Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Red Love, by Alexandra Kollontai

There are so many myths and half-truths surrounding the name of Alexandra Kollontai that, rather than write a plain old biographical sketch, I’m going to give you a quiz instead. The first commenter to get all the answers right gets a special place in the VL Hall of Fame, which is surely worth more than any mere material reward. So, true or false?

1. In 1898, at age 26, Kollontai left her husband and child in St. Petersburg to study Economics in Switzerland.

2. Kollontai was a member of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDRP (Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party).

3. Kollontai was a member of the Menshevik faction of the RSDRP.

4. Kollontai advocated casual sexual encounters and said that sex should be as easy as “drinking a glass of water”.

5. After the 1917 Revolution, Kollontai was instrumental in the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, the creation of a system of quick and easy divorce, and the introduction of a creche system.

6. She was one of four women to take leading roles in the Bolshevik government.

7. Kollontai encountered disapproval from her male colleagues when she married the sailor Pavel Dybenko, 17 years her junior.

8. In a 1921 speech, Kollontai proposed that women who choose to become prostitutes should be condemned as “labour deserters”. She believed that women who were kept by their husbands also entered into a form of prostitution and should be treated accordingly.

9. Kollontai was one of the very few “Old Bolsheviks” – first generation revolutionaries and critics of Stalin – who were neither purged nor executed in the repressions of the 1920s and 1930s.

10. She was the first woman diplomat, representing the USSR abroad from 1923 until her death in 1952.

11. She got on tremendously well with Lenin, who was in no way a horrid old prude and did not find her views in the least challenging.

As you can see, Alexandra Mikhailovna led a colourful life. But now the introductions are over, I’m not going to talk about her record as a socialist or a feminist (Cathy Porter, Barbara Evans Clements and Beatrice Farnsworth have all given their views on both, although to my mind the definitive biography still remains to be written). I want to talk about Kollontai the author, and specifically about her 1927 novel, Red Love.

When I first read Red Love I was an undergraduate. I had read a lot of Kollontai, and missed the point of most of it. I accordingly missed the point of Red Love, which I found to be simplistic and badly written; Kollontai’s straightforward, unadorned prose didn’t appeal to the 20 year old me, who liked her novels good and emo. I was also determined to see Red Love and the rest of Kollontai’s fiction output as an extension of her political writings, and accordingly I wrote up the contradictions and the difficulties that underpin the story as a weakness where, in fact, they constitute a strength. In other words, I was typical of a certain kind of undergraduate in my field: far too enamored of theory, overuses buzzwords (some favour “totalitarian” and “backwards”, others prefer “bourgeois” and “reification”), absolutely sure of own right to elevate or condemn any text, writer or movement. Reading Kollontai from this standpoint is a great mistake, and a loss. In fact, I believe this to be the case with any author you care to name, up to and including Lenin (who is – yes – an author, even if reading him is like wading through tar). But that is a rant for another time. What is certain for now is that reading Red Love solely as a work of political art would be a disservice to both reader and text.

This might be hard for the first-time reader to swallow, given that the heroine, Vasilisa (Vasia for short), is a Bolshevik, and the first thing we know about her is a long explanation of her political activities. But it is not long before the central issue of the novel appears, and it has a greater impact than Vasia’s trades unionist pedigree. Vasia has a lover. He’s handsome and strong minded, and he’s a former Anarchist who spent years in America working for the wealthy, and now he works on the other side of the country from her; sent there by the Party in the vast effort of economic mobilisation after the Civil War. She is going to visit him after a long separation. As Vasia makes her way by train to see her Vladimir (Volodia), the story of their relationship unfolds in a series of reminiscences. It is a far from easy story, and when Vasia arrives at her destination we already know that everything is not going to be simple. Not just because of the political circumstances, although the struggle between the Bolshevism of 1917 and the newly emerging social order plays a large part in the conflict between Vasia and Volodia. But primarily because of the different values of two people who have increasingly little in common. One lives to work well, the other works to live well. One worries about principles, the other worries about appearances. One is faithful, the other unfaithful. Whatever the trappings of the time, these are conflicts that exist in every place and every epoch; simple human conflicts of the kind that can make even a strong love unlivable. This is not to say that Red Love does not have a strong social and political message, more so with respect to Kollontai’s view of society and the family rather than her (remarkably unshocking, by the standards of our generation) stand on sexual morality. But the feelings and conflicts at the heart of this story are universally familiar, and Kollontai writes about them simply, and well. About love (all quotations are from the 1971 translation by Alix Holt, by the way):

