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.
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