WHEN THE exhilarating October 25 session of the Congress of Soviets was over, a sobering reality confronted Kollontai: she and her comrades had to begin to govern. The Bolsheviks had taken power quickly; now they must hold it, in the face of the same problems that had brought down Kerensky. They had no experience in administration and no well-formulated plans. Kollontai later described the Bolshevik leaders to a friend by saying, “We were so few that we could all sit on the same sofa.”1 The seizure of power had been rapid, the Bolsheviks were left somewhat breathless, and many, including Kollontai, feared that they would soon face a capitalist counterattack that might well oust them. While the Soviet government lasted, it should set an example of revolutionary rule for the more advanced industrial nations to follow when their revolutions came. Kollontai told American reporter Bessie Beatty, “Even if we are conquered, we have done great things. We are breaking the way, abolishing old ideas.”2
The precise nature of the government to be established soon provoked an argument among leading Bolsheviks. When Lenin and Trotsky announced the names of the commissars who would serve as the executives of the Soviet system, several prominent Bolsheviks, among them Shliapnikov, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, criticized the list as too narrowly Bolshevik. They believed that representatives of other socialist parties should be brought into the government as the best way to guarantee the survival of Soviet rule. Kollontai agreed. She told several people in November that the Bolsheviks should form a coalition with the Mensheviks. She also criticized Trotsky as too impulsive, Lenin as too theoretical. Both men lacked contact with the masses, she said.3
Despite her belief in coalition government, Kollontai did not protest as vehemently as Shliapnikov, who resigned his post as commissar of labor. She talked to Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks about the need to work with other socialists, and she also argued against the wholesale arrest of opposition politicians. It bothered Kollontai to see her comrades easily adopt the repressive measures that had in the past been used against them. She petitioned so often for the release of jailed men that the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) issued a strong rebuke to her, along with Shliapnikov and Nikolai Podvoiskii. They were admonished to “redouble their efforts to clean out the counterrevolutionary nests and not again stir up the question of changing the policy of the dictatorship of workers and peasants directed against the counterrevolutionary leadership.”4
Kollontai tempered her protest because, although she had doubts about the wisdom of specific Bolshevik actions, she had none about the rightness of their cause. “Objective conditions” had made the revolution, not the Bolshevik Party, and decisive measures now, in accordance with the forward sweep of history, could set an example for the future. The Soviet revolution was the first in the international revolutionary upheaval that would soon sweep through the more advanced nations of Europe, bearing away the war and capitalism.5 Whatever mistakes the Bolsheviks might make, whether or not they fell from power, the ultimate outcome was not in doubt. Later, sadly, Kollontai wrote that those early days had been “months so rich in splendid illusion, planning, burning initiative to improve life, to organize the world anew, months of preserving the romanticism of the revolution.”6 Political disagreements seemed less important than the possibilities before them, and particularly before her. On October 28, Lenin appointed her commissar of social welfare. This post, she believed, would give her the power at last to realize her long-planned reforms for women and children.
Kollontai was later to recall her first trip to inspect the building where the Provisional Government’s Ministry of Social Welfare had been headquartered: “I don’t remember why I went alone; I only remember the sodden October day when I drove up to the entrance of the Ministry of Social Welfare on Kazan Street. A tall, imposing doorman with a gray beard, in gold braid, opened the door and examined me from head to foot.”7 Kollontai asked to see the highest-ranking official present, but the doorman told her that visiting hours were over for the day. She responded that she came on government business, but the old man stood firm. Petitioners were received only from one to three, and it was now five. When Kollontai tried to slip past him, he blocked the way. Defeated, she left.8
This inauspicious beginning portended several weeks of frustration. Early the next morning Kollontai answered a knock at her apartment door to find a peasant standing there with a note from Lenin. He told her that before the February Revolution the army had requisitioned one of his horses and promised to pay him, but never had. After the tsar had fallen, he thought surely the new government would pay him, and he had spent two months asking for his money, to no avail. Now he had heard that there had been another revolution, so he had gone to see Lenin. Lenin had given him the note authorizing Kollontai to pay him.9
Although she did not know why Lenin had sent the peasant to see her, Kollontai promised him that she would give him his money as soon as she could get it. Again she went to the building on Kazan Street, this time taking several friends. The doorman glowered, but he admitted her. The place was nearly deserted. In protest against the Bolshevik seizure of power, the employees of almost all the Provisional Government ministries had begun a boycott, and none of the commissars had any office staff willing to work. It seemed rather silly to move into a vacant building until she had dealt with the boycott, so Kollontai went back to Central Committee headquarters at the Smolny Institute. There on the door of a small room she hung a hand-lettered sign—“People’s Commissariat of Social Welfare, 12-4.”10
Petitioners appeared that very day, the first a delegation of children in ragged overcoats who demanded food. They said they had been to the ministry on Kazan Street, but that the doorman had told them to talk to the Bolsheviks. Kollontai asked why healthy people expected help from the welfare commissariat, and they replied that the Bolsheviks had promised to feed everyone. Kollontai gave them each 20 kopeks out of her own pocket, then sent them off to the Petrograd militia with a note, “At any rate, feed them.”11
Next in line was a one-armed war veteran with a plan for organizing artels (cooperatives) that would employ other wounded men. All he needed was some money to buy knitting machines. Again Kollontai asked why he had come to see her. He had run into Lenin in the hall, was the reply. Lenin had liked his plan and had sent him here. Kollontai decided “to act bureaucratically”: she told the man to come back in two days. He left, muttering angrily about the Bolsheviks. On the way out he passed two representatives of the Union of Disabled Soldiers, who were pushing into the room to threaten Kollontai with a demonstration. If someone did not help the wounded veterans soon, they said, there would be attacks on the Bolsheviks. “The old boys are rebellious,” the men declared. “There’s no shelter. They are freezing. It will be a scandal if the old boys start dying.”12
Then came a man from a factory run by the ministry to demand that the workers be paid, and nurses asking for food to feed the orphans under their care, and teachers threatening to quit unless they received their salaries. “It was noisy in our little room,” Kollontai wrote.13 She could not help any of these people until she had established control over the ministry, which was a haphazard assortment of services flung together by the Provisional Government. Composed of charity committees and welfare agencies, it administered care to wounded veterans, pensions for war widows, schools for young women, orphanages, old-age homes for the poor, leper colonies, tuberculosis sanitoria, maternity hospitals, mental hospitals, aid to the blind, and, to finance all the rest, factories that made playing cards.14 Before Kollontai could organize this motley assemblage, she had to convince its employees to go back to work.
