Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
Vasya was sitting in the car, her head pillowed on her woolen shawl. She was not sleeping, but she saw the past as in a dream, as in a moving picture: reel after reel, scene after scene, joy and misery, all her life with Vladimir, with Volodya. Beautiful memories. And as she remembered them even her sorrows seemed pleasant. She settled down more comfortably. The car rocked soothingly, luxuriously.
In her mind’s eye, Vassilissa saw the meeting of the union, a noisy, shouting, restless assembly. The bakers were an obstreperous, stiff-necked, unruly crowd. Vladimir was in the chair; he alone knew how to manage them. It was difficult, but finally he succeeded. The veins of his forehead were swollen with the effort, but he had carried his point. He hadn’t noticed Vasya’s coming. She sat modestly beside the wall, and watched.
It was resolved to present the government with a vote of lack of confidence, and to put the union in the hands of the workers. An administrative committee of their own was elected immediately. Shareholders, members of the municipal Duma, and burshui were struck off the list, and their contributions cancelled. Thenceforth the union would no longer be a municipal affair, but would belong only to the bakers and the employees of the union.
But the Mensheviki were not to be caught napping. They sent their confidential agents to notify the proper parties.
The assembly was beginning to disperse, only the administrative committee was remaining for a meeting, when suddenly, to everybody’s consternation, there appeared in the doorway the Menshevik Commissar, the highest authority in the city, a follower of Kerensky. Behind him the leaders of the Mensheviki and the Social Revolutionaries. When Vladimir saw them his eyes twinkled craftily.
“Comrades, the meeting is adjourned. Only the administrative committee of the Revolutionary Bakers’ Union will remain for a session. Tomorrow there will be a general meeting to discuss current affairs. Now, everybody go home!”
Vladimir’s voice resounded, calm and resolute. The audience rose noisily.
“Stop, Comrades, stop!” came the irate voice of the Commissar. “I beg you not to adjourn the meeting.”
“The Commissar is too late. The meeting has already been adjourned. But if you wish to acquaint yourself with our resolutions, you are welcome to them. Here they are. We had intended to send a delegation to you. But now you have come in person. So much the better. This is as it should be in times of revolution. It’s high time for the people to learn that it is not the duty of the organizations to run to the government officials with their reports, but that the officials must come to the workers’ organizations for their news.”
Vladimir stood there unmoved, gathered up his papers, and in his eyes, under the long lashes, the little devils were laughing and dancing.
“He’s right! He’s right!” cried the crowd. Many laughed. The Commissar attempted to protest. He went up to Vladimir, became excited, and shouted. Vladimir remained entirely calm, only his eyes laughed; his voice was loud and clear. His answer to the Commissar was audible throughout the hall. The public laughed and applauded. They were delighted to hear Vladimir invite the Commissar to a supper where the passage of the union from the burshuis to the bakers would be celebrated.
“A Smart fellow, this American. He has a tongue in his head.”
The Commissar had to leave without accomplishing his purpose. He threatened to use force.
“Just you try it,” cried Vladimir, his eyes flashing. And the entire hall repeated. “Just you try it! Try it!” The atmosphere became threatening. The Commissar and his Mensheviki beat a hasty retreat through a side door.
But the tumult in the hall continued. The administrative session was postponed for the evening. People had to eat first. They were exhausted, for the meeting had been going on since morning.
Vasya went toward the door, with the crowd.
Suddenly Vladimir stood before her. Calm, his eyes laughing. How different he seemed from the others in his neat blue suit. But now she no longer saw him as a “gentleman.” Today she had felt: “He belongs to us.” After all, how did he differ from a Bolshevik? And he was brave, afraid of nothing. He would face bullets if necessary, in spite of his stiff collar. Suddenly there rose in Vasya not merely the thought, but the desire to lay her hand trustingly into Vladimir’s strong hand. She would like to go through life with him, side by side, happily and confidently. But what was she to a man like Vladimir? Comparing herself to him, Vasya sighed. He was handsome, had seen much, had been in America.
And she? Not much to look at, ignorant; and she had never been outside her province. How could he pay any attention to her! He hadn’t noticed her today either.
However, Vasya had hardly formulated these thoughts when she heard Vladimir’s voice beside her: “Delighted to see you, Comrade Vassilissa. Didn’t we put that Commissar’s nose out of joint, though? He won’t try these tricks again. He’ll never come back here. You can bank on that. Besides, we tell him of our resolutions merely as a matter of form.”
Vladimir was excited, enthusiastic. Vasya caught his spirit. They began to talk, both laughed and were happy. If his comrades hadn’t come for Vladimir they would have stayed much longer in the ante-room, talking of the Commissar and the resolutions.
