Elisabeth Dmitrieff

Week Three of Resonating Women of the Paris Commune

Listen here to  For Elisabeth                                                                                   improvisation on Roland digital keyboard

Elisabeth Dmitrieff  1851-1910/1918?

Elisabeta Luknichna Kusheleva was born in 1851 into an élite privileged family in the Russian village of Volok. Her father was an aristocratic Tsarist official and her mother was a German nurse. She made a marriage of convenience with an army officer so she could travel to Geneva where she was able to attend  University. There, she met other Russian revolutionaries and co-founded the Russian section of the First International. On a special delegation to London to study the workers’ movement, she met Karl Marx who, in his role as General Council of the International, sent her as an envoy to Paris. She arrived there at the end of March, adopting the nom de guerre Elisabeth Dmitrieff in place of her married name, Tomonovskaya. Her choice of the masculine form Dmitrieff, rather than the feminine Dmitrieva, was a revolutionary feminist act in itself.

At the age of just twenty years, and within two weeks of the Commune’s inception, Elisabeth was key in setting up a new working women’s revolutionary association, the Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés. This organisation’s central focus was the radical transformation of the material reality of women’s lives, aiming to reconceptualise and restructure female labour and eradicate economic inequalities. All accounts describe Elisabeth as a driving force behind the Union’s fundamental commitment to a feminist critique of the era’s social and labour theories. 

Elisabeth led the Union till the final hours of the Commune and, although wounded on the barricades, she managed to avoid arrest. Alongside Léo Frankel, the Hungarian-born head of the Commune’s Commission of Labour and Exchange, she secretly crossed France and escaped to Switzerland, where she gave shelter to fellow exiles for a time, before returning to Russia.

Her later life is cloaked in mystery, marked by a series of odd circumstances. Despite the central role she had played in the Commune,  she disappeared from revolutionary history.  After changing her name back to Tomanovskaya, she later married  Ivan Davidovsky who was associated with the infamous Jack of Hearts Club (an alleged criminal organisation) and was arrested on various charges, including murder and fraud. Elisabeth  accompanied him to Siberia. Partly due to her name changes, her former revolutionary activities were hidden to other political prisoners. According to Eichner, she continually attempted to engage with the political exile community in Siberia through the 1880s, but she remained distrusted, ostracised and isolated. It is presumed she spent the rest of her life quietly in remote Siberia until her death, some say in 1910, others give 1918.

A few  sources

J Cox, ‘Genderquake: socialist women and the commune’, International Socialist Quarterly Review of Socialist Theory, Issue 69, posted 5 January 2021

C. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades, Women in the Paris Commune, 2004

G. Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, 1996

E. Thomas, The Women Incendiaries, 1966

Robyn Karina, ‘She stood on the barricades’, 2017, socialist worker.org

Elisabeth Dmitrieff, La Commune de Paris 1871, Raspou Team

Carolyn Eichner, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, feminist, unionist, Communarde, Roar Magazine, 2021

My letterpress prints are made on paper salvaged from a discarded series of 19thc technical manuals sourced in Tarnac, a small rural community in Corrèze, one of the ‘reddest cantons in France as a whole’ (Ad Knotter, ‘Little Moscows in Western Europe: the Ecology of Small-place Communism’, International Review of Social History, 2011)