She conferred with Ivan Egorov, a Bolshevik who led a union of the lower staff, and they decided to gather the strikers together and convince them to stop the boycott. Egorov called a meeting of the janitors, playing-card makers, nurses, teachers, and other employees on the night of October 29. It began in bedlam. “Each defended the interests of the establishment where he worked,” Kollontai wrote. “And how he defended it!”15 Eventually they decided to establish a council, or soviet, composed of representatives of the departments within the commissariat. That group would advise Kollontai and also elect a “college” of top administrators. Several hundred people pledged to return to work in defiance of the boycott.16
The day after the meeting, Kollontai moved into the building on Kazan Street and the formidable doorman finally abandoned his post in disgust. With Egorov she led the first meeting of the commissariat soviet in a discussion of whether to give upper-level bureaucrats representation in the college. “In view of the fact that only three of the former bureaucrats were left,” Kollontai wrote, “they decided for the time being to leave the question open.”17 Although these early efforts at democratizing the commissariat pleased her, they were not a solution for the problems of the war veterans or the orphans. To tackle those issues, she needed experienced people and money.
Over the next few weeks some employees gradually drifted back to work, unable to sustain their poorly organized boycott and afraid of Bolshevik retaliation. The men with the keys to the strongbox in which the ministry’s funds were kept stood firm, however. After two weeks, Kollontai sent sailors to arrest three of the strikers, including the former head of the financial department, who had the keys. When the men refused to yield, Kollontai ordered them to jail. Sitting late in her office, she pondered morosely on her action. Kollontai, the avowed enemy of tsarist jailers, had become a jailer herself. Three days later the men surrendered the keys and Kollontai opened the safe.18 She now had sufficient funds and personnel to set to work, although some employees continued their strike through December.19
While trying to make the commissariat operational, Kollontai also attended the Petrograd Conference of Women Workers, the meeting she and Samoilova had planned before the Bolsheviks took power. Five hundred delegates representing 80,000 Petrograd factory workers came, as well as a few people from Moscow, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Tula, and Kaluga. In a speech on November 6 Kollontai proclaimed the Bolshevik commitment to public financing of maternity and child care. She began by asserting that the Bolsheviks sought a system “in which the participation of women in the productive life of society will not contradict their natural and also socially necessary task of bearing children.”20 To achieve that goal society must assume responsibility for the care of pregnant women and for child rearing. First, a series of laws would regulate child labor and female labor closely, to protect them. At the same time, women would receive eight weeks’ paid maternity leave without loss of seniority and free medical care, together with food and clothing for their infants. To finance the new facilities, Kollontai proposed the establishment of a general fund gathered from a tax on the working classes and administered by the soviets with substantial democratic participation by proletarian women. Such a program would provide for female needs while giving women themselves a role in founding the institutions to emancipate them. The conference passed the resolution unanimously, although the delegates must have realized that the funds for such a major reform lay well beyond the resources of the infant Soviet government.21
The meeting was not an unqualified victory for Kollontai, for she had once again attempted, without success, to push the other Rabotnitsa editors into creating a permanent structure to organize proletarian women. She proposed a resolution calling on all party committees at the city level to establish groups to work with women, but the conference vetoed her idea. According to Samoilova, they feared “alienating” Bolsheviks who continued to see such proposals as bourgeois feminism in disguise.22
By the time the conference adjourned, Kollontai had established enough control over the Commissariat of Social Welfare to begin dealing with the needs of its many clients. Later she admitted the difficulty of the tasks confronting her. “One cannot easily imagine what high demands these problems put on a small group of people who were as yet amateurs in state administration,” she wrote.23 Not only were Kollontai and her top advisers inexperienced, but they were not even sure how far outside Petrograd their authority extended. The local soviets which had sprung up in the provinces often pursued their own policies, oblivious to instructions from the city. Indeed, since the Bolsheviks held only the urban enclaves, they were surrounded by the vast rural reaches of Russia, where loyalties were as yet undetermined.
Aware of these obstacles and wondering how long the Soviet government would survive, Kollontai set out to enact her cherished reforms for women. The tasks of the commissariat were twofold, she announced—to restructure welfare aid “on foundations of spontaneity in the interests of the millions of the working masses,” and to strengthen “state power in democratic Russia.” Her first step, and one of which she was very proud, was the extension of employee soviets to every branch of the commissariat, to provide a mechanism enabling people at all levels to participate in the decision-making process.24 Thereby she would transform the spontaneity that had destroyed the old order into a force that would build the new one. In fact, however, the soviets functioned primarily to build loyalty to Kollontai. She herself told Louise Bryant, the American journalist and wife of socialist John Reed, that once the janitors and messenger boys were drawn into the meetings, they would willingly work sixteen hours a day for “the little Comrade,” as they had nicknamed Kollontai.25 No important reform proposals came from the soviets; for those, Kollontai drew on her own ideas and on advice from appointed panels of experts in law, education, and medicine.26
To increase the funds at her disposal, she cut salaries, fought corruption, and raised the price of playing cards from 30 to 360 rubles per dozen decks. In the bizarre mood of the early months after the Bolshevik revolution, flourishing casinos ordered the decks by the hundreds.27 With this limited income, Kollontai and her advisers industriously set out to reform every department under their control. They took on all the functions of the charitable committees left from tsarist times, ordered the establishment of new orphanages for children made homeless by the war and revolution, granted students a voice in school administration, decreed that religious instruction must be voluntary, stopped all funds for church maintenance, reduced priests to the status of civil servants on the state payroll, instituted self-government in old-age homes, created a committee of physicians to reorganize the sanitoria, planned homes for the handicapped, abolished the classification of children as legitimate or illegitimate, and organized a department to deal with aid to minorities.28
Many of these decrees never went beyond the confines of Petrograd or the pages of lzvestiia; they were primarily declarations of principle, since the government lacked the power and the means to implement them. When Louise Bryant, an American journalist, heard that the old people in the state homes could choose their menus now, she asked Kollontai what that meant in a city chronically short of food. “Kollontai burst out laughing. ‘Surely,’ she said, ‘you must understand that there is a great deal of moral satisfaction in deciding whether you want thick cabbage soup or thin cabbage soup.’ ”29
Kollontai saw the symbolic importance of many of her reforms, and she valued a thorough repudiation of past injustices, even if the first efforts of those early days were ineffectual. But in one area, maternity protection, Kollontai was determined to move beyond gestures to genuine action. Working with Nikolai Korolev, a physician who was her chief medical adviser, she appointed a six-person committee to organize a department for maternity and child care. The committee met throughout January 1918 with the heads of other departments that dealt with children and childbirth.30 After several weeks Kollontai felt they had accomplished enough to enable her to issue two decrees on maternity protection. On January 20 she declared that maternity hospitals would henceforth be open to all women free of charge. Obstetricians became public employees on the government payroll. She also prohibited physicians from using poor patients in experiments and increased the term of midwife education from one year to two.31
In the second important set of reforms, issued on January 31, Kollontai decreed that all the inadequate bourgeois procedures for aiding mothers and children were abolished. “A morning begins as clean and bright as the children themselves,” she wrote. From that time onward all institutions dealing with pregnant women and their babies were combined under the Department for the Protection of Mothers and Children, within the Commissariat of Social Welfare. This new section had “one general governmental task—the creation of spiritually and physically strong citizens.” Korolev’s advisory committee was to propose reforms that would guarantee the health of mothers and children, who would grow together “in the atmosphere of a widely developed socialist community,” and those reforms would be carried out by the department.32
Kollontai considered this manifesto an important step not only because it consolidated all the various Provisional Government agencies under unified administrative control, but also because it established the “legal foundation” for full state funding of maternity and infant care. By bearing all the cost, society acknowledged that motherhood was a social service, not a burden to be borne privately.33 Kollontai had sought that goal for years, and she planned more than resolutions to achieve it. In addition to administrative consolidation and declarations of principle, Kollontai organized a free maternity hospital as a model facility.
