Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
Vladimir came home early, as he had promised. Vasya was in bed.
He sat down beside her, and inquired how she felt. He looked into her eyes as he spoke, and his grave, sad gaze puzzled Vasya. His eyes seemed to bespeak suffering.
“What’s the trouble, Volodya? You’re so gloomy.”
Burying his head in the pillow beside her, Volodya spoke in a despondent tone. “Life isn’t a bed of roses, Vasya. You don’t know how hard it is for me. You see only one side of my life. And you refuse to understand. If you could read my heart, how hard I tried all winter, you wouldn’t condemn me. You’d pity me. You’re so good, Vasya.”
She stroked his head, quieted him. And though she felt sorry for him her heart was full of joy. She felt that they had the same thought, had suffered the same pain. It wasn’t easy for a proletarian to act like a manager. She told him so.
But Volodya shook his head mournfully.
“It’s not only that, Vasya, not only that. There’s something else that torments me, that lets me have no peace.”
“Are they plotting against you?”
Volodya remained silent; it seemed that he wanted to say something, but couldn’t make up his mind.
Vasya put her arms about him. “Tell me what’s bothering you, dear.”
She laid her head on his shoulder.
“What smells so of perfume? When did you put on perfume?” Raising her head she looked at him.
“Perfume?” Volodya seemed embarrassed. He withdrew a bit. “I probably got it with my shave today. The barber must have put it on.”
Vladimir got up, lit a cigarette, slowly, carefully, and left Vasya. He absolutely had to look through some papers that evening.
Vasya coughed a little. She felt rather ill and feverish, had shooting pains in her side, Vladimir noticed it, although she tried to control herself in his presence. Her coughing disturbed him, and he had his bed made on the sofa in the drawing room.
The days dragged on. It was so dreary. She had nothing to do. Only little household worries now and then. Vladimir was trying to save, but insisted on everything being “just as it should be.” Vasya gave her little reserve to the household, for she didn’t like it when Volodya rebuked her:
“Have you really used up all your housekeeping money? It’s impossible to get enough for you women.”
As if it were Vasya who invited guests and wanted three courses for dinner! However, she had no cause to complain of Vladimir. He was very solicitous in other ways. He was worried about Vasya’s health and had gone for the doctor himself. The diagnosis was general debility; and the right lung was affected. She was ordered to lie in the sun as much as possible, and to eat nourishing food. Vladimir was always inquiring whether she was doing everything the doctor had ordered. Marya Semyonovna was to see to it that Vasya had her meals at the proper time. He had procured cocoa for her, and had brought a chaise lounge for the garden, so that she could warm herself in the sun. Vladimir seemed very anxious about her.
When he came home he went to her immediately. They didn’t see much of each other, for Vladimir was very busy just then. It was a time of feverish work; the fair was to open soon. Vladimir seemed worried, thoughtful and rather depressed.
Lying on her chaise lounge on the little lawn, Vasya sunned herself like a lizard, and enjoyed life. She turned over from one side to the other, grew tanned as a little gypsy. A queer life. No work. No cares. But no joy, either. Like a dream. She was always thinking: Now, now I’ll wake up and I’ll be back home, in the community house. She thought once more of the Housing Bureau, the Comrades, Stepan Alexeyevitch, Grusha. Even of the Fedosseyevs. It had been a trying life, but it had been happier.
She was waiting for Vladimir. He had promised to come home earlier that day. Vasya had the feeling that today she would be able to talk with him. To have a good heart-to-heart talk. But day passed after day, and they never had that talk. There were always guests, or pressing work.
Savelyev no longer visited them, nor the usual guests, but members of the administration, who were strange and uninteresting to Vasya. Their conversation consisted only of consignments and unloadings, of packing and invoices, of sales and rising prices.