“Well, I must go now, I can’t stay any longer, Comrade Vassilissa.” Vasya heard regret in his voice. Her heart beat joyfully; she raised her tenderly observant eyes to his. Vasya’s soul was mirrored in her eyes.
Vladimir looked into them. Silently, as though he were lost in them.
“Why don’t you come, Comrade Vladimir? Don’t keep the people waiting. We’re up to our ears in work.”
Hastily he pressed her hand, and left.
Vasya wandered through the city, not knowing where she was going, seeing neither streets nor people, only Vladimir.
This was something new for her.
A clear, frosty winter’s night. Stars, countless stars, twinkling in the sky. The freshly fallen snow still white and spotless. It covered the streets, had settled down on the roofs and barns, had bespangled the trees with its loose flakes.
Vassilissa and Vladimir were coming from a meeting. The “October Days” had come and gone. Now the power was in the hands of the Soviets. The Mensheviki and the right-wing Social Revolutionaries had been dislodged. Only the “internationalists” remained. The power of the Bolsheviki was growing. The Party ruled over all. All the workers were for the Bolsheviki. Only the burshuis, the popes and the army officers opposed them. The Soviet was waging a campaign against them. Life had not yet taken its proper course, the waves of the Revolution had not yet calmed down. The streets were patrolled by Red Guards; there were occasional clashes. But the worst seemed over.
Vassilissa and Vladimir were talking of the days when they had seized the power. Vladimir’s bakers had stood in the gap then. Fine, resolute fellows. Vladimir was proud of them. And they had put him in the Soviet. Vladimir and Vassilissa were walking side by side, through the quiet streets. The Red Guard patrols demanded the password. Vladimir, too, had a narrow red band on his sleeve. He was wearing a fur cap; he had enlisted in the Workers’ Guard, and had been under fire. A bullet had passed through one of his cuffs; he showed it to Vasya. Though they had seen each other a good deal during this time, they had never had a chance to talk. There was no time for that.
That day, however, they had gone out together, without any previous arrangement. They had so much to tell each other; they felt as if they were old friends meeting again to talk things over. Yet, suddenly, both were silent. They felt closer to each other. They had gone past Vasya’s house without noticing it; they had reached the end of the suburb, where the truck gardens began. Where in the world had they landed! Stopping, they laughed in amazement. They looked up to the sky, where the stars were twinkling and sparkling.
“We had no clocks in our village, so we had to tell time by the stars. My father knew them particularly well. He could always tell exactly what time it was."
Vladimir spoke of his childhood. They had been a large family in a poor peasant’s household. There was too little of everything. Volodya wanted to go to school, but it was too far away. So he made a bargain with the pope’s daughter. He watched her geese, and she taught him to read.
Vladimir recalled his village, the fields and woods of his home. He grew tender and melancholy.
. “So that's what he’s like.” Vassilissa was surprised.
And he became even dearer to her.
He told her about America, how he had come there as a boy, having resolved to make his own way in the world. After spending two years on board a transport, he had worked in the dockyards. Finally he was driven away, forced to go to another state. He was starving, took any work he could get. For a time he was a waiter in a great palatial hotel. How many rich people he did see there! And as for the women! All dressed up in silks, and laces and diamonds.
Then he was a porter in a large fashionable store, where he was well paid. He wore a gallooned uniform; and he was liked because of his good figure. But he soon became sick of it. All these wealthy customers got on his nerves. He tried being a chauffeur, traveled through America with a rich cotton dealer, covered hundreds of miles in an elegant auto. However, this too became tiresome. After all, he was little better than a serf. The merchant introduced him into the cotton business, where he became a salesman, and learned book-keeping.
And then – the Revolution. Dropping everything, he hurried back to Russia. He had belonged to the organization even in America. He had been arrested once after a clash with the police. But the cotton merchant had come to his aid, for he liked him as a chauffeur, and held him in esteem although he knew him to be an Anarchist. He always shook hands with him, too. America was different from Russia!
Vladimir loved America in his way.
On and on they went, through the streets. Vasya listened; Vladimir’s flow of words was inexhaustible. He seemed to be confessing his entire life to her. Again they reached the door of Vasya’s house.
“Won’t you invite me in for a glass of tea, Comrade Vassilissa?” asked Vladimir. “I’m parched with thirst. And I really don’t want to sleep yet.”
Vasya was doubtful. Her friend surely was in bed by this time.
“That doesn’t make any difference. We’ll wake her up. The three of us will have a real party.”
And why shouldn’t she ask the American to come in? She didn’t want him to go away, for they had become friends.
