Nadezhda Krupskaya: Revolutionary woman and educator

Feb 26, 2017

­­­Nadezhda Krupskaya was a Russian Bolshevik revolutionary. A feminist who contributed to the women’s question, Krupskaya was also involved in establishing International Women’s Day. Her contributions to educational policy and theory were so immense that the Soviet Union, from 1970-1992, sponsored UNESCO Nadezhda K. Krupskaya literacy prize in her honor.

Krupskaya was born in St. Petersburg on February 26, 1869. Impoverished for most of her early life, she was aware of the injustices in the world. Krupskaya’s childhood was shaped by the revolutionary air of late-19th century Russia. In the book, Bride of the Revolution: Krupskaya and Lenin, biographer Robert H. McNeal declares that Krupskaya’s early life and experiences naturally shaped her into a vital revolutionary: “She was virtually born to this vocation, the only child of a radical man and an emancipated woman. If Krupskaya’s life entitles her to be called the bride of the revolution, her birth entitles her to be called a daughter of the revolution.”

Krupskaya’s parents had gentry class origins yet were not wealthy. Both were progressives, influencing Krupskaya’s early interest in revolutionary politics. Education was one of her earliest passions. In her youth, she was particularly interested in Leo Tolstoy’s theory of democratic education, and her concern with education pushed her to enter the teaching profession. Before becoming involved in revolutionary politics, she worked as a governess for noble families. In 1894, the combination of her studious nature and revolutionary spirit led to her involvement in an underground study group on Marxist theories. It is here that she met Vladimir Lenin. Shortly after meeting, Krupskaya and Lenin started organizing factory workers.

Following Lenin’s arrest in 1895, Krupskaya was arrested in 1896 for her work organizing. Both were exiled to Siberia, where they married. Later, in 1903, the couple moved to Geneva, where Krupskaya worked on the editorial board of Iskra, the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. In 1905, Krupskaya worked as secretary of the Central Committee of the Party, and also as editorial secretary for the Party’s journals. Throughout her lifetime, Krupskaya worked on thousands of pamphlets, articles, and books.

Krupskaya’s contributions to the woman’s question and educational theory

Krupskaya wrote extensively on the women’s question. “The Woman Worker,” written while she was still in exile and published in 1901, is considered a landmark in revolutionary literature on women’s liberation. The article describes the abject poverty and suffering of peasant and working women. Although it had to be smuggled into Russia, the article became popular for its accessible Marxist analysis. It was used to organize factory workers and influenced Lenin and the Party to focus more closely on women’s liberation. In 1910, Krupskaya, Inessa Armand, and Clara Zetkin founded International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day was originally celebrated on the last Sunday in February and was first observed in 1913. Krupskaya insisted that the struggle for women’s liberation was essential for a successful revolution. International Women’s Day was not only intended to be a celebration of women, but a way to motivate the working class into action. She wrote of this in her article for the first issue of the women’s journal, Rabotnitsa:

“That which unites working women with working men is stronger than that which divides them. They are united by their common lack of rights, their common needs, their common condition, which is struggle and their common goal…. Solidarity between working men and working women, common activity, a common goal, a common path to this goal—such is the solution of the ‘woman’ question among workers.”

After the 1917 Revolution, Krupskaya focused on her role as deputy to the People’s Commissar of Education. She is lauded for her contributions to Marxist educational theory, articulated in writings such as “Concerning the Question of Socialist Schools”(1918). In this essay, Krupskaya advocates socialism as the only way to transform the school system into one accessible to all and to serve the working class:

“In serving the interests of the masses the government of workers and peasants must break the schools’ class character and make schools at all levels accessible to all sections of the population. It must do this not in words but in deeds. Until the objectives of schools are changed education will remain a class privilege of the bourgeoisie.”

Krupskaya practiced Marxist educational theory and translated it into action and policy. Eradicating illiteracy became one of her main concerns, since “economically and culturally we can develop no further without dispelling the darkness of illiteracy” (Vol. 9, p. 226). Krupskaya tackled this issue by initiating adult education programs, which provided 30,000 classes for peasants and factory workers across the Soviet Union. Her work within education helped the Soviet Union significantly reduce illiteracy.

Nadezhda Krupskaya passed away on February 27, 1939. She is an example of disciplined devotion to the revolution, and her legacy is particularly relevant today with a new burgeoning women’s movement. She is a reminder of the broader context of the women’s struggle, the fact that women’s liberation is inseparable from the entire working-class movement. Krupskaya and the other revolutionaries who established International Women’s Day did so with the intention of uniting these two struggles. Given the current push to privatize education in the U.S., it is important to remember Krupskaya’s fight to create a public educational system accessible to all, from primary school to higher education. Her tireless work, from education to women’s rights, makes her a hero to our class. She provides a model of dedication that we should seek to emulate.