FROM 1924 UNTIL 1945 Kollontai devoted herself to her work as a diplomat. When she left Russia, she did not intend to spend the rest of her life in this new career. She thought she could write and wait until the attitude toward her in Moscow had softened. That never happened, and Kollontai remained abroad. She made of her banishment a graceful exile, learned to hold her tongue, and managed to survive the purge of the 1930s, in which most of the Old Bolsheviks died. The last twenty-five years of Kollontai’s life were a retreat from which she was never to come back.
In Norway, Kollontai managed to play her role as obedient Communist by working in the trade delegation. When she arrived in Christiania, her colleagues did not know what her duties were to be within the mission, because the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs was still making futile efforts to place her in Canada but also because her assignment had been arranged so hastily.1 Apparently Kollontai set to work with an industry that impressed Chicherin, the commissar of foreign affairs, for in February 1923 the commissariat announced that she would become head of the trade delegation. In late May she received that appointment. Kollontai spent the rest of the year negotiating trade agreements and testing the Norwegian attitude toward de jure recognition of the Soviet Union.2 In February 1924 Norway extended recognition, taking its cue from Great Britain, which had broken the diplomatic ostracism of the Bolsheviks shortly before. By December 1925 a trade treaty was signed, as a result of talks held primarily in Moscow, and Kollontai considered her mission to Oslo complete.3
She seemed to be adjusting to the demands of her new career. Occasionally she broke strict protocol; she once wrote directly to the Norwegian Ministries of Agriculture, Education, and Trade asking for interviews and received a polite message from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that in the future she should contact other departments only through them.4 Kollontai soon mastered the fine points of diplomatic etiquette, however. As Chicherin had predicted, the social graces she had learned in her childhood stood her in good stead, and she quickly developed her own style, compounded of charm and the caution she was coming to in middle age.
Still she chafed under the restriction of carrying out orders from home, and sometimes, when the endless negotiations slowed, she seized the initiative. One minor sale of fish bogged down over a 50 0re difference (equivalent to 100 in U.S. currency) in the price the Norwegians were asking and the Soviets were willing to pay. Exasperated, Kollontai told the exporters, “You take off 25 0re per barrel and we shall add 25 0re. If my government finds that I have acted without authorization, I am ready to pay this sum out of my salary for the rest of my life.”5 The ploy moved the Norwegians to split the difference and the sale was made.
Many newspapers in Europe and the United States printed exaggerated stories about Kollontai, the wild-eyed woman revolutionary now turned diplomat. One French paper declared that the feathers of her hat were red with the blood of the Bolsheviks’ innocent victims. A president of the National Association of Manufacturers charged in 1923 that a child labor law, proposed for the United States, was inspired by “the communist work of a mysterious Soviet bureaucrat named Madame Kollontai,” and for the next three years American organizations opposed to reforms in child labor practices claimed that social feminists in the United States were part of an international feminist conspiracy masterminded by Kollontai. There were also stories that she secretly bought high-fashion clothes in Paris with embassy funds, and that she was smuggling Soviet spies into Norway by arranging marriages to Norwegian citizens. None of these fabrications bothered the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and Kollontai did not encounter resistance from the government because of her gender.6 She had always loved Norway, she was busy, she was among friends, and she was even learning to ski. In her spare moments she took pleasure from the beauty of the country. A letter to Zoia Shadurskaia described a trip from Bergen to Oslo:
I got on the train, spent the night there, and to the astonishment of the conductor, rushed out of the sleeping car at the highest point we went through, Finse station. On the tracks the eternal snows. A clean mountain hotel. Today a marvellous sky. The sun is hot but there is snow on the mountains and in the crevasses of the hotel itself. A mountain lake. Steel blue and cold, as if made of ice. A glacier has crept into it.7
The moods of euphoria were short-lived, however, for in addition to feeling the sting of the attacks on her writing, Kollontai did not like the confinement of diplomatic life. In the summer of 1925 she wrote Maksim Litvinov, then deputy commissar of foreign affairs, that she was going to ask the Central Committee and the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs to relieve her of her duties. “I am morally and physically tired of the eternal ‘full dress coat’ which this work demands,” she explained.8 The party leaders had no desire for her to return from exile. By 1925 Stalin had begun to turn against Zinoviev and Kamenev, his former allies, Trotsky had lost virtually all his power, and the old leadership was beginning to realize the threat posed by Stalin, who now controlled job assignments. In that atmosphere Stalin wanted former troublemakers such as Kollontai to remain abroad.
According to Marcel Body, Kollontai’s friend and co-worker in Norway, she did not intend to join the anti-Stalin group. She could not quite forgive Zinoviev and Trotsky their earlier attacks on her, but, more important, she thought their cause was lost and she was tired of fighting against overwhelming odds. When she heard that the party had denounced Angelica Balabanoff, she lamented to Body, “How can one fight, how can one defend oneself against injury? They have at their command too many means to diffuse it.” Apparently what she wanted was party permission to leave diplomatic service so that she could rest and write her memoirs. Although she sent messages of support to Zeth Höglund and Fredrik Ström when they were expelled from the Swedish Communist Party, and although she admitted to them that she still heard from Shliapnikov occasionally, Kollontai had no heart for combat now. More than once she said that she just wanted to be free.9
In the winter of 1925-26 she returned to Moscow to plead her case. There she attended the Fourteenth Party Congress, where Kamenev openly accused Stalin of assuming one-man rule over the party, and she wrote to Strom afterward that the approval of Stalin’s and Bukharin’s leadership meant “carrying out the peasants’ policy.” She still thought the government was allowing the peasantry too much economic autonomy, at the price of delaying communalization of agriculture. Her opinions of Stalin she kept to herself.10 Publicly she participated in the marriage law debate, and the criticism of her proposals as feministic indicated that Stalin’s supporters still considered Kollontai suspect politically. In the fall when she was offered the post of Soviet representative to Mexico, she accepted it and left Moscow.
Kollontai went to Berlin, where Marcel Body met her, and she confided to him that she still wanted to leave government work. Perhaps the Central Committee would give her permission to go to France, to write her memoirs. Body replied that such permission would never come; she would have to break with the party altogether. Did she have the strength for it? he asked. Could she face a life cut off from Russia, engaged in émigré politics? She replied that she could not. She had once again rejected the overtures of opposition members such as Kristian Rakovskii while in Moscow, and the German Communist Ruth Fischer, who saw Kollontai in Berlin, found her “depressed and unwilling to continue ‘the hopeless struggle.’ ”11
These were the components of Kollontai’s despair. Stalin would win, she could become an émigré or stay in the party away from the center, as a diplomat. She did not like diplomacy because of its personal and political restrictions; she had to move carefully, cultivate patience, and take orders. Yet her only alternative to diplomacy was a useless life among the exiles in Paris. She loved work and she still believed in the Soviet experiment. Thus she decided that serving from a distance was preferable to writing her memoirs.
Kollontai arrived in Mexico on December 7, 1926, but her appointment had stirred a controversy even before she came. In October she had requested permission to cross the United States en route to Mexico City, and Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg had wired back that she was “inadmissible” on the grounds that, in the words of a State Department press release, “she has been actively associated with the International Communist subversive movement.”12 Kellogg was not so much worried about allowing a dangerous Red to enter the United States, however, as he was intent on expressing his displeasure over her appointment to Mexico, a country considered vital to American political and economic interests. Many U.S. newspapers and some congressmen criticized Kellogg’s decision as unnecessary harassment,13 but the secretary of state stood fast. He did not look kindly on the arrival in Mexico City of a prominent Bolshevik.
