Mirrors of Moscow, by Louise Bryant 1923


Madame Alexandra Kollontai and the Woman’s Movement

MADAME ALEXANDRA KOLLONTAI believes that everything which exalts is good; being a feminist, she exalts women. She tells women that they are capable of a new freedom, beautiful and unexampled. She is so carried away by her enthusiasm that she is unmindful of how easily wings are broken in this age of steel. But if her inspiration, which aims to lift women to the skies, lifts them only from their knees to their feet, there will be nothing to regret. Civilization, in its snail-like progress, is only stirred to move its occasional inch by the burning desire of those who will to move it a mile. And when faith is pure enough it does not demand realization.

Kollontai is like a sculptor working on some heroic figure of woman and always wondering a little why the slim, inspired, unmaternal figure of her dreams is forever melting back into a heavy, earthy figure of Eve.

It often happens that a character is best portrayed by conversations which show the manner of mind. In this chapter I have quoted Madame Kollontai at some length because she is the only articulate voice of the new order for women which has been so greatly misunderstood outside of Russia; that order which claims that by consecrating oneself to the state one lives truer to oneself and to others.

As champion of her sex, she cries to the women of Russia: “Cast off your chains! Do not be slaves to religion, to marriage, to children. Break these old ties, the state is your home, the world is your country!”

And who are the women she thus extolls? They are the women of the factories and the fields; the women who sweep the streets, who scrub, who carry heavy burdens, who plow and weave and drudge. Will they be able to follow her to such heights? By our logic, no, but Kollontai preaches a new logic for Russia.

Besides, we must consider just what she means by “casting off chains.” I have heard her say all this another way and it did not sound so lofty or impossible. To an individualist, it did not even sound attractive. Last summer she admonished a women’s congress in this manner: “We must build a new society in which women are not expected to drudge all day in kitchens. We must have, in Russia, community restaurants, central kitchens, central laundries — institutions which leave the working woman free to devote her evenings to instructive reading or recreation. Only by breaking the domestic yoke will we give women a chance to live a richer, happier and more complete life.”

The material which Kollontai is so passionately attempting to mould is the peasant mind. It seems to me that peasant women are naturally slow-moving and stolidly honest and will accept only as much of Kollontai’s philosophy as they find compatible with or necessary to the immediate situation not because they are lacking in spirituality, for they are capable of deep religious fervor, but simply because much of it would be inharmonious and artificial to their normal development. At present her mission is to awaken them so that they may build a truth of their own which need by no means be a lesser truth than Kollontai’s. If she attempts to make them swallow her formula intact she will certainly fail. If she compromises as Lenin compromises and as Kalinin does, she will perform for Russia a never-to-be-forgotten task. To-day everything has been melted down in the crucible of the revolution. The only banner-bearer who counts is the one who will give to the great mass of those emerging into the new day the broad fundamental things of life.

Madame Kollontai is the only woman who has ever been a member of the Russian Cabinet. She puts forth the argument that women have more conscience than men and therefore do not attempt to obtain offices which they are not fitted for by previous training, and that this is the reason woman’s influence is so slight in Russia to-day. But her history refutes her theory. She herself was particularly fitted for the position of Minister of Welfare. Her record was splendid. She lost her post because she was a woman and allowed her love for her husband to interfere with her political judgment.

Early in 1918, Madame Kollontai, who was the widow of a Tsarist officer, married Fedore Dubenko, the picturesque leader of the turbulent Kronstadt sailors. Dubenko is a handsome, daring young man, some years her junior. Shortly after the wedding Dubenko was arrested. He had entrusted certain ships under his command to officers of the old regime who had pretended loyalty to the Soviets, but who had turned the ships over to the Germans without a struggle. Certainly Dubenko had no intention of betraying the revolution, he was merely trying to make use of skilled officers, of whom there was a pressing dearth. Nevertheless, he was held responsible.

While he was in prison awaiting trial, Kollontai made rather violent and conspicuous protests both publicly and privately. As a result she was removed from office. Revolutionists have no tolerance for romance among their leaders during critical moments; they place the revolution far above personal relationship. From the beginning they looked with disapproving eyes upon Kollontai’s infatuation for Dubenko.

