Alexandra Kollontai: A Great Love

ALL this happened long, long ago, at a time when humanity knew nothing of the horrors of war, and the monumental changes of the Revolution still lay in the dim and distant future.

It happened in those years when Russia still writhed in the clutches of darkest reaction, in the days of the Czar; the actors of this little drama were "emigrants," men and women who had been exiled, or had fled from their mother country because of political activity in behalf of the stricken masses of their native land.

Since then a new world has dawned in Russia, but these pitiful, human tragedies still exist.

It is for us to learn and to try to understand.

Seven months, seven long, endless months had passed since last she had seen him. When they had parted, it had been with the firm determination never to meet again.

His head buried in her shoulder and his eyes closed with the agony of their suffering, he had told her of his decision. He no longer had the strength to carry on the struggle, and to bear the constant conflicts their love had brought. His face was so thin, she thought, as she gazed at him, thin and worn with care and suffering, yet pathetically childlike and weak in its abject helplessness.

The doctors had found that his wife was suffering from a serious heart disease and must have absolute rest and freedom from excitement.

"I should feel like a criminal, no, like an executioner, if I caused her the slightest uneasiness. You understand, Natascha, that I must release her from this martyrdom of uncertainty, to give her every chance to recover? .... I can't carry on this deception any longer. Then there are the children. Sascha's sharp little eyes are beginning to suspect... the children must feel that I belong to them unstintingly, with all my heart and soul."

"But is that possible, Ssenja? Can you return to your family after all that has happened between us? Will you be able to forget how near, how dear we have been to each other? Where else will you find that complete, wordless understanding that has bound us together? Won't you be lonely without me?"

There was not a thought of herself in her anxious remonstrances – only of him, and of the life that lay before him.

"What else is there to do? I have no choice! Will I be lonely, Natascha? My heart will be cold and miserable – oh, more than I can tell you." He drew her close into his arms and closed his eyes in silence. "Natascha, I see no other way." As if to drive away the troubled thoughts, his lips sought hers with a man's searching, coaxing kisses, and her heart responded in anxious, troubled willingness.

It did not occur to her to resist his pleading caresses, although unconsciously she was disturbed, aye, almost offended by them.

On a dreary, rainy day they had parted. She had decided to leave on an early train and had already risen from the bed on which he still lay calmly asleep. She glanced at him occasionally as she automatically dressed and packed her belongings, and her soul was frozen and numb with bitterness.

"Already?" he asked in astonishment, when she came, in hat and coat, to bid him good-bye.

She sat down on the bed beside him and softly stroked his forehead, as a mother fondles her child when it is ill.

"Why this hurry to get away? Must you go this morning? Come, stay till this evening, and see me off. You can take the night train."

It was the whim of a man spoiled by the self-effacing adoration and rivalry of two loving women.

At any other time, she reflected, she would have responded to this plea for another hour of her presence, for a single hour of her time, with impassioned gratitude. Somehow, in this grim hour of leave-taking, however, his request struck her as unfair.

"You know why I must take the morning train. If I wait until this evening, I shall be late for the party meeting to-morrow."

"And what if you are? Would that be such a great misfortune? They will manage without you."

He drew her down to the bed and kissed her, but she refused to respond to his blandishments. A thrust, like that of a long, fine needle, had penetrated her heart. Would he never realize how cruelly such thoughtless remarks could hurt? How was it possible for a comrade to speak so slightingly of her work for their common cause, when he must feel that it, alone, would give her the strength to endure this last, irrevocable break, this final parting?

As she sat in the train that was bearing her away from him forever, looking out of the window through a fine net-work of rain into the unfamiliar landscape of a strange country, she still writhed under the restless, depressing hurt in her heart. His unkind words and the off-hand gesture with which he had dismissed her work overshadowed the anguish of this last, decisive parting.

So this was the importance he attached to her work for the cause? "They would get along without her!" The thought persisted, and would not be shaken off. Not until evening, when the shadows fell and the compartment emptied, as the travelers, one by one, arrived at their various destinations, did she begin to feel the misery of their parting. She sobbed bitterly at the thought that she would never see his tender, thoughtful, intelligent eyes again, and mourned for his smile, his gentle smile that sat so strangely on the face of this self-confident, universally admired man.

In parting they had promised not to write, and to make no attempt to see each other again.

"Only remember that I am in the world somewhere," she had tried to console him. "If ever you should need me. .. ." She had not been able to finish the sentence, but his deeply grateful look told her that he understood.

At the time it had all seemed so clear in its inevitability. Now she could not believe that it was true, as one cannot grasp the death of a beloved person until long after he is gone.

It was not the first time that they had decided to part. But always after two or three weeks of silence, a telegram or a letter filled with wild longing, self-reproach and urgent pleading had called her back to his side.

He needed her, he missed the hours of fruitful discussion with her that helped him to clear up his own ideas and to plan his work.

More than once, after such a parting, she had received a letter that plunged, without even the formality of an introductory salutation, into some difficulty that his task presented – a continuation, as it were, of some previously considered matter. Such letters invariably closed with a persuasive plea for a new rendezvous. How much of the romance of their love lay in this assurance that she was essential for his work!

This time, day had followed day, month followed month, without a line, without a message from him.

She plunged into her activities with rebellious pertinacity, trying to overcome the indifference that refused to be shaken off. Bit by bit, as her work threw her together with others similarly engaged, who lived for the same problems and responded to the same interests, her drooping spirits revived. Days came and went in which, she discovered with amazement, she did not once think of him, nor did she know whether or not to regret that this was so. Only late in the evening when she opened the door to her room, the lonely room of an "unattached" woman, after an exhausting day of intense application, the old, well-known nostalgia would take possession of her.

Sometimes, in spite of physical exhaustion, she would write to him, long, throbbing letters that reflected the weary body and the lonesome, forsaken soul that called to him for comfort. ... "Ssenjetschka, Ssenjetschka! You must feel how terribly alone I am! Why did you leave me? It is so disheartening to be so forsaken. Surely you might have remained my friend and comrade. I would gladly have given Anjuta all your solicitude, all your tenderness and your caresses for a little warmth, for a little human, friendly warmth...."

They were never sent to him, these letters, but it eased her heart, and gave her relief to pour out her woes to him. While she wrote she felt so convincingly that only outward, tangible considerations had come between them, that she would find warmth and understanding in his nearness if he were not so far away, if he but lived here in the same city with her, where they could meet as comrades and friends.

At such times Natascha forgot the restlessness that troubled her when she was with him, forgot that trouble and lonesomeness no longer vanished in his presence, that she would always have to stand alone, face to face with life, that she would always have to be strong for both of them, to bear their common burdens. She forgot that the days she spent with him demanded redoubled energy, that she always left him weary, exhausted, and glad to be able to return, unhampered, to the work she loved. ...

Source: A Great Love, The Vanguard Press, New York, 1929;
Translated: Lily Lore;
First Published: 1923;
Online Version: 2001;
Transcription/Markup: Sally Ryan.


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