Nor was Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles overjoyed, for he had to contend with strongly anticommunist forces within his own country. Mexico’s communist party, the Partido Communista de Mexico (PCM), was led by the American Bertram Wolfe until his expulsion from the country in 1925. It was opposed by an active, socialist trade union organization, the Confederatión Regional de Obreros Mexicanos (CROM), which had successfully fought off the infiltration of the Communists because its leaders considered them too closely tied to Moscow.14 The Soviet ambassador who preceded Kollontai, S. S. Pestkovskii, had supported both the PCM and Wolfe’s contacts with the Communist Party of the United States. He had therefore been asked to leave Mexico, as Calles attempted to placate Washington and Mexican anticommunists, while establishing a modicum of foreign policy independence.15
Kollontai entered Mexico at Vera Cruz, where she received a warm reception from a crowd of leftist students and workers. The governor of the state asked her to stay for a visit, and the newspapers were friendly. When she wrote home to Maksim Litvinov at the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs on December 16, 1926, Kollontai was optimistic that she could improve Soviet-Mexican trade, while countering the impression that she was just a revolutionary propagandist.16 Despite her best efforts, however, she achieved very little. Kellogg continued to be worried by Soviet activity in Mexico, and he was further annoyed by Calles’s criticism of American intervention in civil unrest in Nicaragua. In testimony in January 1927 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he accused the Soviet Union of attempting to use Latin America, specifically Mexico, as a base for propaganda against the United States.17 Kollontai repeatedly denied that she had any goal other than improving diplomatic relations between the two countries, but she could not deny the obvious connection between the Mexican communist party and Moscow. She herself may have played a part in that contact, although there is no solid evidence that she did.18 With this cloud of suspicion hanging over her work and under pressure from Kellogg, Kollontai found it extremely difficult to negotiate trade agreements. The most she achieved was a small exchange of films and the maintenance of commerce between the two countries which had been established by her predecessor.19
Kollontai’s health was not good during most of her stay in Mexico City. The altitude irritated her chronic angina. She found breathing difficult in the thin air, and she did not like the arid climate. “Everyone has skin like a crocodile from the dryness,” she wrote to an old friend, N. N. Iakimov. “And creams do not help. I am a denizen of the Leningrad marshes. I miss the moisture. I long for the water.”20 She enjoyed the colors of Mexican folk art and the paintings of Diego Rivera, but these small joys did not compensate for the frustrations of ill health and the political situation.
In March, a strike provoked a confrontation between the Mexican Communists and the trade unionists of the CROM. When the Railway Workers Union of the Soviet Union openly gave money to striking Mexican railway workers, a group with close ties to the Communists, the CROM protested against Soviet interference in Mexico’s internal affairs. President Calles asked Kollontai to transmit his government’s displeasure to Moscow, and the showing of several Russian films was cancelled. Kollontai escaped the fight by retreating to Cuernavaca, a lovely town of lower altitude where her heart was under less strain. A band of local outlaws was rampaging through the area robbing everyone they met, however, and she soon had to flee her refuge in a rickety bus.21
By April the CROM was loudly criticizing Kollontai.22 When in May she requested a vacation for health reasons, the Mexican government recognized the ploy as a graceful way of leaving an unsuccessful mission. In June Kollontai sailed back to Europe, and from France she wrote mournfully to her old friend Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik, “Again I am almost home, although actually I don’t have a home.”23
Kollontai returned to Moscow. In late December 1927 she was named Soviet representative to Norway, succeeding the man who took her place in Mexico, Aleksandr Makar. While in the Soviet Union she offered her sympathy privately to Trotsky, who was soon to be exiled to Alma Ata.24 By now the oppositionists had been defeated. Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had attempted to forge an alliance, once they realized that Stalin threatened to consolidate power in his hands. They had moved too late, however, and by 1927 they had been condemned under the resolutions against factionalism which they had once applied to Kollontai. She had known that there was no hope of winning support with a campaign for party democracy; that hope had died for her years before. Now, in 1927, Kollontai made her disillusionment public in an article in Pravda.
Entitled “The Opposition and the Party Masses,” it appeared on October 30, and was seen by socialists in the Soviet Union and abroad as Kollontai’s farewell to revolutionary idealism.25 Denying that the opposition to Stalin had any support among the party rank and file, she wrote:
In the party, as in every collective, in a given moment and under definite conditions there always prevails some kind of mental attitude, there is always a “spirit.” However strong the apparatus leading the collective is, if there is discord between the policies and direction of the apparatus and the attitude prevailing among the broad, lower strata of the collective, this discord will show up above all in the way the masses react, respond to events.26
The masses had greeted the opposition with “bitterness, hostility, and irritation.” They were far too busy building “collectives” to listen to criticism; they were pioneering a new way of life.
And all this work is concentrated in innumerable collectives: in soviets, unions, commissions, committees. Nowhere in the world does the collectivist foundation of work have such clear prevalence over the initiative of the person [edinitsa], of the individual, as in our unions. Often these collective organs block things up, making individual initiative difficult, but this is another question; it is an important fact that all these collective beginnings are creating a new approach to the life of the masses, a new ideology.27
The collective—a union or other institution—was shunting the old “bosses” aside, generating its own leadership, making its own decisions. Once its priorities were set, it demanded obedience, thus its hostility to the opposition. “This is now a period of construction and above all unity is needed, not only in action but also in thought,” Kollontai declared, defending the Leninist principle which she had once attacked. The opposition violated unity and diverted the people from their important tasks.
The masses do not believe in the opposition. They greet every statement of the opposition with smiles. Is it possible that the opposition thinks the masses’ memory is so short? If they come across defects in the party, in the political line, who, if not the famous members of the opposition, established them and built them? It seems that the policy of the party and the structure of the apparatus become unfit only from the day that a group of oppositionists breaks with the party.28
Here was her anger, her disappointment, and her hopelessness. The party machine they had set working was rolling remorselessly over the Old Bolsheviks, and now they were saying it had a dreadful defect— Stalin. Now, years after they had trampled her into silence, Trotsky and Zinoviev talked about the problems of authoritarianism. Why had they been so unconcerned before, when they mouthed slogans about democratization while making no reform? She had not spent her life in revolutionary politics so that she could celebrate her fifty-fifth year with an article that praised the “collective” for taking “such clear prevalence over the initiative of the individual.” Perhaps that development had always been implicit in her collectivism, perhaps she had been naive to hope that a communal society could give freedom to the individual. She had never been able to reconcile those contradictory impulses—the human needs for dependence and independence—in her own soul. But if she had been naive before in believing the socialist vision of a free spirit in a communal society, she was naive no longer. Thus she lashed out at the men who had once refused to listen to her and at the same time gave voice to her own depression. She told them what she had learned: that the party, their collective, would not tolerate deviation from its will as defined by the Central Committee and that most Communists approved of that policy.
The masses consider that the living spirit of “collectivist democratism,” in contradiction to the petty-bourgeois understanding of democratism, will become apparent to the opposition only when the opposition wants to understand that the decision of the Central Committee plenum is a reflection of the will of the masses of the party collective. And understanding this, the opposition will cease violating the unity of the party and cease being in conflict with the attitudes and the will of the millions of the party collective.29
Kollontai’s criticism of the men who had once accused her of damaging party unity is quite clear here, as is her picture of the party rank and file as a great hive buzzing with activity and resentful of anyone who disrupted the natural harmony. What is less clear is her attitude toward the leaders of that hive. Did she approve of the squashing of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Trotsky? She left only a few clues: she visited Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s wife, she wrote subdued but critical letters to Fredrik Strom and Zeth Höglund.30 The impression that emerges from this fragmentary evidence is that she did not like Stalin, and she did not like the authoritarianism of the party, but she did still think the revolution had been a great victory. She sang of the collective with confidence in the long-range rightness of its purpose but sorrow over the victims it was taking, and she could not resist giving those victims the same advice they had once given her: do not violate the will of the party as enshrined in the Central Committee.
