Material Utopias and (Post-)Socialist Feminisms
Preparing a book on feminist materialist utopias of early 20th century the Kitchen Politics Editing collective reached out to Feminist Translocalities to organize a contemporary reading of Alexandra Kollontai’s Essay on “Communism and the Family” among feminists with postsocialist perspectives. Kollontai’s Essay was supposed to be newly translated and contextualized with the book. It was first published in 1918 in Russian as a brochure under the title: Семья и коммунистическое государство“ – “Family and the Soviet State” in 1918. And translated to English and German in 1920.

In February 2021 in the depths of the pandemic we met on zoom to discuss our interpretation of Kollontai’s texts. A discussion around the virtual kitchen table included Anastasia Inopina, Vettka Kirillova, Daniel Heinz, Vika Kravtsova, Marija Grujic, Rebecca Esther Michelson, Darja Klingenberg, and Sarah Speck.

We transcribed, translated into German and edited the conversation to make it a part of the book “Die Neuordnung der Küchen. Materialistisch-feministische Entwürfe eines besseren Zusammenlebens" (Kitchen Politics, 2023) . The English text for this publication was edited by Lena Klabukova.

The possibility of an extension of the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine into a full-fledged war was not on our mind in 2021. Thus, the term "Soviet" seemed to have a notion of a shared historical experience in our discussion, even though some were aware of the colonial history of the Russian Empire and USSR. We hope to continue and broaden our conversation of the legacies of Soviet feminist utopias in the shadow of the war and in search for new critical readings. For this we organize a panel discussion with Ruthie Jenrbekova, Maria Vilkoviskaya, Darja Klingenberg and Alexandra Talaver moderated by Masha Beketova on 27.08.2023. We will publish the recording here.
Darja: A warm welcome to all of you! It is a pleasure to greet you at our virtual kitchen table to discuss Alexandra Kollontai's Family and Communist Society. Published just over a hundred years ago, this text addresses a series of questions that remain relevant today, including reproductive labor, state family policies, and heterosexual love. As a historical document, it captures the transformation of socialist feminism from a radical, revolutionary opposition to state politics.

We, as Kitchen Politics, pose questions to ourselves, to you, and to future readers regarding our approach to this socialist feminist utopia: How do we engage with its transformative promises, the palpable urgency of political transformation, and the history of individuals who have witnessed the successes and failures of these revolutionary changes? How do we relate to the specters of Stalinist purges and to the homophobic policies of the Soviet Union that lurk through the corners of this text? How do we interpret the ironic turn of history where some of the utopian visions became a reality in neoliberal work contexts?
Darja: Let us start with brief introductions. Who are you and from where are you joining our virtual kitchen table? A word about me: I work at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder and live in Berlin. As a feminist researcher and migration scholar, I engage in a broader study of the material and societal dimensions of a good life across various temporal and spatial contexts, and of the power structures that exclude specific individuals or entire populations from accessing it.
Sarah: I live and work in Frankfurt/Main and have long been involved with the political economy of reproduction across various social strata.
Anastasia: I am from Russia, currently living in Moscow, and studying reproductive labor politics. I translated some of Helen Hester’s work on the subject and co-organized a discussion with her at the Central European University. In 2019, I wrote a piece delving into Russian and communist utopias and the situation of women with disabilities.
Vettka: I was born in the Soviet Union, in Alma-Ata (Almaty) in Kazakhstan, and have been living in Germany for 24 years, currently in Berlin. My background is in theatre, now I am a filmmaker and a scriptwriter. My research centers around the 20th century, notably the Russian Revolution. I try to understand our Soviet past in its various forms and contradictions, to grasp its political, cultural, and historical aspects.
