The women surrounding Lenin are often diminished and portrayed as subservient characters, whose individual political actions are cast aside to fade into insignificance by western writers. Inessa Armand was treated no differently, with her relationship with Lenin being the focus of most writings while her independent political activities and her role as an organiser for socialism across Europe are near forgotten. She was a key part of the leadership of the Bolsheviks, even included in the party of 18 exiled leaders that travelled to Russia by sealed train in the height of the war to partake in the revolution.
Born in 1879 in Paris, Armand’s first dalliance into women’s issues was through her early charitable work with women in poverty. Going on to study feminism under Ellen Key in Sweden in 1904, the basis for Armand’s politics was born. Like others, Armand was moved towards socialism through Chernyshevsky’s “What Is to Be Done?”, and by her second husband, with whom she was introduced to Marxism.
In 1904, Armand joined the French Socialist Party, and in the same year upon her arrival back in Moscow, Armand became a member of the Russian Social Democratic Party. In the same year, the Moscow Society for the Improvement of the Situation of Women elected Armand as chair of its commission on education. Armand went to Russia in 1905 as a part of a Bolshevik organising mission but was arrested upon her arrival. She was subsequently arrested a second time in 1907 and was exiled. Here Armand first met Lenin. Lenin was impressed by her organising within the party, theoretical analysis, and ability to speak four languages. His faith in Armand was demonstrated when she was chosen to represent the Bolsheviks, and to speak on his behalf, at the International Socialist Bureau in Brussels in 1914. It was here that Armand spoke alongside Kautsky, Luxemburg, Plekhanov, Trotsky, and Martov.
Armand saw the advancement of women as a key part of the revolutionary struggle against capitalism, that progress to a socialist society was the only way to achieve freedom for women. This set her apart from the contemporary feminist movement in Europe, which was concerned primarily with formal or legal equality, suffrage, and philanthropy rather than the emancipation of women workers. Similarly, Armand criticised much of the left for its neglect of women’s issues, and this showed in her organising after the Russian Revolution.
It is often over-emphasised that the Russian Revolution led to the immediate advancement of women, however, the post-revolution work by Armand and others challenges this narrative. Following the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks introduced a series of progressive changes in law, such as the introduction of divorce, however by 1918, Armand, Alexandra Kollontai and other women revolutionaries established a women’s congress to discuss the placement of women within socialist society. These changes in law, in and of themselves were not enough to advance the position of women in society. They were adamant that a society without equality for women would not be socialist.
By 1919, this congress had received the formal support of the Bolshevik leadership and became formalised as the Zhenotdel (the department for work among women workers). The leadership of the Zhenotdel consisted of women who had been active in this field during the crucial pre-revolutionary years, including Armand. They believed that women’s emancipation was one of the tasks that confronted the revolution. They felt that a start needed to be made now, or the “women’s question” would be lost. The Zhenotdel set about establishing a system of public canteens to collectivise domestic work, to free up women for education and working outside of the home.
There was some unease amongst the Bolshevik leadership regarding the establishment of a permanent women’s section within the Party. Armand agreed with this sentiment; however, she was eager to ensure that the women’s question was not omitted from socialist planning, and she challenged many men in the leadership on this point.
Following the revolution, Armand’s importance to the socialist movement did not wane. She continued to work with French communists and sympathisers in Russia, was elected first chairperson of the Economic Council of Moscow Province, was editor of the women’s section of Pravda and continued her translation work for the Comintern. Notably, Armand was instrumental in setting up the theoretical Bolshevik journal, The Woman Worker, aiming to bring an understanding of the roots of their oppression to women.
For Armand to be reduced to merely Lenin’s mistress is a great injustice. She was an ardent Bolshevik, unafraid of speaking amongst opponents, openly disagreeing and challenging Lenin, and dedicated to the betterment of women. Ultimately, it was her dedication to the revolution and her work that had Armand neglect her health, which led to her death in 1920, age 46.
Wolfe, B. D. (1963) “Lenin and Inessa Armand”, Slavic Review 22(1), pp. 96-114.
Tariq, A. (2017) The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. Verso.
Pearson, M. (2001) “Lenin’s Lieutenant”, The Guardian.
Elwood, R. C. (1992) Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist. Cambridge University Press.
Reprinted from Rupture