Nadezhda Krupskaya has been described as 'one of the of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history'. Sarah Collins examines her life and work as a Bolshevik activist.
Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya was a committed Bolshevik activist. She was, as Trotsky wrote in her epitaph, 'the loyal companion of Lenin, an irreproachable revolutionist and one of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history'.
Krupskaya was born in 1869 to a mother who came from a family of landless Russian nobles, and a father who was a decommissioned Officer in the Russian army. The family had upper class origins, but were impoverished for most of Krupskaya’s life. It is said that 'from her very childhood (this) inspired (Krupskaya) with the spirit of protest against the ugly life around her'.
She expressed an interest in education from a young age, and was particularly drawn to Tolstoy’s theory of democratic education. Krupskaya began to participate in several illegal discussion circles where she studied the theories of Marx. It was at one of these discussion circles that Krupskaya first met Lenin. She was an entirely committed Revolutionary by this point, which, as she later claimed, was the reason Lenin was drawn to her. 'He could never have loved a woman with whose opinions he disagreed and who was not a comrade in his work',she recalled rather submissively perhaps.
Between 1891-1896, Krupskaya worked offering evening classes on reading, writing and arithmetic. This provided contact with serious workers, which appealed to Krupskaya. She taught illegal classes with a revolutionary influence to those students who she regarded as ready for them. She learned a lot about the workers’ conditions in the factories during this time, which helped Lenin when writing his pamphlets and which she distributed to the factories.
Krupskaya’s emphasis was always on 'the problems of youth organisation and education', but she was also interested in the woman question. She had a lifelong love of the great populist poet Nekrasov and her first political article entitled; 'The Woman Worker', began with a quote from one of his poems: Thy lot is hard, a woman’s lot. A harder lot can scarce be found.
In 1895 both Lenin and Krupskaya were arrested for extending propaganda work among the proletariat of St. Petersburg, along with other Marxists who were organised into the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. Lenin was jailed and sent into exile in Siberia. At that time Krupskaya was still awaiting sentencing, but she was permitted to accompany Lenin on the basis that they were married as soon as she arrived – which they did in July 1898.
As Krupskaya later recalled about life in Siberian exile, 'we were young then, we had just got married, we loved each other passionately'. However, there is evidence that both Lenin and Krupskaya denied their relationship was one whereby they ‘fell passionately in love,’ instead claiming that it was a relationship based on working towards the Revolution. Certainly, the couple kept politically very busy and whilst in Siberia they both worked on Lenin’s major treatise; The Development of Capitalism in Russia and jointly translated Sidney and Beatrice Webbs’ History of Trade Unionism.
After being released in 1900 and 1901 respectively, Lenin and Krupskaya moved to Geneva where they joined up with Plekhanov, Axelrod and other members of the Liberation of Labour to publish Iskra. As secretary of Iskra, Krupskaya bore the brunt of the drudgery and painstaking work which contributed enormously towards developing the links and contacts across Russia which later formed the Bolshevik Party.
The couple went to live in London in 1903. It was that same year that the Bolshevik Party was founded from the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Krupskaya was the secretary and treasurer of the Bolshevik party. In 1905 the couple returned to Russia. After the Revolution in the January the government allowed amnesties for political prisoners and exiles. However, for security purposes they had to move on to Finland, Geneva and Paris for a few years.
She and Lenin spent a lot of time walking and cycling, particularly after conferences and the meetings of the Congress. Lenin provided a very hard, self-disciplined exterior, but there is evidence that he often had periods of nervous exhaustion which Krupskaya alone had to deal with. It did not help that the couple were faced with extreme poverty on many occasions, particularly before the Revolution.
It is also claimed that Lenin began an affair with Inessa Armand in 1909. At this point, it is noted that Krupskaya’s interpretation of ‘natural’ relationships differs from many others in the Bolshevik Party. She did not subscribe to the theory of free love, instead subscribing to Trotsky’s theory that, under socialism, people would be able to live monogamously.
