April 27, 2021

Élisabeth Dmitrieff: a passionate communard

Natacha Rault

Founder of one of the first French feminist associations and the first workers’ union in France

Élisabeth Dmitrieff was an iconic Russian feminist of the Paris Commune of 1871. Her role bears witness to the internationalist values of the Commune which ignored the question of nationality regarding political and trade union commitment. At the age of 20, Dmitrieff founded one of the first French feminist associations and the first workers’ union in France – and no one stood in her way, she pursued her goals at record speed during the 62 days she belonged to the Commune.

Yelisaveta Lukinichna Dmitrieva, née Kusheleva (1850-1918), 1871. Found in the collection of Russian State Library, Moscow. (KEYSTONE/HERITAGE IMAGES/Fine Art Images)

She was born in 1851 into a Russian aristocratic family, but she was a “bastard”, and a woman, which barred her from studying at university like her brothers. Daughter of a “pomechtchik” who was cruel to his serfs, she very early on became sensitive to questions of social justice. She read a lot, particularly Marx and What is to be done? by Nikolaï Tchernychevski, a novel on the emancipation of a young woman called Vera and her involvement with an organisation of seamstress cooperatives using Russian communal cooperatives as a model (obchtchina).

Having received her inheritance, taking Vera as her model, she contracted a marriage of convenience to escape the yoke of her family and left for Europe so as to be able to study in Switzerland. 

In Geneva in 1868 she financed and co-directed the newspaper La Cause du Peuple (Narodnoe Delo) and took part in the Russian section of the International Association of workers and became involved in the “women’s section” which supported the emancipation of women workers.

Sent to London by the Internationale to seek the support of Marx in November 1870, she had a heated discussion with him, wishing to reconcile her industrial vision of the revolution with the ideas of Tchernychevski on the system of Russian communal cooperatives. Marx sent her to Paris as an observer when the Commune was proclaimed in March 1871, but not content with sending him reports, she quickly committed herself body and soul to the revolution. Her action was decisive: with Nathalie Lemel she founded the Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded on 11 April 1871.

Under the guise of this “patriotic” name, it was a real union for the economic emancipation of women organised on the model of cooperatives: ambulance drivers, canteen and textile workers, laundresses and bookbinders were brought together by district. Equal pay for men and women was established, a historic fact. The organisation was highly centralised, and Dmitrieff kept control of it, being appointed general secretary of the executive committee, the only unelected and non-revocable post in the whole organisation. It was therefore an emancipation, but directed from above.

On 22 May, she launched an appeal to women to fight on the barricades and and led them to the Rue Blanche during the bloody week. She then fled to Switzerland with Leo Fränkel and was sought after by the French, Swiss and Russian police, but taking on her married name again, Colonel Élisaveta Tomanovskaya returned to Russia incognito. From that time onward she showed displeasure with her friends from the Internationale, and in April 1871 she wrote to Hermann Jung, “How can you stay over there doing nothing when Paris is perishing?” Dmitrieff was a woman of action, erudite, but who made practice a principle of life.

In Russia, she falls madly in love with Ivan Davidovski, steward of her husband’s estate and leader of the Valets de Coeur bandidts, who extort and ransom the newly rich and aristocratic of Russia. Despite the many warnings of his relatives, Dmitrieff, who will do without the advice of others for the rest of his life, marries him so as not to be separated from him when he is sentenced to deportation to Siberia. She leaves with her two daughters, and was not even able to reveal her past as a communard with the female communist deportees as she was still sought by the European police. The political female deportees ostracize her because of the actions of her husband, a common law prisoner. Her isolation was total.

We lose track of her between 1910 and 1918, but we do know that she left her husband, and lives on needlework to raise her two daughters.

She gave money from her inheritances to revolutionary movements and died in poverty, without having retained her privileges. Police reports describe her as of elegant appearance, clad in a black dress. Dmitrieff, a fabulous organiser and with a resolute mind-set, remained free and passionate throughout her life. It is not known whether she was still alive at the time of the revolution of 1917.

In May 1971 a group of feminists from the Mouvement de libération des femmes [Women’s Liberation Movement] committed to the values of self-reliance, adopted the name Cercle Élisabeth Dmitrieff. A museum still pays homage to her in Volok, and whereas she was worshipped under the regime of the USSR as a revolutionary, Putin’s Russia emphasises her association with the Valets de Coeur bandidts. Dmitrieff, powerful and free-spirited, did not really allow herself to be influenced or controlled by demagogical sources, but continued to fascinate…

Natacha Rault, economist, feminist, founder and president of the “sans pagEs”, whose aim is to reduce gender bias in the French language Wikipedia.