Daniel: I live in Berlin, grew up in Siegen. I am what is called a Russian German. My parents came to Germany in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union as so-called late resettlers from Karaganda (Kazakhstan). I was born in Germany and have never been to Kazakhstan, but hope to go there for a project next year. Currently I finish my master's thesis, exploring the experiences of the second generation of Russian-speaking immigrants in Germany, particularly those of Jewish descent and late resettlers. I am also involved in the new post-Ost movement in Berlin and am part of a research network on queer studies, decolonial feminisms, and cultural transformation.
Vika: Originally from Smolensk, Russia, I've spent the past three years in Berlin. I founded the platform Feminist Translocalities, which brings together participants from Germany and former Soviet Union countries.
Marija: Currently I live in London, but until recently I worked at Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main. My PhD thesis focuses on belonging in places I refer to as “unhomely homelands.” It deals with the internal displacement of Kosovar Serbs living in Serbia and examines how shifts in notions of home and homeland within a post-socialist society impact personal and collective perspectives on the state and family.
Rebecca: I am a PhD student at the University of Washington where I am studying Human-Computer Interaction, and Technology and Design. I am from San Francisco, California, but my mother is from Belarus, and my father is from Georgia. Russian was my first language growing up.
Perspectives on Reading
Darja: We are delighted to have you all here. Let us discuss the text. What surprised, excited, or even maybe repelled you while reading?
Anastasia: Frankly, reading the text was challenging. Reminding myself it is a propaganda piece helped. I disagree with many aspects, especially Kollontai's take on reproductive labor. I mainly see it as a historical document rather than a basis for my political imagination.
Vettka: I had asked my mother, a typical Soviet woman, to read the text and discuss it with me. I will share more about her reaction later. Generally, it was a surprisingly easy read. I did not expect that this decree on divorce was issued so early, in December 1917, because in the midst of revolution, family policy seems an unlikely focus. However, it happened. I noticed Kollontai’s idealistic and utopian vision of how families would flourish if the state took all the burden off the shoulders of women and men. Her construction of the future seems somewhat too simple to be true: We will take care of all your problems and you just have to enjoy life (laughs), and work a lot. You, the worker, should not be distracted from useful, productive work for the Soviet state – this sounds quite capitalist and contemporary.
Daniel: As a teenager, I pondered the potentials of a better communist world. When I started studying, this fascination faded. Reading Kollontai revived my yearning for a brighter future. It also made me think of my mother’s life – one of constant work and an unhappy marriage. Divorce was not an option due to her financial dependence. When I was young, she seized every opportunity to earn something extra to finance my education. It was her top priority to integrate us into German society and into the middle class. In Soviet society she was a cleaner, earning money by scrubbing other people's floors. After coming to Germany, she was a cleaner again, as if her life was all about floors washing. Occasionally she took me along. Engaging with feminist theory today, I reflect on my parents' lives and how different they are from mine. It influenced my reading of Kollontai. If even half of what she hoped for had come true, our lives could be so different. And in our discussion today I'm particularly interested in interpreting Kollontai from a queer perspective and envisioning free love among queer comrades.
Vika: I was exploring feminist ideas, their circulation and evolution, especially in the former Soviet Union, and how different feminist thinkers or activists deal with this legacy. However, I myself never had the desire to work on it. I understand the significance of discussing socialism's utopian and realistic political models, especially today. Socialism offers the opportunity to articulate difficult things in a beautiful and understandable way. Yet, while leftists in the USA can be Maoists or say something nice about Stalin, for someone from the former Soviet Union, it is hard to disregard our historical heritage. This 'in-between' stance shapes my view of Kollontai. During my bachelor's studies, her works appeared misogynistic. Her portrayal of "new women" suggested that women must shed emotions and become rational independent subjects, which I found problematic. Kollontai, like the entire communist movement, criticized the generation of pre-Soviet feminists, called Ravnopravki [1] , as bourgeois. In reality, the Ravnopravki were often teachers, journalists, women with access to education. As writers, they barely earned anything and were essentially part of the proletariat, while Kollontai came from a wealthy background. My critical perspective on her has shifted since then through interactions with feminist researchers like Sasha Talaver or Olessya Bessmeltseva, I took a closer look at the historical situation. One aspect that impressed me now while reading is the form of the text as a utopian manifesto – could such a form help us exercise political imagination?