When Dubenko was released, Kollontai went abroad and spent some months in Sweden. On her return she threw herself into a new work — that of educating her own sex to take an active part in politics.

Rightly speaking, there never was a woman’s movement in Russia until after the revolution. Equal suffrage came first and political education afterwards. This condition appears particularly curious when one recalls that, during some years before the revolution, even more women than men were sent to Siberia for plots against the Tsar’s government. Yet when the revolution came women sank mysteriously into the background. Russians explain this by various theories. One was that Russian women possess the fervor necessary to martyrs, but little of the balance needed for practical reconstructive work. Personally, I think it is entirely a matter of experience and education, for it is evident that women enter politics everywhere with great hesitancy. Even in America where equal suffrage has been a fact in some states for many years, we have only one or two women to point to as having attained political prominence.

Madame Kollontai possesses much charm. She is slim and pretty and vivacious. With a little too much the manner of a public speaker she talks so easily on any subject, even to reporters, that it almost gives an impression of insincerity. Her open mind is in reality an evidence of the kind of sincerity which has no fear of publicity. She likes Americans and knows more about this country than most Russians. But she has not always known. Some years ago, when lecturing here, she happened to be in Paterson during the great strike there. When she saw the workers marching through the streets, she rushed into a room full of people and exclaimed: “A revolution has begun!” Last year, in speaking of America, she said it was the country least agitated by revolutionary thought.

Like all enthusiastic Communists, she follows Lenin’s lead in striving to westernize Russia. One day she very greatly surprised me by saying, “Why don’t you write a series of articles about America? Write for Russia about America as you now write for America about Russia.”

“What good will it do?” I asked.

“A great deal,” she replied. “It is time Russia got acquainted with America. Because of the old censorship we never learned the value of reporters. And now that we are through forever with isolation, except when it is forced upon us, we ought to acquaint ourselves thoroughly with other countries. The women ought to know, for example, how American women got suffrage and what part women take in public affairs. We ought to know the status of the immigrants and of the Negroes, how you solve your unemployment problems, the status of farmers, of city workers, the percentage of wealth controlled by rich people. We ought to know about your schools and colleges. It ought to be explained to us just what the real difference is between the Republican and the Democratic Party and how much influence the Socialist Party has. Yes, there are, a thousand things we ought to know.”

I did not write the articles, but in explaining American ideas and institutions to Kollontai it somehow placed my country in a curious new light in my own eyes. I began to realize that things which have grown quite ordinary and familiar to us may appear entirely absurd and unreasonable to foreigners. Kollontai said that she hoped Russia would some day have reporters in America cabling home as busily as our reporters do from Russia. Russians, she thought, have in so many ways remained ridiculously provincial in spite of their ideas on internationalism.

Her feminist heart was deeply touched when I told her about a group of American women who had paraded on Fifth Avenue carrying signs of protest against the blockade. Tears came to her eyes. “You can’t imagine,” she said, “how much courage such a little act of sympathy gives us. What a pity that the story of those women is not known in Russia and not read by every peasant mother.”

She was openly indignant about the stories circulated abroad that Russian women were “nationalized.” When we first discussed this rumor she refused to believe that anybody in America could have seriously considered it, but when I explained about the Overman Committee and other official and semi-official affairs, she flew into a rage against the narrowness and prejudices of some of our statesmen. She claimed that the simplest peasant would not believe such indecent lies against American women. “Your senators,” she said, “could very well have acquainted themselves with the real facts about our women, who have always taken such a glorious part in every movement for emancipation.”

“American men,” continued Madame Kollontai, “are known the world over as kind and chivalrous. But chivalry can be a little old-fashioned in this century. Certainly, there is much to criticize and much to improve in our new struggling republic. But have you ever thought how absurd it was that the very much pampered American woman was forced to picket the White House as part of a campaign for equal suffrage? And that for such acts she was sent to prison? It is more absurd also when you remember that at that very moment a Southern gentleman sat at the White House as President. Naturally, such things appear inconsistent to us but we manage to see them in the right proportion. We know that in spite of these inconsistencies, Americans are a generous people, at heart friendly to Russia and the world.”