Kollontai’s obedience earned her the appointment to Norway, and in November 1927 she returned to Oslo. For the next two years she concentrated on trade agreements, fishing rights in the Arctic, and tedious negotiations for a nonaggression treaty between Norway and the Soviet Union.31 At times Litvinov was irritated by her tendency to soften the Soviet position a bit on her own initiative, if she thought this would improve the likelihood of agreement.32 Such conciliatory behavior became characteristic of her style as a diplomat, and it earned her high praise in Scandinavia. It was the only sign of Kollontai’s former independence. Outwardly, she had become a quiet, docile ambassador. In 1929 she told Body sadly: “Outside of a half-dozen comrades, I no longer know anyone in Moscow. Everything has changed completely. But what can I do? One cannot oppose the apparatus. For my part I have put my principles away in a corner of my conscience and I have carried out as well as possible the policies that have been dictated to me.”33
In 1930 the Soviet ambassador to Sweden, Victor Kopp, became terminally ill with cancer. Kollontai was named his replacement in July, but before she accepted the post she went to Stockholm to sample the reception she would get. On July 3 she wrote to Litvinov that the government officials she had seen welcomed her appointment.34 She moved to the new position in October. In mid-November Kollontai presented her credentials of accreditation to King Gustav. A gilded coach with liveried attendants called for her; she arrived at the palace, climbed a long marble staircase, and made her formal speech to the king. After the ceremony, she and Gustav had a brief conversation in French, then she returned to the embassy. The next day the Foreign Ministry quietly cancelled the 1914 order that had declared her persona non grata.35
Thus began Kollontai’s last and most pleasant assignment, a fifteen- year period in which she became the dean of the diplomatic corps in Stockholm. In the thirties she dealt primarily with trade agreements and with the delicate task of improving Swedish opinion of the Soviet Union. Both proved difficult, but she did facilitate the exchange of commodities such as timber and fish.36 To cultivate Swedish public opinion she made contacts among leftist intellectuals and brought in exhibits, films, and speakers to inform Stockholm about her country. Her most important means of raising the reputation of the Soviet Union, however, was her own personality. Swedes of all political persuasions praised Kollontai’s concern and respect for Scandinavia, her charm, and her restraint. As the decade wore on, the increasing tension in foreign relations and the grisly news of Stalin’s purges and the Nazi-Soviet Pact did not diminish the Swedish leaders’ admiration for Kollontai, although those events did affect their attitude toward her country. Repeatedly they wrote that she was a friend to Sweden.37
She was living in refuge. She had made for herself a comfortable life: she got up every day at seven, did calisthenics to an old record of military marches, had coffee and read the newspapers and mail. Then she began a round of conferences with embassy personnel and official visitors.38 Often she held dinner parties for other members of the diplomatic corps, or for Höglund or Strom, with whom she was still friendly. Her son Misha, now in his forties, was working in the United States as an engineer; through his mother’s efforts and his own he spent most of his time outside the Soviet Union. His son, Vladimir Mikhailovich, lived in Sweden with his grandmother. Kollontai watched over him and the families of the mission, arranging plays in the evening and sending presents to the children.
In a strange way she had found her much sought communal family —the embassy staff, Swedish friends, her grandson. Surrounded by people who cared for her, she could live out her life in useful work at which she had become skilled, withdrawn from the contradictions of the situation at home. She returned to Moscow yearly for visits, but her life was in Stockholm. The genteel origins of this revolutionary had rounded into a genteel old age.
Yet she had lost much in accepting a graceful exile. Ivan Maiskii, in 1932 the Soviet ambassador to Finland, had become friends with Kollontai when she went to London in 1911. There he had seen her as joyously full of life. When he visited her in Stockholm in 1932, he found her changed. “Externally,” Maiskii wrote, “she still looked very youthful, but inside she had become much more serious, deeper, more thoughtful, more cultivated.”39 A perceptive Swedish writer, Anna Elgstrom, found her “a human being like everyone else, only a little more experienced, but also wearier and more disillusioned.”40 Kollontai chose her words carefully, rarely letting down her guard; she made it a practice to discuss controversial subjects only with her closest friends. The Turkish ambassador to Sweden, Ragip Raif Bey, a kind man who first introduced her to the diplomatic circles of Stockholm, used to take guests aside during crisis periods in the thirties and whisper, “Please don’t talk politics with Madame Kollontai.”41
She had learned to be silent about the passions of her life. As the decade wore on, she did react publicly to the growing tension in Europe. In 1936 she went to Geneva as a member of the Soviet delegation to the League of Nations. There she participated in the debates on opium traffic and nutrition, but her concern lay with the League’s taking action to resolve the Spanish civil war.42 On October 4 she wrote to Ada Nilsson, a Swedish physician and friend, “We work and work, but what are the results? No practical results on all the big questions: Spain, the revision of treaties, disarmament. ‘Passivity’ is the leading mood here.”43
She was alarmed by Hitler’s successes in Europe; in 1938 she told Carl Gerhard, a Swedish theatrical director, that France and Britain were giving Czechoslovakia away to Germany without consulting the Soviet Union.44 There was considerable truth in the charge, and Kollontai was repeating Moscow’s official position, but she was also horrified by fascism. Appeasement by the Great Powers and their refusal to act in concert with the Soviet Union so alarmed Kollontai that she dropped her customary reserve and made her anger public.45
At the same time she was living through another crisis, about which she kept silent. In 1936 Stalin initiated the purges which killed millions of Soviet citizens, including most of the Old Bolshevik leadership. Many diplomats were called home, only to disappear. Kollontai watched the terror from Stockholm, wondered when her time would come, and kept up the daily round of meetings with her usual poise, knowing that there were police spies among her own staff. Swedish friends who were aware of the purges tactfully avoided the subject.46
How did she feel? In 1937 when Body visited her, she broke her protective silence and talked about the new mood in her embassy.
Dear Marcel Iakovlevich, our romantic epoch is completely finished. With us, we could take the initiative, stimulate the administration, make suggestions. Now we must be content with executing what we are ordered. Between my colleagues and me there is neither camaraderie nor friendship. Moreover the activity of each of us is strictly compartmentalized. Our relations are cold and distrust is everywhere.47
Body asked her about Shliapnikov and Dybenko; Kollontai said they were dead.48 He named other Bolsheviks, her answer remained the same; they were dead. Then, feeling that she owed Body some sort of explanation for the terror sweeping the Soviet Union, she said lamely that democracy was not yet possible in Russia.
I, I have understood that Russia could not pass from absolutism to liberty in a few years. The dictatorship of Stalin or another which would have been put together by Trotsky was inevitable. This dictatorship has made waves of blood flow, but blood flowed before, under Lenin, and undoubtedly too much innocent blood. Remember the massacres of hostages that Zinoviev ordered in Petrograd to stop the terrorists. How many dozen years will it take for Russia to arrive at a regime of liberty? I can’t say. Historically, Russia, with her numberless uncultured, undisciplined masses, is not mature enough for democracy.
Kollontai had never liked the violence her own people committed, although she had countenanced it, while seeking to reduce it. Now a great horror had come out of the revolution and she was trying to explain it by saying that Stalin’s dictatorship had been inevitable. It was not. Stalin and his subordinates initiated the purges because they were afraid of the turmoil of the thirties and determined to establish absolute control over their nation by hunting down imaginary enemies and terrorizing everyone else into submission. Having chosen to attack their own people, they mobilized the apparatus of the Soviet state to shed blood, which it did, remorselessly, capriciously, probably beyond the intentions of those who had set it going. This was not of the same order as Zinoviev’s sometimes excessive repression in Petrograd, nor had Zinoviev’s brutality led to this. Between Zinoviev’s policies in 1919 and Zinoviev’s execution in 1936 lay a series of choices by the party leadership, each choice increasing the power of that leadership and of Stalin. The terror had its roots in earlier Bolshevik actions, in qualities of the party Lenin had built, and in Russia’s autocratic heritage, but it was not, as Kollontai implied, inevitable.