He would pick her up; he was strong, would carry her about the room like a child and sing a lullaby. They would laugh – her heart ached with joy. Oh, how Vasilisa adored her lover, her man and comrade. A handsome fellow, tender and loving – so tender.

About the decay of a relationship:

To keep from seeing Volodia’s eyes and their tears, to smother that infinite sadness, Vasya put her slender arms around Volodia’s neck. She sought his lips; he pressed her to his heart. She yielded to his passionate caresses. He sought her body, insatiably, until both fell asleep, exhausted.

Those were queer days. Hot, sultry, gloomy. They held no happiness, no carefree joy born of love.

And about anger:

Vasia looked at [the letter], turned it over and over. She knew it by heart, yet she wanted to read it again. It would revive her heartache; but she could not resist it. Whenever she read it the old pain again gnawed at her heart; then it would freeze – that was her wrath against Vladimir. Why had he lied? Why had he deceived her?

These citations do not look terribly impressive when isolated from the rest of the text. That is because Kollontai does not go in for striking images or turns of phrase. Red Love is a story told in simple everyday language; Kollontai saved her rhetorical flourishes for her theoretical and polemical works (I will return to these in a later piece). In order to appreciate the full impact of that story, it is necessary to read the whole. I would very much recommend that you do.

In this review, I have deliberately chosen not to analyse the political drama that unfolds in parallel to the story of Vasia and Volodia’s relationship. Vasilisa’s Bolshevism is integral to her character, and it is also part of what makes the novel stand out so much in the context of its time and place; female activists were not unusual in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Russia, but they were nonetheless a minority, and in the years after the end of the Civil War in 1922 the Bolshevik government largely recanted on its early enthusiasm for gender equality. By the time of Stalin’s rise to power in the late 1920s, Soviet society had experienced an effective return to conservative values; so while Red Love is set in the Russia of a mere four or five years before, it might as well be describing another epoch, albeit one which (in the rise of the elite administrative class) seems to foreshadow the state of things in 1927. Bearing this in mind, then, the political schema of Red Love does not exactly require an in-depth analysis. It is perfectly clear, and from a certain point of view perfectly correct. All the uncertainty and all the complication is in the love story.

Red Love is available in translation as part of The Love of Worker Bees, trans. Cathy Porter, Academy Chicago Publishers, 232 pp., ISBN 978-0897330015

14 comments on “Red Love, by Alexandra Kollontai

  1. Moira
    May 28, 2008

    Okay. Me! Me! I want to answer the questions …

    I’m guessing they’re ALL true.

    I hang my head in shame and admit freely that I’d never even HEARD of Alexandra Kollontai before this piece, Kirsty. A fascinating but rather alarming-sounding woman …

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  3. marygm
    May 28, 2008

    And I’ll guess they’re all true except the last one. Anyone who’s that pernickity about his beard had to be a prude.
    Fascinating woman, she sounds completely fearless.

  4. kirstyjane
    May 28, 2008

    Actually there’s one more that isn’t true… and it’s a really persistent one, so extra special brownie points if you can spot it!

    I like fearless and even alarming as descriptions for Kollontai. More often though, her name gets preceded with “the beautiful” or “the scandalous” or even worse “the exotic” (I had an extra big eyeroll at that one). You’re right about Lenin; he thought her work was pornographic. Kollontai is a complex and rather difficult writer and political personality; unfortunately she’s known mostly for a bastardisation of her views about sex.

