Zinaida Lilina, Revolutionary, administrator and pedagogue
Meet Zinaida Lilina, Bolshevist revolutionary, women's activist, social and culture administrator and opponent to Stalin. She was a tough woman, and an important figure in the Bolshevist movement, but also controversial, especially in bourgeois eyes, and nearly forgotten by history (many biographies on her friends even fail to have her name right), which makes it somewhat difficult to detect her life.
|Relatively early portrait of Lilina|
Zlata, Golde (the Jewish translation of Zlata) or Zinaida Evnovna Bernstein was born on 15. January 1881 or 1882 to a poor Jewish family in a village in Belarus, she grew up in a Jewish and Polish surrounding and was at first educated at home. However, she had later the opportunity to visit a high school (Gymnasium), she finished school in 1902 and, like many progressive women wothout means at her time, worked as a teacher. In the same year, she became a member of the Russian Social-Democratic Worker's Party, which had not yet split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks then. Around that time, she also emigrated to Switzerland, where she took the opportunity to visit lectures in medicine, a common practice for Russian women who were not yet allowed to visit Russian universities, as well as many universities in other European countries. After the split between Lenin and his followers, known as the Bolsheviks, and his opponent, known as Mensheviks, Lilina sided with Lenin whom she had met around that time in Berne.
During the 1905 uprising in Russia, Lilina went back to Russia and participated in the revolutionary activities after 1905 and until about 1907, the final defeat of the revolutionary period. Working as a teacher, she is also active in the Sankt Petersbourg illegal party work, as was Krupskaya, whom she may or may not have met at that time. Also, she may have met Grigory Zinoviev at that time, also a Bolshevik and ardent Leninist (some have dubbed him „Lenin's shadow“ in the few years to follow). Biographers like McNeal or Michael Pearson claim that the two of them were married at that period, and that their son was born around 1909. However, more recent Russian articles say that at this time, Zinoviev was still married to Sara Ravich, another Bolshevik, born in 1879 and of similar origin as both, Lilina and Zinoviev himself. According to these sources, it was only after his and Ravich's divorce and in 1912 that Lilina and Zinoviev married, and only in 1913 that their son was born. However, it is rather certain, that the two of them already met around 1908, or even earlier. In the year of the „second emigration“, 1908 to 1917, Lilina was, as Zinoviev, one of the closest co-workers of Lenin in exile. They formed a kind of community, living in the same towns and seeing each other regularly besides work for strolls or bicycle excursions. Together, they moved from Switzerland to Paris in 1909, where they had a party school, and from Paris to Cracow in 1912, where Lilina's and Zinoviev's son Stepan may have been born. Lenin dotted on the child a very much, and both Lilina and Krupskaya recall how he played with him, made much noise, knocked things over, crawled on the floor and protested when Lilina tried to put a check on them. Lenin himself shows affection in a letter from 1916, which concludes: „Beste Grüsse [best regards], especially to Styopka [a pet name for Stepan], who must have grown so that I won’t be able to toss him up to the ceiling!” (It is rather unlikely that Lenin threw a seven-year-old to the ceiling, which makes Stepan's birth year of 1913 more plausible.) Later Lilina recalls, when taking a stroll in Switzerland, Lenin to have said: „It is a pity that we have no such Styopka.“ Still, in Cracow, the Lilina-Zinovievs were also close to Lev Kamenev, his wife Olga Bronstein (Trotsky's sister) and their family, who were of the same age and keen on going to the movies. Zinoviev and Kamenev were about to form a practically inseparable alliance.
|Kamenev and Zinoviev chilling|
Apart from those free-time activities, Lilina worked together with Krupskaya in the party organisation, the propaganda works and the smuggling of illegal literature between Russia and abroad, and they did very joyfully so. The two women became close friends, and Krupskaya talks about her a great deal in her reminiscences about that time. This, however, may also indicate the great importance Lilina had in the party at that time. Lenin charged her with a multitude of important missions, with attending congresses and delivering speeches. In 1914, she, Krupskaya, Inessa Armand and Ludmilla Stal were the core group in organising a women's party newspaper, „The Woman Worker“, which, however, was very short lived, maybe due to the World War I and restricted connections to Russia, where the paper was edited. On outbreak of the war, in 1914, the Krupskaya-Lenins and Lilina-Zinovievs moved to Berne, where Lilina became the secretary of the local Bolshevik group until 1915. Her work-load must have been enormous, but Lilina seems to have been of poor health. In summer 1914, as Lenin writes in several letters to Armand, she was seriously sick and even in hospital, putting him under some “shortages in staff”, since her illness made it also impossible for Zinoviev to attend international meetings, and he himself was maybe unable or unwilling to travel.