She would not admit this, in part because she was a determinist, uncomfortable with granting such fearful coercive power to any individual or group of individuals, but also because linking Stalin’s terror to Lenin’s gave hope that Stalin’s violence would not thwart the revolution, as Lenin’s had not. She clung to her belief in the future, in the eventual success of the Soviet experiment, which she repeatedly declared was also inevitable. In the meantime she waited for the terror to pass. Again she chose to remain at her job, although she could have defected, because to defect would require renouncing the revolution as betrayed, and this Kollontai would not do.
She mourned the dead so privately that even Body could not see it. The party expelled Shliapnikov in 1933 on the grounds that he was “a degenerate”; he was jailed in 1935 and probably died in 1937, refusing with his customary dignity to make a public confession.49 Dybenko had a successful military career which ended in his serving on the tribunal that ordered the execution of Army Commander-in-chief ?. N. Tukha- chevskii in June 1937. Several months later the NKVD arrested Dybenko. He was shot in 1938.50 Kollontai must have cried for him, for Shliapnikov, and for the many hundreds of others who disappeared. She may not have known the full extent of the purges, but she did not deceive herself about the fact that people were being killed, and that she herself was vulnerable. In fact, she expected to die. On July 4, 1937, she wrote to Ada Nilsson that she would soon have to return to Moscow.
Dear, dear Ada, my friend. Kindly keep the notes, diaries, and all personal material you have until 1947 (that is, if I shall fall victim to a misfortune).
Ten years after my death I ask you to hand over all this material to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. It can be published when it is suitable in the Soviet Union.
Thank you for everything. Your friendship is a great happiness and a support for me. I embrace you with warm friendship and affection.
Your Alexandra Kollontay51
She did not expect to return from the trip to Moscow, or even to survive it. The odds were against her. Of the original Council of People’s Commissars, only Kollontai and Stalin lived through the purges, and she was one of the very few former oppositionists, a one-time Menshevik at that, who did not at least experience arrest. The death toll among the diplomatic corps alone was high.52 Yet this terror was capricious, and a combination of circumstances—Kollontai’s long absence from the political infighting in the Soviet Union, her visibility in Europe, her sex—probably account for her survival. It may also be that she proved her loyalty to the authorities when she went back in 1937, although it is difficult to know how she could establish innocence at a time when everyone was innocent, except the police.
Kollontai may have implicated others, but there is no evidence that she did so. There is only one incriminating article from 1937. a piece first published in 1927 and then reissued to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the revolution. In the original version Kollontai described the meeting where the Central Committee voted for an armed uprising in October 1917. She discussed Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s opposition to precipitous action and Lenin’s argument that their fears were unfounded. She presented Dybenko as impatient to proceed, Trotsky as calm and impressive, the gathering as tense but harmonious. After they had made their historic decision, the committee members adjourned to the dining room for tea and sausages.53
The 1937 version of this article was considerably different. Kollontai did not mention Dybenko now, but she did praise Stalin, whom she had ignored in 1927. Stalin energetically supported Lenin, she declared. Stalin had led the Bolsheviks while Lenin was hiding in Finland, and he had provided the revolutionary spark necessary to fire the party into action. Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Trotsky, on the other hand, malevolently plotted to thwart Lenin. In the vituperative prose required during the purge period, Kollontai wrote: “The two base figures of the malicious enemies and traitors to the party sat separate from us on the divan, not at the table. They sat side by side, they whispered to one another, Zinoviev and Kamenev came out against Lenin, against the C.C., with foully cowardly objections, with criminal, disorganizing arguments.”
She said that Zinoviev and Kamenev wanted the Bolsheviks to seize power by parliamentary means, which was true, in a sense. They had favored delaying until the Constituent Assembly convened, in the belief that the party would be stronger then. Lenin and Trotsky responded by arguing instead for an armed uprising, but Trotsky wanted to wait until the Congress of Soviets in early November. That is in fact what the Bolsheviks did, but Kollontai pictured Trotsky’s general agreement with Lenin as even more deceitful than Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s open opposition. Trotsky was hiding his true desire to subvert the revolution. “Here the Judas Trotsky, future agent of the Gestapo, fawned. He was for the uprising, ‘for legality,’ and ‘for delay.’ He was for waiting until the Congress of Soviets. Also treachery, only in a hidden form. The Judas told everything on himself in this decisive hour.”54 When the vote was taken, “the two hands of the traitors” showed their “treachery,” but the wisdom of Lenin and his great disciple Stalin prevailed.55
Kollontai had been forced out of her refuge in Sweden and into the nightmare. She paid abject homage to Stalin, she lied about the past, she edited out all references to Dybenko, whom she had loved. Once again she was willing to meet the party’s requirements for membership, on which now depended not only the meaning of her life, but her physical survival as well.
The article may have been the final element that proved Kollontai’s loyalty in 1937 and saved her. She returned to Sweden to resume her work. She had always read history in her leisure time, and now she cast about in the story of the past for reassurance that present atrocities would end. In 1938 in a letter to Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik, she testified to her faith in the future, which she was trying to buttress by reminding herself of the brutality of other ages.
Now I value and understand that epoch [the Renaissance] in a different way. An epoch when thought moved and the search for everything new went on. . . . What persecution of thought! And what a will to defend one’s beliefs. It has much in common with our epoch. . . . Those who made discoveries about the universe were considered more heretical than those who tried to reform social relations. Now there is a battle of moribund capitalism with the builders of new social relations and economics. The batde is carried on according to a different plan, but then the transition from one stage to another was accompanied by wars, political intrigues, terror—everything. And time passes. And in the squares where John Hus and Giordano Bruno were burned, their monuments now stand!56
She was looking ahead, ten or twenty years, when the NKVD would be restrained and the Old Bolsheviks honored again. Until then she chose to wait out the present, serving the revolution she still believed in, making the sacrifices it demanded.
The reprieve of 1937 seemed to be rescinded in the summer of 1938, when Kollontai was again called home. Her friend Ada Nilsson had been instructed to burn all of Kollontai’s letters if Kollontai gave her the signal that she was about to be arrested by one of the spies on her staff. That had not happened, but Kollontai took the order to return to Moscow for consultations as an ominous sign, and she sent Nilsson what she again believed was a farewell letter.
I have written this letter in Saltsjöbaden the 21st of July 1938, 11 o’clock in the morning. A. K.
My dear, dear friend Ada,
You have asked me to collect my articles, letters, and notes so that you can write a biography of me. Accordingly I have fulfilled your desire: I am sending you two bags with material of different kinds, photographs, notes, biographies, letters, etc. In the event of my death (for something can always happen on a trip), I ask you to keep all these purely personal papers.
My life has been rich and exciting. I have lived through many great events. But also great pain. The great part is the fulfillment of my entire life’s struggle, dreams, and endeavors: the socialist state a reality, woman’s emancipation, for which I have fought so hard and for which I laid the foundation in the Soviet Union.
Pain? I hate brutality, intolerance, wrong, and human suffering. At certain times humanity finds itself in a period when all these apparitions are enormous. It always happens that way in times of revolution in the sociopolitical and economic systems. It is historically required. But that makes it no less painful.
I thank you Ada, my great and dear friend, for your friendship and for many years, beautiful times, and spiritual harmony.
I embrace you and thank you again.
Your Alexandra Kollontay57
She won another reprieve in 1938. Now the arrests began to taper off, and Kollontai returned to Stockholm to watch the leaders of Europe attempt to fashion one more compromise that would prevent Adolf Hitler from launching a continental war.
