I read this book in hopes it would provide a model for writing revolutionary fiction. That it wasn’t. But much of the book was compelling.
Kollontai was required reading for Second Wave Feminists, but back in the Sixties-Seventies, I was too busy organizing to read fiction. How foolish of me. Her male characters, in distant Russia of 1917-1921, are so familiar. I met every one of them in radical left groups I worked with–Students for a Democratic Society, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, International Ladies Garment Workers, Progressive Labor Party, and the Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee. Kollontai’s fiction would have taught me to recognize behavior and attitudes that prevented women from being full partners in the revolution we believed we were creating.
The book consists of a novella and two short stories. The style does not pull today’s reader into any of them. We have to wade through pages of flat narration in the novella before before we see and hear the protagonist face to face. But once we do, her story is gut wrenchingly familiar. While young women today might grow impatient with the protagonist, Vasilisa, as she persisted in deceiving herself with false hopes, I know too well how those hopes can distort our vision. Repeatedly, her husband Vladimir ignored her, was dishonest with her, and adopted the values and lifestyle of the class enemy they had fought together to defeat. Repeatedly she knew their relationship as comrades was over and vowed to leave him. Yet, each time, she forgave him, blamed herself for doubting him, and believed they were as happy and close as they had been during the revolution. Then, again, he would betray their relationship.
What kind of a fool is she? a millennial might ask. What kind of a fool were we? I ask.
Women who grew up after our dreams for a new, just, and cooperative society were defeated probably cannot comprehend the pain Vasillisa felt at what today would be accepted as a friend’s healthy rejection of political correctness. Vasilisa and millions of other Russians believed. They hoped. And they fought for a future in which all humanity could live freely and fully. With equal access to productive resources. And with a full and active voice in making economic and political decisions. They shared a passionate, collective love for the new society they were building. Vasillisa and Vladimir also shared a personal, sexual love. So when he betrayed communist ideals, he betrayed her. Someone who never experienced that passionate comradeship couldn’t know her pain.
Kollontai was writing for the millions of women who did know it. She was also writing for me.
The failure of the book, I believe, was in its failure to draw a full picture of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which, after the Civil War and the invasion of the Soviet Union by U.S. and European armies, opened a large part of the economy to private ownership. She refers repeatedly to Nepmen but gives little information about the hardships of the war economy or of how NEP re-instituted a class society and class antagonisms. If those events and policies had been in the book, women today might have at least an intellectual understanding of what Kollontai’s protagonist went through.
What appears to be a bookend to Love of Worker Bees, Svetlana Alexieivich’s Nobel Prize winning non-fiction Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets is now out as an ebook. Unfortunately, it’s published by Random House, and like all the New York publishers, Random House charges outrageous prices for ebooks. I look forward to reading it when it’s available from the library.