Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
The compartment was dark. The Nep-girl had gone to bed, after perfuming the entire car with Eau de Cologne. Vassilissa was lying quietly in her upper berth. If only she could fall asleep. But memories of the past insisted upon coming up. As if she were settling her accounts. But why settle them? All her life was still before her. Love and happiness awaited her. Yet somewhere, in an obscure corner of her heart, Vasya felt that things weren’t as they used to be. The happiness of four years ago was gone. Their love had changed, and Vassilissa, too, was different.
Why? Whose fault was it?
Her hands folded beneath her head, Vassilissa lay there, thinking. In all these years she had never had time to think. She had lived and worked. But now she had a feeling of having forgotten or neglected something. Why? Dissension within the Party; trouble in the institutions.
Everything had been different then. Volodya, too, had been different. True, she had had her hands full with him. He would fall out with the authorities. But Vasya always was able to reason with him. He trusted her, and always followed her advice.
The Whites commenced their offensive; the city was in danger. Vladimir decided to enlist for the front. And Vasya did not hold him back. She only tried to persuade him to join the Party before he left. He resisted at first. But finally gave in.
Thus he became a Bolshevik, and went away.
They corresponded very little. Now and then he would come back for a day or two. And then more weeks and months of separation. As if it had to he so. They didn’t even miss each other very much – there was no time for such things. Then Vasya learned, at a Committee meeting, that a charge was being pressed against Vladimir. What could that mean? He was working for the artillery, and they said he wasn’t managing his affairs properly, that he wasn’t entirely straight and aboveboard.
Vasya flared up. That wasn’t true. She didn’t believe it. It was a conspiracy, or slanderous gossip. She rushed out to find out more. It seemed a serious affair. The case had not yet been brought into court, but he had been removed from his post. She begged Stepan Alexeyevitch to bring about her transfer to a transport train bearing gifts to the front. And in three days she was on her way.
It was very hard to get through. Delays everywhere. The trains missed one another. There was something wrong with the papers. The gift-bearing car wasn’t coupled on. She was exhausted and worried. The case might already have come to court.
Only then did Vasya realize how she loved Vladimir, how much he meant to her. And she trusted him, as much as it was possible to trust anyone. The more others suspected him, for they felt that an Anarchist was capable of anything, the more vigorously she defended him. No one knew his heart as well as she, Vasya. And his heart was tender as a woman's. His harshness and obstinacy were only on the surface. Vasya knew that kindness and gentleness could always lead him on the right path.
But it was true that he had become embittered. Life of the proletarians was hard.
Finally Vassilissa reached headquarters, where, after much difficulty, she learned where Vladimir lived was forced to walk all the way across the town, in a pouring rain. It was a good thing that a Comrade went with her. She was tired, shivering with the cold. But she was glad, for now she knew that the investigation was not yet over. There was no evidence; opinions varied within the army itself. Rumors and denunciations were current. Vasya was confused only by the disagreeable smile with which people looked at her, by their air of hiding something when she openly called herself his wife. She had to try to understand everything. And then she would have to go to Comrade Toporkoff of the Central Administration knew Vladimir and his work. This prosecution would have to stop. Why did they harass him? Others too, had once been Mensheviki or Social-Revolutionaries, but no one hounded them. Why was an Anarchist worse than they?
They reached the little wooden house where Vladimir lived. The windows were lighted, but the door was locked. The Comrade knocked. No answer. Vasya’s feet were soaked to the ankle; her clothes were wet, and she was cold. She was thinking not of the joy of seeing Vladimir again, but only of getting into the warm room as soon as possible to change her dress and stockings. She had been sitting in the heated baggage car for five days, had had practically no sleep.
“Let’s knock on the window,” suggested the Comrade.
He broke off a birch rod, tapped on the window with it.
Someone pulled back the curtain, and Vasya saw Volodya’s head. He seemed to be wearing only a shirt. As he strained his eyes to see in the dark, a woman’s head bobbed up from behind his shoulder, only to disappear again.
Vasya felt her heart sinking. A sharp, sickening pain.
“Why don’t you open the door, Comrade? I’ve brought you your wife.”