Kollontai looked in horror at the thirties not only because of the excesses of Stalin’s regime but also because of the naked brutality of nazism. Many Communists justified remaining in the party through the purges because fascism and the weakness of the Western democracies during the Great Depression offered a grim alternative to the authoritarian socialism of the Soviet Union. Kollontai gave vent to similar feelings in her lamentations that the times had gone mad. Less than a year after she had been spared arrest at home, in late August 1939, Kollontai learned that her government had made a nonaggression treaty with the Nazis.
Her Swedish friends were so shocked by the news that some of them broke off communications with Kollontai.58 She was obliged to play hostess to the German ambassador, Prince Victor von Wied, whom she had hitherto snubbed. Refugees from Hitler’s attack on Poland wrote her a threatening note. Kollontai sent another letter to Ada Nilsson, affirming her faith that the current crises were an aberration. Justifying the Nazi- Soviet Pact, she added lamely, “And isn’t this an absolutely new method of solving conflicts that the Soviet Union is practicing now? Isn’t it wiser and more humane to seek to solve problems through treaty and negotiations instead of taking up arms?”59
That pathetic optimism was little warranted by events in the black fall of 1939. At the time Kollontai wrote the letter, the Soviet Union, emboldened by its new diplomatic “methods,” began to put pressure on Finland, Poland, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Stalin was seeking to expand his borders through aggression against his weak neighbors, with Hitler’s blessing. From Finland he wanted the land adjacent to Leningrad, in exchange for a barren northern stretch of Karelia, and he wanted leases for military bases on Finnish soil, all to guard the sea approaches to Leningrad.60
When the Soviet demands for territorial concessions reached Helsinki in October 1939, the Finns sent a delegation headed by Social Democrat Väinö Tanner to Moscow, but the negotiations broke down quickly. Relations between Finland and the Soviet Union had never been cordial. It was Kollontai who had voiced the Bolshevik pledge to allow Finland autonomy in 1917, but when that nation actually broke away from Russia, it became a haven for anti-Bolshevik elements, both Finnish and Russian. Although during the twenties Finland was ruled by moderate regimes, the political right, connected through educational background and philosophy to conservatives in Germany, wielded significant power. The right remained resolutely anticommunist. In the early thirties a semifascist group called the Lapua movement gained notoriety for its vociferous demands for a hard line toward the Soviet Union, and the existence of such extremists bore witness to the continuation of the strong anti-Soviet and pro-German element in Finnish politics, particularly in the military.61
Once Hitler came to power, foreign policy makers in Moscow watched Finland’s relations with Germany and the Scandinavian countries closely. Kollontai received frequent orders to report on the Swedish attitude toward Finland. The Finnish governments were actually trying to strengthen their neutrality by aligning with the neutral Scandinavians, thereby hoping to soothe Soviet fears, but they were unsuccessful. Both Maksim Litvinov and B. S. Stomoniakov, a specialist on Scandinavia in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, suspected their neighbor of trying to move Sweden and Norway into the German orbit and of aiming at an anti-Soviet, Scandinavian military alliance. They also referred occasionally to a small group, the Academic Karelia Society, which demanded annexation of large amounts of Soviet territory on the specious claim that the land was historically Finnish. Moscow saw the society as symptomatic of Finland’s aggressive aspirations.62
In 1938 and 1939 Moscow made overtures toward an anti-German alliance with Finland, but the Finns put off the proposal out of a fear that such a treaty would violate their neutrality.63 Neither government came to the negotiations in October 1939 prepared to compromise significantly, therefore: the Soviets distrusted their adversary and were bent on moving their vulnerable frontier westward; the Finns were determined to resist their aggressive neighbor. The result was a stalemate that raised hostility on both sides. On December 1 the Soviet Union declared a group of Finnish Communists headed by Otto Kuusinen to be the legitimate government of Finland, a fiction that allowed them to claim they were commencing military action in response to a request from the Finns. On November 30 the Soviet army had launched the initial attacks of the Winter War.
At first, Finnish forces defeated the ill-prepared Soviet troops in a display of courage that stirred worldwide admiration. Here at last was a small nation that could stand against the attack of the dictators. Finland could not survive alone, however, and her leaders hoped that they could either win Western aid or negotiate a reasonable peace with the Soviet Union. The existence of the puppet Kuusinen regime made the process more difficult, for as long as Moscow recognized an illegitimate government, they could not negotiate with Finland’s real leaders—Prime Minister Risto Ryti and Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner. Yet Stalin could not afford to wait for a military triumph and dictated peace. The Nazis were openly scornful of the poor Russian showing in the war; a prolonged conflict would seriously weaken the Soviet relationship with Germany. Furthermore, a beleaguered Finland might well get British and French aid, thus pulling the Soviet Union into World War II on the side of the Axis.64 For both the Finns and the Soviets, then, there were incentives to end the fighting, if a way could be found to negotiate.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s foreign office was watching with alarm. The guiding principle of Swedish foreign policy was neutrality; Sweden saw it as her means of survival in a world of larger powers. Quietly throughout the thirties, Swedish foreign ministers had reassured the Soviet Union that Finland sought no anti-Soviet bloc in Scandinavia, that Scandinavia would always remain neutral. When the Winter War began, however, there was a great outpouring of sympathy in Sweden for Finland. “Finland’s cause is ours” became the cry of public opinion,65 and the government had to find a course between popular demands to support the Finns and its own determination to remain uninvolved. Foreign Minister Christian Gunther believed that Finland should not be pushed into major concessions, but that everything must be done to facilitate communications between the combatants. Thus Sweden chose the role of mediator.66
What of Kollontai ? She had apparently decided she now had to help the country in which she had spent so much of her childhood. If she felt any despair over the fact that her second home had been attacked by her government, she never revealed it. Instead she went to work, traveling back to Moscow during the fall negotiations. She was there ostensibly to report on Swedish public opinion, but Väinö Tanner, who was heading the Finnish delegation to Moscow, heard that she had spent her evenings in long meetings on the Finnish question. Her efforts yielded no conciliation, and she returned to Stockholm expecting war.67
Once the combat began, Kollontai broached the subject of peace negotiations to Swedish leaders. She had long since mastered the art of diplomacy, and now she had set herself a task that would test all her skills. She wanted to do everything she could to restore peace. This required opening communications between Helsinki and Moscow, which in turn required Swedish help. She would also have to deal gently with Viache- slav Molotov, the recently appointed commissar of foreign affairs. Kollontai was less suspicious of the Finns than he, more willing to negotiate, and above all, more anxious to end the war. Thus she set out to bring her government to a peace conference by conciliating not only the Finns but her own superiors. To achieve that objective she would have to make maximum use of the freedom she was allowed, without alienating Molotov and Stalin and thereby jeopardizing her own position as well as the negotiations.
