Aleksandra Kollontai is most famous as a revolutionary, women’s liberation activist and a Soviet diplomat. However, she was also a writer of fiction. In this article I will briefly discuss her fiction writing. Unfortunately it is rather difficult to discuss without delving into the much broader topic of Soviet family policy and Kollontai’s career and theoretical development – something which is simply beyond the scope of this article and I’ll have to discuss later separately.
Kollontai’s fiction writing deals exclusively with issues of women’s rights, love, morality and relationships among revolutionaries in the old capitalist society and the new socialist society under construction. Kollontai described her novel Red Love in the following way: “This novel is… a purely psychological study of sex-relations in the post-war period.” (Preface to the English edition of Red Love, 1927)
Her fiction has received extremely mixed responses, for reasons that will become evident.
Red Love aka Vasilisa Malygina (1923) is Kollontai’s earliest novel. Without stating it openly, the novel actually discusses Kollontai’s love-affair with Pavel Dybenko, a Soviet soldier. As such, the novel is somewhat interesting from a historical point of view, although it does take liberties from real life. However, as a work of art the novel leaves a lot to be desired.
The protagonists are both revolutionaries and the story focuses entirely on their troubled relationship. They are both busy, exhausted, have differing political ideas, but unfortunately the story doesn’t rebut wrong political ideas effectively enough.
The character representing Dybenko, named Vladimir in the story, is described as holding anarchist ideas and being unable to follow discipline. This matches the real life Dybenko accurately*. In general the story is quite true to real life: the characters fall passionately in love, but are not compatible.
Vladimir is stupid, immature, cheats on Vasilisa constantly, and cannot take care of his own responsibilities. Vasilisa is responsible, ascetic, extremely hard working and busy, politically a romantic with ultra-left leanings (a true depiction of Kollontai at that point in her career).
Vladimir constantly complains that their life is not enjoyable, they work too hard, are too poor, cannot afford luxuries. He eventually becomes a director under the NEP. He accumulates money and begins to live lavishly, hangs out with black-marketeers and hires prostitutes. As a result he is constantly in trouble with the party and state control commissions, who accuse him of living a bourgeois life and breaking the law.
While that segment is motivated by Kollontai’s ultra-left attempt to oppose the NEP, her criticism against nepmen is basically legitimate and she correctly portrays the party’s negative attitude to abuses of the NEP.
Eventually Vasilisa and Vladimir separate, since Vasilisa cannot tolerate Vladimir’s affairs with other women. However, she also begins to sympathise with the bourgeois woman that Vladimir has an affair with. This part of the story develops the notion of “sisterhood” among women regardless of class. Kollontai struggled with this concept and it was found questionable by Soviet critics.
During war-communism Kollontai had advocated for the rapid abolition or withering away of private families and private homes. This was supposed to be entirely voluntary and facilitated by the creation of state institutions for raising of children (children’s villages etc.). However, this quite unrealistic and ultra-left idea was abandoned during the NEP because of practical problems, and in particular, problems with lack of funds. Kollontai discovered that the withering away of the family would take an entire historical epoch and would not be rapid.
Reflecting Kollontai’s ultra-collectivist anti-family views the story ends with Vasilisa realising she is pregnant with Vladimir’s child and deciding to raise it herself, or rather, without a man, collectively with other women:
“All by myself? The organization will bring it up. We’ll fix up a nursery. And I’ll bring you over to work there. You like children, too. Then it’ll be our baby. We’ll have it in common.”
The collection Love of Worker Bees (1924) contains the story “Sisters”, which explores the roots of sex-work and places the blame on men who hire such services, rather than on the sex-workers themselves.
The collection also contains the more famous (or rather infamous) story “The loves of three generations”. This story discusses the differences in moral attitudes among three generations of progressive women: Maria, a 19th century reformer with narodnik views, Maria’s daugther Olga, a middle-aged Soviet revolutionary, and Olga’s daugther Genia (sometimes translated Zhenia), a young communist radical.