Vasya knew that all this was essential for the Republic, that the national economy could not be built up without an exchange of goods, but it bored her to listen to it. When she turned the conversation to Party matters, to Bucharin’s article, or the newspaper reports about the German Communists, they listened to her, and returned to their subject: shipments, con-signments, net and gross. Vladimir wasn’t bored. The Comrades brought him to life. He debated with them, let them advise him. Only when he was alone with her, with Vasya, did he grow downcast. He would sigh, pat her hands, and look at her unhappily. He didn’t ask for her help, didn’t complain. What could be bothering him? The intrigues against him seemed to have come to an end. She had heard nothing of them since her arrival. But what gave him such low spirits? He surely didn’t think that Vasya might die? This idea gladdened her. So he must love her? True, he spent little time with her; but she hadn’t spoiled him, either, when he had been her guest. She, too, had been on the go all day, had hardly had time to think of her man. But she loved him no less for all that.
Lying on her chaise lounge, Vasya was delighted with the treetops standing out against the blue sky. The summer breeze gently swayed them, as with a caress. The crickets were chirping in the grass, the birds were singing loudly in the bushes.
Getting up, Vasya walked along the grass-covered path to a lilac-bush in full bloom. How sweet it smelled. She plucked a branch. Buzz-z-z,– a bee flew past her, settled down on a purple mass, and dusted off its wings.
“Well, well, how brave you are. Aren’t you afraid of people?” laughed Vasya. And suddenly she felt happy, so free, that she was amazed at herself. She looked around as if she were seeing the garden for the first time. The green grass, the strong perfume, the purple lilacs – the little pond covered with duckweed, full of frogs croaking, calling to one another.
Vasya didn’t dare move. She was afraid that this sudden joy, this bright, light-winged joy might fly out of her heart. It was as if she had never known or felt or understood the meaning of life before. But now she had grasped it. No despondency, no rushing about, no work, no joy, no pushing toward a goal, but life pure and simple. Life, like the life of the bee circling over the lilacs, like the life of the birds singing in the trees, like the life of the crickets chirping in the grass. Life! Life! Life! Why couldn’t one spend all one’s life among the lilacs? Why couldn’t man be like all of God’s creatures? “God’s?” She was angry with herself. Since when was she thinking of God? That was the result of her idleness, of her burshui life, of Volodya’s good food. She might easily become a real Nep-girl if she continued this way.
Vasya hurried into the house. She was afraid of becoming soft.
But the joyful feeling stayed with her. She was in high spirits. Had she grown stronger, regained her health?
Hardly had Vasya come into the bedroom and put the lilacs into the vase when Vladimir drove up in the car.
He hurried over to her.
“Now they’ve begun. They’ve let me alone long enough, these gossiping schemers. Now they’ve found new energy to dig up old matters. They’ve just summoned me before the Supervisory Commission. They’re bringing an action against me. But we’ll see. We’ll see who’ll come out ahead.”
Vladimir was running about the room, one hand at his back, a sign of agitation.
His Anarchism had been thrown up to him, too, and lack of discipline and the devil alone knew what more!
Here he was, killing himself with work to get things going, but instead of helping, those fellows of the Executive Committee were only putting spokes in his wheels.
“If they keep on with this persecution, I’ll leave the Party. I’ll leave it of my own accord. They needn’t threaten me with expulsion.”
Vasya saw it as a serious matter. She felt anxious, oppressed. Was this the lurking disaster? But she gave no sign of her thoughts. Instead, she tried to calm Vladimir, to bring him to reason.
“And your beloved Stepan Alexeyevitch – he’s a fine fellow! They asked him about me. And, if you please, he could think of nothing better than to praise my work and say that for the rest I’m afflicted with self-complacency and moral instability. What sort of priests are they, judging a man not by his work and actions, but by his morals? I don’t live as a 'Communist’! Do they want to order me to become a monk? Are they any better? Now look! They re not dragging the head of the propaganda division into court, although he deserted his wife and three children and married a common street-walker. Do you think that’s right? Should a Communist act like that? Why do they expect me to live like an ascetic? What business of theirs is my private life, anyway?”
