was a spy and an ‘enemy of the people’. The strategy was to backfire on Yezhov.

A cruel game of dominoes

For the Great Terror was raging more fiercely and required a sacrificial scapegoat; and Yezhov fitted the bill. During 1938, the friends and ex-husbands of Yevgenia Solomonovna were arrested – and even executed – one after the other, which drove her to a nervous breakdown. The architects of this game of dominoes, namely Lavrentiy Beria and Stalin himself, sought to accuse Yezhov’s wife of being a spy working for the British. If she were to fall, she would bring down her husband with her. For, as Magali Delaloye explains, ‘At this time, an enemy of the people was someone who knew someone who knew someone.’ While in hospital, the wretched Yevgenia Solomonovna sent two clumsily worded letters to the Master of the Kremlin, missives that prove that she had not realised that her private life and the public life of her husband were inextricably linked. On 19 November, the poor woman committed suicide with her husband’s help. The sacrifice was pointless as Nikolai Yezhov was shot on 4 February 1940 following a trial that was staggering in its cruelty, as Magali Delaloye reveals in her book.

During his interrogation, the fallen chief of the NKVD accused himself of moral turpitude and, in particular, of having had lovers. ‘He therefore marks the beginning of a practice that was to continue,’ explains the researcher. ‘An enemy of the people was one-dimensional: his debauchery was moral and social.’ It should be noted that male homosexuality was criminalised in 1934.

4. A time of exile

A period of fear began following the war. As Magali Delaloye writes, ‘Stalin no longer needed to have his close collaborators and friends executed: it was enough that they believed him capable of doing so.’ Faced with this sword of Damocles, the Voroshilov couple, who were very close to the centre of power, perfected their defence strategy.

Ekaterina Voroshilova (1887-1959) was born into a poor Jewish family in Odessa. In 1910, she married Kliment Voroshilov. He had a long political career, serving as Minister of Defence from 1925 to 1940 and Marshal of the Soviet Union from 1935 until his death in 1969. Adored by the soldiers of the Red Army – there are songs glorifying him – he was a long-standing friend of Stalin. But like many others, ‘Klim’ received a wake-up call at the beginning of 1937. The People’s Commissariat for Military and Naval Affairs, that he ran, was subject to relentless purges. Many high-ranking officials were executed or deported. At that point Voroshilov embarked on a strategy of self-exclusion. He distanced himself from power by the back door, explains Magali Delaloye. ‘Having done so, he no longer represented a threat to Stalin.’ In the photographs from this period, Voroshilov is no longer smiling.

Anti-cosmopolitan campaign

Following the war, it was Ekaterina Voroshilova who was under threat. An anti-cosmopolitan and largely anti-Semitic campaign was launched by the Kremlin. As a Jew much in favour of the creation of the State of Israel, she was a prime target. To deflect the danger which she sensed coming, Ekaterina began to keep a dnevnik, a personal diary. Her entries record her life as a ‘good Bolshevik’, patriotic, hard-working and concerned for her family. For the UNIL researcher, it was probably a ‘defence document’, aimed at coming to her aid in the event of arrest. It therefore ‘ends on 2 March 1953, when Stalin was in his death throes. It does not pick up again until September of the same year, with a light-hearted account of a trip to Crimea.’ The dnevnik is then transformed into a genuine personal diary, evidence of her sense of relief.

The unpublished correspondence between the Voroshilov couple passionately interests Magali Delaloye. Marked by a deep and enduring tenderness, it reveals the everyday life as well as the views of these two Bolsheviks from the very beginning. Their joint strategy of deliberately distancing themselves both from the political and society life of the Kremlin undoubtedly saved their lives.

Excluded, imprisoned and even shot, women were absent from the pinnacle of power in Stalin’s final years. The only one to remain by his side until the end was the discreet Valentina Istomina, his housekeeper and mistress. It was not until the arrival of Khrushchev in September 1953 that the Soviet people again saw their supreme leader in the company of a wife.

Further reading

picture-4Une histoire érotique du Kremlin (An Erotic History of the Kremlin). Magali Delaloye, Payot (2016).

Share...Email this to someoneShare on LinkedInTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+

Comments are closed.