The story takes a rather neutral or “objectivist” stance, which was condemned by Soviet critics. The story does not put forward a marxist position, but simply presents the three women’s points of view, almost without comment. However, Kollontai was accused of sympathising with the young radical view, due to her other statements and writings.
Maria holds clearly bourgeois, conservative and sentimental views, Olga holds the modest and common place views that were mainstream among Soviet leaders, while Genia holds basically libertene, morally nihilist vulgar views.
In reality, Kollontai did not sympathise with Genia in full. Kollontai presents Genia as a possible representative of experimental revolutionary morality, as a possible representative of the new generation that would eventually discover what the morality and sex-relations of the future communist society are. Kollontai realised that Genia’s views are problematic and erroneous, but she did not critique them, partially because she did not know how.
As remarked by Lenin and Clara Zetkin, the so-called “glass of water theory” had gained some popularity among radicals in the 1920s. According to this view, love-relationships were basically meaningless and sex was a merely utilitarian act, a physical necessity such as drinking a glass of water. This lead to innumerable negative consequences, and those who disagreed with it were harassed as “bourgeois”. Kollontai was never explicitly identified with the supporters of this theory, her work was merely somewhere adjacent to it.
“This theory really gained popularity in the RSFSR in the early 20s, but Kollontai never promoted it.” (Life.ru, Evgeny Antonyuk, Diplomat and sex revolutionary. The first Soviet feminist Alexandra Kollontai)
“As a communist I have not the least sympathy for the glass of water theory, although it bears the fine title ‘satisfaction of love’. In any case, this liberation of love is neither new, nor communist. You will remember that about the middle of the last century it was preached as the ‘emancipation of the heart’ in romantic literature. In bourgeois practice it became the emancipation of the flesh. At that time the preaching was more talented than it is today, and as for the practice, I cannot judge. I don’t mean to preach asceticism by my criticism. Not in the least. Communism will not bring asceticism, but joy of life, power of life, and a satisfied love life will help to do that. But in my opinion the present widespread hypertrophy [extreme growth] in sexual matters does not give joy and force to life, but takes it away. In the age of revolution that is bad, very bad.
“Young people, particularly, need the joy and force of life. Healthy sport, swimming, racing, walking, bodily exercises of every kind, and many-sided intellectual interests. Learning, studying, inquiry, as far as possible in common. That will give young people more than eternal theories and discussions about sexual problems and the so-called ‘living to the full’. Healthy bodies, healthy minds. Neither monk nor Don Juan, nor the intermediate attitude of the German philistines.” (Zetkin, Lenin on the Women’s Question)
In reality Kollontai considered love to be extremely important, but she argued that lovers should not feel any jealousy, should not “possess” each other, should be entirely free in their actions as individuals. As Engels recognised “lovers feel that non-possession and separation are a great, if not the greatest, calamity” (Origin of the family, private property and the state). Kollontai constantly tormented herself due to her inability to not feel jealousy over the unfaithfulness of her partners – a tragic result of her somewhat misguided notion of what the “human of the future” should be: a crudely collectivist person who feels no exclusive right to her partner.
Kollontai actually advocated individualist views, and always felt threatened that her freedom would be limited. However, she more explicitly voiced ultra-collectivist views (which in fact, were also mere bourgeois-aristocratic individualist views turned upside down), as she frequently stressed the party and society were always more important than love. This had a certain similarity to the glass of water theory, which stated sex was a mere physical necessity.
Kollontai frequently expressed the view that revolutionaries do not have time for romantic relationships, and thus other, casual sex relationships are suitable. This was very close to the advocates of the glass of water theory. At the other extreme of the debate, revolutionary E. Yaroslavsky, the leader of the militant atheist league, ridiculed the libertenes and said that in prison he had been forced into complete celibacy for years, and “it hadn’t harmed him”.
