Red Valkyries: Feminist Lessons From Five Revolutionary Women by Kristen Ghodsee-Verso publications -2022

“The followers of historical materialism reject the existence of a special woman question separate from the general social question of our day. Specific economic factors were behind the subordination of women; natural qualities have been a secondary factor in this process. Only the complete disappearance of these factors, only the evolution of those forces which at some point in the past gave rise to the subjection of women, is able in a fundamental way to influence and change their social position. In other words, women can become truly free and equal only in a world organised along new social and productive lines.”[1]

Alexandra Kollontai

“We in Russia no longer have the base, mean and infamous denial of rights to women or inequality of the sexes, that disgusting survival of feudalism and medievalism which is being renovated by the avaricious bourgeoisie … in every other country in the world without exception.”

V. I. Lenin

“The most important distinguishing feature of socialist schools should be the child’s fullest possible and most comprehensive development. They must not suppress his individuality but only help develop it. Socialist schools are schools of freedom in which there is no room for regimentation, rote learning and cramming.”

Nadezhda Krupskaya

“Until the old forms of family life, domestic life, education and child-rearing are abolished, it is impossible to obliterate exploitation and enslavement. It is impossible to create the new person, impossible to build socialism”.

Inessa Armand

“Much better to die in open combat, among comrades, with weapons in their hands. That’s how I want to die. That’s how hundreds and thousands die for this republic every day.”

Larissa Reisner

“Only a Socialist society will solve the conflict that is nowadays produced by the professional activity of women. Once the family as an economic unit will vanish and its place will be taken by the family as a moral unit, the woman will become an equally entitled, equally creative, equally goal-oriented, forward-stepping companion of her husband; her individuality will flourish while at the same time, she will fulfill her task as wife and mother to the highest degree possible.[2]

Clara Zetkin

Kristen Ghodsee’s new book examines the lives of three revolutionary women and two non-revolutionary women between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the consolidation of Stalinism in the former USSR.

One assumes that Ghodsee chose these five women, which were not handed to her by her editor. Strangely, she leaves out two women revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Larissa Reissner. They were far more deserving of appreciation than the two apologists for the Stalinist regime, Ludmila Pavlichenko and Elena Lagadinova.  

Red Valkyries is a limited attempt to counteract the recent narrative of liberal feminism and the #Me too movement and replace it with a revolutionary tradition espoused by “socialist women”, many of whom have been largely ignored or turned into harmless icons.

Ghodsee’s choice of Alexandra Kollontai is a logical and welcome one. If young women today looking to fight against capitalism wanted a role model, they should stop doing their TikTok dances and study the work and life of Kollantai.

Kollontai was, by all accounts, an extraordinary woman. She broke decisively with her aristocratic upbringing and dedicated her life to the revolution. Like many of her generation, she well conversed with the work of the great Marxist writers Karl Marx, Frederick Engles and August Bebel. Kollantai specialised in the study of women’s oppression.

She was one of only a handful of Bolsheviks that wrote extensively about sexual relationships. She opposed bourgeois feminism and understood that the emancipation of women was a class question and could only be carried out in partnership with the male working class, as this quote shows: “The feminists see men as the main enemy, for men have unjustly seized all rights and privileges for themselves, leaving women only chains and duties. For them, a victory is won when a prerogative previously enjoyed exclusively by the male sex is conceded to the ‘fair sex.’ Proletarian women have a different attitude. They do not see men as the enemy and the oppressor; on the contrary, they think of men as their comrades, who share with them the drudgery of the daily round and fight with them for a better future.”[3]

Like all good revolutionaries, she lived by what she wrote. She formed a close political relationship with Vladimir Lenin, who appointed her social welfare minister in the new Bolshevik government. Kollantai and her staff made legal changes that put the rights of Russian women light years ahead of any western capitalist government.

Ghodsee correctly restores Nadezhda Krupskaya, who historians often portray as only Lenin’s companion, to her rightful place as a revolutionary. She not only supported Lenin but looked after the family household and, at the same time, played a crucial role in building the Bolshevik Party.

Like Kollantai, Krupskaya believed that the fate of the woman worker was closely tied to that of the male working class. Her pamphlet, The Woman Worker, states, “The woman worker is a member of the working class, and all her interests are closely tied to the interests of that class.”

She had a passion for education matched only by a few others. She advocated a child-centred pedagogy, saying, “The most important distinguishing feature of socialist schools should be the  child’s fullest possible and most comprehensive development.”They must not suppress his individuality but only help develop it. Socialist schools are schools of freedom in which there is no room for regimentation, rote learning and cramming.”One can only hope that the attention paid to Krupskaya by Khodsee is the beginning of a revival in the interest of this important Bolshevik.

