‘Oh, come on now! It won’t be such a tragedy if you’re a little late! They’ll manage very nicely without you, you know.’ Moving closer to her he’d started to nibble her ear and then, with mounting passion, to kiss her neck. But she hadn’t responded. His words had stung her and she thought of all the other occasions when he’d referred so disparagingly to her work for the Party – their Party; she wondered if he’d ever understand that it was only out of a sense of total commitment to her political work that she derived the strength to endure their separation for good.
Conflicts and confusions between work and love are expressed by all the women in the six stories by Alexandra Kollontai which Virago have published recently in two volumes. Here, the nibbling and insensitive lover is Senya. The ear and neck are Natasha’s. When ‘A Great Love’, the long short story in which they appear, was published in 1923 Kollontai had already held office in Lenin’s government and was beginning the long period of political isolation, both for her views on feminism and for her bold stand against Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which was to last until her death in 1952. She had written and spoken out on both issues. The story, though, is set in the period before the Revolution, when Lenin and some of his followers were living in exile in France. Senya is the leading intellectual of the exiled Bolshevik Party. Natasha works, less exaltedly, for the same cause. The pair are presumed to be portraits of Lenin himself and Inessa Armand, who was Kollontai’s friend and politically active on behalf of women. Lenin is thought by many, and Kollontai made no bones about believing it, to have had an adulterous affair with Armand between 1911 and 1913. Kollontai is usually exhortatory rather than subtly exploratory in her fiction. She is here too: but this story, for all its moralising and partiality, is often funny as well as serious, strikingly better than the others, and though ‘mounting passion’ is not the only solecism, the irony of the title does seep into parts of the story itself.
Senya, round-shouldered and rarely seen without his floppy peaked cap, is married to Anyuta, less a Krupskaya than an ailing and querulous wife and mother. Natasha has been welcomed into the family as Senya’s young, pretty and well-born supporter. The story begins when the affair has seemed to be over for several months. Senya has ponderously reminded Natasha of his marital obligations, and they have agreed to end it all. Although she has written – but not posted – passionate letters to him, she is beginning to recall the affronts of the affair more readily than its delights. Now she receives imperious orders to join him in a resort in the South of France. Exasperated, but unable to refuse, she goes about the difficult task of borrowing money for the trip and for her stay with Senya. She cannot confess her reason for needing money and she is embarrassed to leave the group with which she works, since her commitment to them has grown in part out of a need to make herself indispensable to them and to counter their criticism that ‘Lady Natasha’s nothing but a dilettante!’
Despite ‘those wonderfully intelligent eyes of his’ and his brilliance and originality as a political thinker – qualities we are required to take on trust – Senya is made an absurd figure as well as an insensitive one. Their reunion after a long separation begins uncomfortably and deteriorates during the weeks they spend together. He makes her walk behind him to the hotel in case they meet anyone they know. Once in the shabby bedroom he has booked for her, he fells her to the bed before she has removed her hat and then sets about her like some leery dog, playful without being endearing. He has booked another room for himself, since he plans to fill his days working at the home of a professor living in the town and he will need nights uninterrupted by what he likes to believe are her insatiable demands. Kollontai does not bless her passionate and dedicated women with lovers remarkable for their charm or talent. The Nepman husband in ‘Vasilisa Malygina’ is a scoundrel and a philanderer, though he does have long eyelashes. Another lover is a bully, another holds impossible opinions. Senya is just an intellectual, whose authority and rousing speeches first seduced Natasha. It is no surprise that before long he is denying her the fruits of his intelligence (such as it is). His days with the professor stretch into evening and night time, and he exults woundingly in the ‘real intellectual stimulation’ the professor is able to provide. Cut off from her work and her friends, Natasha is confined to the hotel with nothing to do. She has always known that he could be obtuse, naive, silly: she begins to realise that there may not be much to compensate for this. She rehearses having things out, sober explanations of her resentment. When she wakes him one night she is dismissed with the words: ‘Surely that’s enough kisses for one night.’
Blundering affection, sexual crassness, failures of understanding in men collide in the stories with the generous love of women: a picture which it is easy enough to resist – but Kollontai is sometimes good at suggesting the problems for both men and women of believing in it. Senya has the vulnerability of someone who, for most of his life, is acclaimed and powerful. Sexually he is inept, inexperienced and without confidence, and Natasha is touched by and attracted to exactly the part of him which exhibits his dependence on her, even his deference. He is allowed to realise, fleetingly and secretly, that his wife’s unhappiness and Natasha’s might be the counsequence of his ‘inability to relate sexually to women’. He is not, of course, able to admit this, either to Natasha or to his wife. Natasha’s resentment grows from the discrepancy between his public arrogance and his private uncertainties, but also from her own participation in this muddle. She first loved him for being a great man who also grovellingly needed her.
