Long-term secretary-general of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and eternal icon of the Left, Isidora Dolores Ibarruri, was born in the Northern Spanish province of Vizcaya on November 9th, 1895 as the eighth of 11 children of a conservative miner.
Forced to quit school at age 15 to work as a fishmonger, seamstress, housemaid and waitress, Ibárruri in 1916 married Julián Ruiz Gabiña (1892-1975), later one of the PCE’s founders.
She separated from him in 1933 for the sake of the party after being elected a member of the PCE’s Central Committee, whose regional branch Ibárruri had joined in 1920.
She started to question her conservative upbringing when Ruiz Gabiña brought her in contact with Marxist ideas and therefore welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917.
Only two of their six children survived childhood. Both arrived in the Soviet Union in 1935 with false passports. Her son Rubén (1920-1942) was killed during the Battle of Stalingrad as a senior lieutenant in the Red Army.
Her daughter Amaya (1923-2018), a university teacher who married Joseph Stalin’s (1878-1953) adoptive son Artiom Sergueiev (1921-2008) in 1951, returned to Spain with her mother after retiring to take care of her.
A die-hard Stalinist, Ibárruri is also known by the nom de plume La Pasionaria, adopted in 1918 when she published an article in a newspaper called El Minero Vizcaino (The Biscayan Miner) during Easter Week.
With the advent of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, Ibárruri moved to the capital of Spain. She got arrested four times for political agitation and gained national attention.
After Ibárruri founded the radical women’s organization Mujeres Antifascistas in Madrid in 1933, the next year she attended the First Worldwide Meeting of Women against War and Fascism in Paris and in 1935 went to the 7th World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow.
Due to her family background and increased radicalization, she became involved in the miners’ strike of October 1934 in the region of Asturias, which left over 2,000 people dead.
A brilliant but violent orator, Ibárruri offered a string of impressive speeches and is still falsely remembered for exhortations like “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees” and “They shall not pass”.
However, the first phrase was actually coined by Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919) and the second by Marshal Henri Pétain (1856-1951) at the Battle of Verdun during World War I.
In the midst of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Ibárruri emerged as one of the Communist deputies in the Republican parliament and opposed any arrangement with the Nationals under Generalissimo Francisco Franco (1892-1975).
On March 6th, 1939, even before the conflict ended with a total defeat for her side, Ibárruri escaped by plane from Monóvar in the province of Alicante to Oran in French North Africa.
The colonial authorities hurriedly put her aboard a liner bound for Marseille. Following a stay in Paris, from Le Havre she took a ship to Leningrad, and finally went by rail to Moscow.
There she took over as PCE’s secretary-general after José Díaz Ramos (1895-1942) had committed suicide. During the 1940s and early 1950s Ibárruri’s strategy for the party was guided by the erroneous assumption that the demise of Franco was imminent.
She praised the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the community of Socialist countries in 1948. After the Sino-Soviet split, which began in 1956, Ibárruri called Albania’s Maoist leader Enver Hoxha (1908-1985) “a dog that bites the hand that feeds him”.
Gradually losing standing within the ranks, Ibárruri was given the life-long honorary post of Party Chairman after Santiago Carrillo (1915– 2012) succeeded her in 1960. She did protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
As confirmation of her retirement from active politics she wrote her first memoir in 1960. El Único Camino (The Only Way) was published first in Paris in 1962, in Moscow in 1963 and then in 1966 in New York under a new title.
Her second memoir, Memorias de Pasionaria, 1939–1977, came out in Barcelona in 1979, after she arrived back in Spain on May 13th, 1977, 34 days after the Spanish government again legalized the PCE.
That year, at the first democratic elections since Franco’s death, Ibárruri took a seat in the Spanish parliament for Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. Following a mostly symbolic act, she soon resigned because of ill health.
As Ibárruri had not contributed to the national social security program and Soviet pensions were usually small, in October 1987 the Spanish Congress of Deputies effectively granted her a monthly perquisite of 150,000 Pesetas.
On September 13th, 1989, Ibárruri was hospitalized with pneumonia. She seemed to have recovered, though after a relapse on November 7th died on November 12th having communed and confessed her many sins.
Before her surprising final reversion to the Catholic faith, throughout her career Ibárruri almost always appeared in black clothes, the way in which widows in Spain used to dress.
In 2019, her grave at the Almudena cemetery in Madrid was desecrated. Interestingly enough, this is the same place where Franco’s remain were buried after his exhumation the same year.
It’s ironic that in nearby Alcobendas, the ninth richest municipality in the country, a street is dedicated to a person who asserted that class struggle was the motor of history.
In Glasgow, a statue dedicated to Ibárruri and the British volunteers who fought for the Spanish Republicans during the civil war was erected in 1977 by English artist and sculptor Arthur Dooley (1929-1994).