"Rawnoprawki" – Равноправки – literally translated as "Equality Advocates," were liberal feminists, who advocated for suffrage and access to education instead of the revolutionary overthrow of society.
Marija: As Daniel started speaking, I questioned everything I wanted to say and will start differently now (laughs). I originally read Kollontai to develop a post-socialist perspective on the state and care policies. Re-reading it today renewed my enthusiasm. I first encountered this text during my gender studies. We discussed Emma Goldman and Alexandra Kollontai in parallel, primarily highlighting their different approaches to emancipation. Later, during my teaching at Goethe University, I saw it as a propaganda piece targeting fearful audiences. I wondered why Kollontai assumed family transformation would instill so much fear.

On the other hand, I also read this text as a person who grew up in Serbia, in socialist Yugoslavia, in a working-class family. My parents, born after World War II, were part of the generation that experienced parts of this utopia. They could marry freely and invest in their children's education, with the goal to no longer belong to the working class. But my mother, despite her tireless work as a seamstress, often from early to late, is now entirely dependent on my father’s state pension. She could not start her own business because private enterprise was not allowed in socialist Yugoslavia. At the same time, she could afford these working hours only because my grandmother, who could not read or write, took on all the household work, cooking, cleaning, etc. Reading Kollontai, I thought about the failure of these utopias – and people whom they failed like my grandmother and my mother, who never got an education and could not achieve real independence.
Rebecca: My interest is mainly in care, maternal health, and technology. As you probably know, the United States is one of the few countries without paid parental leave. One in four women returns to work within ten days after giving birth. Maternal health standards are low. However, I also read this text against the backdrop of my post-Soviet experience: I wonder what aspects of family remain if the state steps in to take care of household and childcare duties. Besides, the nuclear family is no longer the common family structure in the USA. Can we thus discuss a different distribution of care in chosen families or unconventional queer family structures? Which technologies can support this process and how?
Work and Family
Marija: I can continue with my thoughts on Kollontai's understanding of labor. She makes a distinction between productive and unproductive labor, which she holds significant. Yet she seems trapped in conceptualizing labor as factory work. It is juxtaposed with another, unproductive form of labor, taking place within the domestic sphere. Further she delves into various family structures: the patriarchal or bourgeois family, the proletarian family, and the universal family. I would appreciate a discussion regarding your interpretations of these family categories. In particular, how can we envision the universal family without the involvement of the state? It is noteworthy that the universal family is intricately linked with the state and what it represents, even from the perspective of the workers.

This leads me to her perception of the state as an actor that should overtake care obligations for proletarian workers. However, I did not perceive that she envisions what Katherine Verdery terms the "parental state," discussing communist and socialist states as caring [2]. It is more of a functional perspective, and I find merit in it. Following Kollontai, the state is meant to act in the interest of citizens – in this context, the workers. Essentially, she sees the family as something to overcome, and proposes various methods or means to achieve this, along with defining what should be provided by the state. Ultimately, I find her utopian idea of care work vanishing through its collective outsourcing quite amusing. She overlooks the fact that outsourcing and collective management of care work does not liberate women from these duties; rather, it transfers it to other women. She does not seem to consider the experiences of women working in communal kitchens or as cleaners. Thus, her misconception of utopia revolves around the central issues of care work and housework.
Verdery, Katherine (1994), “From Parent-State to Family Patriarchs: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Eastern Europe“, East European Politics and Societies: and Cultures, V. 8, No. 2, p. 225–255.
Anastasia: This aspect has also been on my mind. I disagree with her assertion that the great-grandmothers of Soviet women contributed something valuable to the market and state economy through their domestic work, while the housework of fully employed Soviet women holds no value. Consequently, reproductive labor is isolated from the market and wage labor. However even reproductive labor is controlled by the market, albeit indirectly. We cannot view care work independently or outside the context of capitalist relations or the specific form of economic relationships in place. Kollontai completely devalues reproductive labor as inconsequential and uncreative, thus undervaluing the women who engage in this labor.