Another time she said, “When our revolution came we obtained equality for everybody who was willing to work. Don’t fail to comprehend what a stride that was! We didn’t have to have a civil war to free the Tartars or the Turko-men as you did to free the Negro, and it certainly never was in anybody’s mind, on any side, to disenfranchise Russian women, much less to nationalize them.”

Nevertheless, Madame Kollontai finds even a revolutionary government can be run too largely by men. If it does nothing worse it has a very bad habit of overlooking women. But it cannot overlook them for long while Madame Kollontai is about, for she never fails to appear at the important congresses to remind the delegates of their sins to goad them into discussions of women and women’s problems.

“Women’s congresses,” she told me, “are absolutely necessary in the present state of development. And these congresses are not confined by any means to politics. I have been bringing peasant women to Moscow from all over Russia and we have told them how to take care of babies and how to prevent disease. We have also instructed them in local, national and international politics. A woman who has gone to Moscow from some remote village is more or less of a personality when she returns and you can be sure that her journey is an event to the whole village. She always goes back well supplied with literature and educational posters. She, naturally, stimulates an interest in the whole community in politics and hygiene, especially among the women. Such congresses are the only ones I know that have a far-reaching effect.”

“I have been laughed at,” she said, “because so far I have brought here only a few women from the harems of Turkestan. These women have thrown aside their veils. Everybody stares at them, they are a curiosity which gives the congresses a theatrical atmosphere. Yet all pioneering work is theatrical. It was distinctly theatrical when the audiences used to throw eggs at your pioneer suffragists.... How else would we get in touch with Mohammedan women except through women?” How else, indeed? Other Russian educators have answered the question this way: Through Mohammedan men. It was by educating the Tartar men that the Tartar women became free. The Tartars are mostly all Mohammedans but their women no longer wear veils. Whereas the brave women Kollontai has induced to come to her congresses have been divorced by their husbands and have lost their homes and children.

Madame Kollontai’s political judgment, even from the standpoint of an orthodox Communist, is often very bad. She has unlimited courage and on several occasions has openly opposed Lenin. As for Lenin, he has crushed her with his usual unruffled frankness. Yet in spite of her fiery enthusiasm she understands “party discipline” and takes defeat like a good soldier. If she had left the revolution four months after it began she could have rested forever on her laurels. She seized those rosy first moments of elation, just after the masses had captured the state, to incorporate into the Constitution laws for women which are far-reaching and unprecedented. And the Soviets are very proud of these laws which already have around them the halo of all things connected with the Constitution. It is almost impossible that that institution which came to life through her enthusiasm and determination will ever cease to be. The laws I refer to are particularly those in regard to expectant mothers, orphans, illegitimate children and the state care of maternity hospitals, known as Palaces of Motherhood.

Madame Kollontai is about fifty years of age and appears much younger. She has dark brown hair and blue eyes and could easily be taken for an American. She is one of the few women Communists who cares about her appearance. By that I do not mean that she enjoys any luxury. She lives in one room in a Soviet hotel. But she is pretty and knows how to wear her clothes. Once I complimented her on a smart little fur toque she was wearing. She laughed and said, “Yes, one must learn tricks in Russia, so I have made my hat out of the tail of my coat which is already five years old.”

She comes from well-to-do middle-class parents and her first husband while not rich was, as an officer of the old regime, able to afford her a good deal of comfort. They had one child, a son. As a young girl Kollontai went to the best schools and after her marriage never ceased to study. She is an unusually gifted linguist, speaking eleven languages and often acting as official interpreter at the Soviet, as well as the International Congresses.

A curiously touching and disillusioning phase of the revolution was the Soviet Government’s sincere attempt to wipe out prostitution from the young republic. In this fight Kollontai took and still takes a leading part. Way back in March, 1917, the infamous Yellow Tickets were destroyed. On the surface it appeared then as if the whole idea of traffic in women had forever ended. But even after the economic pressure was removed the curse returned. Angelica Balabonova, one of the most loved and honored of the women revolutionists as well as one of the most intellectual, wrote a stinging denunciation of what she called the “Soviet Barishnas.” (Translated, Soviet Ladies.) The term soon came to be the most insulting phrase in the Russian language. It came to mean a woman who, in spite of everything, insisted on a life of shame.

