Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
Spring was peeping through the window of Vassilissa’s attic, high up under the roof. The warm sun peeped in, and the spring sky, with its fleecy clouds, white, delicate, melting away. Next door was the roof of what had been a gentleman’s house, and now was used as the Mothers’ Home. Behind it lay a garden; the buds were beginning to swell. Spring, beloved spring was late, but it had come at last.
Today there was spring in Vassilissa’s heart also. It had almost frozen in the winter; always lonely, always alone. Constant worries, struggles, irritations. But today was a holiday, a real holiday. There was a letter from her lover, from her dearest Volodya. And what a letter! It was a long time since she had got a letter like that.
“Don’t torture me, Vasya; my patience is at an end. How often you’ve promised to come to me for a visit! But you always disappoint me, you hurt me, you tireless tomboy of mine. Have you been fighting with everybody again? There were rumors about you even among the comrades here. They say you even got into the papers. But since you came out on top in this business, come to your beloved Volodya now. He can hardly wait for you.
“You’ll see, we’ll live like fine people. I have a horse and a cow of my own, and an automobile always at my disposal. I have servants, so that you will have no work to do in the house, but can take a good rest. Spring is at its height here; the apple trees are in full bloom. Vasya, darling tomboy – we’ve never spent a spring together. But our life must always be like the spring.
“Anyway, I need you very much just now. I’m having trouble with the Party Committee here. They have it in for me. They can’t forget that I was once an anarchist. It started on account of Savelyev, as I wrote you. You’ll have to straighten out this business. I’m sick of all these meddlers. They don’t let you breathe! It’s hard for them to find anything against me. I’m doing my duty well. But all the same, I need you very much now.
“I kiss your brown eyes.
Vassilissa sat beside the window, watching the white clouds in the sky, and thinking. Her eyes were smiling. A good letter! Volodya loved her, very much. And how she loved him! She laid the letter on her knees and stroked it as if it were Volodya’s head. She didn’t see the blue sky, the roof, the clouds She saw only her handsome Volodya with his mischievously twinkling eyes. Vassilissa loved him, loved him so, that it hurt. How had she ever lived through the entire winter without him? She hadn’t seen him for seven months. And it seemed to her that she had little thought of him, little longing for him. She had no time to think of her man, or to yearn for him. How much trouble and worry she had had during the winter! The child of her heart, the community house, was safe; but she had had to quarrel with stupid, uncomprehending, uncultured people. And she had hidden her love and longing for Volodya in the innermost corner of her heart. Her love for him dwelt in her heart, unchangeable. Thinking of him, Vassilissa felt that he was there, in her heart. A sweet burden, she actually felt the weight of her love. Probably because she always had to be worrying about him. If only nothing happened to him. He did not maintain discipline. The comrades were right. Vassilissa knew it. They accused him of being an “anarchist.” He didn’t like to follow instructions, preferred to do things in his own way. But he made up for this with his work.
This was why they lived separately, so that they wouldn’t disturb each other; for she too was in her work with all her heart and soul. But when Volodya was around, she would be drawn to him, and her work would suffer.
“First our work, and then our love, don’t you think so, Vasya? said Vladimir, and Vasya agreed. Their ideas were the same. And it was so wonderful that they were not merely man and wife, but comrades as well. Now, again, he summoned her to help him like a comrade, to overcome his difficulties. What sort of difficulties? Vassilissa read the letter again.
A mist seemed to form before her eyes. If it was on account of Savelyev, it would be a nasty affair. This Savelyev was a speculator; he was crooked. Why did Volodya have anything to do with him? A manager, such as Volodya was now, had to be as blameless as a saint, had to avoid all rogues. Volodya, however, was a trusting soul. He felt sorry for Savelyev, stood up for him. Still, no one should feel sorry for such men, who were stealing the property of the people. Let them suffer the penalty for their misdeeds.
But Volodya was kind-hearted; and the others could not understand him. They would have other explanations for this friendship. Volodya had many enemies, for he was hot-headed, unable to control his tongue. If only matters wouldn’t develop as they had three years ago. If only no action were brought against him. It was easy to lose one’s reputation. A charge could be trumped up against anyone. Vassilissa’s experience had taught her that. Hadn’t people been stirred up against her all winter long? Now it was Volodya’s turn.
She would have to go to him, and help him. She had to stand by him, so that his comrades there would be ashamed of themselves. What was there to think about? She would get ready and go.
But the house? She didn’t care. There was nothing to salvage now. Everything was going to ruin anyhow. Even though Vassilissa had won the fight, the Fedosseyevs were the actual victors. It was impossible to save anything. Vassilissa sighed. Going to the window, she looked down into the court. As if she were bidding the house farewell. She stood there for a long time. Gravely, sadly.