The hospital, grandly named the Palace of Motherhood, was to be a shining example of the new society, with spacious and clean wards, a library, kitchen, and even exhibits to teach women hygiene. Kollontai and Korolev found room for it in a foundling home that dated back to the time of Catherine the Great. For over a hundred years women had brought illegitimate children to a side window in this orphanage, where a nurse would take the infant and write a number on its clothes. Thereafter the abandoned baby would become an anonymous victim of its parents’ indiscretion. Now, under the jurisdiction of the Commissariat of Social Welfare, the staff of the orphanage resented the new government fiercely. Particularly hostile was an old countess who had run the orphanage for years; she felt that Kollontai’s decree of equality for illegitimate children was equivalent to sanctioning prostitution.34
When the people from the commissariat began to remodel part of the building for a maternity hospital, the nurses and the countess became even angrier, for they were convinced that the Bolsheviks planned to bring pregnant streetwalkers into their decent home. Besieged by mothers asking for a place to have their babies, determined to establish her showcase facility, Kollontai ignored the complaints of the orphanage staff. She also put off the demands of other organizations that wanted space in the building.35
In addition to dealing with these administrative problems, Kollontai attended evening meetings of the Council of People’s Commissars and listened glumly to discussions on how to make peace. The German army was threatening, the Russian army was demoralized, the commissariats were still suffering from the strike. At one particularly depressing meeting on the night before the dedication of the maternity hospital, Lenin did not make his usual effort to cheer everyone up, and Kollontai returned dejected, hungry, and tired to the grimy apartment building where she, Zoia, and Misha lived. On such nights the euphoria of November seemed far away, and she became nostalgic for her earlier life.
I went up the stairs feeling that it was no fun to be people’s commissar, with all the responsibility and all the excitement. I wondered if there was anything to eat in the house. . . .
I knew that my room would be cold and inhospitable. And I began to long for the time when I wasn’t a people’s commissar, but an ordinary party agitator traveling around the world and dreaming of revolution.36
Zoia had prepared tea and even some bread as a snack, and Kollontai revived somewhat. Then the phone rang. Korolev told her that the maternity hospital was on fire. After calling for sailors to help put out the blaze, she rushed off to the building. The whole central area containing the Palace of Motherhood was burning; Korolev said it looked like arson because several areas had gone up at once. Wretched and angry, Kollontai stood in the January night, watching her cherished project destroyed. The nurses shouted that it was God’s judgment on her for being an anarchist and an anti-Christ.37
The next day Pavel Dybenko, commissar of the navy, together with Korolev and Kollontai’s secretary Ivan Egorov, questioned several of the nurses about the fire. One old woman said that God was punishing Kol- lontai for removing the icons from the building. Another nurse said she had seen that same old woman take a paraffin lamp to bed with her, even though the electricity was working in the building. The main witness, the countess, whose wing had escaped the fire, publicly said the conflagration was a pity, but asked what one could expect when the Bolsheviks encouraged lawlessness. Some sailor spending the night with a new Bolshevik nurse had probably started the fire with careless smoking. “Don’t you see that it’s God’s punishment ? How can you dare to make a bordello out of a home for poor, innocent orphans?” she demanded. “You will send all the women of the streets here and make our nurses wait on them.”38 Even though Kollontai was convinced the countess had ordered the fire, she had no evidence to implicate her. The hearing ended without result.
Regardless of the fate of the maternity hospital, Kollontai was pleased with the progress that had been made for women by late January, barely two months after the seizure of power. The principles of full public funding for maternity and child care, and for full female political equality, had been espoused by the government. Civil registry of marriage had replaced church marriage, enabling a couple to obtain a divorce by mutual consent and even encouraging them, while married, to choose whichever surname they wished—his, hers, or a combination of both. With Kollontai acting as a consultant, Shliapnikov’s Commissariat of Labor had begun instituting protective regulations for women in industry.39 Complete female equality before the law had been affirmed.
Far less satisfactory were Kollontai’s efforts to help the war-wounded who eked out an existence on the streets of Petrograd. She wanted first of all to raise their government pensions, but she did not have enough money at her disposal to go about it. She told Louise Bryant that just to provide a minimum stipend would require 4 billion rubles a year, a sum far beyond the government’s resources.40 Kollontai could only centralize control over all veterans’ agencies in her commissariat, try to prevent the stealing of what little money they had, and collect pathetically small contributions from factory workers.41
In January the Petrograd Soviet called on Kollontai’s commissariat to find housing for the wounded men immediately. One Soviet official, Aleksei Tsvetkov, suggested taking over the Aleksandr Nevskii Monastery, which was large, handsome, and practically empty. Kollontai should have thought carefully about moving into one of Russia’s holiest shrines, a place of pilgrimage and a repository for icons and other artifacts dear to the Orthodox, but the demands of the veterans rang more loudly in her ears than the ancient bells of priestly power. She sent two delegations to negotiate with the holy fathers, but each time the priests refused to allow an Orthodox shrine to be converted into a dormitory. They accurately saw the move as a part of the Bolshevik campaign to confiscate church property. The Union of War-Wounded argued with equal anger that the Bolshevik revolution had done them no good as long as they were sleeping in the streets. Egorov, Tsvetkov, and the soldiers urged Kollontai to sign an order authorizing the seizure of the monastery and all its property. She signed, convinced that the priests must not be allowed to obstruct the government.42
When fifteen men from the Soviet appeared at the monastery on January 19, the monks refused to let them in. The delegation then demanded the keys, and the monks began ringing the bells in a cry for help. Soon a large and hostile crowd gathered to heckle the armed Soviet emissaries. In the confusion that followed, Kollontai went to the monastery herself, after calling Dybenko for reinforcements. The sailors grew increasingly nervous and angry under the taunting of the crowd; monks circulated among the bystanders, stirring them up to shout at the troops. Finally the armed men fired on the unarmed. The confrontation ended with one priest dead and the monastery unoccupied.43
The other commissars were furious when they heard about the incident, for Kollontai had not cleared her plan ahead of time with the Sovnarkom. After ordering Kollontai and Tsvetkov to leave the monks alone, Lenin called the two to demand an explanation of their actions. Kollontai told him that they had planned to win over the lay brothers and move into the monastery peacefully, but Lenin was not appeased. In addition to blaming her for not getting the approval of the Sovnarkom, he disliked her forcing a confrontation with the Church. Kollontai later claimed that because of the incident, the Sovnarkom decreed the separation of church and state the next day, earlier than originally planned. With the priesthood of Petrograd already enraged, the Bolsheviks had nothing to lose by declaring their intention to remove the governmental support on which the Russian church had depended for centuries.44
The following Sunday a large procession of priests and lay people, organized several weeks earlier as a general protest against Bolshevik policies toward the Church, wound its way through the streets of the city to Kazan Cathedral, then to the monastery to show support for the embattled monks.45 In the course of the protest, the priests declared Kollon- tai anathema. Lenin told her wryly, “You’re not in bad company; you’ll be remembered along with Stenka Razin and Lev Tolstoi.”46
In truth, the ludicrous affair at the monastery gates and its aftermath were deadly serious, for the episode revealed the dimensions of the tasks the Soviet government had undertaken. The Bolsheviks, like their tsarist predecessors, were trying to reshape Russia. The tsars had not been willing to innovate as much as many Russians desired, but the Bolsheviks wanted to go much farther than many Russians desired. Lenin admitted as much when he criticized Kollontai for provoking a confrontation with the Church. To accomplish anything, the Bolsheviks had to temper their ideological vision with an appreciation of just how much change the people would tolerate, and just how far they could be coerced.