Krupskaya, Inessa Armand and Clara Zetkin pressured Russian officials to sanction demonstrations for International Women’s Day in 1917. This was held on the last Sunday in February (which fell on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar) and served to initiate the February Revolution. Krupskaya also played a major role in urging the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party to speed the insurrection which lead to the revolution of October 1917.
Krupskaya was heavily involved with political activity in the years following the October Revolution, not least in developing public education and cultural life. In November 1917, she was appointed to serve under Anatoli Lunacharsky as Deputy People’s Commissar of Education and Enlightenment, which she did until she became Chairperson of the Education Committee in 1920. She also worked in the Zhenotdel (the women’s section of the Communist Party), editing the journal Kommunistka, carrying out missions in support of the Red Army and teaching literacy to women workers in the evenings. There is evidence that Krupskaya took ill in 1919 and had to rest. There is also suggestion that her ill health was the reason she and Lenin never had any children; a subject which was a sore point for Lenin’s family, which Krupskaya had to deal with.
Between 1922 and 1923 Lenin suffered three strokes, perhaps as a result of being shot in 1918. At this time the relationship between Stalin and Krupskaya faltered. This appears to have been down, in part, to the fact that Stalin behaved offensively towards Krupskaya who was ‘feeding information’ to Lenin about politics, against the wishes of his doctors.
When Lenin died in January 1924, Krupskaya found herself isolated, partly because of her relationship with Lenin and partly because most women who had held prominent positions during the Civil War were now hidden from political power and prestige by the growing Stalinist regime. As such, at the 14th congress in December 1925, Krupskaya opened the attack on Stalin and Bukharin on behalf of the so-called Leningrad Opposition. As well as taking issue with the leadership’s policies, she attacked the restrictions placed on the full discussion of dissenting views in party publications under Stalin’s apparatus.
Krupskaya remained with the United Leningrad Opposition until she wrote a letter to Pravda in May 1927, announcing that she no longer supported the Opposition. Some say this was because Stalin blackmailed her with ‘indiscretions’ in Lenin’s private life, whilst others, most plausibly say, it was because she could not bear to see the Party split. In fact, she later told Trotsky and Zinoviev that they should not ‘row over China’ from the outside of the Party, after Stalin threatened expulsion. instead she urged them to remain inside the Party and argue their position.
Krupskaya went on to serve as a full member of the ,much weakened, Central Committee of the Party from 1927 until her death in 1939. This ‘change of heart’ appears inconsistent, but worse still she seemed to have strayed from her long-held stance on the rights of women. In 1936, she wrote the preface to a pamphlet which defended restrictions on abortion. In 1920 the Bolshevik Party had legalised abortion, largely because of the intellectual influence and political pressure placed on them by Krupskaya. However, this pamphlet backtracked by claiming that the society the USSR had created saw the question of abortions ‘in a new light’ and argued that abortion should be made illegal once again except for cases where the woman’s health was endangered. In 1933 she also wrote a preface to Lenin’s The Emancipation of Women, claiming that at Lenin’s behest the emancipation of women is fulfilled under the guidance of the Party; 'we shall continue to advance along this path'. By 1933 it was clear that the Stalinist regime was not helping to fulfil the emancipation of women with prostitution up to levels pre-1917, abortion made illegal and women were bound once more to their husbands through restrictive divorce laws.
This seems entirely at odds with the fact that Krupskaya spent a good deal of her later years attempting to disseminate the legacy of Lenin. She wrote and published her famous Reminiscences of Lenin as well as attempting to save the lives of her old comrades facing the execution squads. Perhaps Krupskaya’s vacillating stance was down to the fact that she knew that Stalin was not going to be easily overthrown.
Nonetheless, by all accounts, Krupskaya was a committed Marxist for whom each element of public education was a step toward improving the lives of people around her. Historians have tended to minimise Krupskaya’s importance, viewing her primarily as Lenin’s wife. Whilst this was a very important, and demanding, part of her life, she also played a crucial role, independent of her husband, in establishing the Party and building up a political education apparatus that reached millions of people.
From International Socialist Group site.
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