Here Vasya no longer agreed with Vladimir. The C. P. was right. It was not in keeping with the dignity of a Communist to imitate the burshuis. A Communist, and a manager besides, must lead an exemplary life.
“But where the devil do you find me to blame? Of what does my non-Communism consist? Of my refusing to live in filth? Of my work forcing me to know every muckworm? Why don’t they prescribe whom one may invite into one’s house, how many chairs one may have, how many pairs of pants a Communist may own?”
Vladimir was raging. He disputed with Vasya, but she was grateful for the opportunity to speak out everything she had been keeping in her heart. She didn’t know herself just what was wrong, but it seemed to her that Vladimir’s life and actions were not those of a Communist. Vladimir was trying to say that business would not go as well if there were no mirrors or rugs in the manager’s home; but she didn’t believe it. She wasn’t convinced that it was necessary to be good friends with Savelyev, or that business went better because Vladimir kissed every woman’s hand.
“So you agree with them? I knew it. I thought so. You didn’t come as my friend, but as my judge. You join in the chorus. And now I know that you despise me as the others do. Why don’t you say so openly? Why do you suppress your rage? Why do you torment me?”
Vladimir was livid, his eyes were flashing. His voice was full of fury and indignation. Vasya did not understand. Why did he flare up so? Wasn’t it permitted to contradict him nowadays? Such conceit! If only he wouldn’t have cause to regret it later.
“Oh, Vasya, Vasya. I didn’t think that of you. I didn’t suppose you’d desert me in my need. But I see I was mistaken. So let everything go to the devil! If I’m destined to perish, all right. Then, at least, everything’ll be over.”
He brought down his fist on the table, upsetting the vase. The fragrant purple masses fell to the floor; a shining rivulet of water flowed over the silk scarf.
“Now, look what you’ve done.”
Waving her away, Vladimir went to the window. He stared out sullenly. Looking at him, Vasya felt great pity for him, as usual. It wasn’t easy for him. But things were hard for every proletarian. it was difficult to see one’s way, to know what was right, what was permissible.
“Let’s stop, Volodya. Why are you so discouraged? It’s too soon for that. This matter still has to be investigated. And you’ve committed no crime. So it’s only a question of your insubordination. Just you wait, I’ll go to the Committee myself and try to find out what the trouble is. Everything’ll be set to rights again.”
Standing beside Vladimir, she laid her hand on his shoulder and tried to look into his face. But he seemed not to notice, stood there gloomily, absorbed in his thoughts. He hadn’t heard her at all. What was the matter with him? Why were they so strange to each other, so little like “comrades”? Vasya brooded silently. All the joy had gone out of her heart. There remained only anxiety, dull, oppressive anxiety.
The next day Vasya went to the Party Committee. The more she had questioned Vladimir the more alarmed she had become. Though the accusations seemed biased they were not to be taken lightly. How would the matter turn out?
Vasya hurried through the strange city, asking the way of passers-by, but wasting not a glance on the sights. She wanted to get to the Party Committee as quickly as possible. She couldn’t get rid of her alarm.
It was in a separate large building. The red flag flying over the entrance. The sign beside the door seemed so familiar, made her feel as if she were at home, in her own province. And suddenly she was happy, yearned to see “her own people.” She didn’t consider the Comrades who visited Vladimir members of the Party.
She asked for the Chairman’s office. The boy at the information table gave her directions.
“Write down your name and why you’ve come. It’s possible that he’ll see you today, but you might have to wait till Thursday.”
What sort of bureaucracy was that? Vasya didn’t like it, but there was nothing she could do about it. Sitting down at a table, she filled out the blank. “Here, take this to the secretary,” the information clerk handed the paper to the office boy. “Go up the stairs, turn to your left. That’ll bring you to the waiting room. Just take a seat there.”
He uttered these directions in a bored voice.
Suddenly he woke up: “Manyka, Manyka, how did you get here?”
She was a half-grown girl, wearing a short skirt and fashionable hat. Her eyes sparkled coquettishly.