Daniel: What struck me most is how Kollontai portrays housework as an endlessly recurring activity: every day a new layer of dust, a husband will be hungry again, new people will need to be fed. This resembles assembly line work. I wonder why Kollontai failed to realize that caregiving or housework is not distinct from the monotony of factory labor.
Marija: Two aspects stand out to me. Firstly, the homogeneous perception of women and the uniformity of the care and housework they engage in. Kollontai could have offered a more nuanced discussion of the variations within this type of work, but she maintains a rather narrow perspective. Secondly, she erases the significance of men in childcare and caregiving. According to Kollontai, women are the primary biological and cultural producers of children, responsible for their ethical views and values.
Darja: That is true and leads me to another point. This morning, I revisited the original text and it moved me to read the opening lines and its promises in Russian, the language in which I currently encounter all these patriarchal, homo- and transphobic, as well as racist statements. But I was also wondering about the foundation upon which Kollontai constructs her historical argument. She offers the classical historical Marxist analysis, in which family is the unit that produces certain citizens for specific stages of productive forces development. However, her portrayal of proletarian women in early 20th century Russia is not entirely accurate. Not all young proletarian women were in this dual role: there were single mothers, unmarried young and old women, and perhaps queer individuals. She unifies them all under her sociological description. Further, a part of her argumentation relies on depicting the reactionary peasant woman and women in tribal societies, who possess as many bracelets as the quantity of men they have slept with. These images function as examples of oriental, exoticized, conservative other, contrasting the Russian proletarian woman that needs liberation. We should delve deeper into how crucial these comparisons are for her politics and whether the foundations for Russian imperialism are laid out here.
Daniel: Speaking of historical misinterpretations or failed predictions: My grandmother was born a few years after the publication of Kollontai's text. She told me that in Kazakhstan as well as Ukraine, they did not buy cheap mass-produced goods but instead preserved vegetables and food themselves. Even today, generations after Kollontai, my mother still preserves her cucumbers herself, spins wool, and knits socks.
Darja: ...even during the pandemic, there was a lot of baking, cooking, and preserving taking place (laughs).
Feelings, Love, Sex
Anastasia: What surprised me were Kollontai's perspectives on family and emotions, and who is entitled to experience them. We know that marriage is an instrument of economic regulation; love and emotions are not crucial to enter into a marriage. Thus, I was surprised by how much attention she gives to love between proletarian souls, whether two or three. Initially, I thought that this emphasis on monogamous love might be rather bourgeois for a communist, feminist stance. However, perhaps in the realm of emotions, proletarians faced disadvantages compared to bourgeois people. Because the latter could express their feelings towards each other, while the families of working people above all strived for economic survival.
Daniel: Kollontai's attitude to family captivates me. She underscores the ever-evolving nature of the family concept over time. This leads me to believe she would endorse LGBTQI families, as she emphasizes embracing new possibilities. It deeply touched me how she describes the universal family of workers: that people are primarily comrades, collectively caring for their children, and that love should be thought of as solidarity, the deepest form of comradeship. This is something truly queer, and we should further theorize it. Unfortunately, my partner and I cannot bear children because we both lack a uterus. A society in which we could be caring for non-biological children sounds beautiful to me.
Vika: I am surprised that Kollontai has been portrayed in various contexts as a sex-positive individual. In Russian-speaking mainstream media, Kollontai's figure is often contrasted with contemporary "Me Too" feminists, as she supposedly respected men and advocated for women to be equal subjects in society. While my history teacher made jokes about Kollontai's "water glass theory," comparing sex to drinking a glass of water [3], stressing that her emphasis was on being sexually open. However, I believe that Kollontai's position is the opposite and is being
misinterpreted. Ultimately, she represents a rather modernist concept. It is about suppressing sexuality because there are other important matters, such as production and building a new society. Bonds with others should be based on the rational part of one's being, not the physical. In this sense, she is more of a conservative than a radical feminist.