Suddenly it struck her. “Soon I’ll see Volodya again!” Her cheeks flushed, her heart beat with joy. My beloved, my dearest. I’m coming, coming to you. My Volodya.
Vassilissa was sitting in the coach, sleeping. It was her second day of travel. Another twenty-four hours lay ahead of her.
This trip was different from her others. She was provided with every comfort, like a burshuika. Vladimir had sent her the money for the trip, (everything had to be paid for nowadays), and had asked that she go in the sleeping-car. Besides, he had sent her a piece of cloth for a suit. A manager’s lady had to be well dressed. Vassilissa had to laugh when a comrade came from Vladimir Ivanovitch, the director, and brought her the money and the cloth. He praised the quality like a true salesman. Vasya laughed and teased the Comrade. But he seemed offended. He had not been joking; the material really was excellent. Vasya said nothing more. These new Comrades, the economists, were beyond her comprehension.
For a long time Vasya turried the cloth over and over. She was not used to thinking of clothes. But if Volodya wanted it, so that his wife would not be too conspicuous – all right. She would have a fashionable suit made, such as everyone was wearing.
She went to a friend, the seamstress Grusha, and told her the story. “Make it nice and stylish, Grusha, like the clothes others wear.” Grusha pulled out some fashion magazines that a comrade had brought her from Moscow the previous fall. She had sewed according to it all winter, to the satisfaction of all.
“That’s fine, Grusha. You select something. I don’t understand such things. If it’s neat and not torn, I’m satisfied. I know nothing about the styles.”
Moistening her finger-tips, Grusha spent some time in turning over the leaves of the much-used magazine. At last she found her choice.
“There! This’ll be good for you. You are thin, you need something to make you seem fuller. This is just the thing for you. A little fullness in the sides, and pleats in front, then you won’t look so flat. I’ll fix it so that your man will like you.”
“Then that’s settled.”
They agreed on a price, and kissed. Vassilissa went away happy. It was a good thing there were dressmakers in the world. She would never have been able to make a dress by herself. Volodya, however, was a connoisseur of women’s clothes. Of course, for in America he had been employed in a fashionable women’s wear shop. And now his knowledge was useful to him. The Red merchants must know something of women’s clothes; they were a form of merchandise.
Vassilissa was sitting at the window of her sleeping compartment. She was alone. Her neighbor, a “Nep” girl, very loud, dressed in silks, heavily perfumed, her ears weighed down with rings, had gone into the next compartment, where she was laughing loudly with her “cavaliers.”
She had given Vassilissa the cold shoulder, curling her lips contemptuously. “Beg pardon, dear, but you’re sitting on my shawl. You’ll crease it.” Or, “Won’t you go out into the corridor, dear, while I get undressed for the night?” As if she, the perfumed Nep-girl, owned the compartment, and had let Vassilissa in only out of the kindness of her heart. Vassilissa didn’t like the Nep-girl’s calling her “dear.” But she didn’t want to start a quarrel. Let her go to the devil!
Night was falling. Bluish gray shadows covered the young fields. Over the distant purplish-black strip of woods the sun hung like a red ball of fire. The rooks had risen from the fields, and were circling in the air. The wires were rising and falling between the telegraph poles.
With the twilight an unaccountable anxiety and longing crept into Vassilissa’s heart. Not sadness, but longing. She had prepared for the journey, settled her affairs. And suddenly everybody had been sorry to see her leave. Perhaps she would never return.
The Fedosseyev woman had come to her, had embraced her, had wept and begged her pardon. It had been painful. In her inmost heart Vassilissa was not angry with Fedosseyeva; but she had no respect for her, as she was unable to respect others of her kind.
Vassilissa’s comrades had accompanied her to the station. The children of the community house had brought paper flowers they had made themselves. And Vassilissa realized that she had not given her strength and energy in vain. The seed was sown; something would grow.
When the train began to roll out, the tears rose to her eyes. They were waving their caps. Suddenly she loved them all so much. It was hard to leave them.
But hardly had the city dropped behind her, hardly had the wooded strips and suburban settlements begun to approach her and then hasten away, as if they were running a race, than Vassilissa forgot her community house, the joys and sorrows of the winter. Swifter than the train, her thoughts rushed far ahead to him for whom she longed.
Why was Vassilissa so melancholy now? Whence the longing that had crept into her heart? It was as if a cold vise were gripping her heart. What was she longing for? Perhaps it was because with the community house a piece of her life had dropped into the past, never to return, had disappeared like those narrow fields that shone like amber in the spring sun.