This constant assessment of ideals and realities, this politics of effective change, was a game at which Lenin excelled; few Bolsheviks knew so well the limits of power in Russia. For men like Stalin, on the other hand, politics was a test of personal survival: either one succeeded or one perished. Sensing the ultimate cost of the struggle, Stalin learned caution and coercion with ease. But to Kollontai and the Utopians in the party, reality was romantically perceived as a merger of wills into a drive to reform. For them, resorting to either coercion or compromise required an admission that the masses did not give their unquestioning support, that the Bolsheviks, instead of riding a revolutionary wave, faced complex currents of loyalties requiring them to compromise, argue, and wrestle with uncertainty. Such an admission would tarnish “the splendid illusion,” and few of the Utopians made it easily. Although Kollontai knew that her images of a great proletarian mass movement were oversimplified, she could all too easily be drawn into ignoring Lenin’s pragmatism and clinging instead to the utopian illusion. Then she blundered into resistance far more hostile than she had anticipated: the Palace of Motherhood burned down, hundreds of people rushed to defend the monks. Angry and saddened, Kollontai was forced to admit that she had underestimated the opposition.
In January Kollontai struggled with the manifold problems of her department and with the hunger and cold of the city. Food shortages affected even the Bolshevik leadership. When some visiting Danish Social Democrats sent the commissars a cheese, they carefully divided it, only to find on returning from another interminable meeting that a guard had eaten it all while they were gone.47 There was no time to relax with friends, for when the working day was over there were night meetings to attend. Kollontai also entertained foreign socialists visiting the new Russia, translated their speeches, and once even went to calm a dispute between the Sovnarkom and the Baltic fleet.48 She also found time to get married—to Dybenko, the peasant sailor and commissar of the navy.
Pavel Efimovich Dybenko was born in 1889 in a village of the northern Ukraine. There were nine “souls” in the family, he later wrote, his parents, his aged grandfather, and six children. They farmed eight acres and owned but one horse and one cow. To feed themselves, everyone, including the children, had to hire out as day laborers to a local landlord.49 Dybenko was the eldest child, and his parents wanted him to have some schooling. They sent him first to a priest’s daughter and later to an elementary school run by a teacher with Social Democratic sympathies. His parents then thought he had had enough education, but the boy asked his mentor, the Social Democrat, to persuade them to let him go on to a “city school” for poor children. At age fourteen he completed his studies there, and his parents demanded that he begin contributing to the family’s income.
Dybenko went to work for the tsarist treasury department but was fired when the police charged that he belonged to an illegal revolutionary organization, probably a Marxist-tinged reading group. At this point he left the Ukraine to work as a stevedore in Riga. There he moved closer to the Social Democrats, joining strikes in 1910. In 1911 he was conscripted into the navy. He became a Bolshevik the next year.
From 1913 to 1915 Dybenko served on the Emperor Pavel I, a ship of the line which sailors nicknamed “the ocean prison.” He spent a great many of his off-duty hours teaching his mates about socialism, and in 1915, when a mutiny on the dreadnought Petropavlovsk brought a crackdown on troublemakers, he was transferred to a land-based naval unit. In 1916 that unit refused an order to attack, for which it was moved from the Baltic to Helsingfors. When the February Revolution swept the fleet, Dybenko was elected to the revolutionary committee organized by the Helsingfors sailors.50
John Reed described him as “a giant, bearded sailor with a placid face.”51 In 1917 he was twenty-eight years old, tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and eyes. He was a handsome man, genial, modest, dedicated, and well liked. He was capable of fiery explosions when addressing the fleet, but otherwise he impressed people with the even temper that seemed out of keeping with his size.52
Kollontai first met Dybenko in the spring of 1917 when she was in Helsingfors speaking to the sailors. Throughout the spring they worked there, evidently growing more attracted to one another. Dybenko too was jailed for a month because of the July Days, then released and returned to the fleet. After the Bolshevik seizure of power he was appointed commissar of the navy. By early November, according to Trotsky, party gossip said that Dybenko and Kollontai were lovers.53
Kollontai saw Dybenko as “passionate, steadfast, and totally decisive,” as “the soul of Petrobalt [the sailors’ revolutionary committee], firm and determined.”54 He was a genuine proletarian, not an intellectual, not even as well educated as Shliapnikov. Kollontai captured his simplicity as well as his abilities when she described him as “a person of natural talent.”55 Although she continued to work with Shliapnikov and to care for him, Kollontai could not resist the admiration of Dybenko, or his considerable vitality. Later she wrote: “Our meetings always overflowed with joy, our partings were full of torment, emotion, broken hearts. Just this strength of feeling, the ability to live fully, passionately, strongly, drew me powerfully to Pavel.”56
Merely being lovers was enough, according to her, but Dybenko wanted them to marry. He told her it was appropriate for them to be the first couple registered under the new marriage law she herself had helped to draft. He also argued that they could stay together more easily if they were husband and wife. Kollontai admitted she was tired of the gossip about them and hoped that marriage would stop it. But Zoia and Misha, resenting the new rival for her affection, urged Kollontai to remain single. “Will you really put down our flag of freedom for his sake?” Zoia asked. “You, who all your life have been fighting against the slavery that married life brings and that always comes into conflict with our work and achievements.” Misha added, “You must remain ‘Kollontai’ and nothing else.” Dybenko won her over their protests by accusing her of hesitating because he was a peasant, and in mid-January they were married.57
Of course that did not quell the rumors about them; it only fanned them. Zeth Höglund, who visited Russia in January 1918, noted that the age disparity—seventeen years—had caused “a sensation.” Albert Rhys Williams, the correspondent for the New York Evening Post, wrote, “We were astounded to find one morning that the versatile Kollontay had married the sailor Dybenko.” General Henri Niessel, head of the French military mission, recorded in his diary, “For the first time since the world was made, one sees two ministers marry each other,” and added that there were rumors that Dybenko had had the union consecrated by a priest.58
Those Bolsheviks who later wrote their memoirs were too discreet to gossip in public; indeed, Trotsky criticized Stalin for tittering over Kollontai’s relationship with Dybenko.59 Gossip in private they did, however, for most Bolsheviks were conventional in their sexual habits. While giving lip service to Marxist pronouncements on the abolition of the family, they lived ordinary domestic lives. When Kollontai married Dybenko, they saw it as the silly infatuation of a middle-aged woman (Kollontai was now forty-five) with a virile younger man, who happened also to be her social and intellectual inferior.
