Revolutionary Ideals in Fiction: a review of Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees5 min read
Alexandra Kollontai was one of the earlier Bolsheviks, joining the party already in 1915 and as one of the few Old Bolsheviks to survive Stalin’s purges, she was a writer not only of political texts, but also of fiction.
Her book Love of Worker Bees was published for the first time in 1924 and consists of three short stories taking place in the New Economic Policy (NEP) era of the Soviet Union. The novel depicts issues encountered by women living in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and while it may seem to be historical in nature, many of the themes are still timely in 2021.
Three stories for everyone
In the book’s introduction, the translator, Cathy Porter, who also wrote a biography on Kollontai, mentions that the original text was written in very simple sentences, so that it might appeal to a wide range of readers regardless of their reading level. Therefore, it can be seen as a form of propaganda through fiction, by showing the ideals of the “new Soviet woman”, her qualities and activities, in an accessible way. Indeed, while the language feels a bit simplistic, it is still an interesting read.
The first of the three stories in the book, and also its principal, Vasya Malygina, follows the character Vasya. A hard-working communist, Vasya is married to the anarchist Vladimir, lovingly called Volodya by his wife. Vladimir works as a director, and at the start of the story Vasya travels to live with him. However, while their reunion has been long awaited, many issues befall them. Vasya feels that the couple has changed, and when she discovers that Vladimir has a mistress, she feels lost. Yet, it is not only Vladimir’s infidelity that troubles Vasya, but also issues of class and politics.
The two shorter stories, Three Generations and Sisters, also touch upon matters of the heart. In Three Generations, a loyal communist worker struggles with the relationship that has developed between her younger husband and her own daughter. Meanwhile Sisters centers around a woman who leaves her husband and contemplates prostitution in order to survive.
In all the three stories we encounter the ideal communist woman, who is hard-working and engaged in politics. This is especially the case in the first story. As Vasya reflects on her life throughout the book, she feels she is not complete without work. Leaving her home to go to work, she feels “released from a cage.”
Throughout her political works, Kollontai argued that the way for women to become emancipated was through waged labour – to be freed from household chores and to instead engage in public life. This is a position that previously had been voiced by Friedrich Engels and August Bebel, whose writings provided the basis for much of the Soviet ideology on women. Meanwhile, Vasya’s opposition – her husband’s mistress Nina, is everything but a communist. Nina is “a lady, a bourgeois, a class enemy”, and the two women are in many ways depicted as total opposites.
In the first story, Vasya Malygina, Vasya arrives at her husband Vladimir’s new house in the town where he is the director of a company, and is instantly overwhelmed by the way it is decorated. The house is large, there are silk sheets on the bed, and he has not one, but two servants. Several times, she mentions how she finds it all a bit much.
The revolutionary Bolsheviks were encouraging asceticism and simplicity in both clothing and interior design, ideals to which Vasya subscribes to as well. In the story, she wants her husband to justify why he is living such a bourgeois lifestyle, and why he is not living as a proper communist. When the two reunite, their clashing ideals further complicate the relationship.
Throughout the story of Vasya, the main character emphasises how her husband is her friend, her best friend even. While Russian society prior to the revolution had been very patriarchal, the period after 1917 was meant to bring about emancipation and love on equal terms. The Bolshevik government introduced easier processes to divorce and acknowledged de facto marriages.
These changes can in some ways be seen as an attempt to protect women and make men liable to pay alimony for any children they might have. Nevertheless, the ideal, especially promoted by Kollontai, was that marriage should be between equals and while many Bolsheviks still supported a more traditional family view, Kollontai advocated a freer form of love. The ideal of freer forms of love can be seen in the second story, when the daughter of the protagonist engages in sexual relations of her “own free will.”
Again returning to the first story, Vasya, after having left Vladimir due to their differences, goes back to her hometown. Upon return, she soon finds out that she is pregnant. However, in the new revolutionary Soviet Union she has nothing to fear, and while her friend advises her to reunite with Vladimir, Vasya instead takes on a new job and decides to raise her baby the communist way, with the help of various social services provided by the state, such as creches and kindergartens.
When abortion first was legalised in the Soviet Union, as the first country in the world to do so, the underlying argument had been that this was only a temporary solution. Abortion was once again criminalised under Stalin in 1936, the argument being that socialism had been attained, and under socialist conditions there would be no need for women to have abortions, since the state would take care of the child. This is portrayed in Vasya’s story, as she as a single mother does not need to worry about raising a child.
In the end, what especially made the book worth reading was the context of it, written in the early Soviet era, by a Bolshevik who was at the forefront of the movement and part of the Central Committee. The book says a lot about the ideals put forward for communist women in the early Soviet Union, regarding how to act and behave in post-revolutionary society.
While at points the writing seemed quite simplistic, the themes treated in the text are similar to the issues people deal with in contemporary times – love, navigating relationships, and work. Although the story of Vasya takes the main stage, the other two tales complement Vasya’s in depicting the lives and struggles of Soviet women.
Book details: Kollontai, Alexandra. Love of Workers Bees, Chicago Review Press, 2005. It is available to buy here.