In 1917, Lilina, der son and her husband were part of the company, also including Lenin, Krupskaya, Armand and Ravich, that crossed Germany in a sealed train with the destination of revolutionary Russia. With her comrades, Lilina continued to pursue the goal of a socialist revolution. It is not known (to me) what her stand was on the temporary but deep division between Lenin and Zinoviev/Kamenev, who were against the October uprising and announced their opposition publicly (before the planned uprising and thereby making it known), which stirred Lenin's fury. Whatever the case may have been, it did not cause a break in Lilina's career (as it didn't in Zinoviev's and Kamenev's, although they ceased to be as close to Lenin as previously). She attended the first post-revolutionary party congress in March 1918, which saw the renaming of the RSDWP (b) into CPR (b) (somehow they needed to maintain that „bolshevist“ specification), and remained active in the Petrograd Soviet (Petrograd is the Russian name for Sankt Petersburg, as it was called since the World War). After the congress, she was appointed head of the Petrograd Soviet's department for Social Security. Her main task in the strained post-revolutionary, post-world war and in media-civil war situation was the struggle against child poverty, child homelessness, the care for children in nurseries, orphanages and schools. Especially the provision with food proved to be a demanding task. Also, she became member commissioner of the Union of Northern Region Communities, headed by Zinoviev. Another member was Ravich, who, by the way, was rather close to her ex-husband's family and befriended Lilina. However, the Union soon fell apart.
|Lilina (middle, background) in 1920|
As I said, the situation of civil war was very strained and certainly asked for thorough measures, and this may have somewhat hardened Lilina, who proved to be an efficient propagandist and became notorious in Western Europe and the United States for her demand that children be separated from their families and raised as communists. This may sound very harsh, but it is not uncommon for feminist communists at that time who favoured communal child care and householding as a means for the liberation of women. Other persons like Kollontai, who shared a deep mutual hatred with Lilina, advocated for similar solutions, and Krupskaya as well as Lenin proclaimed that individual household was part of the enslavement of women. Thus, the call for communal householding and child care was part of the feminist demand for taking the load of working women from their double burden. Also, the young Soviet Russia faced the difficulty of wide-spread illiteracy and launched a vast campaign against it and for universal schooling (in this, Krupskaya was very active in Moscow). The „seizure“ of children needs to be seen before this background, too.
In fact, Lilina was an active part of both branches, of the women's movement as a member of the Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the party’s Central Committee, initiated in 1919 and first headed by Armand, who tackled issues of gender equality and women's rights, like equal pay, the right of abortion and prostitution. As the Zhenotdel worked in close collaboration with the Commissariats of Health, Education, Labor, Social Welfare, and Internal Affairs, as well as other institutions, this could, from a 21st century perception, be seen as some kind of early gender mainstreaming. However, the Zhenotdel faced many problems, deriving from the harsh conditions under Civil War, as well as the struggles for power later on, which led to the silencing of some of its most outspoken members, like Kollontai (additionally, the very active Armand already died in 1920). In the course of the 1920s, many of the early and most active members of the Zhenotdel became connected to the anti-Stalinist opposition, and lost power when Stalin prevailed. The section was maintained a short time under Stalin’s auspices, and dissolved in 1930, making room for a backlash in feminist matters which stopped nearly every of the Zhenotdel’s initiatives.
