Elisabeth Dmitrieff: feminist, unionist, Communarde

  • April 2, 2021

Paris Commune 150

At the age of 20, Dmitrieff founded and led the Union des femmes, the foremost radical feminist and socialist organization that emerged during the Commune.

Elisabeth Dmitrieff arrived in Paris on the tenth day of the Paris Commune. The 20-year-old Russian socialist feminist immediately contacted members of the Commune government. She then met with women labor leaders. Sent from London as an emissary of Marx and the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, Dmitrieff assessed the revolutionary situation; rather than merely reporting back to London, she decided to put her theoretical studies and organizational experience into action. Two weeks later, on April 11, she posted and published an “Appel aux citoyennes de Paris.” It called women to battle, announcing that “Paris is blockaded, Paris is bombarded, women citizens…to arms! The nation is in danger!”

That evening at eight o’clock, her new association the Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins au blésées (The Union of Women for the Defense of Paris and Aid to the Wounded) held its first meeting at the grand café de la Nation, planning to “establish committees in every arrondissement, to organize the women’s movement to defend Paris.” In addition to urban defense and battlefield support, the Union des femmes organized to improve women’s lives and status by freeing them from the exploitative conditions of waged work.

The Union des femmes addressed the immediate needs of both the military conflict and women’s wartime unemployment. Simultaneously, they charted longer-term gendered socio-economic change. Ultimately involving over one thousand women, under Dmitrieff’s leadership the Union des femmes emerged as one of the largest and most effective associations during the Commune.

How did a 20-year-old Russian woman, arriving in the midst of France’s revolutionary civil war, accomplish this? How did Dmitrieff garner the resources, establish the authority and institute the functionality of such an organization? A student of Russian populism and of Marx, and an organizer of women workers and of the Russian emigré section of the International in Geneva, Dmitrieff combined theory and practice.

She was born outside of wedlock in rural Russia to a Russian aristocrat and a German nurse. At age 16 she traveled to Geneva to study, subsequently enmeshing herself in socialist labor and feminist activism. Dmitrieff thus arrived in Paris intellectually equipped and experienced in moving from social and geographical peripheries to centers of international political engagement. Marginalized by her gender, her “bastardy,” her rurality, her youth and her foreignness, Dmitrieff nonetheless seized the revolutionary moment.

A school beyond the university walls

Born Elisavieta Loukinitchna Koucheleva on November 1, 1850 in the village of Volok in the northwestern province Pskov, Dmitrieff had grown up in a world of disparity and contradiction. Raised in great material comfort on her aristocratic father’s estate — which included a substantial library — she lived surrounded by still-enserfed peasantry. Despite her class privilege, Dmitrieff’s multiple marginalizations situated her as an outsider, allowing her both particular internal and external critical perspectives on institutions and structures.

Her father recognized Elisabeth and her siblings as heirs, yet he never took steps to remove their legal status of “illegitimate.” While her brother attended an elite boys’ school, the comparable girls’ school barred her and her sister, indicative of the gendered taint of “illegitimacy.”

Dmitrieff spent winters in St. Petersburg with her family, exposed to urban life, high culture, and the emergent reformist and radical movements of 1860s Russia. Increasingly politicized, she became involved in St. Petersburg’s activist youth movement, encountered Marx’s ideas in the journal Rousskoïe Slovo (The Russian Word), and read Nicholas Chernyshyevsky’s extremely influential 1863 novel What is to be Done? Chernyshyevsky’s work asserted the Russian peasant commune as an inherently socialist form, but recreated it as a world of relative gender equality in which women lived lives of liberty and independence. For Dmitrieff, the work of these thinkers intersected with her lived experience, shaping her emergent gender and class politics.

When Russian women began attending university lectures during the 1860s, the state responded by formally prohibiting female students. So in 1867 Dmitrieff left for Geneva, Switzerland to study. To do so, she entered into a “white marriage” with a cooperative elderly man — as had one of the female characters in Chernyshyevsky’s novel — providing her the “legitimacy” to travel as a married woman.

Dmitrieff dove into Geneva’s political life. Together with the city’s substantial Russian community, several of whom later became Communards, Dmitrieff founded Geneva’s Russian emigré section of the International Workingmen’s Association. Her wealth enabled her to fund the organization’s newspaper, Narodnoe delo, “The Cause of the People.” Allied with Marx, and shaped by Chernyshyevsky’s What is to be Done?, the emigré section included many women, and lacked the Proudhonian misogyny of the Paris section of the International.

