Who deserves credit for building the great civilizations? Lately we’re crediting a lot more people than we used to.
We’ve started recognizing that many of our cities rest upon an ugly history of slave labor, for example. A congressional commission, to take another example, just recommended renaming army bases that previously honored Confederate traitors, replacing the names with heroes that embody “the best of America,” including lesser-known women and African Americans. And middle-grade nonfiction books now more often focus on heroes and heroines of color — Harriet Tubman or Jackie Robinson, for example— in a needed effort to redress what was once a nearly exclusive focus on the achievements of white men.
But even in our increasingly category-conscious culture, the category that Kristen Ghodsee takes as the focus of her new book, Red Valkyries: Feminist Lessons From Five Revolutionary Women — namely, communist women — still seems unlikely to be the object of widespread posthumous recognition.
The “Red Valkyries” in question were dedicated communists in the countries of the Soviet world. The single-party dictatorships that defined these countries’ public life governed through repression but also rested their legitimacy on their claim to fulfill the traditional egalitarian mission of socialism. For that reason, these regimes brought vast concrete benefits to the women of the Eastern Bloc — a fact that, throughout the Cold War, also put pressure on the West to do better on women’s equality.
Each chapter in the book is devoted to one of these women leaders: Bolshevik organizer, writer, and diplomat Alexandra Kollontai; Vladimir Lenin’s wife, the tireless activist and progressive educator Nadezhda Krupskaya; Lenin and Krupskaya’s close comrade and companion, political thinker Inessa Armand; legendary Nazi-killing sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko; and Bulgarian scientist and women’s rights activist Elena Lagadinova.
Each of these women is so fascinating that to read this book is to marvel at how little most of us knew about them before — in other words, how effectively the Cold War stifled our ability to learn from the Communist experience. Armand and Kollontai were sex radicals years ahead of their time — indeed, Armand was in a menage with two aristocratic brothers and was long rumored to be Lenin’s lover (and possibly also that of Krupskaya, though Ghodsee finds that unlikely) — and took seriously the potential of socialism to free women from domestic drudgery and oppressive relationships.
Counter to grim Communist stereotype, Krupskaya, inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy on the subject, emphasized the importance of creativity and individual freedom in education. Pavlichenko, who at twenty-six had killed 309 Nazis, was sent by her government on a tour of the United States (where she was plagued by absurd questions from the capitalist media about her lack of makeup) and became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she even vacationed. (Woody Guthrie wrote a song about her, “Miss Pavlichenko,” noting the “sweet face” of the woman who had killed “more than three hundred Nazi-dogs.”)
Lagadinova was an iconic young anti-fascist hero — famously photographed carrying a pistol and riding a white horse, she was known as “the Amazon” — who grew up to be a scientist who served her country by studying how to improve women’s lives. Charged with the goal of raising birth rates, she opposed restrictions on abortion and instead asked women what kind of state supports they needed to make motherhood more attractive, working with feminists all over the world to improve the condition of women everywhere.
Ghodsee is a clearheaded guide to all five women’s lives and historical context, buying neither into Soviet propaganda nor its capitalist counterpart. She doesn’t shrink from examining the privileged background of the Soviet intellectuals (Kollontai and Krupskaya were from aristocratic families, while Armand’s upbringing was solidly middle-class, and her marriage to an aristocrat gave her access to an even more comfortable life) or the eighteen-year age difference between Armand and her younger lover (in official Soviet accounts he was closer to her age).
Neither does she gloss over Kollontai’s cooperation with Joseph Stalin, who killed many of her close comrades, friends, and lovers as well as her political dreams. On the other hand, and more importantly considering her American readers’ likely prejudices, she is also clear on the accomplishments of the Communist societies that these women worked hard to build: dramatic gains in life expectancy and literacy, equally dramatic reductions in infant mortality, unparalleled opportunities for women in math and sciences, and a robust education system from preschool to postgraduate. Overall, women enjoyed greater equality with men in Communist countries than just about anywhere in the world.
Although this book isn’t written for an academic audience, Ghodsee’s expertise in the region and her decades of scholarship give it an authority and level of detail that few other authors could have provided. Besides a deep knowledge of the subject, Ghodsee also has a remarkable ability to synthesize years of research and make it compelling reading for those encountering this material for the first time. Although every chapter is fascinating, Ghodsee’s personal relationship with Lagadinova, the least famous of the group — as well as her specific knowledge of Bulgarian socialism and feminism — gives that chapter special value. (Ghodsee also wrote Lagadinova’s obituary for Jacobin in 2017, calling her “the most fascinating feminist you’ve never heard of.”) She interviewed Lagadinova many times over a period of seven years, developing a personal friendship with the former war hero (the two went to the opera together) and spent a decade in the relevant archives.
None of the “Red Valkyries” were perfect by any measure, and there is much to criticize about the oppressive regimes they worked in, but their commitment and accomplishments were nonetheless extraordinary, and we can learn from this honest account.
Ghodsee closes her Kollontai chapter with a quote that underscores why reading about these lives is so important. “One must write . . . for others,” Kollontai wrote, explaining why she was writing her memoirs:
For those faraway, unknown women who will live then. Let them see that we were not heroes or heroines after all. But we believed passionately and ardently. We believed in our goals and we pursued them. Sometimes we were strong and sometimes we were very weak.