And I do not agree that we can interpret this comradeship in a queer way. Her text only includes men and women who come together in this transcendental, rational, utopian partnership. This contradicts the feminist utopia envisioned by queer individuals, people of color, sex workers, and other marginalized individuals who were part of the sex-positive movement in the USA. There it is more about connecting with one's own body, with one's own physical presence. Additionally, I would like to touch upon queerness and sexual politics in the Soviet Union. This is more complex: Homosexuality was decriminalized in Central Russia after the revolution but was criminalized in Central Asia at the same time. While some anarchist texts from the early twentieth century focused on making homosexuality the starting point for a new and liberated society, I am not aware of any statement about the decriminalization of homosexuality in Soviet texts. The decriminalization came as part of a package of decrees with many other things. It was liberating but with disadvantages.
The concept of the "Glass of Water Theory" sparked discussions about communist sexual morality in the 1920s. The statement is attributed to Kollontai or Lenin's paraphrase of Kollontai's sexual morality, which suggests that sexuality in communist society should be as natural and straightforward as quenching thirst with a glass of water.
Vettka: I am surprised that Vika views Kollontai as a conservative thinker. Of course, this text simplifies a utopia. However, this program was aimed at the reality of Soviet Russia at the time. It states: first and foremost, we need to help women by relieving them of the burdens of household management and childcare, so they can emancipate themselves and develop in society. Certainly, this simplified view of free sexuality stems from her personal experience. From this perspective she describes a possible future: A future where sex is as normal as going to the toilet. But it is not about the toilet: people can have sex whenever they want, with whomever they want, and it does not matter. It is part of everyday life. Back then, she achieved her sexual nirvana with this man Dybenko, with whom she had an open unrestricted relationship. She was much freer than many feminists of her time.

But what perplexes me about her vision of family is why she clings to it at all. If the burden is lifted and education, leisure, etc. is taken care of, why should we even have families? She argues that we can simply love each other, experience happiness, and be content. However, the future family she describes is not far from that in Zamyatin's book We or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In this new family by Kollontai, women are still reproductive machines. Why did she not consider new forms of togetherness in the new society?
Darja: I am more preoccupied with how Kollontai envisions love as devoid of necessities, obligations, or dependencies. Contemporary theorists understand love and care as relationships where we can be vulnerable and dependent. In love, however, Kollontai mainly seeks pleasure and enjoyment. All other aspects are sidelined and taken care of by the state.
Sarah: Yes, I agree. She maintains this strong vision of affectionate relationships within families or relationships that are economically independent, founded purely on positive and voluntary emotions. She makes the emotional labor, as well as the dependence of one's emotions on the emotions of others invisible. Hence ambiguities and ambivalences cannot exist within Kollontai's framework. I guess, a whole range of feminist literature on emotions and dependence could provide more insights here.
Darja: In response to what you said, Vettka, Kollontai is already speaking here as the stateswoman she will become in the subsequent years. A speaker of the pro-natalist state that needs women to give birth to children, to produce future Soviet citizens, allegedly having freed them from all the "ugly" parts of reproductive labor. Hopefully, as later feminists, we have gained a more advanced understanding of vulnerability and care.
Darja: In response to what you said, Vettka, Kollontai is already speaking here as the stateswoman she will become in the subsequent years. A speaker of the pro-natalist state that needs women to give birth to children, to produce future Soviet citizens, allegedly having freed them from all the "ugly" parts of reproductive labor. Hopefully, as later feminists, we have gained a more advanced understanding of vulnerability and care.