So disgraceful do the Soviets regard this phase of Russian life that indignant citizens formed committees and raids took place. Women were arrested and thrown into concentration camps. And still the evil continued. At last the Central Government took the problem in hand, as did the Central Organ of the Communist Party. Kollontai, writing on this matter, concludes: “The Women’s Sections show lively and active interest in this matter since prostitution is a scourge which falls chiefly upon the women of the working class. This is our task, the task of the Women’s Sections, to begin a general propaganda concerned with questions connected with prostitution, since it is in our interest to develop the revolution in the domain of the family and to stabilize relations between the sexes.”

The government report is illuminating and shows above all else that the Soviet officials are not afraid to face facts, which is the first and best weapon of defense.

The Inter-departmental Commission makes the statement that, in Soviet Russia, prostitution appears in two forms:

1. In the form of professional prostitution.

2. In the form of secret earnings.

The first form is very slightly developed and is of slight extent. In Petrograd, for example, where raids were undertaken against prostitutes, this mode of combating prostitution practically yielded no results. The second form, although highly developed in other countries, also assumes a great variety of forms in Russia. Prostitution is practised by Soviet employees, in order to obtain for the sale of caresses, boots that go up to the knees; prostitution is resorted to by mothers of families, working women, peasant women, who are out after flour for their children and sell their bodies to the manager of the rations division in order to obtain from him a full bag of the precious flour. Sometimes the girls in the offices associate with their male superiors, not for manifestly material gain, for rations, shoes, etc., but in the hope of advancement in office. And there is an additional form of prostitution — “careerist prostitution” — which is also based in the last analysis on material gain.

The Commission made this recommendation after many hot debates: “All persons wandering in the streets and deserting their work should be assigned to the Commissariat of Social Welfare and thus sent out, in accordance with general fundamental considerations, either to the Sections for the Distribution of Labor Power of the People’s Commissariat of Labor, or to courses, sanatoria, hospitals, and only after a repeated desertion by a prostitute, in other words, after a malicious effort to desert, should the individual be subjected to forced labor. There is no special culpability attached to prostitutes. They are in no way to be segregated from the other bodies of deserters from work. This is a revolutionary and important step, worthy of the first Workers’ Republic of the world.”

That such a liberal attitude is really effective is proven by the fact that in Soviet Russia to-day there is less prostitution than anywhere else in the world. Under the Tsar, Russia was known as the most disgraceful country in this respect. And Kollontai says, “There is no doubt that the poor, insufficient pay for female labor continues, in Soviet Russia, to serve as a chief factor. Under the law the earnings of men and women are equal, but the great majority of women are unskilled laborers. It resolves itself into a question of how to make female labor skilled labor. And the second case is the political backwardness of women. It is not the woman who is inspired and carried away by the idea of the revolution and the desire to aid reconstruction who falls into this pool of degradation.”

In one of her pamphlets, Madame Kollontai declaims with pride: “By virtue of the decree of December 18, 1917, divorce has ceased to be a luxury accessible only to the rich.” It has been interesting to watch the outcome of this decree through four years. Among the peasants divorce was practically unknown and still remains so. The city workers have not availed themselves of this “luxury” to any considerable degree. Whether Kollontai likes it or not, the only people who will continue to take advantage of such freedom will be the idle and the intellectuals. Divorces have little attraction for simple workers. Labor and poverty bring husband and wife closer to one another “for better or for worse.”

Periodically, Kollontai attacks family life and claims that it is the only institution that Communists are afraid to reform. One needs only to look about at the leaders of the movement to wonder why they should be concerned in reforming it. Lenin leads a distinctly normal family life, as do Trotsky and Kalinin. The wives of these Commissars work and are interesting, well-known personalities. Kollontai herself is married. Her inconsistencies are her most feminine trait as well as one of her most alluring characteristics.