Geneva served as a school for Dmitrieff, beyond the university walls. She developed a politics based on Russian feminist populism combined with Marx’s advocacy of centralized political movements as emancipatory agents. Envisioning federated cooperatives linked by a centralized power, Dmitrieff developed her own form of Marxian associationism. This approach would underpin the basis of the Union des femmes during the Commune, but she began turning her theory into praxis in Geneva.

Transposing analyses of the peasant commune to apply to urban laborers, Dmitrieff organized workers’ cooperatives. She also participated in a women’s labor association. In 1870, indicative of their confidence in her abilities, the Russian emigré section of the International chose Dmitrieff to represent them to the organization’s General Council in London.

Intermezzo in London

She arrived in London in December 1870, bearing a letter from the Geneva section introducing “Mme. Elisa Tomanovskaïa” (her married name) to Marx. In the three months before the Commune erupted, Dmitrieff attended meetings of the London International, studied the British trade union movement, discussed and debated with Marx and his colleagues, and befriended his daughters.

Having fallen ill with bronchitis in January, Dmitrieff wrote a letter to Marx, continuing their conversation about Russian agricultural organization. Explaining the future of the peasant commune, “its transformation into small individual ownership is, unhappily, more than probable,” she lamented the Russian governmental push toward private property by “suppressing collective responsibility.” Dmitrieff described how “A law passed last year has already abolished [collective ownership] in communes with fewer than forty souls (men’s souls, because women, unhappily, do not have souls).”

Like Chernyshyevsky, Dmitrieff advocated the peasant commune as a model socialist form, presenting it as a curb on private property. Challenging Marx’s theory of historical progression, she asserted a Russian exceptionalism while subtly critiquing Russian patriarchy.

Two months later the twenty-year-old woman would adapt her ideas to the burgeoning revolution in Paris. Dmitrieff, likely staying with Marx’s daughters in London, ended her note with a warm familiarity. “Obviously, I do not want to take your time, but if you have several hours free Sunday evening, I am sure your daughters would be as happy as I would be if you would pass them with us.”

An appeal to the women of Paris

On March 18 in Paris, a group of working-class women stepped between French soldiers and the cannons the army had been sent to take from the buttes of Montmarte. The artillery overlooked the city below, left there at the end of the France’s recent surrender in the Franco-Prussian war. The military men had refused to fire on the protesting Parisian women. By the day’s end two generals lay dead, the French national government pulled the troops from the city and laid siege to it, and socialist revolutionaries occupied the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). Thus began the 72-day revolutionary civil war known as the Paris Commune.

Preparing to leave London for insurgent Paris, Dmitrieff dropped her legal name Tomonovskaïa and assumed the nom de guerre Dmitrieff — after her paternal grandmother Dimitrieva, a common name in Russia. Contesting gender norms, Elisabeth rejected the female suffix “a” and took the masculine form Dmitrieff. Condemned in absentia in the Commune’s aftermath, Dmitrieff once again became the unknown Tomanovskaïa, eluding French police who searched in vain for years for a woman named Dmitrieff/Dmitrieva.

Arriving in Paris on a false passport supplied by the London section of the International, Dmitrieff contacted two members of the organization’s Paris branch, both now elected to the Commune government, Benoît Malon and Léo Frankel. She had met Malon, a 27-year-old activist, in Geneva when he lived there in political exile like many other socialists. Frankel, a 28-year-old Hungarian Jew, served as head of the Commune’s Commission of Labor and Exchange. Like Dmitrieff, Frankel had a personal relationship with Marx; the two were among the very few Communards influenced by Marx, most of whose writings had not yet been translated into French. Dmitrieff and Frankel also exemplified the Commune’s internationalism.

Frankel and the Commission of Labor and Exchange would provide support to Dmitrieff and the Union des femmes. Malon and Frankel, unlike many of the era’s Proudhonian-influenced male socialists, actively advocated women’s emancipation. In addition to connecting with the revolutionary government, Dmitrieff sought out activists from the women’s labor movement. Following meetings with these women, including the milliner Blanche Lefebvre, the seamstress Marie Leloup and the slipper-maker Thérèse Lemaigre Collin, Dmitrieff wrote the Appel aux citoyennes de Paris, the call to create the Union des femmes.

Posted on walls throughout the city and published in multiple Commune newspapers, the Appel aux citoyennes asked “Is it the foreigner who has come to invade France?…No, these enemies, these assassins of the people and of liberty are French!…Our foes are the privileged of the current social order, all those who have always lived from our sweat, who have fattened themselves from our poverty.” Reflecting on her internationalism and that of the Commune, Dmitrieff underscored that the attack on the Commune was a class war rather than an international conflict.

