Inessa Armand (1874-1920) was a pioneering socialist feminist who played a key role in promoting the emancipation of women in the international socialist movement, and after the Russian revolution.
She was born in a working-class district in the north of Paris on 8 May 1874. Her father was a French opera singer, and her mother an actor of Anglo-French parentage. Following her father’s death, when Inessa was five, she moved to an area outside Moscow and was raised by her aunt and grandmother. Inessa’s aunt worked as a governess for an upper-middle-class Russian family, headed by Evgenii Armand. A textile manufacturer of a liberal mind, Evgenii welcomed his governess’s orphaned niece as part of the family, and Inessa received an education similar to that of the Armand children.
Inessa Armand was exposed to Enlightenment ideas, the piano, and the German and Russian languages. She trained as a home teacher — one of the few vocations open to educated women in late-Imperial Russia. In October 1893, Armand married Evgenii’s eldest son, Alexander. They had five children together, and opened a local school for peasant children.
Armand got involved in the Moscow Society for Improving the Lot of Women, setting up hostels for poor women and prostitutes. When her applications to set up a school and a newspaper for working-class women were refused by the authorities, she developed doubts about the ability of reformers to achieve progress under the repressive Tsarist system. Her move towards revolutionary ideas was strengthened by an affair with Alexander’s brother Vladimir, a member of the illegal Social Democratic Labour Party. She worked with the party in Moscow and Pushkino in the north-east of the city.
During an extended stay in Switzerland, Armand read Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia and was convinced to join with the Bolsheviks. Following her return to Russia during the revolutionary events of 1905, Armand was arrested in front of her children and held for four months. Upon her release she continued agitation, and was banished to Mezen in the far north of Russia for two years.
She escaped to Poland, and made a desperate journey to France to see Vladimir, who was being treated for tuberculosis. He died in her arms within weeks of her escape, in 1909.
After a period spent studying in Brussels and Copenhagen, Armand travelled back to Paris and became involved with Lenin’s group of exiled Bolsheviks. She organised party schools in Longjumeau with Lenin. In 1911 she became the secretary of the Committee of Foreign Organisations, set up to coordinate Bolshevik circles in western Europe.
The following year she returned to Russia to help organise the Bolshevik’s campaign for the Duma; she was arrested two months later, and released in March 1913. Fleeing bail, Armand went to live with Lenin and his wife Nadya Krupskaya in Galicia. It was there that she began producing Rabotnitsa, one of the first socialist women’s journals, originally published on International Women’s Day 1914. In early 1915 she began work on a pamphlet on the role of women in communist society. Lenin was critical of the slogan “freedom of love”, deeming it insufficiently materialist and open to possible misinterpretation. Their correspondence reached no agreement, and the pamphlet was never published.
During World War One, Armand was a Bolshevik delegate to the Second International’s International Socialist Women’s Conference in Berne in 1915. In 1916, she was sent to Paris to raise support for the revolutionary anti-war positions taken by the left-wing minority at the first Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915. She attended the second such conference in Kienthal in April 1916 as a Bolshevik delegate.
Following the abdication of the Tsar during the February Revolution of 1917, Armand joined Lenin and 25 other revolutionaries in the sealed train to Petrograd’s Finland station. As a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, she became a familiar figure around Moscow. In June 1917, she published the journal Working Woman’s Life and, following the October Revolution, became a member of the Executive of the Moscow Soviet. That same year, Armand became Chair of the Moscow Branch of the Economic Council, establishing schools and organising the First All-Russia Congress of Working and Peasant Women with Alexandra Kollontai and Konkordia Samoilova.
She returned to Petrograd in 1919 to found and become the first director of the Zhenotdel, the world’s first government department dedicated to improving the position of women. It set about fighting illiteracy, and educating women about the new marriage, abortion, education and workplace laws in the Soviet Republic. In the face of innumerable difficulties, she worked hard to establish nurseries, clinics, communal laundries and canteens, to ease the burden on working-class women. (The Zhenotdel would be shut down in 1930 following the Stalinist counter-revolution, which also saw the repeal of Russia’s abortion laws and other libertarian social measures).
Armand chaired the First International Conference of Communist Women, the women’s section of the Communist International. In the spring of 1920, she founded the journal Kommunistka, to deal with “the broader aspects of female emancipation.” But the fifth edition of this journal carried her obituary for, over-worked and poorly-fed amidst the tribulations of the Russian Civil War, she contracted cholera and died at the age of 46.
Inessa Armand was a brave and talented Bolshevik and a stalwart for socialist feminism in the international communist movement. Her efforts towards the emancipation of women in the Soviet Republic and worldwide should be remembered and celebrated by socialist feminists and revolutionaries everywhere.