Kollontai began her efforts with several exploratory talks with Swedish officials in late December 1939. On December 25 she cancelled an invitation to Christmas dinner with friends so that she could discuss the war with Gustav Möller, a Social Democrat and friend who was minister of social welfare.68 Möller had worked with Shliapnikov during World War I, and throughout the thirties Kollontai consulted with him. On December 27, she talked directly with Foreign Minister Christian Günther, telling him that because of her special affection for Finland she wanted to find a way to peace. She said she had not checked with Moscow before she saw him, an admission which Gunther received skeptically. It might be true, he thought, or it might be a means of explaining later policy changes as a result of her exceeding her authority. As the weeks wore on, Gunther would learn how often Kollontai was acting on her own initiative. She told him the Soviet Union wanted to begin negotiations, but that their battlefield defeats had so humiliated Soviet leaders that they had to rebuild their prestige. Gunther replied soothingly that the Soviets need not fear a loss of face; no one believed that they had sent their full military might against the Finns. Kollontai agreed that the opinions of other nations should not be a prime consideration in ending a war, but she cautioned Günther that domestic policy was also involved here. The Soviet government had to explain its failures in Finland to its own people. Gunther said he hoped the resolution of the war did not hang on the Soviet Union’s internal politics.69
This talk was the first of several between Kollontai and Gunther or his deputy Erik Boheman. The Swedes told her that the Kuusinen regime would have to be abandoned, that the Finns might compromise on territorial concessions in Karelia and on leases on the Baltic islands, where the Soviets wanted to build military bases, but they would never cede the Cape of Hangö. That peninsula, which guards the entrance to the Gulf of Finland, lies seventy-five miles from Helsinki. Granting it to the Soviet Union would give the Soviets a foothold in the western part of the country as well as the potential to cut off access to Helsinki by sea. Gently Gunther and Boheman reminded Kollontai that Britain and France were considering intervention. She responded that she wanted peace, but that Moscow would insist on Hangö.70
At the same time secret contacts had begun between Kollontai and the Finns through the unlikely agency of Hella Murrik Wuolijoki, a Finnish playwright and Communist who was an old friend of Kollon- tai’s. On New Year’s Day 1940 Wuolijoki wrote to Väinö Tanner, the Finnish foreign minister, and volunteered to go to Stockholm to see the Soviet ambassador. Tanner thought Wuolijoki a foolish woman, but he approved her trip after conferring with his colleagues. Wuolijoki then went to Sweden on January 10 and met with Kollontai in great secrecy. Kollontai volunteered to send another dispatch to Molotov requesting a clarification of what the Soviet Union now sought in a peace treaty. She included in her message a glowing report on Finland’s desire to negotiate, but Molotov was skeptical. He thought, quite rightly, that Kollontai was exaggerating the willingness of the Ryti government to grant the territory the Soviet Union demanded. Molotov therefore sent two envoys to Stockholm to verify what Kollontai had written by talking with Swedish officials.71
Apparently the report he received from these men satisfied him, for Molotov sent Kollontai a telegram soon thereafter spelling out the Soviet demands. It was a stern message: Moscow would abandon the puppet Kuusinen regime and negotiate with the Ryti-Tanner government, they would demand stricter “guarantees” of their borders than they had in October, and they inquired what concessions the Finns were prepared to make. Gunther forwarded this message to Helsinki, with his advice that the government there should seize the opportunity to establish direct contact with the Soviets.72
Tanner was pleased by Moscow’s willingness to drop the Kuusinen regime and deal directly with the real leaders of Finland, but he was worried by the fact that the Soviet Union was raising its territorial demands. Through Wuolijoki he sent several messages to Kollontai, asking her assessment of Molotov’s willingness to compromise, and she replied evasively that the Finns must begin negotiations. She believed that once the process was underway the two governments could bargain over the land involved. Her first imperative was to get them talking to one another, by using her role as intermediary to soften the position of each side when reporting it to the other. She did state clearly that there could be no compromise on Hangö, but she implied that all else was negotiable.
In the course of these exchanges over the last days of January and early February 1940, Tanner began to realize that Kollontai was being more conciliatory than Moscow, and he learned that on at least one occasion she had received an order from home to temper her encouragement of Finnish overtures.73 Tanner also gathered from telephone conversations with Wuolijoki that Kollontai was not informing Moscow of the Finnish refusal to cede Hangö. Disturbed by the thought that she might be misrepresenting her government’s intentions, Tanner decided to go to Stockholm to see her himself and possibly to begin those direct communications with Moscow which Gunther advised.
He met her twice, on February 5 and 6. Kollontai stressed that peace must be made to save Finland from further devastation. When Tanner suggested that an island in the Gulf of Finland and additional land along the inland frontier could be substituted for Hangö, she said her superiors might accept that compromise. On the sixth, however, she came back to him with a telegram from Moscow that declared that the Finnish proposals did not offer sufficient basis for negotiations. Tanner left Stockholm convinced that the contact between the two countries was at an end for the time being; Kollontai’s encouragement had not been able to sway Molotov and Stalin.74
The Finns switched their efforts now to gaining military aid from Britain, France, and Sweden, while keeping the link to Kollontai open.75 Despite rising public pressure, the Swedish government still wanted accommodation between the combatants, and Gunther gently urged the Finns to compromise. He, Boheman, and the prime minister, Per Albin Hansson, knew the Soviet demands were severe, but they also knew that Finland had very few choices. Only massive foreign intervention would save them, at the risk of involving all Scandinavia in World War II. That prospect horrified Gunther, who sought to pressure both sides into concessions that would enable negotiations to begin. On February 21 he thought he detected a new willingness from the Finns to consider ceding Hangö, and he encouraged Tanner to come back to Stockholm for talks with Kollontai.76
Kollontai was just as anxious as Gunther that the Finns compromise. She told Eljas Erkko, the Finnish charge d’affaires in Sweden, that his government must accept the Soviet demands immediately. To the Swedish ambassador to Moscow, Vilhelm Assarsson, she confided that the peace terms would be difficult for the Finns. However, there must be peace. She too feared British involvement that might spread the war over Scandinavia. She also worried about the possibility that when the Soviet forces began to win, as they must by virtue of their numerical superiority, the Finns would be forced to sign away even more of their land.
When Tanner came to see Kollontai in Stockholm on February 27, she was close to tears. As she had feared, Molotov had sent her a new set of demands, the harshest yet.77 She had warned the Finns, Kollontai said sadly, to accept the proposals of early February. In a communique on February 12, Molotov had declared that the Soviet Union was seeking a lease on Hangö and the cession of the Karelian Isthmus and the eastern shore of Lake Ladoga. Now his latest message had made those demands preconditions for negotiations; the Finns must grant them before talks could even begin. Tanner said that such a peace would permanently damage Soviet-Finnish relations, but he promised to keep contacts open. He left a troubled Kollontai and returned to Helsinki.78
However they loathed the idea of surrender, the Finns had few options left now, for the tide of combat had turned against them. To prevent further Finnish delay which might give the Allies time to intervene, the Soviet Union delivered an ultimatum to Ryti’s government on February 28. The Finns must respond to their terms within two days. There followed a hectic round of talks in which the British and French offered help, but not enough, the Swedes refused to allow foreign troops to cross their soil, and the Finns debated their alternatives. Tanner tried to stall by requesting a clarification of the Soviet ultimatum. Meanwhile the conditions at the front continued to deteriorate. On March 5 the Finns gave up and accepted the Soviet demands “on principle.”79 Within a few days a negotiating team went to Moscow. There Molotov presented them with terms that were more severe than they had hoped but which were not significantly worse than those of the preceding fall. The Soviet Union took the land north and west of Leningrad, the Isthmus of Karelia, Hangö, and some territory along the inland frontier. Considering their military advantage in March, they could have demanded more, but their fear of Germany and of Allied intervention made them anxious to settle. They now had the land necessary to guard the approaches to Leningrad.80
For their part the Finns found little comfort in Soviet “leniency.” They had lost their fourth largest city, Viipuri, one-tenth of their farmland, and an important part of their timber industry. Some 23,000 men had been killed and 43,000 wounded; 42,000 refugees flooded across the new border, fleeing the Russians. The Finns considered themselves the victims of aggression, and their anger made them more anti-Soviet than before.81
The war was over. Kollontai had achieved her objective. She had cajoled the two governments into dealing with one another, occasionally delaying communiques that might shatter the negotiations, occasionally glossing over Molotov’s intransigence with her assurances that the Soviet Union really wanted peace. In the words of the diplomat and historian Max Jakobson, “She acted more like an advocate of peace than an impersonal intermediary.”82 After all the years of obedience to Moscow, she had finally been able to help one of Stalin’s victims. She had not saved Finland from aggression nor could she ameliorate the terms of the settlement, but she had opened communications between the two countries and she had worked with the Swedes to convince the Finns to abandon their heroic but doomed defense. Kollontai, the Old Bolshevik who had grown up in Finland, who once called for Finnish autonomy and demanded revolutionary war, now gently, tactfully, sadly helped persuade the Finns to capitulate before more of them died. She had come to a strange, mournful realism in her old age.
