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, once 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.
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.
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 you’re your daughters would be as happy as I would be if you would pass them with us.”
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, Elizabeth 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!”