“I’m going to see some friends. Why shouldn’t I come to your Party Committee?”
Disapprovingly Vasya appraised her as a street-walker. “In the old days such a creature wasn’t allowed to visit friends in Party Headquarters.”
Vasya walked through the long, bright hall; employees, male and female, hurried past her. There was no inactivity. Everybody was busy. Only she was superfluous.
In the waiting room she was received by the tendant clerk, a beardless youth. With an important air he asked for her name, and looked it up in a record book kept by a hunchback.
“It’s long before your turn. Your business isn’t urgent. You’ll have to wait.”
Vasya sat down in the back. There were others waiting too. Among them several laborers with peaked, miserable faces and threadbare coats. They were engaged in an animated discussion. Evidently a delegation. A tall, well-dressed gentleman with glasses – a specialist, of course – was absorbed in the reading of an old newspaper. A little old woman, a working woman – with a waterproof shawl, was sitting there patiently, sighing.
Then there was a Red Guard, a jolly young fellow in the pink of health. A peasant in a short jacket, and, beside him, a pope in his cassock. Why might he be there?
“It’s your turn, Father,” said the attendant, showing him into the Chairman’s office. “He belongs to the Living Church,” he explained to the rest. “A very clever fellow. He can be useful to us.”
Various clerks came in, bob-haired Communist girls in short, worn-out skirts, bustling back and forth, bringing papers to sign, making inquiries of the attendant. They whispered to him, and ran away again.
A very fashionably dressed woman came in. She behaved like a “fine lady,” but actually she was the wife of a prominent Party worker, and didn’t belong to the Party herself. Vasya knew her. She asked to be shown in before her turn. She had a note from a member of the Central Committee. Having come from Moscow, she had no time to wait. The attendant was firm. But the letterhead of the C. C. seemed to shake him. Finally he said he could not break the rules. If it was a personal matter she would please wait her turn. The “pseudo-lady,” as Vasya thought of her, was indignant. She couldn’t understand these provincial regulations. In Moscow she would have been given an audience immediately. In Moscow they were fighting against bureaucracy, but here! Forever inventing new rules! “Officials!”
She sat down, deeply offended, and carefully smoothed her dress.
A corpulent man rushed in noisily, his cap on the back of his head, his overcoat unbuttoned “A Nep-fellow,” thought Vasya.
“I say, Comrade, what sort of system do you have here? My time is valuable; we’re just making a shipment, and they’re delaying me with all sorts of nonsense. Want me to fill out blanks! Announce me – Konrashev.”
And he threw back his head with a self-satisfied air, as though he were Lenin himself. Vasya felt all her old hatred of the burshuis boiling up in her. That fellow ought to be arrested, to be brought to court. That monkey-face, that impudent monkey-face!
The attendant apologized. But it couldn’t be done. Rules. The Nep-fellow refused to listen. He became insistent in his demands, and won his point secretary went into the other room to announce him. But he returned with fresh apologies.
“The Chairman asks that you take a seat. He has to see two others before you on urgent business.”
“What the devil sort of system is this! And they want a fellow to do business with them! They demand everything of us, and make threats besides. Call us saboteurs. I’d like to know who is committing sabotage here!”
He wiped off his perspiration with his handkerchief. The “pseudo-lady” nodded in approbation. The bespectacled gentleman peered disapprovingly at her from behind his paper. The laborers were busy with their own affairs, as if they hadn’t noticed the noisy Nep-fellow.
They were the next to be called in. After them the “specialist” with the glasses had his turn.
It was a tiresome wait. Going to the window, she looked down into a garden, where two children were running about, chasing a dog. Their high clear voices were audible upstairs.
“Pull Bobka’s tail. Then he’ll howl. But he doesn’t bite. Here, Bobka! Catch him, catch Bobka!...”
Now it was Vasya’s turn. The Chairman was a, small man, hardly visible behind his big desk. He wore a pointed beard and glasses. He was so emaciated that his shoulder bones stood out through his coat.