|Lilina (middle) in a meeting|
As to schooling, Lilina became the head of the Petrograd Social-pedagogic Committee in 1920, and between 1924 and 1926, head of the department for public education in the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. Besides, she was active in a commission for the improvement of scientist's living situation as well head administrator of the Petrograd theaters. So, Lilina was active at the interface between science, culture and education, which partly shows in her work on art education. As a pedagogue, Lilina had somewhat similar ideas like Krupskaya, who in her articles and books had advocated (and continued to advocate) for a very liberal, child-centered education and sought to combine universal mass education with approaches from the progressive education as well as work schools. Thus, both thought schools to be the „first step of life“ instead of a mere preparation for life, a crucial part of the child's spiritual (and arguably political) formation that should be as un-administrated as possible, leaving children the most possible freedom and individuality to develop both their personalities and their intelligence. Liberal pedagogics were at the head of their time, everywhere in Europe and the US new kinds of schools were established were enthusiastic teachers experimented with forms of education which were inspired by pedagogical and psychological scientific knowledge as well as teaching experiences. Both Krupskaya and Lilina had lived in Switzerland, the motherland of the progressive education movement, where at least Krupskaya had systematically studied pedagogic literature and the Swiss schooling system. It is very probable that she had at least discussed her findings with her fellow-teacher and friend Lilina. Now, in the early Soviet period, both women had the opportunity to test their ideas in practice, each on their different positions. As for Lilina, she advocated for a plurality of school forms, dedicated to the various needs and interests of children, and maintained a huge network of collaboration between the administration, teachers and educators and the workers. She focused especially at the close connection between schooling and the „real“ life through collaborations between classes and professionals from science and production in industry and agriculture.
Throughout the 1920s, Lilina published her ideas and experiences in books and articles. In the course of the first half of the 1920s, her husband, the divisive Zinoviev, became a powerful figure in the Soviet state. Together with Kamenev and Stalin, he formed a triumvirate striving to isolate Trotsky from powerful positions, especially after Lenin’s stroke in 1922. There may have been a good deal of jealousy from the part of Zinoviev, who had been one of the closest collaborators of Lenin before the October Revolution, sharing exile and escape with him. After Trotsky joined the bolshevist ranks, he was increasingly valued by Lenin, albeit critically. In fact, there is some evidence that Lenin planned to collaborate with Trotsky against Stalin. Part of Zinoviev’s imperious traits may have been present in the whole family, for Lilina, too, was accused by some for being authoritarian and not allowing alternative, and especially non-communist ideas. Also, their son Stepan is said to have been condescending towards his peers. Apart from that, enemies of the Lilina-Zinovievs have accused them of wealth grab, claiming that Lilina tried to escape with jewels worth several million rubles. This may be slander, however, it is not impossible that the new-gained power corrupted them at least a bit. On the other hand, contemporaries have claimed that Lilina was also a bit nostalgic about her illegal past in exile and still wore clothes she had shopped with Krupskaya in Switzerland.
|Lilina and Stepan, her son|
In 1925, Zinoviev, together with Kamenev formed a Leningrad Opposition (because of his power base in Leningrad/Petrograd) against Stalin with whom they had fallen out. Lilina and Ravich sided ranks with the Opposition which was, by the way, defended by Krupskaya, who really hated Stalin and sought to keep him from power. The Stalin-led party leadership retaliated and expelled Zinoviev from his posts. Lilina remained in her office, but things may have become difficult for her. The Soviet author Panteleev, for instance, remembers how Lilina in vain tried to make one of his works publish after 1926. In 1926, the Leningrad Opposition united with the Left Opposition around Trotsky and deployed a vast propaganda activity against Stalin. In 1927, Lilina and her friends were expelled from the party for “belonging to a Trotskyist opposition”, but reinstalled in 1928, again along with her friends. In the same year, she was employed at the department for children’s literature in Moscow.
However, she did not remain for long on this post, and must have been very ill at that time. On 28 May 1929, Lilina died from lung cancer in a Leningrad hospital and was buried on the famous Alexander Nevsky cemetery in the same city. Her death was announced in party papers by one single obituary, signed by “a comrade”, which may have been Krupskaya. Some years later, Lilina’s works were banned.
In some way, death was benevolent to her, for it released her from witnessing the execution of her husband (who, by the way, remarried) and her comrade Kamenev in 1936. Zinoviev had received from Stalin the promise that his family would not be persecuted, but already in February 1937, his and Lilina’s son Stepan was shot in a Moscow prison. Lilina’s friend Krupskaya had left the opposition in Lilina’s life time and tried to make her peace with Stalin, but without much success. Contemporaries have her complain on several occasion on the dreadful state of the Stalinist Soviet Union. She died in 1939, arguably of natural causes, highly decorated but soon forgotten. Ravich had been exiled to Siberia in the 1930s, but she survived Stalin and was released in 1954; she died in 1957.
Few photographs of Lilina are available (there are many in the archives of the social-democratic party, but access is restricted). Some contemporaries have described her, and from that it seems that she was a small, early-aged, but very lively woman. Victor Serge describes her as “a small crop-haired, grey-eyed woman […] sprightly and tough”.