“Kollontai’s critics reminded readers of her “Letters to Working Youth,” which offered the image of a commune where one could love more than one partner, and her “Liubov’ trekh pokolenii,” [Loves of three generations] which featured Zhenia, the “new woman” who had lovers but no time to fall in love…
Iaroslavskii… warned that it was for bourgeois not proletarian youth to flit from flower to flower indulging in Kollontai’s “love of the worker bees.” In fact, Iaroslavskii recalled, for eight or nine years he sat in prison and sexual abstinence had done him no harm” (Farnsworth, Aleksandra Kollontai: Socialism, Feminism and the Bolshevik Revolution, pp. 354-355)
The topic of Soviet family police is too broad and complicated to discuss here, and involves topics such as child raising, divorce, alimony etc. but we must explain where Kollontai’s views fit in the Soviet ideological landscape.
Although policy and emphasis changed during different periods (war-communism, NEP, socialist construction, post-wwii) the marxist-leninist view developed in the Soviet Union was that the family will continue to exist for a while, although in a qualitatively different form in socialism, that the family had an important function in raising children and upholding society, that in socialism relationships ought to be exclusively based on love and comradery, that women were equal to men and should become educated and get a job, should not be economically reliant on men, that there was no necessary antagonism between individuals and society.
There was universal agreement that women were oppressed by being shut inside the home. They needed to be given the opportunity to get educated, engage in politics and in social production. However, since private child rearing was not abolished and neither were private homes, and women still more often contributed more to maintaining the household, it was necessary to give women special support. Alongside private homes, collective child nurseries, laundromats and diners were established near homes and work places. Family members and spouses were obligated to support each other by law, and in the case of divorce men were ordered to pay substantial alimony. Since the 1940s the state created an insurance fund to support single mothers – an idea which Kollontai had advocated in a somewhat extremist form in the 1920s.
Kollontai had opposed the idea of alimony on grounds that it made women seem less respectable. However, other women revolutionaries did not agree. Vinogradovskaia responded to Kollontai on the alimony issue by accusing her of letting men off the hook, shouting “let them pay!”. Kollontai had wanted the fund to include all women, not only single mothers. She had also called for marriage economic contracts. It was deemed impossible to fund such a system in the 20s, especially without alimony. The economic contracts for marriage were also deemed totally impractical, because peasant women wouldn’t have the knowledge, and wouldn’t dare, to defend their rights adequately.
“Individual schemes for children’s homes and children’s towns varied. L. N. Sabsovich, who advocated separation of children from parents from the earliest years, derided as petty bourgeois those who, speaking of biological ties, did not love all children as their own. A radical pamphlet, probably written by Sabsovich, insisted that “one of the first results of the socialization of our education must be that children shall not live with their parents. From . . . birth they are to be in special children’s homes in order to remove them . . . from the harmful influence of parents and family. We ought to have special children’s towns.”
For the majority of Communists these were unwelcome fantasies. [Lenin’s wife, and revolutionary leader] Krupskaia pronounced the dominant reaction to such “leftist” ideas about the family. “Men and women workers are right to refuse to give their children to children’s towns. Socialist education must be organized so that parents and teachers both can take part in it.” There is reason to think that Lenin wished to see an end to individual housekeeping but not to the individual family. His famous conversation in 1920 with Clara Zetkin suggested as much. One Communist has insisted that Lenin, like Krupskaia… seizing upon Marx’s reference to a “higher form of the family,” inferred that the disappearance of the individual household meant not the end of marriage and the family but rather their transformation to a purified form free from [economic] considerations and patriarchal inequalities.” (Farnsworth, p. 155)
Kollontai eventually agreed with the prevailing Soviet position in the 1940s. Certain of her positions were adopted in modified form. In the 20s she had belonged to the opportunist “Worker Opposition”, despite her disagreements with some of its leaders. The said opposition had called for a “producer congress” which would organize the economy free from the party or state. This was condemned as syndicalism.