The Appel aux citoyennes pointed to transnational commonalities and solidarities. Starting with class-based hostilities occurring in Russia, her home, it then mentioned those in Ireland, Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy, England and Austria. Positing the Commune as the product of these ongoing oppressions and contestations, Dmitrieff asked rhetorically if “the tree of liberty, fertilized by the streams of blood spilled over the centuries, has finally borne fruit?” Invoking Parisian women’s revolutionary heritage, the Appel called the citoyennes of Paris, “descendants of the women of the Great Revolution,” to join together, to “prepare ourselves to defend and avenge our brothers!”

The Union and the Commune

A photo collage with faces of actual Communardes “photoshopped” unto a staged photograph intended to depict female prisoners after the fall of the Commune. Part of a series called “Crimes de Commune” by Parisien photographer Ernest Eugène Appert, 1871.

Dmitrieff developed a highly centralized organization with elected representatives wielding clear authority. She immediately established a Provisional Central Committee made up of herself and seven women workers. A permanent committee would be elected subsequently, with delegates from each of the association’s arrondissement sections; they would “assume the general direction” of the organization. Dmitrieff remained on the permanent Central Committee as the only non-elected member. She also became Secretary General of the Union des femmes’ Executive Commission, a paid seven-member body drawn from the elected Central Committee.

Dmitrieff founded and headed the Union des femmes throughout its short existence. She demanded singular allegiance to the group, for example publicly chastising feminist socialist André Léo for including her name on a Montmartre Women’s Vigilance Committee poster. This intransigence could explain the absence from the Union des femmes of other high profile Communard women, including Louise Michel and Paule Mink; so might Dmitrieff’s youth, relative inexperience and unfamiliarity with the Parisian context. Mink’s and especially Michel’s internationalism makes Dmitrieff’s foreignness an unlikely factor.

Nathalie Lemel, an educated feminist socialist bookbinder and labor organizer, emerged as an exception to Dmitrieff’s regulations. Daughter of petit-bourgeois café owners, she had joined the International in 1866, co-founded — with Commune government delegate Eugène Varlin — the food cooperative La Marmite, and participated in political clubs during the Prussian siege and the Commune.

Elected representative of the 6th arrondissement section of the Union des femmes, Lemel was then voted onto the Central Committee and selected for the Executive Committee. At age 45, Lemel brought age and the lived experience of an artisan activist and single mother to the organization. She played a significant directorial role in the organization, but, contrary to the assertions of many scholars and writers, Lemel neither co-founded nor co-led the Union des femmes.

At the Union des femmes’ second meeting on April 13, Dmitrieff and the Provisional Central Committee drafted an “Adresse des citoyennes aux la Commission Executive de la Commune de Paris.” It delineated their socialist feminist analysis of the Commune government’s relationship with and obligations to the people of Paris. After asserting the importance of the entire population joining together in collective resistance to the enemy, they then avowed, “The Commune, representative of the great principle proclaiming the annihilation of all privilege, of all inequality, should be simultaneously engaged in taking into account the just demands of the entire population, without distinction of sex.”

Calling on the Commune government to recognize and address all inequities faced by all Parisians, the Adresse underscored the gendered nature of power hierarchies, clarifying that the sexes faced differing oppressions, even those of the same class. The document overtly argued that the “distinction of sex” was “created and maintained by the need for antagonism on which the privileges of the governing classes rest.” Stating that the ruling classes required inter-gender conflict to maintain their privilege, Dmitrieff and the Provisional Central Committee asserted capitalism and patriarchy as interlinked.

Bringing together the theoretical and the practical, the Adresse culminated in asking the Commune government to support the Union des femmes by providing meeting spaces in every arrondissement and covering their printing costs. They argued that “a serious revolutionary organization…capable of effectively and vigorously aiding the Commune, will only be able to succeed with the aid and cooperation of the Commune government.”

The Commune government agreed to Dmitireff’s proposal for a mutually sustaining relationship, subsidizing the Union des femmes. While the revolutionary administration had a somewhat contentious relationship with the grassroots, radically democratic women’s political clubs, it worked comfortably with the hierarchical and structured Union des femmes.

Fundamentally altering women’s work and lives

With material aid and a formal link with the revolutionary government secured, Dmitrieff turned to her core goal: improving women’s socio-economic status by ending wage work through the reordering and revaluation of female labor. She submitted a formal Adresse du Comité Central de l’Union des femmes à la Commission de travail et d’échange (“Address to the Commission of Labor and Exchange”) on behalf of the Union des femmes’ Executive Commission, asking to be charged with “the reorganization and redistribution of women’s labor in Paris.”