He glanced ungraciously at Vasya, and gave her his hand without looking up.
“What do you want? Something personal?” He spoke briefly, dryly, as if she had made a plea.
“I’ve come to report at headquarters.” It would be better not to mention Volodya’s affair at first, thought Vasya. He’d never meet her half way.
“I came here a little while ago.”
“So I have heard. Are you here for any length of time?”
“I have a two months’ leave of absence, but I may stay here longer, because of my delicate health.”
“Are you simply resting, or do you want some work?”
As he spoke he didn’t look at Vasya, but arranged his papers. As if to show her that he had no time for idle talk.
“I wouldn’t accept any regular position. But you could use me in your propaganda work.”
“I could use you, yes. We’re beginning the work of transition to a local budget next week. Didn’t I hear that you have specialized in housing problems?” Again he glanced at Vasya, only to return to his papers.
“I’ve worked in the Housing Bureau for two years. I’ve organized some community houses.”
“Ah! That sounds interesting. You must teach us how to make the community houses self-supporting.”
Vasya shook her head. “I can’t do that. When we wanted to become self-supporting everything went to pieces. A community house is on the order of a school to develop the Communist spirit.”
“But, you see, this isn’t the time for such things. Give us a reasonable idea of the cost, a financial estimate, to take the burden of the state budget. But how can you want to combine the housing question with education? We have schools and universities for that.” The Chairman smiled a very superior smile that irritated Vasya.
Suddenly she rose.
“Good day, Comrade.”
This time he looked more carefully at her. Vasya, too, looked coolly into his eyes.
“You might go to the propaganda department, and register there. Then you could stop in the women’s division, they always need workers there.”
“I also wanted to ask you how the matter of Vladimir Ivanovitch stands.” As she asked this she looked keenly at the Chairman. He, too, had his finger in the pie.
“Why, what could I tell you?” Wrinkling his forehead, the Chairman shifted his cigarette to the corner of his crooked mouth. “It’s quite serious. I’ve heard of you, that your standing in the Party is very good. But I’m not the right man to tell you anything about Vladimir Ivanovitch.”
“Of what do you accuse him? Vladimir Ivanovitch has done nothing criminal, couldn’t do anything of that sort.”
“What do you mean by criminal? But I’ve nothing to do with this business. Try to find out something from the S. C. Good-bye.”
He nodded to her, and again buried himself in his papers. Don’t bother me, I’m busy.
Scowling, furious, Vasya left the Chairman. Even a non-Communist wasn’t given such a reception in her province. She had come to her people, and had been treated like a stranger. Vladimir was right. They had become offcials, with the manner of military governors.
Vasya walked on thoughtfully, without even noticing that she had come on a man from home, Michailo Pavlovitch, a worker in the machinery division of the factory where Vasya had been employed.
“By all the saints, what do I see! The fair Vassilissa! Good morning.”
“My dear Michailo Pavlovitch.”
They embraced and kissed.
“Are you visiting your husband?”
“And what are you doing here?”
“I’m cleaning up the Party. I’m a member of the S. C. and we’re forever cleaning up, but we can’t get rid of all the muck.”
He laughed into his red beard. His eyes were warm, cordial. Still good through and through, as he always had been.
Both were delighted, asked and answered questions. Michailo Pavlovitch took Vasya to his cell beside the main entrance. In the good old days the janitor had lived there. Michailo Pavlovitch had settled there temporarily on his arrival, and had stayed there. An insignificant little room: a bed, a basket containing his personal belongings, two chairs, and a table covered with newspapers, glasses and tobacco.
They were glad to have met each other, and their conversation flowed on smoothly. They spoke of friends and comrades. Provincial questions came up; they discussed what was sound and what rotten. They spoke of the Nep, too. Michailo Pavlovitch was thoroughly sick of the Nep. Nor could he stand the Chairman of the provincial Committee.