Kollontai herself had foreseen that kind of reaction years before, in 1911. Imagine, she wrote in her article “Sexual Morality and the Social Struggle,” that a respected professional man fell in love with his cook and married her. Everyone would praise his generosity in raising the poor woman’s standing in society. His status would be enhanced, not diminished.
Now imagine another situation: a female public figure, a docent, a physician, a writer, it does not matter, takes up with her servant and to complete “the scandal” marries him. How would society take the action of the hitherto respected individual? Of course, it would fall on her with contempt. And notice: God save her if her spouse-servant be handsome or have any “physical quality.” So much the worse.60
A liaison with one’s inferior, seen as noble when a man made it, became a frank confession of carnality when practiced by a woman. It also lowered the woman’s status to the man’s, whereas the status of the female was raised if she contracted an alliance with a superior male. Of course in 1911 Kollontai was describing bourgeois society, and Dybenko was not her servant, but many Bolsheviks had never overcome the social distinctions they had learned as children. A forty-five-year-old aristocrat sleeping with a twenty-eight-year-old sailor made their tongues wag.
In February Kollontai broke off her work in the commissariat to set off on a trip to Western Europe. The party Central Committee on January 19 chose a delegation composed of her, la. A. Berzin, and M. A. Natanson to tour Stockholm, Paris, and London, presenting the Bolshevik demand for treaties without annexations or reparations. Trotsky was negotiating a peace settlement with Germany in the Polish town of Brest- Litovsk, but so far he had made no progress. He and Lenin therefore decided to send envoys abroad to explain their foreign policy objectives to the Entente powers and to foreign socialists. Originally Kamenev planned to head the mission, but toward the end of the month he was reassigned as Soviet liaison in Paris, and Kollontai became the delegate to Sweden.61
She went first to Helsingfors, where she met with Finnish Social Democrats, then she boarded a ship for Sweden. An icebreaker to lead them through the dangerous waters never appeared, however, and by evening Kollontai and the rest of the delegation had run aground on one of the Aland Islands. Thoroughly chilled, they found their way to an inn and a hot meal, but they soon had to flee from German troops overrunning the island. A young Finn who helped them escape was subsequently caught and executed. Several dismal days later Kollontai was back in Russia, her mission aborted.62 Later she described the confusing scene that greeted her return:
We felt at once that something serious was happening in Petrograd. The newspapers were full of alarming news about the German advance. The front was quickly approaching the capital. At the station I learned that all automobiles, even the cars of the commissars, had been taken by a newly established Evacuation Commission. So the delegation had to wait at the railway station for quite a long time before we could get in touch with Smolny and by special permission, get some cars to take us home.
AH sorts of rumors were about. Families were trying to leave town or at least send their children away. The Evacuation Commission was removing, as quickly as possible, the art collections from the Hermitage, the State’s jewels, etc. The Government had just decided to leave Petrograd and go to Moscow. Nobody seemed to notice the return of our unsuccessful delegation. It was only I who felt rather miserable as I was not accustomed to failure in a task that was given to me.63
She could not have succeeded, for she had to set out to present the Bolshevik peace proposals to the Entente, and by late February the possibility of accommodation with Great Britain or France was dying in the face of German pressure for an immediate treaty. The Bolsheviks had taken power with a call for peace negotiations to begin immediately on the principle of no annexations and no reparations. They had not expected the rulers of Europe to stop fighting, however; their appeal had been designed to encourage rebellion among war-weary soldiers and civilians. The Bolsheviks had expected that the demoralization rampant in the Russian army would soon sweep through the rest of Europe to climax in a great mutiny against further fighting. If the governments resisted, the Bolsheviks proclaimed defiantly, the masses led by the revolutionary Social Democrats would launch a revolutionary war to end the capitalist war, destroy capitalism itself, and usher in the new era.
Nothing of the sort had happened, none of the sporadic riots and military mutinies in Europe had led to genuine revolution in November or December, so first A. A. Ioffe, then Trotsky, went to Brest-Litovsk to negotiate a separate peace with Germany, while Lenin maintained tenuous contacts with agents of the Entente powers in Petrograd. At Brest-Litovsk the Bolsheviks met with negotiators representing the German High Command, which was bent on extending German control into much of the Russian Empire, including the Ukraine, the Baltic Provinces, Finland, and substantial portions of Western Russia. Unwilling to accept a Draconian peace dictated by the leading capitalist power of Europe, the Bolsheviks stalled and hoped revolution in Germany would sweep away the need for capitulation. In January, as the German negotiators became increasingly impatient, Trotsky returned to Petrograd to tell the party leadership that they should refuse either to fight or to surrender. Lenin disagreed. The Bolsheviks must make peace, however disgraceful, because they had no army. Now they needed a “breathing space” to gather their resources. Rather than stall, they must defend the foothold which Soviet Russia represented. When the international revolution came, as Lenin believed it would, they would be stronger and more able to act effectively in support of their brother-workers abroad.
Trotsky called for “no war, no peace,” Lenin for peace at any price, while a third group in the party leadership, the “Left Opposition,” whose chief spokesman was Bukharin, advocated the concept of revolutionary war to which the party had been pledged throughout 1917. Specifically, Bukharin proposed transforming the conflict with Germany into a guerilla war fought by partisan armies of workers and peasants. The workers would fight for the ideals of the revolution, the peasants for their land, and their example would spark the people of Europe into rebellion. Thus would begin the international revolution of which the Bolshevik revolution was a part and on which Bolshevik survival depended. The nucleus of the Left Opposition came from the young, enthusiastic members of the Moscow party organization, but they had broad support among Bolsheviks throughout the country and on the Central Committee. Their call to guerilla warfare appealed to people who recognized the disorganization of the Russian regular army, but who could not bear the thought of surrendering to Germany and thereby betraying both the proletariat of Europe and the international revolution.64
On January 8, at the meeting of party leadership where Trotsky first presented his “no war, no peace” formula, Kollontai declared that Bukharin’s course was the right one. Yet she was not fully committed to his position, nor had she ever been convinced that Russian forces were capable of the combat necessary to spark international revolution. In November she told Jacques Sadoul, a member of the French embassy, that Russian soldiers would refuse to fight a revolutionary war.65 On January 7, one day before the meeting where she openly agreed with Bukharin, Kollontai remained dubious when Sadoul talked about organizing a volunteer army, although she was more willing to entertain the idea than she had been earlier. “To sign the peace which Germany prepared would be to betray the International and reinforce German imperialism,” Sadoul argued. “Don’t forget that you stand before all internationalists, that tomorrow you must give an accounting.”