For the next year Kollontai worked again on improving Soviet relations with Sweden. Under orders from Moscow she discouraged overtures toward a Swedish-Finnish military alliance, and thereby encouraged Finland to strengthen its ties to Germany.83 Meanwhile relations between Berlin and Moscow deteriorated. At a luncheon in March 1941 Kollontai asked Swedish diplomat Gunnar Hagglof his opinion of German attitudes toward her country. Hagglof had just returned from Berlin, and he told Kollontai he expected Hitler to make war on the Soviet Union. “I saw tears in her eyes as she sat for a moment in silence, then she tapped my hand mildly and said, ‘Be quiet, my dear Mr. Hagglof. You have no right to tell me this and I have no right to listen to you.’ ”84
In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Kollontai’s mission abruptly changed. She was charged now with watching Swedish foreign policy for “favoritism” toward the Nazis. Kollontai had never been comfortable with the Nazi-Soviet Pact, of course, and the Germans had complained to Moscow in June 1940 that she was “hostile” toward them.85 Once the war began, she could set about helping her country, now besieged by the enemy she had always hated. From June 1941 to August 1942 she pursued a gruelling schedule, performing her diplomatic duties, nursing her son who had come to Sweden ill with heart disease, and acting as grandmother to the Soviet colony in Stockholm. In June 1942 she wrote to Isabel de Palencia, the former Spanish ambassador to Sweden, “One lives on tenterhooks here and my nerves are beginning to go, but I try to work on with courage and energy.”86
In August 1942, after five days with little sleep, Kollontai collapsed from a stroke. She was seventy years old now, and the attack was almost fatal. Nanna Svartz, a prominent Swedish physician who treated her, was pessimistic at first, but slowly Kollontai recovered. By Christmas she could speak clearly and work from a wheelchair, but she remained partially paralyzed on her left side. She could never again walk without help or write easily.87 She returned to a regular schedule only in 1943, when she gave herself once again to negotiating an end to a war between the Soviet Union and Finland.
After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Finland had entered World War II on the side of the Axis, hoping to regain what had been lost in the Winter War. At first the Finns defeated the Soviet army, and emboldened conservatives talked about moving Finland’s borders eastward through Karelia into historically Russian territory. In 1942, however, the Soviets began to turn the Germans back, and by 1943 Finnish officials realized that the Allies would win the war. Finland had to settle with a victorious Soviet Union.88 Again Sweden was anxious to mediate, although its leadership never supported the Finns in this second war—the so-called Continuation War. They were repelled by the alliance with Germany, and some newspapers even advised abandoning Finland to defeat by the Soviet Union. Foreign Minister Gunther and his deputy Boheman felt, however, that they must work to keep their neighbor from falling under Soviet occupation.89
In the summer of 1943, when Kollontai was well enough to return to work, she took up her old role of urging the Finns to open negotiations. She told de Croy, the Belgian ambassador to Stockholm, that her country was interested in peace, but when the Finnish envoy to Sweden, Georg Gripenberg, pursued the overture it led nowhere, possibly because she had again exceeded her authority. Throughout the fall Kollontai continued to push for contacts by telling members of the diplomatic corps that negotiations could begin.90 Then, on November 13, she came to see Erik Boheman to tell him she hoped the Continuation War would not damage relations between Sweden and the Soviet Union. Boheman was alarmed by the Allies’ recent decision to require “unconditional surrender” from the Axis. Would Stalin demand that of Finland? he asked. Kollontai promised to seek instructions on the subject from Moscow.91
On November 20 she called Boheman to come to see her. “Her excitement was strong when I arrived,” he wrote, “she had a message that she gave alternatively in French, German, and her broken Swedish-Nor- wegian.” Moscow had responded to her request with an invitation for Finland to send negotiators to Moscow. First, however, the Finnish government must specify what concessions they were willing to make. Smiling, Kollontai noted that there was nothing in the statement about unconditional surrender.
Boheman observed that Finland would have a difficult time breaking free of Germany. He was deeply concerned, as were the Finns, that the Nazis would retaliate mercilessly, should the Finns conclude a separate peace. There were German troops on Finnish soil, close contacts between the German and Finnish High Commands, and Nazi agents in the Finnish government. The Germans had no desire to see the Soviet units that were fighting in Karelia loosed against them. Thus Boheman feared that a Nazi occupation of Finland similar to the occupation of Italy was a distinct possibility, and he warned Kollontai of the difficulties the Finns faced. Kollontai said she hoped that since Finland had not formally joined the Axis it might be able to ease free of the Germans without paying Italy’s penalty of bloody reprisals. She told Boheman that the two of them must work secretly to “save Finland” and he went away encouraged. Moscow, with Kollontai’s prodding, had shown a willingness to talk.92
The next several months were a time of messages between Kollontai, Boheman and Gunther in the Swedish government, and Gripenberg at the Finnish Embassy in Stockholm. They kept their meetings a secret, lest news of the negotiations reach the press. Public disclosure at this point might end the contacts and provoke the Nazis stationed all over Finland. “Gripenberg and I talked in code on the telephone,” Boheman wrote. “When I visited Madame Kollontai I did it in the evening; at twilight I cycled to her house with a peaked cap on my head.”93 The Finns balked at the Soviet demand for a return to the borders of March 1940, and they feared that the Russians might make peace, wait until the Finnish army was demobilized, and then occupy the entire country. The Finns also were receiving veiled threats of German retaliation, timed to coincide with every new message from Stockholm. They stalled, awaiting the outcome of the fierce battles for the Baltic then in progress, and weighing the prospects of increased German aid against the growing likelihood of German defeat. They even nursed a remote hope that Anglo-American occupation of Europe would force Moscow to be lenient. Meanwhile Kollontai and the Swedes pressed the Finns to accept the 1940 borders as a means to negotiation. As she had during the Winter War, Kollontai feared that if the Finns delayed, Soviet victories would make the peace terms all the more severe. Finally in late March Helsinki agreed to send negotiators to Moscow, but when they arrived, Molotov was in no mood for conciliation.94
The conditions he had laid down for a cease fire, not a final peace, were rigorous—internment or expulsion of German troops by April 30, return of Soviet POWs, an immediate retreat within the 1940 borders, and a reduction of the Finnish army to one-half its present size by the end of May, to peacetime status before August 1. Furthermore, Finland had to pay $600 million in reparations in kind over the next five years and cede more land. If these terms were met, the Soviet Union would consider renouncing the lease on Hangö. The Finnish government refused the exorbitant demands; Kollontai’s and Boheman’s efforts had come to nothing. When the negotiations collapsed, she was so disappointed that her health failed her and she was forced to spend several weeks in bed.95
In June a Soviet offensive began smashing through Karelia, and Kollontai, Günther, and Boheman renewed their efforts to induce the Finns to settle. Late in the month the Finns offered to send a delegation to Moscow. Kollontai again felt optimistic, but then Molotov demanded that President Ryti sign a statement of “capitulation” to the Soviet Union. Kollontai assured an anxious Boheman and the Finns that this did not mean unconditional surrender, but given Molotov’s past performance she could not have been sure herself.96
At the same time Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, flew into Helsinki. His trip was the climax of growing German pressure, which had included the cutting down of arms shipments to a bare minimum. The Finns were almost wholly dependent on German supplies, so to mollify the Nazis President Ryti wrote a letter to Hitler assuring him that Finland would not give up any of its territory without German approval. In return the Germans promised more aid. On July 27 that letter became public, and Boheman, Gripenberg, and Kollontai thought they were seeing their latest hopes for peace die in a reassertion of the Nazi-Finnish alliance.97 Kollontai was becoming increasingly impatient with Finnish delaying tactics, however sympathetic she might be to the government’s difficulties. Again she was pressing for a settlement now, rather than later, when it might be still more onerous. And in the summer of 1944, pressure from the Allies was added to the growing reverses at the front.