One striking aspect of this book is the failure to mention the second most important revolutionary in the Bolshevik Party that of, Leon Trotsky. Trotsky knew and worked with these three revolutionary women and held them in high esteem. Krupskaya was particularly fond of Trotsky even when it was very dangerous.

In a letter to Clara Zetkin, Zetkin relays what Krupskaya thought of Trotsky “She said to me recently that it is false what [Lev] Kamenev and [Gregory] Zinoviev assert, that Lenin had never trusted Trotsky. On the contrary, at the end of his days, Lenin was fond of Trotsky and held him in high regard. After his death, she wrote to Trotsky.”

Dear LEV DAVYDOVICH, I write to tell you that about a month before his death, as he was looking through your book, Vladimir Ilyich stopped at the place where you sum up Marx and Lenin and asked me to read it over again to him; he listened very attentively, and then looked it over again himself. And here is another thing I want to tell you. The attitude of Vladimir Ilyich toward you at the time when you came to us in London from Siberia had not changed until his death. I wish you, Lev Davydovich, strength and health, and I embrace you warmly.”

Leon Trotsky returned the compliment when he wrote a letter upon hearing about her death in 1939 “Nothing can be further from our mind than to blame Nadezhda Konstantinovna for not having been resolute enough to break openly with the bureaucracy. Political minds, far more independent than hers, vacillated, tried to play hide and seek with history – and perished. Krupskaya was, to the highest degree, endowed with a feeling of responsibility. Personally, she was courageous enough. What she lacked was mental courage. With profound sorrow we bid farewell to the loyal companion of Lenin, to an irreproachable revolutionist and one of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history.”[4]

Inessa Armand was an extraordinary woman, and few others matched her work rate. She carried out many translations for Lenin and was often sent by him to represent the Bolsheviks at numerous congresses.

In a short time, she became a leading Bolshevik. She was in Lenin’s sealed train when he returned during the height of the war to partake in the revolution. After the Revolution, Armand was elected to the Moscow Soviet (workers’ council) and was in the All Russian Central Executive Committee, the highest body in the new workers’ state. She taught in party schools and organised conferences for working women.

Despite working under the conditions of Covid 19, Ghodsee manages to carry out important research into the life of this important revolutionary. It would be important to know more about the 1918 national congress for working women held 1918. After which she wrote, “Until the old forms of family life, domestic life, education and child-rearing are abolished, it is impossible to obliterate exploitation and enslavement, it is impossible to create the new person, impossible to build socialism”.[5]

Armand herself had led a complicated personal life with five children, the last by her young brother-in-law. Ghodsee correctly pays little attention to her alleged intimate relationship with Lenin. After her tragic death from cholera, Lenin and Krupskaya looked after her two young children.

As Vladimir Volkov writes “Women played an important role in this milieu. Such vivid and versatile figures as, Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand were best known, of course, but they were not exceptions. Behind these stood dozens and hundreds of other women who entered the history of the revolution and left their own indelible traces.If we remember the classic phrase of Charles Fourier that the degree of society’s progress may be measured by its attitude to women, then the Russian Revolution must be considered a great leap forward towards social liberation of that part of humanity that over the centuries was considered the most dependent and deprived.Informed by knowledge rather than outdated prejudices, free revolutionary attitudes towards the family were inseparable from the revolution’s political perspective. This morality had a real material existence and was expressed in personal relationships between the men and the women who made the revolution.[6]

The three chapters about the three revolutionaries are well worth reading. The book has several major weaknesses: the most important being the lack of differentiation between the period of the Bolshevik revolution and the counter-revolutionary period dominated by the Stalinist bureaucracy. There is Nothing wrong with deeply appreciating the three leading Russian revolutionary women, but it is another thing lionising two women that largely supported the Stalinist regime. With this reservation, I recommend this book for a wide readership and hope it provokes further study into these important revolutionaries.

Kristen R. Ghodsee is a prolific and award-winning Russian and East European Studies professor and a Graduate Group in Anthropology member at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of eleven books, including Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War (Duke University Press, 2019) and Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence (Bold Type Books, 2018 and 2020.


[1] The Social Basis of the Woman Question- https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social-basis.htm

[2] Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious(1896)

[3]The Social Basis of the Woman Question Alexandra Kollontai 1909- https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social-basis.htm 

[4] Krupskaya’s Death-(March 1939) https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/03/krupskaya.htm

[5] https://socialistworker.co.uk/reviews-and-culture/red-valkyries-feminist-lessons-from-five-revolutionary-women-by-kristen-ghodsee/

[6] The letters of Natalia Sedova to Leon Trotsky- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/07/sedv-j01.html

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