Kollontai reluctantly agreed that “the Bolsheviks had to prepare themselves for battle.” “It would be very good to end in beauty, to die fighting,” she said. “Yes, that is what must be done—triumph or die.” Two weeks later Sadoul wrote that Dybenko and Kollontai were urging their colleagues to begin rebuilding the army, which Sadoul, anxious for Russia to remain in the war, took as a sign that Kollontai’s attitude was changing.66
When she left for Western Europe she still hoped that there was some way to salvage an equitable peace by dealing with the Entente, a move which Bukharin denounced as another capitulation to capitalism. The failure of the trip then came as a special disappointment to Kollontai. When she returned to Russia the situation had become much worse. Convinced that the Germans would be content only with a harsh treaty, Trotsky had announced on January 28 that the Soviet government would not continue the war and would not accept the German demands. The next day he left Brest-Litovsk for Petrograd.
The principled heroism of this gesture was lost on Trotsky’s adversaries, who almost immediately began preparations for a new offensive. They moved east on February 17 and encountered so little resistance that General Max von Hoffman, a negotiator at Brest-Litovsk, described the advance as “the most comic war I have ever experienced.”67 Trotsky now realized that he had underestimated the enemy’s willingness to fight. On February 18, after two days of stormy Central Committee meetings, he turned to support Lenin. That action broke the deadlock between the Left Opposition, led by Bukharin and calling for revolutionary war, and Lenin, who continued to argue for an immediate peace, regardless of its severity. On February 19, the Bolsheviks notified the Germans of their intention to resume negotiations. The response, on February 23, was an ultimatum. The army and navy must be demobilized, Latvia and Estonia granted self-determination, and the Ukraine and Finland evacuated. The Soviet answer must be cabled in forty-eight hours; any further negotiations would be limited to three days, after which the German army would attack again.
When Iakov Sverdlov read the new demands to a Central Committee meeting on February 23, the Left Opposition shouted their anger. Trotsky and Lenin insisted the army could not fight, but Bukharin, backed by many of his colleagues, argued that recent demonstrations in Petrograd and Moscow showed that the proletariat was ready to launch a revolutionary war. Lenin listened, then replied: “I don’t want revolutionary phrases. The German revolution still is not ripe. This will take months. One must accept the conditions. If there is a new ultimatum then, that will be in a new situation.”68 He reminded them that they had only until seven the next morning to act on the German demands. With Trotsky’s abstention, the resolution to accept was finally passed.
That same night Lenin took his case to an equally stormy meeting of the Petrograd Soviet. Kollontai listened to Lenin hammer home the desperate logic of his position, but she was not convinced. At the Soviet Executive Committee meeting which followed, she poured out her disappointment: “Enough of this opportunism! You are advising us to do the same thing which you have been accusing the Mensheviks of doing all summer—compromising with Imperialism.” Impassive, Lenin listened and stared at the floor.69
Lenin and Kollontai would never again be friends, for the war which had brought them together had now driven them apart. Above all a realist, Lenin believed that hostilities had to stop immediately, before the Germans took Petrograd and demanded even more. Kollontai rejected that analysis in favor of the notion of a war against war, now that revolutionary war seemed the only alternative to surrender. The Bolsheviks would resist by calling to guerrilla combat all the workers who had recently demonstrated against capitulation, and that sacrifice would stir the enemy troops to mutiny. If the rebellion did not come, if they were destroyed instead, “it would be good to end in beauty.”
The vision of mass triumph or glorious death for the good of future generations had swept Kollontai onto a revolutionary wave of her own imagining. Every outburst of discontent in war-weary Europe (and there were many in 1918) fed the illusion for her, as did the presence in Russia of others who shared her vision. Now her variant of Marxism, always a sustainer in battle and an illuminator of reality, had turned into a distorter that threatened the survival of her government. To ignore the fact that the Bolsheviks had no army, that partisans could not prevent the Germans from occupying all the territory they demanded and more, that the Bolsheviks would then have to deal with both their domestic enemies and foreign forces—was to allow ideology to create an illusion of strength where there was none. Furthermore, it was an illusion which, if acted on, would cost human lives.
In believing that the future of the Soviet state depended on revolutionary war, Kollontai sacrificed one facet of her Marxism to another. Throughout the war years she had been strongly pacifist out of a deep- seated horror of human suffering. When she clamored for guerilla combat in March 1918, therefore, she seemed to allow her commitment to revolutionary war, a concept she had embraced reluctantly, to overshadow her humanitarianism. In truth, Kollontai was not motivated by her adherence to the notion of revolutionary war alone. Her refusal to countenance the peace came rather from another, more central facet of her ideology, her hatred of compromise with the “enemy.” Lenin said quite justly that she and her colleagues were motivated by “feeling, desire, indignation and resentment.”70 The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a surrender to the coalition of capitalists and monarchists that ruled Germany and therefore a capitulation to the forces against which she had fought all her life. Rather than betray the proletariat of Europe by making a humiliating peace, Kollontai wanted to stake the Bolsheviks’ future on a desperate gamble— that the time for international revolution was now. The Soviet state must put its trust in the masses to end both the war and capitalism by making war.
The Left Opposition trumpeted its call to arms through speeches and newspapers to a receptive audience in the cities, particularly Moscow, but the group lacked decisive leadership. Bukharin frankly told Vsevolod Eichenbaum, an anarchist, that he could not carry the feud to the point of a split with Lenin and Trotsky, for that would destroy the party.71 The Left Opposition sought instead to exert pressure enough to hold the majority, which probably favored their position. Lenin’s inexorable logic, strong will, and personal prestige, however, swayed the votes of many who deplored the decision. On March 3 the preliminary Treaty of Brest- Litovsk was signed.