Daniel: I want to hold on to Kollontai's concept of family and her attempt to think of it not as a necessity but as a place of mutual love and respect. Her concept seems close to the idea of chosen family: a family not related by blood but one that cares, supports, and stands in solidarity with each other. It also aligns with the idea of a state that educates every child and takes care of every member of our community. Kollontai encourages mothers not to limit their care only to their own children. This might be interpreted as misogynistic, but it also opens discussions about polyamorous notions of love, family ties, and kinship surpassing the concepts of blood ties and nuclear families.
Vika: You are right, Kollontai's arguments seem more akin to extended kinship rather than traditional family. However, the entire infrastructure that is supposed to uphold this kinship belongs to the state. In this utopia, the state acts as a central actor to which all work is outsourced. Eventually the state acts as a patriarch that controls predominantly women. In this sense, I prefer to draw upon anarchist considerations and practices, focusing on creating networks that distribute caregiving responsibilities among multiple adults.
Rebecca: Speaking of the role of the state, this raises the question of freedom of choice. Is there a possibility in Kollontai's scenario to choose to stay at home and not work? Or to choose to only work within a professional context and not take care of the child?
Anastasia: To address this, we should consider the audience for which this text was written and the goals of the nascent communist state. Of course, we can discuss the utopia she envisioned but this text was initially published in the Kommunistka magazine, aimed at proletarian women, working women, peasant women, and housewives. The main objective was to introduce women to the workforce and inspire them to work for the government in order to build communism.
Darja: When we consider this political dimension, we must also recall how appealing these modernist ideas must have sounded to women in Kollontai's time. They did not have dishwashers and refrigerators, could not shop in supermarkets. Their reproductive work was truly laborous. The idea of "liberating communist women from arduous kitchen work" naturally sounded different to them. And it is against this backdrop that I interpret the problematic vocabulary of housework as slavery. On the one hand, it recalls that in Russia, serfdom was abolished just 50 years prior, yet is also holds reverence to the transatlantic history of enslavement and the ideas about the superiority and Inferiority this history holds.
Sarah: Following up on the theme of enslavement, I found Kollontai’s analysis of power, presenting various dimensions, intriguing. On one hand, in her historical analysis, the excess and burdensome household work emerges out of necessity. In this sense, is is the necessity that enslaves families. Yet she also understands power dynamics within a patriarchal bourgeois marriage or family, particularly through the economic dependence of women. Finally, she shows power or subjugation by capital: there is a passage where she argues that capitalists are well aware of the need to stabilize the institute of the family, as parents would agree to all sorts of working conditions to prevent their children from going hungry. Which forms of power are missing from her analysis? Why doesn't she discuss the modes of gender-specific division of labor? Or dive deeper into the question of who will undertake this reproductive work once we reorganize it? What other mechanisms of power might she be overlooking?

However, I share your enthusiasm in reading, Daniel, because her ideas undeniably open up possibilities for alternative ways of life and prompt us to question how we face everyday necessities and how we can reshape their handling, also in infrastructural and architectural terms. There is a liberating force in her conceptualizations.
Socialist Legacies
Darja: One of the unusual aspects of this text is that we can evaluate not only its analytical strength but also assess what has emerged from these concepts. There are not many feminist classics that we can read in this manner.

When considering realized utopias, we must also discuss the quality of their realization, such as the quality of state-produced consumer goods, childcare facilities, and medical care. While the Soviet Union provided all of these, the quality of these goods and the treatment of people in hospitals and kindergartens was terrible. Daniel, you mentioned that the failures of the socialist state were compensated or balanced by Soviet people doing things themselves – pickling cucumbers, sewing, cooking. Hence everybody was again depending on reproductive work within the family. While abortion was possible, undergoing it in the Soviet Union was a nightmare, with patients being humiliated and shamed. This tension between progressive or utopian ideas and their failures prompts me to focus on the question of the quality and production conditions of goods, relationships, or services at the core of revolutionary efforts.