She began to cry. Softly, imperceptibly. She wiped away her tears, and felt relieved, as if the cold little lump of yearning that had tortured her heart had dissipated together with the tears on the skirt of her new dress.
The lights were turned on in the car, the shades pulled down. It suddenly became cozy, and her loneliness disappeared.
Vassilissa’s heart, not her mind, knew very clearly: two more nights and then she would see Volodya, would see him, embrace him. She felt his burning lips and strong arms, heard his voice.
A sweet languor throbbed through her body, her eyes were laughing. If it hadn’t been for the Nep-girl, who was fussing before the mirror, Vassilissa would have sung with joy. Loudly, as the birds sing of spring.
The Nep-girl was gone, the door banged. Stupid woman! Closing her eyes, Vassilissa thought of Vladimir, her lover. Dreaming, she read page after page of the story of their love. They had been in love for five years. She could hardly believe it – five years.
She felt as if they had met only yesterday.
She settled down more comfortably in the corner of her compartment, her feet drawn up, her eyes closed. The gentle rocking of the car relaxed her entire body. Her thoughts, however, hurried on and on.
The voice of memory. What was it like? Their first meeting?
It was at an assembly, shortly before the October days. A time of restlessness. They were only a handful of Bolsheviki – but how they worked! The Mensheviki were in power, and the noisy Social Revolutionaries. The Bolsheviki were attacked from all sides, people almost used physical violence against them, the “German spies,” the “traitors.” Yet the group increased from day to day. They did not know themselves exactly what was to be, but they knew one thing: there must be peace come what may, and the “patriots,” the “traitors,” must be thrown out of the Soviets. This was certain, and they fought. Obstinately, ardently, uncompromisingly, full of faith. An unspoken resolve shone in the eyes of all: We will die, but never compromise. No one thought of himself. Did anyone consider the individual then?
Remembering this time, Vassilissa saw not herself, but only the group. The Social-Revolutionary and Menshevik papers had printed some items about her – pure fiction, lies, slander. But let them revile her. It couldn’t be otherwise. Anyway, people didn’t read everything in the papers. They simply believed that justice was on the side of the Party, of the Bolsheviki.
"Have you no pity for your mother? You re disgracing the entire family! Getting mixed up with the Bolsheviki! You’re selling your country to the enemy!” wept the old woman.
Unwilling to listen to such reprimands at home Vassilissa went to live with another girl. She could not sympathize with her mother’s tears. Strangers seemed closer to her. Only one goal stood clearly before her: the victory of Bolshevism. She seemed to be urged on by some force. It was impossible to stop. Though this force might hurl her into an abyss she would go on nonetheless, would struggle. She would fight....
The controversy became more acute, the air more sultry. A storm was inevitable. There was news from Petrograd. The resolutions of the Congress. Trotzky’s speeches. The proclamations of the Petrograd Soviets.
Then they met. The assembly was crowded, the hall was packed. People were standing on the window sills, sitting on the floor in the aisles. There was hardly room to breathe. What sort of meeting was it? Vassilissa had forgotten. For the first time a Bolshevik was elected chairman, and the committee, too, consisted of Bolsheviki and left-wing Social Revolutionaries. Among them was an Anarchist, an Independent, known in the city as “the American” – Vladimir.
It was the first time she saw him. But she had heard much of him. Some were delighted with him, and said: “He’s a real man. He knows how to make people listen to him." Others found fault with him. “A braggart.” But he had the union bakers and the commercial clerks behind him. He had to be reckoned with. The Bolsheviki were glad when he scored against the Mensheviki, and were angry when he said something against them. What in the world did he want?
The Party secretary couldn’t endure him. “He’s crazy, we’re better off without such friends.” But Stephen Alexeyevitch, the most esteemed Bolshevik of the city, laughed into his gray beard as he said: “Wait a bit, be patient. He will yet become a splendid Bolshevik. He’s anxious to fight. Just wait until he’s lost his American spleen.”
So Vassilissa had heard of him; but she paid no attention to him. So many people would pop up without anyone’s knowing the least thing about them. It didn’t pay to bother with them. She came late to the meeting, all out of breath. She had been speaking at the “brick-yard.” There were meetings everywhere; it had to be so in those days.
She was an orator then. People liked to listen to her. Her speaking won general commendation because she was a woman, a working-girl. Vassilissa spoke objectively, was neither wasteful nor sparing with her words. She had mastered this manner of speaking, terse, but lucid. She could hardly meet all the demands made on her.