The curtain was drawn, hiding Volodya and the woman. Vasya and her companion mounted the steps leading to the door. They waited. Why did it take so long? To Vasya the time seemed endless.
At last the door opened. Vladimir took Vasya in his arms, pressing her to him and kissing her. His face was radiant, his eyes wet with tears.
“You came! You came to me! My friend Vasya! My comrade!”
“Take her things, at least,” grumbled her escort. “What’ll I do with them?”
“Come right into the house! We’ll have some supper. You must be soaked through and freezing”
They entered the house. It was bright and clean. A dining room, with a bedroom behind it. At the dining room table sat a nurse with a white kerchief about her neck and a red badge on her sleeve. She was pretty. Vasya felt another stab at her heart Volodya introduced the two.
“This is Sister Barbara. My wife, Vassilissa Dementyevna.”
They shook hands and looked at each other searchingly, as if each wanted to sound the other.
“What’s the matter, Vasya? Take off your wraps. Aren’t you the lady of this house? See how well I live here. Better than in your little room. Let me have your coat. How wet it is. We must hang it up next to the stove.”
The nurse had remained standing.
“Well, Vladimir Ivanovitch, we’ll let our business discussions go until tomorrow. I don’t want to disturb your domestic bliss tonight.”
She shook hands with Vasya and Vladimir, and went out together with Vasya’s escort.
Vladimir picked up Vasya and carried her about the room. He fondled her, kissed her, was beside himself with joy.
Vasya’s heart felt less heavy, and she was ashamed of herself. Still she asked, casually, between kisses: “Who was that nurse?” And she bent back her head the better to look into Vladimir’s eyes.
“The nurse? She came to see me about the provisioning of the hospital. Deliveries must be made more quickly. There are delays along the line. They can’t get along without me, though they made me stop my work. As soon as something goes wrong, they come to me.”
He turned the conversation to the charges against him, spoke of the thing that worried them both. He set Vasya down, and they went into the bedroom. Once more Vasya felt that stab. The bed was untidily made, as if someone had hurriedly thrown the covers over it.
She glanced at Vladimir. Placing his hands on his back, a gesture Vasya knew and loved, he paced up and down the room. He told her of his case, what had happened, how it had begun.
Listening, Vasya suffered for him. She felt clearly that it was all envious gossip. Her Volodya’s hands were clean. She was convinced of that; it could not be otherwise.
She took a pair of stockings from her suitcase. But she had no other shoes. What to do?
Vladimir noticed it.
“That’s how you are! You haven’t even an extra pair of shoes. Of course I can get some leather, and our cobbler will make a pair for you, as a special favor. But now let me take off your shoes. How wet they are".
He drew off her shoes, threw Vasya’s wet stockings on the floor, took her cold feet into his warm hands.
“What tiny feet you have. Like a doll. Oh, Vasyuk mine, my darling.” Bending down, he kissed her feet.
“What are you doing, Volodyka? You silly boy.” She laughed; her heart was joyful again.
They drank tea, talked and held council. Vladimir told her everything. How he had been rude at the wrong time, how he had disregarded instructions and had done things his own way. He couldn’t stand orders. He told her of the times when he had furthered the cause, and of the “undesirables” he had employed. But as for being light-fingered, Vasya surely could not believe that of him. Vladimir stood before her, choking with rage.
“So you, too, could think that of me? You Vasya?”
“No, no, Volodya. I was only afraid that your accounts might be a bit muddled. They’re so strict nowadays.”
“You needn’t worry about my accounts. Those who started this business will find their finish in it. My accounts are clear as crystal. The bookkeeping I learned in America has come in handy.”
Vassilissa felt a load off her heart. All that was necessary now was to meet the Comrades, consult with them, and explain the how, when, and where.
“It was so clever of you to come here,” said Vladimir. “I didn’t dare expect you. I know how hard you work, and assumed you’d be too busy for your husband, for your Volodyka.”
“Why, don’t you know that I have no peace when you’re not with me? I’m always worrying: what’s he doing? How does he feel? Has anything happened to him?”
“You’re my guardian angel, Vasya. I know that.” He spoke very gravely, and kissed Vasya. His eyes became sad and thoughtful. “I’m not worthy of you, Vasya. I love only you. I love you above all things. You believe me, don’t you? I love you, love you. No one but you. Anything else is absurd....”