Vettka: Indeed, we must also remember that most of these social projects could not be fully realized. The factory kitchens, canteens, and new housing projects of the constructivists could not be implemented due to crises and enormous economic problems. This spanned from the initial phase, through the twenties, the Second World War, and subsequent crises. Yet, remnants of these experiments still persist: houses without kitchens in Moscow and St. Petersburg, or Dom Byta – places where one could go to repair household objects.

However, many of Kollontai's proposals regarding social policy were indeed realized in the Soviet Union during the twenties and thirties. State support was always present. For example, my mother emphasized that families with many children received clothing and shoes from the state. As a trade unionist in educational institutions, she had a good insight into the ambivalence of these achievements. She was concerned with the immediate resolution of social problems or conflicts. Who gets a spot in the Pioneer summer camp? Which children can go to a sanatorium? Or she inspected special boarding schools for shepherd children in Kazakhstan, where shepherd families were sometimes in the steppe for months. Of course, the system was not ideal; it depended on people, regional conditions. There were both positive and negative experiences. I once read an account of the playwright and writer Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, who grew up in a children's home after 1945, and she meant that it was the best experience of her life. For other children however these institutions were a nightmare. It could be inspiring to rekindle these discussions to rethink how do we navigate our capitalist reality in the post-Soviet countries.

As feminists, we must also debate what remains of these Soviet social achievements and whether we can build upon them in the future. On one hand, Soviet women were highly emancipated compared to Western German women, Swiss women, or even in certain aspects Scandinavian women. Nevertheless, the society in the Soviet Union still functioned within the patriarchal mode. For comparison, in many countries, kindergartens are not free; in United Kingdom people have to pay £2,500 a month. It is outrageous. In the post-Soviet countries, we still have free kindergartens and schools. Nevertheless, the society in the Soviet Union still functioned within the patriarchal mode. So how can we build upon this and reintroduce things like the Pioneer Palaces, where there were free music instruction and sports groups? How can we bring back all these things lost after the Soviet Union, extensively discussed in this text? How can we construct a new feminist utopia when the foundation is a capitalist society?
Anastasia: This question becomes even more complex when we consider that the Soviet legacy and the lives of Soviet women are among the reasons feminism is so unfavorably regarded in present-day Russia. In the Soviet Union, women were pushed into wage labor, and domesticity was deemed unimportant. Although there was significant progress in human rights and collective care work in the 1920s, this development quickly regressed. It ended up placing women back into the same secondary position they were in pre-communist states. With very few leftist feminists in today's Russia, many believe feminism to be in the first place about pushing women into workforce. In fact, most Russian feminists – like in many other countries – see women's liberation firstly in the freedom to start a business or to delegate their care work to someone else, such as a woman from the Philippines or Central Asia.
Vettka: My mother said yesterday, well, this text may be 100 years old, but it is still timely, relevant, and necessary. Especially for us coming from the former Soviet Union, carrying this experience, we find ourselves at the point where Kollontai began in 1918. Present-day post-Soviet Russia is more capitalist than some Western capitalist countries. As you mentioned, we are back to a situation where a woman indeed has all these familial obligations while simultaneously having to work outside the family. Many women in Russia raise their child or children alone. There is minimal state support; individuals must have the economic means to organize children's leisure activities or hire household help. There is a particular urgency to reopen discussions on these lost achievements.
Sarah: From a so-called Western perspective, I would say that neoliberalism has, in a certain way, perverted and ideologically realized the utopia of love and family that Kollontai describes: some people can completely outsource reproductive work. They can indulge in romance, consume, and live the idea of free love, free from any necessity or burden, because others do the work. They only spend “quality time” with their children. They do not even have to go shopping: we have Amazon and delivery services for that. This utopia has been realized in a very specific way along class positions – not by the state but by the market. I agree with you, Vettka: considering historical context and based on a robust analysis of our current capitalist conditions and an intersectionally informed feminist understanding of global division of labor, we need to hold onto these questions. How can we organize these different forms of work to invent and realize improved ways of life and enduring relationships of solidarity and love? We must also be aware of the areas Kollontai overlooks, and that includes the question of emotional dependencies.