The group’s other demands included universal suffrage in party organizations, for ending the NEP, for ousting bourgeois specialists, for proletarization of the party etc. These positions were ultra-left in the conditions of 1921, but Kollontai was satisfied when, under Stalin’s leadership, universal voting rights in the party were established in 1935, NEP was ended in 1928 and bourgeois specialists ousted, and the party proletarianized. For a more detailed discussion of these issues, a separate article is required.
The reason why “The loves of three generations” was attacked by critics is that it seemed to advocate complete moral nihilism, or at least did not denounce behavior that the entire Soviet establishment saw as deeply societally harmful. In the most infamous scene of the story Genia explains that she is having sex with her mother’s boyfriend Andrei. Genia considers this completely justifiable, feels absolutely no regret, feels absolutely no love or attachment towards Andrei either and sees it simply as a physical act:
“”But did you never think of me?” Olga Sergejewna had asked her. “You never thought of what I might think of your relations with Andrei?”
“‘But why should that make any difference? You wanted us to be friends. You were happy when you saw that I liked him and he liked me. Where is the border-line of friendship? Why should we be allowed to live together, to have good times together, and not to kiss one another? We have taken nothing that belongs to you. Andrei worships you as he always worshiped you. I have not taken a single spark of the feeling he has for you. That I kissed him…? Have you time for him,? Mother, surely you do not want to chain Andrei so firmly to yourself that he may not enjoy life while you are away! That is not love. That is a selfish desire for possession. Grandmother’s bourgeois training speaks in you there. That is unjust.””
Kollontai’s last fiction work was the novel A great love (1927), which actually tells about her affair with the menshevik economist Maslov in the early 1900s. Maslov was married while this took place. This is quite a depressive story with very little artistic merit. The story is fairly accurate of what really took place. Maslov, according to Kollontai, basically held misogynist and conservative views. In general Kollontai’s work is overly personal and seems rather more therapeutic for her, than art for the masses.
A rather strange myth has developed out of this story, however: “The story “A Great Love”… is often thought to be a depiction of the supposed relationship between Lenin and Inessa Armand, but it is actually a reflection on Kollontai’s own relationship with the Menshevik ideologue Maslov.” (Soma Marik, The Love of Worker Bees in Historical Context, p. 12)
The Merits of Kollontai’s Fiction
Kollontai’s fiction is extremely mixed. While the works (almost without exception) advocate for Soviet socialism and revolution, and can appeal to a certain section of the population, they cannot be considered socialist realism.
“Already in the Literary Encyclopedia, published in 1931, it was said about Kollontai: “K. builds a naive sociology of love of previous social formations, eventually establishing a “proletarian morality” … Essentially, K.’s ethical theories have nothing to do with proletarian morality. As an artist, K. is of no interest”.” (Antonyuk, Ibid.)
Kollontai’s fiction works became quite popular in pre-revolutionary China and other countries, shaking the pillars of bourgeois morality and bourgeois society. While this did not have an unambiguously positive effect, they did stimulate the intellectual revolt of those times, at least in limited intelligentsia circles.
The works are not entirely without value even today, but they have glaring problems, on top of not forming a substantial artistic corpus, but only a relatively small number of works by someone who was primarily not a fiction writer. The works were published largely in the 20s, but also re-published or even re-translated in the west by bourgeois anti-communists, with slanderous introductions added to the texts in an attempt to turn Kollontai into an anti-marxist and anti-Soviet “dissident”.
Despite the criticisms of Kollontai’s fiction and some of her theories, she was a dedicated and heroic revolutionary, a theoretician with a long career, not free from errors but also rich in successes, a legendary diplomat and fighter for peace and women’s liberation, awarded with the Order of Lenin in 1933 and Order of the Red Banner of Labour in 1945.
*Dybenko was expelled from the party in the Lenin era and charged with treason and to be court martialed, due to his sabotage of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, but the charge was dropped and he was accepted back during the civil war. He was later expelled again and charged with treason again, this time for real, and executed.