When she came to the meeting she went directly to the platform. It had been announced that she would speak. Comrade Yurotchkin – he was dead now, killed at the front – pulled her sleeve. “We’ve won! The Bolsheviki won out in the election of the chairman. Two left-wing Social Revolutionaries, and the American besides. He’s almost a Bolshevik now. He’s go-ing to speak in a minute.”
Vassilissa glanced at the American, and something about him surprised her. So that is how an Anarchist looks! She would have thought him a gentleman. He wore a stiff collar and a tie, and his hair was parted. A handsome fellow. Long eye-lashes. His turn was just coming. He stepped forward, cleared his throat, and held his hand before his mouth. Like a gentleman, she thought, and could not help laughing.
His voice was pleasant, engaging. He spoke for g long time, frequently making his audience laugh. Vasya laughed, too. He was a smart fellow, after all, the Anarchist. Vasya applauded. When he returned to the speakers’ table, he accidentally bumped against Vasya. When he turned to apologize Vasya blushed. And, embarrassed at blushing, she colored even more. It was annoying. But the Anarchist didn’t notice it. He sat down, leaned back carelessly in his chair, and smoked a cigarette.
The chairman turned to him, pointed to the cigarette. “We’re not accustomed to smoking here.” Shrugging his shoulders, Vladimir continued to smoke. “I want to smoke, and I will. Your rules don’t apply to me.” He took a few more whiffs, and, seeing that the chairman was busy with something else, threw the cigarette away.
Vasya had forgotten nothing of all this. Later she had teased Vladimir about it. But at that time he had not yet noticed her. He became aware of her only when she began to speak.
She spoke very well that evening; and though he was behind her she felt the American’s eyes on her. She deliberately lauded the Bolsheviki as opposed to the Mensheviki, the Social Revolutionaries, and the Anarchists, although she didn’t even know then what the Anarchists were. She wanted to strike the American; he acted too much like a gentleman.
Vasya remembered how her hair came undone as she spoke. At that time she had beautiful long hair, which she braided and wound about her head. She was speaking with all her heart, passionately, and the pins fell out of her hair. It was unpleasant, her hair was in her way, she tossed it back. She didn’t know that her hair had cast a spell over Vladimir.
“I didn’t see you while you were speaking. But when your hair fell over your shoulders I saw clearly that you were no orator, but Vasya, my tomboy! A woman! And such a funny one. She was embarrassed, but held her ground. She waved her arms, and abused the Anarchists, then her hair came undone, curly little snakes were coiled on her back like threads of gold. Then, Vasyuk, I realized that I would have to know you.”
Vladimir told her that later, after they had fallen in love. But she didn’t know it at the meeting. After her speech was finished she began to braid her hair. Yurotchkin picked up the hair-pins for her.
“Thank you, Comrade.”
It was very embarrassing; everyone was staring at her. She was afraid to look at the American. He had surely noticed, and had his own opinion of her. Something or other annoyed her; she was angry at the American. But why did she bother about him?
The meeting was over. Everybody was going away. The American stood before her.
“May I introduce myself?” He told her his name and explained who he was. He pressed her hand; praised her speech. And again Vasya flushed. They began to talk, to argue. She was for the Bolsheviki, he in favor of the Anarchists. Going with the crowd, they reached the street. It was a rainy and windy night.
A cab belonging to the Party was waiting. The American suggested that he take Vasya home. She agreed, and they climbed into the cab. It was dark in there, and the cab was narrow. They sat close together. The horse shied, and splashed in the mud-puddles with its hoofs.
Vassilissa and Vladimir stopped disputing, sat there quiet and silent. Both grave and yet happy.
They talked about trifles, about the rain, about the meeting that would take place the next day in the soap works, about the assembly at Party Headquarters. But their hearts were full of gladness.
They were at Vasya’s house, and bid each other good-night. Both were sorry that they had to part so soon, but neither said so.
“Are you sure your feet didn’t get wet?” Vladimir asked anxiously.
“My feet?” Vasya was amazed, but happy about something. For the first time in her life someone had thought of her, had been concerned about her. And Vasya laughed, her regular white teeth shining. Vladimir would have liked to take her into his arms then, to kiss those moist, white, regular teeth.
The door opened; the watchman let Vasya into the house.
“Good-bye until tomorrow, at headquarters. Don’t forget. The meeting opens at two sharp. We do things in the American way.”
Vladimir raised his soft hat, and took his leave with a profound bow. Vasya turned in the doorway as if she were expecting something more.
The door banged, Vasya was alone in the dark little court. And suddenly the happy mood was gone. Her heart was uneasy, sick with longing. Something grieved her; something hurt her.
She seemed so small to herself. So useless.