Vika: When we reconsider the organization of care work and develop Kollontai's concepts in a contemporary sense, as well as correct her mistakes, the question remains for me: could such a state project actually work – especially bearing in mind the need to consider various forms of discrimination and structures of oppression, not just in relation to gender.
Darja: A part of me immediately agrees with you, Vika. Yet, the allure of Kollontai's proposal lies in her call to collectively organize childcare facilities, access to food, and access to healthcare – which at least for now implies state involvement. It makes sense not to outsource all of this back to private structures, but rather to collectively organize and build good institutions that work compassionately and produce sustainable, beautiful, and flavorful goods.
Design and Utopias
Darja: This brings me to the question of what we have inherited and lost in terms of design. It is also somewhat personal for me: even though I grew up in Germany, I experienced a bit of Soviet everyday life through my mother and grandmother. They passed it on through the way they did or did not do housework, through certain tastes or aversions to tastes or smells. I also feel a bodily connection to these utopian endeavors – the attempts to design furniture, houses, or social relationships that should accommodate different ways of life.
Rebecca: Speaking about design and architecture, I remembered an interesting model in Seattle: there is a place where on one side of the building, there is a senior citizen's home, and on the other side, a daycare center, so that seniors and children spend time together, which I find beautiful. These intergenerational relationships and the role of elderly people in such utopias seem missing in many concepts.
Marija: I was reminded of Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider, where she writes about a trip to Russia in 1974. She certainly was not thrilled about the Soviet utopia and well aware of the mechanisms of racialization and othering that this socialist modernity produced and reproduced on its path to "progress." Yet there is a sentence that made me think. She writes, "I am not so foolish as to believe there are no class distinctions in Russian society. It is not an equal society. Certainly, I was not in Siberia, in a prison, or in a mental hospital. But a loaf of bread costs a few kopecks in Russia, and everyone seems to have enough of them. And that is not insignificant in a world where most people – especially most black people – still worry about their daily bread. Solve the bread problem, and you would have a chance to deal with many other problems."[4] Her emphasis on "quite a lot" made me think about what it means to have free education, universities, and medical care. She says it is "quite a lot" because only when these basic needs are met, can we think about helping others. I found it inspiring – to consider "middle ways," to work on concrete issues beyond utopias. From these various critical approaches that we have applied to our reading of Kollontai, I take away the message that it is important it is to hold onto the dream that a different world is possible and to be aware of the pitfalls people can encounter on the path to realizing a new world, especially when trying to enforce a very specific utopia (laughter).
Darja: Walter Benjamin discusses capturing history as it was experienced at the moment it occurred and thereby also grasp the messianic or utopian moments of these historic opportunities while acknowledging the lost battles and failed social changes. And I am grateful for our discussion today. It has helped deepen our understanding and bring out the utopian sparks of this text, while we simultaneously grappled with its challenging legacies. Marija, you mention that Audre Lorde was not enthusiastic about the actually existing socialism. I think many of us with a family history associated with it are quite disillusioned. Perhaps disillusionment is part of the struggle to bring a utopia into reality. I am, once again, very thankful and believe that Sarah, who had to leave to care for her child, also extends her heartfelt thanks to all of you!
Vika: Yes, thank you very much. It is quite ironic that I often have these discussions about reproduction and family, and someone cannot participate because there is reproductive work and family (laughter).
Darja: Perhaps that is the key. When I find feminist debates describing reproductive work as boring, redundant, and repetitive, I often think that intellectual work can also be redundant and repetitive, sometimes even annoying. And sometimes cooking is enchanting. Maybe it is about bringing both into interplay – reproductive work into intellectual work, and intellectual work into reproductive work.
Lorde, Audre (2022), Notes from a Trip to Russia, in Sister Outsider: Essays, Munich: Hanser, pp. 208–237, p. 237.