Female protesters in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) in 1917 on International Women’s Day. Wikimedia Commons
Anna Louise Strong, a journalist from Friend, Nebraska, was thrilled by what she heard about the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Although she is almost wholly unknown today, Strong was a household name in her time. She lived in the Soviet Union for 25 years, and made a career of “roving to revolutions, and writing about them for the American press.” She published dozens of books, novels and poetry.
Strong represents a complicated historical figure some might think is better off forgotten. The collapse of the Soviet Union and, more importantly, the violence and repression practiced under Bolshevik rule suggest Strong and other American women who lived and worked there for months or years were wrong to invest their hopes in the revolution.
Yet, revolutionary Russia, at least in theory, offered what many women yearned for – an equal role in public life, equal pay for equal work, access to birth control and abortion, affordable childcare and romantic partnerships based solely on mutual affection. This at a time when American women could not even vote. As I explore in my book, “American Girls in Red Russia,” the the experiences and aspirations of women who, like Strong, placed faith in the “Soviet experiment” beg the question: What does it mean to be on the wrong side of history when you deeply believed you were right?
“I Change Worlds” is the title of Strong’s 1935 autobiography, but it’s not clear that she changed anything.
Anna Louise Strong. Wikimedia Commons/Tim Davenport
Strong learned about the revolution while living in Seattle. She wrote for the Seattle Daily Call, a labor paper that supported the Bolsheviks. Amid growing income inequality, political repression and violent suppression of demands for improved working conditions, radicals hoped for a revolution in the U.S.
To some, talk of the revolution in Russia was thrilling. Strong wrote: “We heard of women’s freedom, of the equality of backward races, of children rationed first when supplies were scant; these things strengthened our enthusiasm.”
Strong has been called a “press agent for some of this century’s least attractive people.” But she never thought of herself as a propagandist. She wanted to tell “a greater story” of what was happening in Russia, using “very simple words,” so that common people in America could relate.
Strong was never a member of the Communist Party. She tried to join, both in the Soviet Union and in the United States, but neither party would have her. Records I examined in the Comintern archives in Moscow point to concerns about her emotional stability; in Moscow Strong was told her application was “premature,” and in the United States she was told she would be more useful outside the party.
On the advice of Lincoln Steffens, a reporter who famously declared upon his return from Soviet Russia, “I have seen the future and it works,” Strong decided to volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker relief organization. Strong asked if she could go to Russia. They said no, and sent her instead to Poland.
In Poland, Strong insisted to her supervisor that she had to cross into Russia when news broke of the 1921 famine, the most extensive and damaging in modern Russian history, affecting some 25 million people. And she actually helped a lot of people. By the time the Quaker office in Philadelphia found out she was there and told her to leave, she’d come down with typhus and almost died. But she wanted to stay where “a world was being born.”
Later, she was given the opportunity to organize an agricultural commune for famine orphans and thereby play a real role in the Soviet enterprise. Strong raised thousands of dollars to support the John Reed colony on the Volga, of which she was nominal “chief.” Strong’s papers at the University of Washington reveal that she eventually figured out that nearly all the money she’d raised was being siphoned off by Russian bureaucrats, who then tried to extort even more money from her. She also started Russia’s first English language newspaper, the Moscow News. Although it was published continuously until shut down by Putin in 2014, it was never the witty, independent paper she’d wanted it to be.