Here Vasya didn’t understand him. His unusual vehemence, his agitation puzzled her.
They went into the bedroom. It was time to go to sleep. Intending to make the bed, Vasya threw back the covers. What was that? Her temples pounded, her knees trembled. A woman’s bandage – a bloodstain on the sheet.
“Volodya! What’s that?” Her voice faltered. She moaned.
Vladimir rushed to the bed, savagely threw the bandage to the floor.
“That hussy, that landlady of mine. She lay down here again when I was out. Soiled the bed.” He threw the sheets on the floor.
Wide-eyed, Vasya stood before him. Her look said everything.
Vladimir gazed at her and remained silent.
“Why that, Volodya? Why?”
Wringing his hands, Volodya threw himself on the bed.
“It’s all over. It’s all over. But I swear to you, Vasya, I love only you, only you.”
“Why did you do it? Why didn’t you think of our love?”
“I’m young, Vasya. All alone for months. And they’re forever running after you, these common hussies. I hate them all. All of them. These filthy women.”
He stretched out his arms toward her. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, large, burning tears.
“You must understand, Vasya. You must. Or I can’t live. You must pity me. Life is so hard ”
Vasya bent down and kissed his head, as in the Soviet, long before. And again she pitied him, again she was filled with compassion for this big, helpless, childlike man. Who would understand him if not she? Even now everyone was ready to throw stones at him. Should she really drop him because he had hurt her? Had she not once been ready to bear the brunt of every blow destined for him? A poor thing, her love, if she would leave him the first time he had made her suffer.
Bending over Vladimir, Vasya silently stroked his hair, seeking a way out.
Someone knocked at the door, a harsh, commanding knock. What was that?
They exchanged a glance, and both understood. A hurried embrace, a passionate kiss, and they went into the hall. They had guessed right.
The investigation had been closed, and Vladimir was arrested. The ground seemed to be trembling beneath Vasya’s feet.
Vladimir remained calm. He collected his things, told Vasya where to find his papers, whom to summon as witnesses, who could give her information. Then they took him away.
That was years ago, but Vasya would never forget that night. She had never lived through anything more dreadful than that night.
Her heart was racked with twofold pain. The century-old, insurmountable suffering of woman, and the distress of the friend, the comrade, at the wrong done her beloved, at the malevolence of men, at the injustice of the world.
Vasya walked about the bedroom as though she were mad. She could not rest.
Here, before she came, in this room, on this bed Vladimir had loved, kissed, embraced the other woman. That pretty woman with the full lips and the voluptuous bosom. Might he not love her? Might he not have lied to Vassilissa, out of pity?
She wanted the truth, the truth only. Why had they taken away Vladimir just then? If only he had been there she would have found out everything, would have asked him. If only he had been there, she would have freed herself of her own agonizing thoughts, would have been consumed with pity for him.
Her woman’s heart was aching. And she grew furious at Vladimir. How had he dared do such a thing? He would never have taken another woman if he had loved her. And if he didn’t love her, he should have told her so frankly, instead of torturing her with his lies.
Vassilissa paced from one corner to the other. She could not rest.
And suddenly a new thought pierced her heart. Suppose the charges against Vladimir really were to be taken seriously? Suppose there really was a reason for his arrest? Suppose the “undesirables,” the scoundrels, had got him into trouble, leaving the entire responsibility on his shoulders?
Her heartache was forgotten, forgotten the red-lipped nurse. Now she was only trembling with an agonizing fear for Vladimir, racked and crushed by her suffering for him. They had robbed him of his reputation, had ruthlessly arrested him. Those were his Comrades.
Compared to that, what was her feminine grief? What had they done to her beloved Vladimir – his own Comrades? She felt hurt not at his having been with the woman, but at the failure of even the Revolution to bring an era of truth and justice.
Vassilissa forgot her weariness as if her body had disappeared. Only her soul remained, her heart, torn by the sharp claws of her harrowing thoughts. She waited for the morning, and with the morning came the resolve to fight for Vladimir. They should not touch him. She would liberate him from those envy-filled schemers. Single-handed she would convince everyone that he was stainless. Their slanders were false, false their libelous attacks on his good name.