The best passage in the story describes the three days when Senya fails altogether to return to the hotel. Natasha’s anxiety and anger suspend her from her own life, expose shockingly her possessiveness, intolerance and dependence. Eventually a brief note alerts her to his having been ill. His concern for her had been outweighed by his wish to keep their affair from the professor. A gasp of outrage turns instantly to maternal tenderness for a man so childish and self-centred in his treatment of her. Her own vanity, the knowledge that a discussion of her feelings will be blocked by charges of hysteria, of behaving just like his wife, make it impossible for her to continue with the affair. The ‘great love’ is over. Natasha decides to go home, settling into the train and to her papers with relief. Work will, for the time being, absorb her. In the last sentence Kollontai addresses the men it is hard to believe ever have or ever would read her stories: ‘So learn from this, all you men who have made woman suffer through your blindness, and know that if you injure a woman’s heart you will kill her love!’
The message that work, and especially Party work, is a woman’s salvation is repeated too often in the stories to carry conviction. Kollontai dealt with the social implications of that message elsewhere in her writing, and she was clearly not blind to the trouble women had, especially during the early revolutionary period, in moving towards a personal and economic independence which might also make love or marriage or the bearing of children difficult or even impossible. She understood that sexual love and domesticity could confer power on women even as they enslaved them, and that relinquishing that potential power, if men were unwilling to support women in this, could make them as vulnerable to economic constraints as they had been in marriage. She was unusual among socialist feminists of the period in insisting that women must first confront the dilemma this posed for them as individuals, and her best fiction locates this general dilemma in the lives of women who, like herself, had choices but still found it hard to extricate themselves from notions of womanliness promoted, perhaps, by men, but accepted by women.
Natasha, in ‘A Great Love’, is at least as much Kollontai herself as she is Inessa Armand, and the story works best when she is exploring Natasha’s confusions rather than inveighing against male failings. The love affair is scuppered by her own expectations and needs, by her vanity in wishing to behave better than Senya’s wife, by her loving his fame and power, by her needing to be taken seriously as an intellectual, by her longing for romantic decorums, post-coital tenderness. She has fallen in love with the wrong man and for the wrong reasons. Kollontai herself had a long affair with the considerably younger Dybenko, who was famously romantic and a soldier. Cathy Porter quotes Lenin as saying of this liaison: ‘I will not vouch for the reliability or endurance of women whose love affairs are intertwined with politics.’ Stalin was more explicit and sneering. Trotsky remembers that ‘Stalin, with whom I had never before had a personal conversation, now came up, with unusual jauntiness, and jabbing with his shoulder at the partition, said leering: “That’s him in there with Kollontai! He’s in there with Kollontai!” His gestures and laughter seemed unendurably vulgar and out of place.’
Kollontai seems always to have responded with dignity to attacks like these. She was abused for seeming to promote a new promiscuity. In fact, she seems to have explored different ways in which women might reconcile love with independence and to have wished above all to encourage women to relinquish their possessiveness of men, as much for self-protection as for new freedoms. In ‘A Great Love’ she may have been getting her own back on Lenin and on those of her lovers who were also political colleagues. She was divided on these subjects, and this carries over into her fiction, producing what can at times seem like women’s romance tricked out to persuade and instruct, at others like pamphlets decorated with cast and plot for propaganda purposes.
Cathy Porter, Kollontai’s biographerand the translator of the stories, admits that in working on the longest of them, ‘Vasilisa Malygina’, she felt compelled to lengthen its sentences. Even so that story is often like a reading primer for illiterate girls. Kollontai records her early reading of Tolstoy’s moral tales and Chernychevsky. She meant to preach. There were aspects of her own experience and of women’s experience generally which she found hard to account for in her speeches and articles, most of which were written within the context of an angry debate about the relation of feminism to socialism and the need for a primarily economic or legalistic tackling of the issues. What is good, as well as what is bad, about her stories comes out of a wish to say something else to women, something beyond the purely political. The outraged response of many of her male colleagues in government testifies to the necessity of saying it. She did not quite manage to. What she did was to show that intelligent, committed women who loved men found it impossible to express their dilemma to the men they worked with in politics, but were not yet ready, in her view, to join with other women to oppose a tyranny in which they conspired. It is still hard to think of many writers who have said it much better.