  5. RosyB
    May 28, 2008

    I love your pieces, Kirsty and I very much enjoyed your dissection of your younger know-it-all self as a student. That seems such a familiar description – and the way you explore ways of reading as well as the book.

    “female activists were not unusual in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Russia, but they were nonetheless a minority, and in the years after the end of the Civil War in 1922 the Bolshevik government largely recanted on its early enthusiasm for gender equality. By the time of Stalin’s rise to power in the late 1920s, Soviet society had experienced an effective return to conservative values; so while Red Love is set in the Russia of a mere four or five years before, it might as well be describing another epoch, albeit one which (in the rise of the elite administrative class) seems to foreshadow the state of things in 1927.”

    This is fascinating. The trouble is I am too ignorant about the surrounding context and history. I love the glimpses you give us of this – I wonder if a few potted pieces along these lines in addition to the series might be helpful too. THis review opens up so much that I want to know more about.

  6. marygm
    May 28, 2008

    No 8, Kirsty? But I’m guessing.
    And was she beautiful?

  7. kirstyjane
    May 29, 2008

    Actually, it’s… (drum roll please) number 4. What she actually said was that the sexual urge was as natural as hunger or thirst; quite a different matter from the usual misquotation! Kollontai believed that promiscuity was potentially harmful both to the individual and in terms of public health. She did, however, defend the right of women to have sex before marriage and to engage in short term relationships if they so wished.

  8. Jackie
    May 31, 2008

    My goodness, this lady was certainly ahead of her time, perhaps ahead of our time! I applaud her for being involved with a younger man. Yay! Like Moira, I’d never heard of her, which is unfortunate, since she certainly is fascinating.Looking forward to future pieces on her and will see if I can find “Red Love” at the library.