They went in, put up the samovar, Vladimir helping.
“One must always help the ladies. That’s what we do in America.”
They lingered over their tea, joking, teasing Vasya’s friend, whom they had pulled out of bed, because she blinked her eyes so sleepily.
And again Vladimir talked about America, about the beautiful silk-stockinged ladies who came up in their autos to the great store before which he stood in his gallooned doorman’s uniform, with a feather in his three-cornered hat. One of them had slipped him a note, fixing a rendezvous. But he didn’t go. He didn’t care for women. They could only cause trouble. Another had given him a rose....
Listening to Vladimir’s stories of the beautiful American women with their silk stockings, Vasya felt more and more insignificant and unattractive.
The joy in her heart died, and the world seemed dark.
“And I suppose you fell in love with these beauties?”
Vasya’s voice sounded hollow. She was chagrined at having let the question slip out.
Vladimir looked at her attentively and tenderly. He shook his head.
“All my life, Vassilissa Dementyevna, I have guarded my heart and my love. I am keeping them for a pure girl. But these fine ladies? They’re much too fast, all of them. Worse than prostitutes.”
And again joy flooded her heart, only to ebb again without filling it. He was keeping his heart for a pure girl? But Vasya was no longer undefiled. She had had an affair with Petya Razgulov, of the machine department, until he went to the front. Then there had been the Party organizer; she had said she was engaged to him. He, too, had gone away, had stopped writing. And she forgot him. But what to do now? Only a “pure girl”?
Vasya was looking at Vladimir, was listening to his voice, but she did not hear what he was saying. Her heart was aching so. Vladimir thought she was bored with his stories.
He stopped talking, and rose. Hastily, coldly he took his leave.
Vasya struggled against her tears. She wanted so to throw herself into his arms. But he didn’t need her! He had seen so many beautiful women. And he was keeping his heart for a “pure girl.”
Vasya cried all night. She determined to avoid this American. What could she mean to him?
Vasya had firmly made up her mind to keep out of the American’s way, but Fate had decided to bring them even closer.
Coming to a Committee meeting one day, Vassilissa found a violent dispute in progress. A new City Commandant was to be appointed. Some proposed Vladimir, others refused to consider him. The Secretary of the Partcom was especially antagonistic. It was not to be thought of. The entire city was up in arms against the American. His papacha pushed to the back of his head, he rode about the town in the union cab as though he were a governor. He irritated the people; he recognized no discipline. Fresh complaints had come in about him. He didn’t follow union regulations.
Vasya defended Vladimir. It hurt her to hear him spoken of in that way, to hear him called an Anarchist. Stupid, this suspicion. Didn’t he do better work than the Bolsheviki? Stepan Alexeyevitch also was in favor of Vladimir. The vote was cast.
Seven against Vladimir, six for him. Well there was nothing to be done. After all, Vladimir was a bit to blame too. He tried to show off too much.
But Vladimir was angry. Why didn’t they trust him? Wasn’t he with the Revolution with all his heart and soul? When he learned of the Committee’s vote he became furious. He deliberately began to insult the Bolsheviki.
“Partisans of the state! Centralists! They want to institute another police regime!”
He spoke of America, mentioned his I. W. W. wherever he could. The Committee grew excited, and demanded that Vladimir comply with the regulations. The breach widened from day to day. Vasya worked hard in Vladimir’s defense, disputed till she was hoarse.
The matter was brought before the Soviet. The union had again failed to follow orders.
Vladimir, however, repeated over and over: “I don’t recognize your police ordinances. Every institution is its own master. Discipline? I don’t give a damn for your discipline. We didn’t make the Revolution, shed blood, drive out the burshuis to let ourselves be chained again. Why do we need Commandants? We can command ourselves!”
“If you refuse to submit we will expel you from the Soviet,” threatened the presiding officer.
“Just you try it!” yelled Vladimir, his eyes flaming. “I’ll recall all my bakers’ boys from the militia. Who’ll defend you then? Soon you’ll be in the hands of the burshuis again. And that’s where your Soviet’s heading! It’s no Soviet – it’s a police district!”
Vassilissa’s heart missed a beat. Why had he said that? Now all of them would pounce upon him. She was right. The meeting stormed with indignation. What? He had called the Soviets names? Vladimir stood there, white-faced, defending himself. But there was a tempest round about him. People were pushing forward.
"Expel him. Arrest him. Throw him out. The blackguard!”
Thanks, Stepan Alexeyevitch. He helped him. He asked Vladimir to go into the next room. The Soviet would discuss the incident in his absence.