“A little man, but very proud of himself. ‘I, Me and Company.’ Of course, he’s a hard worker, energetic and not stupid. But he wants to be everything. He’d like to be Chairman of the light that comes in through the window. The workers can’t stomach that. They say that the Congress has decided on democratization, but that our bureaucracy has only increased. There is more fawning and a great deal of gossip. They’re forming cliques that disturb our work, and undermine the authority of the Party. It’s the Chairman’s job to hold them all together impartially, like a father. But he drives people apart.”
“By the way, Michailo Pavlovitch, how do Vladimir’s affairs stand? What is he accused of? Is it serious? Tell me, as a friend.”
Michailo Pavlovitch stroked his red beard. He thought for a while before he answered. “In itself the matter isn’t worth a straw. If our Communists were to be brought to court for such things almost all of them would have to be condemned. The whole trouble is that Vladimir Ivanovitch couldn’t agree with the Chairman from the very beginning. Each insisted on his rights. The Chairman issued orders which Vladimir Ivanovitch did not follow, saying that they were the business of the Party, and did not concern him. ‘I’m not your subordinate, I’m connected with the economic organization only. Let that judge whether I do my work properly.’ There were conflicts, and the matter was taken up in Moscow, where some supported the Chairman while others defended the manager. No definite decision was reached. Both were right.
“So matters went from bad to worse. Neither would give in. Both would send denunciatory letters to Moscow at every opportunity. After things had gone on that way a while there came a commission from Moscow to smooth over the quarrel. They worked out a strict agreement. But the moment the commission had gone the squabbling began all over again.”
Now the matter was before the S. C. Michailo Pavlovitch would try to settle it peaceably. The manager was working in his own domain. The Central Committee was satisfied. And there really was nothing with which he could be charged. There couldn’t be. Michailo was convinced of that. Didn’t he know the “American,” the Anarchist? He still remembered how they had established the Soviet together in ’17, how they had worked together. And as for his living in great style, his unexemplary conduct, and his uncomradelike manner – were any of them without blame in this respect?
However, the Chairman and the other members of the Commission were all for going into the matter, for making an example of the manager, and for showing that the Party didn’t take such things lightly. To discourage others from doing the same.
“But what does Vladimir Ivanovitch do? Is it because his house is nicely furnished? But that isn’t his own; it belongs to the State, and has been put at the disposal of the manager.”
“It’s not only the furnishings. People are wondering where he gets the means to support two households.”
“How has he two households? Do you think that Vladirnir has been supporting me? How could you imagine such a thing? If you really want to know, I’ve even contributed my own money to the household. Because Vladimir can’t manage with his. His work compels us to receive people, to have dinner-guests.”
As Michailo Pavlovitch listened to Vasya she thought she read pity of some sort in his eyes. She didn’t like that. Why should he pity her? Because she was defending the “Anarchist”? Long ago, when she had first become associated with Vladimir, Michailo Pavlovitch had opposed her election.
“Why are you against me? Don’t you believe me? How could you think that I would press him for money?”
“I’m not speaking of you, my darling. But it’s not proper for him to have such objectionable friends.”
He looked searchingly at Vasya as he spoke.
“Are you alluding to Savelyev?”
“Yes, Savelyev, too. And the others.
“Savelyev doesn’t come to us any more. Vladimir has promised me not to have any but business relations with him. And as for the others, it’s all in his work. There are a great many people he doesn’t like, who are strangers to us. But what can he do? They’re in the business, shareholders or technicians.”
“Yew-es!” drawled Michailo Pavlovitch, thoughtfully stroking his beard.
Vasya told him that she, too, couldn’t understand many things. Sometimes she didn’t know herself what was right and what was wrong. What was permissible, and what should a Communist not do? People had changed and so had the work.
She would have liked to stay longer with her friend, but Michailo was sent for to go to the S. C.
As they parted they arranged that Michailo Pavlovitch would acquaint Vasya with his factory boys. As for the question of the manager, he would think it over. But she should understand this: if Vladimir would go on that way he would run the risk of expulsion.