Alexandra Kollontai and the utopian imagination in the Russian revolution

M. D. Steinberg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This article reinterprets the alleged "utopianism" of Russian revolutionaries, especially the Bolsheviks, through the prism of an alternative definition of the utopian imagination developed only after 1917 - especially in the work of Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno. This alternative definition of utopia is as a critical analysis of conventional constructions of reality, time, and the possible. This is utopia as critical negation of that which merely is in the name of what should be, as a radical challenge to assumptions about what is possible and impossible in the present, as a vision of time and history as containing the possibility of an explosive "leap in the open air of history" (Benjamin). Utopian consciousness breaks into the normativized world of knowledge and expectations about reality and possibility in history to reveal the new and unexpected. This is utopia as radical epistemology, hermeneutics, and praxis. In this article and two following, this alternative definition is concretized in the Russian revolution through three individuals: Alexandra Kollontai (in the present article), Lev Trotsky, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Of course, like all Marxists, they denied they were "utopians". Which was accurate only by the definitions they had available to them at the time. However, in the utopian mode, they refused to accept the arguments of those who warned that a leap toward the "kingdom of freedom" was utopian fancy. They devoted their lives to the negation of that which merely is. They disturbed what Bloch called the "darkness of the lived moment", in order to smash the barrier holding back the "ocean of possibility". Kollontai articulated a moral and historical vision of a radically alternative self and society created through experience and applied this both to women's intimate lives and to workers' struggles for "freedom", "self-activity", and "creativity." She explored the possibility of a communist society that would allow humanity to leap across the "zapovednyi rubezh" (forbidden border) of normative economic laws and necessity into a world of freedom.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)436-448
Number of pages13
JournalVestnik Sankt-Peterburgskogo Universiteta, Istoriya
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2017


  • Alexandra Kollontai
  • Russian revolutionaries
  • The Russian revolution
  • Utopianism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


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