Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
Vassilissa was a working-girl twenty-eight years old, a knitter by trade. Thin, anemic, a typical child of the city. Her hair, cut short after typhus, grew in curls. From a distance she looked like a boy. She was flat-chested, and wore a shirtwaist and a wornout leather belt. She was not pretty. But her eyes were beautiful: brown, friendly, observant. Thoughtful eyes. Those eyes would never pass by another’s sorrow.
She was a Communist. At the beginning of the war she had become a Bolshevik. She hated the war from the first. Collections had been made in the shop for the front; people were ready to work overtime for the Russian victory. But Vassilissa objected. War was a bloody horror. What was the good of it? War brought hardships to the people. And you felt so sorry for the soldiers, the poor young fellows – like sheep being led to the slaughter. When Vassilissa met a detachment on the street, going to war in full military array, she always had to turn away. They were going to meet death, but they shouted and sang at the top of their lungs! And how lustily they sang, as if they were out for a holiday. What forced them? They should have refused: We won’t go to our death; we won’t kill other men! Then there would be no war.
Vassilissa was able to read and write well; she had learned from her father, a compositor. She read Tolstoy and liked his work.
In the shop she was the only one “for peace.” She would have been discharged, but all hands were needed. The manager looked askance at her, but did not let her go. Soon Vassilissa was known throughout the district: she is against the war, a follower of Tolstoy. The women stopped speaking to her: she doesn’t want to have anything to do with her country; she doesn’t love Russia. She is lost!
Reports of her reached the local organizer, a Bolshevik. He became acquainted with Vassilissa, and talked with her; soon his opinion was formed; “A girl of character; knows what she’s about. The party could use her.”
She was drawn into the organization. But Vassilissa did not become a Bolshevik immediately. She quarreled with the members of the Party. Asked them questions, and went away furious. After long deliberation she came back of her own accord, saying: “I want to work with you.”
During the Revolution she helped in the work of organization, and became a member of the Workers’ Council. She liked the Bolsheviki and admired Lenin because he opposed the war so uncompromisingly.
In her debates with the Mensheviki and the Social Revolutionists she spoke skilfully, heatedly, tempestuously, never at a loss for words. The other women, working-women, were timid, but Vassilissa always spoke up without hesitation whenever it was necessary. And what she said always was clear and to the point.
She won the respect of her comrades. Under Kerensky she was a candidate for the municipal Duma. The girls in the knitting-shop were proud of her. Now her every word was law. Vassilissa knew how to manage women, speaking amicably, upbraiding them, as the case required. She knew everyone’s troubles, for she had been in the factory herself since her girlhood. And she defended their interests. Her comrades sometimes rebuked her: “Can’t you forget your women? We have no time for them now – there are more important things.”
Vassilissa flared up, gave the Comrades a good berating, and quarreled with the district secretary. But she did not withdraw her demands. “Why are women’s affairs less important? This idea is a habit with all of you. That’s why women are ‘backward.’ But you can’t have a revolution without the women. Woman is everything. Man does what she thinks and suggests to him. If you win over the women, half your work is done.”
Vassilissa was very belligerent in ’18. She knew what she wanted; and she did not compromise. The others relaxed a bit in the last few years, lagged behind and stayed at home. But Vassilissa carried on. Always fighting, always organizing something, always insisting on a definite point.
She was tireless. Where did she get her energy? She was delicate, with not a drop of blood in her face – only eyes. Sympathetic eyes, intelligent and observant.
Vassilissa received a letter, the long and hungrily expected letter from her man, her comrade, her lover. They had been separated for months. There was nothing they could do about it. First the civil war, and now the “economic front.” The party was mobilizing all its members. The Revolution was no game; it demanded sacrifices from everybody. So Vassilissa, too, brought her sacrifice to the Revolution. Nearly always she had to live without her lover, far away from him. They were torn apart, at opposite ends of Russia. Her friends said: “You’re better off this way. He’ll love you longer, because he won’t get tired of you.” Perhaps they were right; but life was sad without him. True, Vassilissa had little free time. From early morning until late at night she was overwhelmed with work for the Party and for the Soviet, one crowding out the other. Important, urgent, fascinating work. But when she came to her little room her heart was convulsed with longing for her lover. She felt an icy draught. She would sit down to drink tea and to think. It seemed as if no one needed her. As if she had no comrades, although she had worked with them all day – as if she had no goal for which she was striving. What was the use of it all? Who wanted it? Mankind? Men couldn’t appreciate it. Today, again, they had spoiled something, called one another names, made complaints. Everyone was working for himself alone. They refused to understand that they must live for society. They could understand.
Even Vassilissa had been insulted, rudely abused, reproached for her worker’s payok (ration-card). The devil take it – she didn't need it! Her comrades had persuaded her. Now her strength was leaving her; she felt dizzy. There she sat, leaning on the table, and drank her tea, nibbled rock candy, and brooded over all the affronts of the day. Now she could see nothing good or splendid in the Revolution. Only failure, vexation and struggle.
If only her lover had been there. Then she could have talked and unburdened her heart. He would have caressed her tenderly.
“Why so dejected, Vasya? A tomboy like you, afraid of no one, challenging everybody, overlooking nothing – and now look at her: there she sits with ruffled feathers, like a puffed-up sparrow under the gable!”