Vladimir went, and Vasya followed. She felt mortified. It had been so stupid of him. And she was angry at the Soviets, too. How could they condemn a man for his words? They should judge by his deeds. Everybody knew that Vladimir was on the side of the Soviet. If not for him the Bolsheviki might not have come out ahead in the October Revolution. It was he who had disarmed the officers. It was he who had forced the head of the city to flee, who had led the most obstinate of his opponents out into the street. There, shovel the snow! Why was he to be expelled from the Soviet? Because of a hasty word?
Greatly perturbed, Vasya went into the back room Vladimir was sitting at the table, brooding, leaning his head on his hand.
As he looked up at her she saw pain, chagrin and distress in his eyes. Suddenly he seemed small and helpless as a child.
Vassilissa’s heart filled with compassion. She would do anything to spare him suffering.
“Well, are the ‘partisans o f the state’ alarmed?" Vladimir asked pretentiously. “Did I frighten them with my threats? Things have not yet reached such a pass....” He stopped short.
Vasya looked at him affectionately. There was reproach in her gaze.
“You are in the wrong, Vladimir Ivanovitch. You’re harming yourself. Why did you say that? Now it looks as though you were against the Soviet.”
“And I will be against it, if the Soviet is to be another police department.” Vladimir still was stubborn.
“Why do you say something you don’t believe yourself?” Vasya came very close to him, looked at him like a mother, gravely, tenderly. Raising his eyes to hers, Vladimir was silent.
“Admit that you lost your temper.”
Vladimir bowed his head.
“I couldn’t keep it back. I was furious.”
And again he looked into Vasya’s eyes, like a boy confessing a fault to his mother.
“Nothing to be done about it now. It’s all over.”
He motioned her away. But Vasya came even closer to him. Her heart was full of sorrow and tenderness. He had become so dear to her. She laid her hand on his head, stroked it.
“Don’t, Vladimir Ivanovitch! Why do you lose heart? Aren’t you an Anarchist? That’s not the way, Vladimir! You must believe in yourself, mustn’t let others bother you.”
Vasya was bending over Vladimir, stroking his head as if he were a little boy. And he leaned his head trustingly on her heart, as though he sought support in her. So big, and yet as woebegone as a child.
“I’m having such a hard time. I thought the Revolution, the Comrades – everything would change.”
“And it will. But you must try doing things in a friendly, brotherly way.”
“No; good will won’t help now. I don’t know how to deal with people.”
“You’ll learn. I’m sure you will."
Vasya raised Vladimir’s head and looked in his eyes. His gaze, however, was anxious and troubled. Bending down, Vasya gently kissed his hair.
“We’ll have to straighten out this matter. You'll have to apologize, say that you were hasty, that they misunderstood you.”
“All right,” Vladimir agreed obediently, seeking support in her eyes. Suddenly he threw his arms about her, crushed her to his heart until it hurt. And his burning lips clung to Vasya’s mouth.
Vasya ran back to the platform, to the executive committee, directly to Stepan Alexeyevitch. Matters stood thus and thus. Vladimir Ivanovitch had to be helped out of the mess.
The incident was closed.
But the hostile attitude against Vladimir did not disappear. The Soviet was divided into two camps. The happy days of peace were over.
Vasya didn’t want to remember more. But her thoughts flew on. There was no stopping them.
How had they come together? It was soon after the episode in the Soviet.
Vladimir was escorting her home. They always left together in those days. They were seeking each other. When they were alone their conversation was tenderly intimate.
Vasya’s friend was out. And Vladimir, taking Vasya into his arms, kissed her ardently, passionately. She still remembered those kisses. But she released herself, stepped back, and looked him straight in the eyes.
“Volodya, you mustn’t kiss me. I won’t stand for any deception.”
Amazed, he failed to understand.
“Deception? Do you think I want to deceive you? Can’t you see that I’ve loved you ever since I’ve known you?”
“That’s not it! That’s not it, Volodya! Of course, I believe you. But, you see, I... I... No, don’t kiss me. You’re keeping your heart for a ‘pure girl.’ And I’m not a virgin any more, Volodya. I’ve had lovers.”
As she spoke she thought, trembling: Now, my happiness is shattered.
Vladimir interrupted her. “What do I care for your lovers? You belong to me. No one can be purer than you, Vasya; your soul is pure.”
Passionately, he pressed her to him.
“You love me, Vasya, don’t you? Don’t you love me? Don’t you belong to me? To me? And to no one else. And look here – don’t you ever again mention your lovers. Don’t tell me anything. I don't want to know anything. I don’t want to. You belong to me, and that’s the end of it”
This was the beginning of their union.