Dmitrieff affirmed that “assuring the product to the producer could only succeed through free producers’ associations.” Federations of worker-owned cooperatives would address the immediate crisis in women’s unemployment, while simultaneously establishing the means “to finally allow workers control over their own affairs.” Here Dmitrieff brought her own feminist urbanized version of the Russian cooperative peasant commune, in concert with French socialist advocacy of workers’ associations and producer-owned cooperatives. This proposal echoed ideas from revolutionary and reformist socialist proponents, including, in differing ways, Louis Blanc, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and was supported by the Commune government’s “minority,” associationist socialist faction, including Malon and Frankel.

The proposal to the Commission of Labor and Exchange enumerated six changes vital to the fundamental alteration in women’s work and lives: first, ending repetitive labor, so “fatal to the body and brain”; second, reducing work hours to avoid the physical exhaustion that “leads inevitably to the extinction of the moral faculties”; third, the “annihilation of all competition between workers of the two sexes, their interests are absolutely identical, and their solidarity is vital”; fourth, equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender — still unattained in the 21st century; fifth, requiring all participants to join the International; and sixth, that the Commune government loan the Union des femmes the funds necessary to establish the workers’ associations.

Dmitrieff emphasized the urgency of their program because “women’s labor was the most exploited of all,” and, she contended, there existed a real danger that “temporarily revolutionary” women could once again become reactionary, as the “social order of the past had formed them.” As such, Dmitrieff requested the Commune give the Union des femmes contracts for military clothing production, and that the Commission of Labor and Exchange cover the costs of appropriating the “factories and workshops abandoned by the bourgeoisie.” Responding to the dire need for women’s employment, Dmitrieff simultaneously addressed the long-term exploitation of working women, adapting economic and social theories to better working women’s lives.

Ultimately, over one thousand Communardes joined the Union des femmes. Dmitrieff surveyed the skills and trades of Parisian working women and created plans to employ them. She established subcommittees to research and develop the city-wide federation of female-owned producer cooperatives, including Commissions for Purchasing, Style Selection, Cashiers and Accountants and Investigating Abandoned Premises.

In the final days of the Commune, the Executive Commission of the Union des femmes called for the formation of a Federated Chamber of Working Women, a city-wide association with representatives from all women’s trades, cooperating and supporting each other. Considering available women workers’ skills, resources needed to employ them and existing market demands, within only a few weeks Dmitrieff created an exceptionally detailed, clearly articulated, and pragmatic plan to establish associations of workshops controlled by working women.

The Commune as the birth of a new world

When Versailles troops finally flooded, bombarded and brutalized Paris during what became known as the “Bloody Week,” Dmitrieff released her final message to the Union des femmes: “Gather all of the women and the committee members and go immediately to the barricades.” Wounded along with Frankel as they fought side-by-side on a barricade, Dmitrieff had saved her more gravely injured comrade. After each recovered in Parisian safe houses, the two multi-lingual and educated Communards slipped out of city, posing as a German-speaking bourgeois Prussian couple traveling to Switzerland by train. Within months the 20-year-old Dmitrieff had returned to Russia and abandoned her nom de guerre. Elisabeth Dmitrieff disappeared.

She returned to Russia as Elisabeth Tomanovskaïa. Recently widowed, she remarried — this time for love — and later followed her husband to his Siberian prison exile. She resurfaces in the sources thirty-five years later, working as a journalist in St. Petersburg. The details of her intervening story remain unclear.

During the Paris Commune, at age 20, Dmitrieff developed and began to implement a complex and highly articulated plan to reorder Parisian women’s work, striving toward an amelioration of both capitalist and patriarchal oppressions. Weaving strands of Russian populism, feminism, Marxism and French socialism, Dmitrieff created a theory, adapted it to a revolutionary context and established a functional and effective practice in an extremely short time under extraordinary conditions.

Dmitrieff had no interest in women’s suffrage; like other Communard women, she viewed the Commune as the birth of a new egalitarian world, one more radically democratic than those served by traditional methods of representation and engagement. Yet she understood that without fundamental feminist theoretical and practical participation, the new world might eradicate certain class oppressions, but not those integrally interwoven with gender.

Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/elisabeth-dmitrieff-paris-commune/

Further reading

Join the movement!



Read now

Magazine — Issue 11