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 Vassilissa adored her lover, her man and comrade. A handsome fellow, tender and loving – so tender.
Thinking of him, Vassilissa felt even more wretched. Her attic was so desolate, so lonely. She sighed. Clearing away the tea things, she scolded herself. What in the world do you want? Do you expect only joy from life? You love your work. You have the esteem of your comrades. And then you have your lover. Isn’t that more than enough, Vassilissa Demen-tyevna? The Revolution is no holiday; everyone must sacrifice. “Everything for the commonweal; everything for the triumph of the Revolution.”
Thus Vassilissa in the winter. But now it was spring. The sun shone so gayly, the sparrows chattered under the gables. Early in the morning Vassilissa watched them, smiling as she remembered her lover calling her a puffed-up sparrow. Spring sounded a call to life. It was more and more difficult to work. Vassilissa was anemic, and her lungs were affected.
Vassilissa had organized a community house, a task she had taken over of her own accord, and which was entirely independent of her general Party and Soviet work. This community house was dearest of all to her. She had long had the idea of organizing a model house, where the Communist spirit should prevail. Not an ordinary community house, where everyone would live for himself, where no one cared for his neighbor, where squabbling, bickering, and dissatisfaction were the rule, where no one was willing to work for the common good, where everyone was constantly making demands. No, Vassilissa had planned something quite different. Patiently, almost secretly, she had got the house ready. How many difficulties she had had! The house had been taken away from her twice. It had involved her in innumerable disputes. But finally she had succeeded. Had organized a community kitchen, a laundry, a nursery, a dining room – Vassilissa’s pride, with curtains at the windows, and geranium plants – and a library, furnished like a club room.
At the beginning everything went well. The women who lived in the house covered Vassilissa with their moist kisses: “There’s our little darling. Our guardian angel. You’ve made everything so easy for us. It's too wonderful.” But then the trouble began. The house rules were broken. It was impossible to teach the women cleanliness. They fought over the pots and pans in the kitchen. They let the washtubs overflow, almost flooding the house. And every mistake, every quarrel, every disturbance brought complaints against Vassilissa, as if she were the “landlady,” as if she had been at fault. Punishments became necessary. The tenants grew angry, felt offended; some of them moved away.
Matters went on in this fashion, growing worse and worse. Constant quarrels and differences. There were a couple of real trouble-makers, the Fedosseyevs; nothing could please them. Always nagging and nagging, though they didn’t know themselves what they wanted; never satisfied. And they stirred up the others. Chiefly because they had been the first to move into the house, and felt as if it belonged to them. But what did they want? What didn’t they like? Vassilissa couldn’t understand. And they embittered her life, caused trouble every day.
Vassilissa was weary, vexed to tears. She saw the failure of her plan. Then, a new order: everything must be paid for with cash on delivery. Water and electricity. Taxes must be paid, assessments must be covered. Vassilissa was beset on all sides. There was no use! The new exchange rate. Nothing could be done without money. Vassilissa worked like a slave. It might have been better to drop the whole business. But she was not that sort. Once she put her hand to anything, she saw it through.
She went to Moscow, visiting various bureaus day after day. She approached the highest authorities. Her reports and accounts were received very favorably; finally she won her community house. They even assisted her with an allowance for repairs. But in the future she would nevertheless have to make the house self-supporting.
Vassilissa returned delighted. The Fedosseyevs, however, were sulky. They were cross with her, as if she had harmed them by winning her fight for the community house.
Now new worries began. The rumor spread that Vassilissa did not keep her house accounts straight, that she made a little profit on the side.
It was hard, then, without her lover. She needed a close comrade. She wrote to him, called him. But important affairs prevented his coming. he had a new position of great responsibility. He had to systematize and reorganize the affairs of the firm in which he had formerly been a clerk. He had been complaining all winter; it was a difficult task. It was impossible for him to get away. Everything rested on his shoulders.
So Vassilissa remained alone in all her difficulties, drained to the dregs the cup of man’s unfairness. And who was unfair? Her own people, her comrades, the workers! This hurt more than anything else. If it had only been the burshui!
When the Fedosseyevs were to be put out, the two of them begged Vassilissa to forgive them, assured her that they had always esteemed her. But she could not enjoy her victory. She was tired, worn out, too exhausted to be glad. She fell ill.
Then she returned to her work. But in her soul something had died.
She no longer loved the community house. It was as if her child had been violated. Like an incident of her childhood: her brother, Kolyka, showed her a piece of candy. But when she reached out for it he laughed spitefully, saying: “Now I’ll make it disgusting for you.”
And he spat on it. “Why don’t you eat your candy, Vassilissa? It’s good.”
But Vassilissa turned away in tears. “You dirty thing! You bully! You good-for-nothing! Why did you spoil my candy?”
This was how she felt about the community house now. She was sick of it. True, the management was still in her hands, but her heart wasn’t in it. If only she could get away! Her relations with the tenants had been spoiled. Were they not against her? Didn’t they side with the Fedosseyevs? And why? Why?
On the whole, she lost her interest in people. Before, Vassilissa had been much more warm-hearted. She had thought of everyone, pitied everyone, worried about everyone. Now she wanted only one thing: leave me alone. Don’t touch me! I’m tired.