Alexandra Kollontai 1916

The Statue of Liberty

Source: Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984;
First Published: Inostrannuya Literatura (Foreign Literature), No. 2, 1970, Moscow, pp. 244-5;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, 2000;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton 2006.

Which of us in our childhood did not gaze in awe at the mighty Statue of Liberty, its burning torch lighting the entrance to an international port, to a New World that still retained all its alluring, fairy-tale strangeness for the European? Which of us in our childhood was not struck by its grandeur as it soared above the New York skyscraper skyline? How pitifully small and insignificant did the huge ocean-going ships appear in these pictures as they scurried at the feet of proud and victorious Freedom!...

As our Norwegian steamer Bergensfjord slowly and carefully picked its way among the business-like scurry of ships from all the great nations of the world, we naive Europeans eagerly strained our eyes to catch a glimpse of her, the Statue of Liberty promised us [from childhood].

Then, on my first visit to America a year ago, the Statue of Liberty was hidden by a thick autumn fog which shrouded from our naively searching eyes that symbol which once caused the hearts of our European fathers and grandfathers to beat with triumphant happiness and exultation.

For me, the Statue of Liberty remained shrouded, mysterious, beckoning, the powerful image of our imagination. I saw it for the first time four and a half months later, after my whirlwind tour of the United States... By then America had already ceased to be for me the promised land of possibility. During those four and a half months I had seen politicians insistently preaching in favour of militarism and the bitter struggle waged by labour against unrestrained American capital, the power wielded by the American police and the omnipotence of the trust kings, the corruption of American courts, the servility of the American capitalist press ... and the 'freedom' of the independent church... Now I had a clear picture of what America is really like, a clear picture of the 'land of freedom', of the New World discovered by Columbus and still enticing the European!

It was then, standing on board the steamer bearing me back to the Old World, that I first saw the Statue of Liberty. It was a clear, cold day in early spring. Slowly, as if unwilling to leave the safety of the port for the stormy unknown of the open sea, the same Bergensfjord sailed past the 'eighth wonder of the world', past the statue whose picture is known to all.

Now it was not hidden by fog, now the sun illuminated every line of this bronze image. And still I refused to believe my eyes. Is that the Statue of Liberty? So tiny, lost in the noise of the harbour and framed against the soaring skyscrapers of the Wall Street banks. Was this powerless, tiny figure shrinking before the all-powerful gigantic skyscrapers, those guardians of financial deals, the Statue of Liberty we had pictured to ourselves?

Perhaps it is the insolence of the politicians and the kings of capital, curtailing day by day the freedoms won by the blood of the forefathers of the modern Uncle Sam, that is forcing the Statue of Liberty to shrink, to curl up in dismay and shame? When you are at the mercy of the ocean, when you look ahead to fantastic adventures that seem to come straight from a medieval tale ... then you are inevitably inclined to the mystic, ready to believe in a great miracle, in fairy tales...

The outlines of the city, the huge, twisting, relentlessly upward-thrusting lines of the New York skyscrapers, begin to blur. The Statue of Liberty has long since become a scarcely visible dot. It has disappeared. A little while longer, and America will lose reality for us, will become one of the images of the succession of life's memories.

It was then that I realised that the New World, the Statue of Liberty, is simply an old and forgotten legend, a fairy tale of precapitalist times which can only be recounted from the reminiscences of our grandfathers.

For our grandfathers and great-grandfathers the New World was truly the land of freedom. Here, whatever they had been in ageing Europe, they felt themselves to be the sons and equal citizens of a free country. Here they could pray to their God according to their own beloved rites. Here they could still believe that a man could forge his own happiness, wealth and destiny, with his own hands. Here the fairy of success still freely beckoned to unsettled lands and fruitful plains, to barren mountains concealing gold.

Back in old Europe, feudalism had still not receded before the onslaught of the privileged trading aristocracy of the bourgeoisie, the air was still redolent with incense, society was still dominated by the inequality of social strata and classes, and men were still oppressed by ugly, age-old prejudices. Is it any wonder that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers stretched out their hands rapturously to the shores of the New World and fell down before the green-bronze Statue of Liberty?

But how distant that all is now! The tales of American freedom have become mere legend!

The Statue of Liberty has been suppressed. The skyscrapers have robbed her of her halo, and now it is no longer she who soars above the bay of this international city, no longer she who lights the way into the international port, into the New World. Millions of lights from the windows of the fifty-storey skyscraper office-blocks eclipse the light of the goddess of Liberty. The grey giants look out derisively over the narrow New York streets which, jammed with businessmen and their clerks, thread their way far below like canyon streams between cliff walls. And it is these solid walls of stone, the safe refuge of the kings of American capital, which now more completely express the 'spirit' that reigns over the continent of Columbus than the pitiful, shrunken, green statue that seems to be embarrassed.

I saw the statue a second time only recently, this time lit up by the rays of the early morning sun. And, strange to relate! – this time the passengers did not gaze out in search of the Statue of Liberty. It was as if the hard and bloody year that had just passed had taught its lesson to Europeans who had once so easily believed in a happiness to be found across the ocean. It was not the Statue of Liberty they were looking for, but the steamer carrying the American authorities and representatives of the emigration bureau who sorted out the passengers and dispatched the majority of the 3rd-class, and perhaps also some of us, the 2nd-class passengers, to the infamous 'Island of Tears'.

And, indeed, the steamer did pull up alongside our floating home... The long procession of 3rd-class passengers must undergo a humiliating interrogation and a number of unpleasant formalities, and must then wait upon a barren island until kind friends come to their assistance. It might even happen that 3rd-class, and sometimes even 2nd-class passengers are unceremoniously taken off to an American jail until their identity is confirmed.

However, God forbid that anything of the kind should happen to 1st-class passengers! Could a 1st-class passenger, carrying in his pocket cheques for a Wall Street bank, be an unwelcome foreigner in the great republic? The red carpet is put down for the 1st-class passenger, and for him the Statue of Liberty makes her dim torch blaze anew. This colleague of the modern kings of the free republic will receive everything that the Statue of Liberty once promised to every newcomer to the New World.

But how dimly that same statue lights the way to that New World for those who were only able to buy a 3rd-class ticket...

And one feels ashamed for the Statue of Liberty, and regrets those sweet moments of expectation a year ago when we, naive Europeans, strained our eyes to see in the autumn mist that statue we remembered from children's illustrations which taught us to love the 'New World', to love a land built by the people themselves, to love political liberty!