Lenin next sought ratification of the treaty by congresses of the party and the soviets. At both meetings the Left Opposition called for a repudiation, only to lose to the Lenin-Trotsky majority. On March 7 at the Seventh Party Congress, Kollontai made her first and last public appeal for the group. The Bolsheviks had signed the initial treaty, she said, but the war continued. Peace had become impossible, she charged, because the international battle between the capitalists and the proletariat, “the Whites and the Reds,” had already begun. The united forces of Germany, Britain, and France would soon strike against the Soviet government, and the breathing space which Lenin talked about therefore had become impossible, and even undesirable. “Revolutionary will does not grow stronger in a period of peace,” Kollontai said. “You will not strengthen this revolutionary will with agitation; it is created and grows stronger, develops only in battle itself.”72 Instead of signing the treaty, the Soviet state should build an underground “Red Army.” “And if our Soviet republic perishes, another will raise our banner. This will be a defense not of the fatherland, but of the labor republic. Long live the revolutionary war!” The Left Opposition cheered.73
It was not Kollontai’s finest hour. The speech rang with the stock phrases of the Left Opposition—international conspiracy, defense of the labor republic, international proletarian solidarity—and all in a cause that would destroy the very people for whom the revolution had been made. Kollontai, the life-long anti-militarist, was espousing war as a strengthening experience. She spoke of a conspiracy of the British, the French, and the Germans, while those nations were slaughtering each other in France. She and the other Oppositionists were now maintaining that they could not make a true peace, because the German offer was only a ruse to lull them into quiescence before the imminent, united capitalist attack. This was nonsense, but by making war a necessity it soothed their consciences. Fight, they said, advance the cause or die; you have no choice.
Until the end of February Kollontai’s hatred of combat had kept her from a full commitment to the Left Opposition. She did not attend most of the Central Committee meetings where the war was discussed in January and February, possibly because she was working at the commissariat or because she had not fully made up her mind. She had never taken an active role in the Central Committee, but earlier she had at least attended.74 Only when she heard the German ultimatum on February 23 did her anger at the full ignominy of the Bolshevik surrender impel her finally to join the Opposition.
The Party Congress approved the treaty; then Lenin took it to the Congress of Soviets for final ratification. There the Left Opposition presented a statement signed by eight Central Committee members, including Kollontai, charging that the peace would tarnish “the international meaning of the great Soviet republic.” It would encourage international capitalism and weaken the workers’ defenses. Rather than capitulate, the Left Opposition wanted to issue a call for proletarians everywhere to rise up in the defense of the first socialist state. To prevent a party split, however, they promised to abstain in the voting of the treaty.75 The Congress of Soviets ratified it.
The Left Opposition did not disband after the Congress of Soviets adjourned, for although the treaty was now final, they had come in the course of the debate to view themselves as a permanent voice for the Bolshevik left. At the party and soviet congresses, they had also heard in Lenin’s speeches another hint that he was adjusting the ideals of 1917 to suit the reality of 1918. “If you cannot adapt,” Lenin said, “if you cannot go crawling on your belly in the mud, you are not a revolutionary, but a windbag.”76 Then he had laid out some of the adaptations the Bolsheviks would have to make in order to build successfully a Soviet state.
Of first priority was the reconstruction of industry. That could be done, Lenin said, by communes controlled by the workers. Each person must have a voice in discussing and implementing policy, but the time had come also to establish efficiency. Efficiency required responsibility, discipline, and the orderly division of functions, and that in turn required hierarchies, so managers must be chosen to supervise the operation of industry. Since the only managers available were those who had worked in industry before the revolution, Lenin was proposing rehiring capitalist- trained personnel who had been expelled from the factories when the proletariat had seized control in the fall of 1917.
This amounted to nothing less than advocating that the Bolsheviks bring the enemy, bourgeois managers, back into industry to supervise the workers. Lenin proposed it because the workers lacked the expertise to run the factories, which were now in a shambles. He considered it an expedient until the proletariat was educated, but he knew that any return of bourgeois personnel, however temporary, would encounter heavy party resistance. To persuade the doubters, he argued in March and April of 1918 that the Bolsheviks now had to temper their revolutionary idealism with practicality. The workers must learn how to get the factories running again, and only the old managers could teach them that. The time for absorption in demonstrations and revolutionary phrase-making was past; the time had come for rebuilding the economy. “We must learn,” Lenin wrote, “how to unite the ‘public meeting’ democracy of the working masses . . . with iron discipline during work, with absolute obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader, during work.”77
The Left Opposition disagreed. They argued that industry could be rebuilt by the proletariat without bourgeois managers. Of course the Russian workers had a lot to learn, but rather than study capitalist methods, they should experiment with democratic techniques of production which would pave the way for socialism. Lenin, once again arguing for the most expedient means to his end, this time economic reconstruction, was advocating hierarchy and discipline. He was, as usual, pragmatic, realistic, and authoritarian. The Left Opposition refused to temporize and remained true to the democratic ideal of complete worker control of industry, an ideal which, like revolutionary war, was a major Bolshevik pledge in 1917. That the workers would run the factories was also the central promise of nineteenth-century socialism. Thus this new argument, developing in March and April in Lenin’s articles and the Left Opposition’s newspaper, Kommunist, was fundamental to the future of the Bolshevik Revolution, but it petered out by late spring because the Left Opposition lacked the heart to continue the fight. Shortly thereafter civil war erupted in Siberia and the party leadership united in the face of a new challenge.
Kollontai should have found the Left Opposition’s call for democratization in the factories even more attractive than their opposition to the peace treaty. War in any form had always appalled her, while she supported workers’ control without hesitation and would fight for it fervently in 1921 as a member of the Workers’ Opposition. Yet although she was listed as a contributor to Kommunist in its May and June issues, she took no active part in the protest.78 She had not been a central figure in the Left Opposition; her reticence may have been due in part to her absorption in Dybenko’s problems.
In late February the German army began its offensive to force the Bolsheviks into signing the treaty. In a northward march toward Petrograd the Germans neared Narva, the city where Kollontai had lived for awhile with her first husband so many years before. One thousand sailors under Dybenko’s command were transferred to the city’s defense, swelling the motley force there to 3,500. The German army outweighed them in manpower and equipment. When Dybenko arrived on March 1, he immediately telegraphed Petrograd for reinforcements, then turned his attention to a battle for the railroad stations near the city.79
After two days of combat in snowstorms, the Russians fell back in defeat. The inexperienced Dybenko was exhausted and frustrated when he met on March 3 with D. P. Parskii, a former tsarist officer just arrived from Petrograd to command the Narva defense. Parskii mapped out a plan for a march on the city, but the sailor-commissar refused to allow his men to fight again. He also made it clear that he did not want to take orders from a tsarist officer. Infuriated, Parskii phoned Petrograd, demanding that V. D. Bonch-Bruevich, head of the Defense Committee, order Dybenko to obey him.