  9. George M. Levy
    July 7, 2008

    Here is something for you to enjoy that was written in January of 1918

    There is much curiosity in the press of Europe on the subject of the exact age of that Madame Kollontay who holds a cabinet portfolio in the Bolshevik government of Russia.
    The estimate of the Paris Debuts is thirty-five, although this somewhat unfriendly interpreter of the now famous lady admits that she does not look it.
    She is a full-fledged member, apparently, of the great triumvirate, no critical decision being taken without her approval. Precisely as the real name of Trotzky is alleged to be Bronstein, or something like that, and Lenin is accused of being Uljanoff, Madame Kollontay is set down as really Frau or Fraulein Schwarzkopf, one of her ancestors being, it is said, a Jew. However, much inexact information about the lady has got into the papers, especially as she declines to reveal her age. There seems no doubt that she is legally divorced form the Kollontay whose name she has borne for a decade or so. She does not believe in marriage, according to the Swiss dailies, which know her well.
    Madame Kollontay first drew the attention of the western world to her personality when she was but twenty-seven, her political or revolutionary debut haven been made in Switzerland. She was discovered giving a series of “conferences” in Berne on the subject of the proletariat, with which her sympathy is marked and of which her comprehension, avers the Gazette de Lausanne, is subtle. She knows the Russian peasantry as few women of her apparent culture and refinement know it. Madame emerges in the character sketches of the Swiss dailies as a temperamental brunet. Indeed, the Lausanne daily goes so far as to say that to her audience she often seemed on the verge of hysterics. She has the witch’s eye, as the Italians say—a large, open, dark and flashing eye, emitting something like a spark in moments of excitement. The brows are perfectly penciled and the lashes hang over heavily with effects almost Oriental. The abundant and chestnut hair is well combed. She is of a very elegant figure, despite a tendency to embonpoint, corrected, we read, by a compression of the art of the corsetiere. All her lines are elegant, like her gestures, and no Parisians ever fitted herself with skirts more clinging than the Kollontay’s. The nose is just a trifle heavy, and the cheeks are pronounced rather than round. The neck and shoulders are perfect. The lady makes a physical impression of largeness rather than of solidarity. The hair seems more abundant than it is possibly because it is so well groomed. In a word, there is very little of the Russian student type in the aspect of the lady. She has the Frenchwoman’s instinct for dress. Unfortunately, the Socialist red is very becoming to her style of beauty. Unfortunately, says the Swiss daily, for her attire often made more of a sensation than did ever her bold opinions, which she never hesitated to set forth in Berne at a time when the Swiss republic was having trouble with Stolypin’s government for refusing to surrender refugees.
    Madame Kollontay’s gift for dress is no more remarkable, to follow the Lausanne daily still, than her rhetoric of revolution. She has what the Bolsheviki refer to as “all the ideas.” These include repudiation of national debts, confiscation of the fortunes of the rich, abolition of armies, end of dynasties and collective ownership of the means of production and distribution. She calls herself a revolutionary socialist in Western Europe and a Bolshevika in the East. It is useless to try to find out what Bolsheviki means, the lady told an English journalist, because the meaning of the word is discoverable only through what the Bolsheviki do. “The Bolsheviki,” she explained, “mean only what they do.” The observation was emphasized with that graceful wave of the hand at the end of the long and delicate arm for which she is remarkable. There are times when the gestures, the dress and the accents of Madame Kollontay suggest that her past—“my miserable past” she calls it—must have embraced the films; but this is untrue. The lady, says the Swiss daily, is artlessly cinematographic. Her very silence is dramatic filled out with an incessant play of the large, deep, agitating eyes. When, at last, she speaks, the effect is all the more theatrical because of the quality of the voice. It is startling because it is so feminine, but it is never shriekingly feminine, never unmusical. It is very ladylike and cultivated, indeed.
    To employ one of her won expressions, she can not contemplate violence without a shudder. She repudiates the very idea.
    “But how,” asked an interviewer for the daily already named, “how are you to achieve the happiness of a whole people without resources?”
    Madame lifted the wonderful eyes and waved the perfect arm.
    “I will borrow of the rich,” she declared, “of the banks.”
    “But the rich, the banks, will not lend.”
    Madame Kollontay smiled until her white teeth shone. Then she touched the interviewer caressingly on the arm and said in her wonderful whisper:
    “A forced loan would do.”
    “You mean pillage, then?”
    “Call it what you like.”
    She shrugged those shoulders and laughed that laugh. It was her way of meeting all objections in the conferences. These are characteristics of the “intelligentsia” from the south, and those who know Russia say she must have come from the south. There could be no mistaking that accent, that build. She once taught school, it is said, in a village not far from the place in which lived the beautiful young Jewess who later became Madame Sukhomlinoff, with consequences so tragical. Like her former friend, Madame Kollontay speaks French and German fluently, and at the university for women she picked up much mathematics, history, and science.

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  11. Allen
    October 19, 2008

    Kollontay is definitely fascinating. Nice article. I’m from Israel, probably the only place where her ideas were adopted wholesale, that is, in the kibbutz system. The whole ideas was to create a new society, where people would become a united whole, focused on the good of that society. Loyalty to other units, especially to the family, was not part of the plan. Something which helps explain Kollontai’s writing is the widespread domestic violence of society back then.

    The title of her book, Red Love, always makes me laugh. Conjurs up images of bearded marxist professors giggling uncontrollably.

  12. Pingback: Communism and the Family, by Alexandra Kollontai « Vulpes Libris

  13. Pingback: The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, by Alexandra Kollontai « Vulpes Libris

  14. dkbuntovnik
    September 9, 2015

    Reblogged this on Daniel K. Buntovnik and commented:
    Bonus pop quiz question. The working title of RAVING RADICALS BATHED IN BLAX was…
    A. Red Ravers
    B. Red Twilight
    C. The Santa Muerte and the Red and Black Wax
    D. Peppered with Indiscriminate Red Small Arms Fire

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