The Defense Committee responded by confirming Parskii’s authority, but the argument had cost the commander valuable time. Nor were his problems with the commissar over, for rather than submit, Dybenko simply departed for Petrograd. His sympathetic Soviet biographer has written, “In the battle around Narva, he underestimated the enemy’s forces, made a series of mistakes, and left the front without leave.”80 The members of the Sovnarkom were furious when they received the report of his conduct, and they retaliated by firing Dybenko as commissar of the navy and ordering him to stand trial for insubordination.81
Dybenko was brought to Moscow a prisoner. Immediately, his arrest raised a protest from his own men, and a group of sailors went to the new capital, demanding his release pending the trial.82 Kollontai was angry as well. Coming on the heels of the peace treaty, Dybenko’s arrest seemed too much to bear. When Jacques Sadoul met her on March 18, she appeared “tired and despondent.” She was on her way to the Kremlin with food for her husband, and as Sadoul accompanied her, she told him she felt Dybenko had been betrayed. Narva was not the actual reason for his arrest; Lenin had simply used that as an excuse. In reality, she claimed, the Sovnarkom had taken seriously rumors that Dybenko planned to raise an army against the German occupation of the Ukraine.83
Kollontai ignored the most obvious reason for Dybenko’s arrest—he had deserted his post in the middle of a battle. His obstreperous behavior since—he had made defiant statements defending himself—had not improved his standing with his colleagues. His rebelliousness may have made them fear that he would make good his threats to defend his homeland, the Ukraine. The mutiny was, however, ample cause for punishment. Kollontai could not accept that reason for his arrest because it implied, at best, a serious mistake on her husband’s part. Rather than admit that he could have panicked in a crisis, she chose to believe that he, of all the opponents of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, was being singled out for retribution.
Kollontai protested vehemently against Dybenko’s imprisonment. On March 18 and 19, in successive Sovnarkom sessions, she reaffirmed her opposition to the treaty and angrily announced her resignation as commissar.84 After several days she and the sailors obtained Dybenko’s release on their bond and his own word.85 Sadoul wrote in his diary that she was loudly attacking Bolshevik policies as a betrayal of the revolution:
Vestal of the Revolution, she would like to maintain the flame of the maximalist ideal in all its purity. She has thrown herself headlong into the opposition, she criticizes severely the brutal measures taken by her comrades against the anarchists, and is indignant at the concessions to the moderate and bourgeois opposition allowed more every day by the government.86
Tired and frustrated, Kollontai and Dybenko went off to Petrograd for a rest. She told Sadoul they were leaving on April 14, but she apparently forgot to tell the Sovnarkom. When the commissars learned they were gone, a cry went up that the sailor had skipped bail. The two were soon found in Petrograd, oblivious to the clamor their trip had caused.87 Of course, they should not have left without notifying the government, and the silly episode became another juicy tale for the gossips of Bolshevik society. Louise Bryant, the American journalist who had become friendly with Kollontai, wrote that many Bolsheviks “looked with disapproving eyes upon Kollontai’s infatuation for Dubenko [sic].”88 It was doubtless from these same circles that the story arose that the two lovers, absorbed in each other, had gone off together once before, to the Crimea on a honeymoon during the October Revolution itself. When they returned, according to the rumors, several commissars had wanted them shot for desertion; but Lenin had convinced the Sovnarkom that he knew the most appropriate punishment. Dybenko and Kollontai should be forced to live together for five years.89
Of course there was no truth to the story. There had been no “idyll in the Crimea,” to use Rhys Williams’s phrase. Kollontai’s activity in November and December can be documented day by day. Dybenko spent those months fighting various pockets of resistance to the Bolsheviks in the Petrograd area.90 The couple was not even married until January. The mention of the Crimea in the story coincides with the other rumors Unking Dybenko to the Ukraine, and indicates that it was a malicious variation on their April trip. Since Kollontai and Dybenko were involved, gossip transformed their flight from political conflict into a romantic Crimean rendezvous.
A special military court tried Dybenko in May and acquitted him. Witnesses testified that communications, intelligence, and supply had been poor during the Narva battles, and that he could not be blamed for the losses his men suffered. Furthermore his refusal to fight resulted in part from the fact that the orders he received were so confusing that an inexperienced commander could not understand them, much less obey them. Dybenko himself refused to comment on the battle, but he stressed that he had always been a good revolutionary. Apparently he too felt the charges were a pretext to persecute him for his opposition to Brest- Litovsk. Exonerated, he received a new assignment several months later, in the Ukraine.91
Over now for Kollontai were “the revolution’s first romantic months.” She had quit the commissariat, and her impassioned protest of April yielded in May to a retreat from politics. “Little by little,” she wrote, “I was freed also of all other work. I lectured again and went over my ideas about ‘the new woman’ and ‘the new morality.’ ”92 In April her former department was renamed the Commissariat of Social Insurance, and in August made a subdivision of the Commissariat of Labor. The reforms Kollontai had pioneered—maternity insurance, female political and civil equality, civil marriage and divorce, protection of female and child labor —continued to be government commitments, although the civil war made them increasingly difficult to achieve. Despite substantial progress, however, the first glow of triumph had dimmed for her, and for the rest of her life she looked back to those early months with nostalgia.
It was, in the end, a wonderful time. We were hungry and had many sleepless nights. There were many difficulties, misfortunes, and chances of defeat. The feeling that helped us was that all we produced, even if it was no more than a decree, would come to be a historical example and help others move ahead. We worked for that time and for the future.93
Sacrifices only made the struggle more worthwhile, for the Bolsheviks were united in the collective she had always dreamed of. Enemies surrounded them, but the masses were with them as they built a new society. Kollontai had never had a more important role to play nor a larger audience to appreciate her. Throughout 1917 the rescue of an entire society had seemed to proceed from triumph to triumph with her in the vanguard. Then the Palace of Motherhood had burned down, her mission to the West had foundered, her husband was arrested, and the revolutionary solidarity of the party disintegrated into acrimony. The hard-won consensus of November and December disappeared in a humiliating surrender to the Kaiser. On a very personal level, Kollontai began to feel the sting of ridicule.
In fact, the party had not launched the comradely crusade she wrote about later, and the masses were not unanimously behind them. She knew this in 1917, and she testified to it in her talks with Sadoul, Bryant, and Beatty, as well as later, in her franker memoirs. The lyrical descriptions about Great October overstated her case, but they did point to a purity of purpose which she felt was lost in March 1918. “The months of splendid illusion” ended for Kollontai in a peace she found to be a humiliating betrayal of the ideals of 1917. Rather than accept policies she believed to be wrong, she retreated. Never again would she feel as in harmony with her comrades.
Nor would Kollontai ever stand as high in the party as she did in the fall and winter of 1917. She was then one of the top Bolshevik orators and leading reformers. So long as the Bolshevik goal was the destruction of the old order and massive change, Kollontai, with her utopian vision, spoke the will of the majority. But once the means to survival as a government began to divide Bolsheviks, her calls to revolutionary idealism cut her off from many of her comrades. She would not adjust to becoming a politician; she cultivated no following outside her commissariat; she disdained even the factional politics of the Left Opposition. Refusing to accept compromise, she withdrew into solitude.