Throughout the abortive deliberations Britain and the United States had been urging the Finns to make peace. Roosevelt and Churchill believed that they had reliable Soviet pledges not to occupy the country, and the Finnish alliance with Nazi Germany made them unsympathetic to Finland’s search for security. For their part the Finns now realized that the Anglo-American Allies were not going to save them from the Russians, an unpleasant fact that became even clearer when the United States broke off diplomatic relations in the wake of the Ryti letter. That step, and more importantly the worsening conditions at the front, persuaded the Finns to reorganize their government in early August. Kollontai welcomed that action as the prelude to Finnish acceptance of Soviet demands.98
When the overture did not come, therefore, she became “all the more impatient”99 and she did not keep her anger a secret. She bluntly told another diplomat that Moscow was tired of Finland’s insincerity.100 Finally, in late August, the new Finnish president, Marshall Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, requested in writing that the Soviet Union receive a delegation from Finland. He also said that he had informed Germany he did not consider himself bound by the declarations of his predecessor, that is, by the Ryti message to Hitler. There followed more secret night-time meetings between Kollontai, her aide Vladimir Semenov, Gripenberg, and Boheman, in which the Finns continued to balk over the question of interning German troops, but by the evening of September 3 the negotiators in Stockholm had finally worked out an armistice acceptable to both sides.
On September 7, 1944, a Finnish delegation went to Moscow to accept terms more severe than those they had earlier refused. Molotov demanded less in reparations, but he continued to call for a return to the 1940 borders, demobilization of the Finnish army in two and a half months, the dissolution of all pro-German groups within Finland, trial of war criminals, and the disarmament of German forces beginning September 15. In return the Soviet Union received a lease on the Porkkala peninsula near Helsinki rather than Hangö. The Nazis almost immediately began to take reprisals, ushering in a new war that lasted until April 1945. Väinö Tanner described September 1944 as “the bitterest time in our people’s life.”101
“I cannot say that I was particularly surprised by the severity of the peace,” wrote Erik Boheman, “even though I was more optimistic for awhile, perhaps too much encouraged by Madame Kollontai’s gentle voice.”102 Again she had carefully played the role of intermediary, aided by the Swedes and by Finns such as Gripenberg who accepted the necessity for concession. She used the same tactics she developed during the Winter War—liberal interpretation of Soviet intentions, editing of messages from both sides, cajolery, and impatient statements to other diplomats when progress slowed. Both the Swedes and the Finns were well aware that she was more generous than Molotov, and therefore unreliable as a gauge to Moscow’s real goals; but they accepted her zeal as motivated by a genuine desire to help Finland.103
Perhaps in some small way, Boheman thought, she helped spare the Finns the kind of Soviet occupation meted out to Romania and Hungary.104 Of course, Churchill and Roosevelt had pressed Stalin to respect Finland’s sovereignty. Furthermore Finland had never been a central concern of Soviet foreign policy. With its demands for strategically important territory achieved, the Soviet Union could turn its attention to Central and Eastern Europe, areas far more important to its objectives.
Yet Kollontai had been able to contribute to the peacemaking, and she told both Boheman and Gripenberg that she was happy with the success of their mutual endeavor.105 On September 30 she held a luncheon for members of the Swedish Foreign Office and the Finnish embassy. At the end of a short speech praising the peace they had finally made, she proposed a toast: “I wish Finland’s people happiness and success, and I drink a toast to your Marshall [Mannerheim]; je bois à la santé de votre Maréchal.”106
Kollontai spent the rest of 1944 in the less hectic work of managing Soviet relations with Sweden. In February 1945 she contracted pneumonia, which her physician Nanna Svartz attributed to her being overtired. After three weeks she could sit up and begin working again. Shortly afterward Molotov called her back to Moscow for consultations. Svartz advised her that she should postpone the trip until she was stronger, but Kollontai replied that she had to obey orders. She did ask that Svartz go with her, and on a freezing morning in March the two women boarded a Soviet military aircraft for the flight to Moscow.
When they arrived, the temperature was thirty degrees below zero, the airport waiting room was icy, and there was no one to meet them. Svartz was worried about Kollontai, who was chilled, so she found an army officer to drive them to the city. On the way they came upon the welcoming committee, Semenov and Petrov, formerly Kollontai’s subordinates in Stockholm, waving frantically from the roadside, having driven their car into a snowbank.107
Kollontai settled into a large apartment in the center of Moscow. Although she probably had been summoned home for consultations, her health was now so poor that she, or her superiors, decided it was time for her to retire.108 She was made an adviser to the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs and she began to renew acquaintances in Moscow and complete the memoirs she had been writing since 1939.109
She lived for seven years as a pensioner, in an apartment decorated with the bright colors of Mexico. Her companions were Emy Lorentsson, her secretary, and Aleksandr, her cat. She had been richly honored—she received the Order of Lenin, two Orders of the Laboring Red Banner, a silver-framed picture of the Swedish King Gustav V, and in 1946 a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in ending the Russo- Finnish wars. Some of her oldest friends came to see her—Ivan Maiskii, the Litvinovs, visiting Scandinavians—and Misha’s family was living nearby; he had died during the war. Kollontai still dressed well, her eyes were still bright, although her face was marked by the stroke.110
Her life settled into a pattern. She did her correspondence with Lorentsson, then worked on preparing her archive. True to her historian’s temperament, she had saved copies of her diaries, letters, and writings. She dictated the final version of her memoirs, sitting at a desk next to a window where she also watched birds come to feed. Occasionally, Lor- entsson read history aloud. Then, if Kollontai felt strong enough, she saw visitors or even went out to a diplomatic reception. In the summer she spent time in a rest home on the outskirts of the city; there she could sit on the porch in a wheelchair and look at the forest.111
Her health bothered her. She could not write or read easily because she could only use one hand. It took her a long time to dress every morning. She felt she had gotten too fat, but primarily she disliked being dependent on the people around her. She found it curious to be old and sick and working so little.112 As she gathered the written record of her life, she made notes about its meaning.
She had made three contributions, she wrote. First, she had worked for full female emancipation. After all the years, she still put that first. “Hence my struggle for the new morality (brochure The New Morality and the Working Class, 1918). Although this brochure was written in the years of emigration, that is, before October, there are many valid ideas and Marxist positions in it.” She also still took pride in The Labor of Woman in the Evolution of the Economy, The Family and Communism, the articles in Kommunistka, and her proposals in the 1926 marriage law debate. “My short stories had the same goal,” she wrote, “struggle with bourgeois morality for the emancipation of women.”113
Her second contribution was her “international work, agitation and propaganda in many countries” and the third was her diplomatic career. “Strictly speaking I lived not one, but many lives, the separate periods of my life so differed from one another. This was not an easy life, ‘no walk through the roses,’ as the Swedes say. There was everything in my life— achievement and great work, recognition, popularity among the broad masses, persecution, hatred, prison, failure and misunderstanding of my basic thoughts (on the woman [question] and on the way the marriage question was stated), many painful breaks with comrades, divergences from them, but long years of friendly, harmonious work in the party (under Lenin’s leadership).”114
On March 8, 1952, the forty-first anniversary of International Woman’s Day, Kollontai suffered severe chest pains. At 4:10 the next morning she died of heart failure.115 She was buried in Novodevichii Cemetery in Moscow. Above her grave was erected a white marble statue, bearing the inscription “Revolutionary, Tribune, Diplomat.” No obituary appeared in Pravda, for Kollontai had not been popular among Stalin’s men. A small tribute was sent to Izvestiia signed by “a group of friends and associates.”116
She was almost eighty when she died. Before her death she was still cheerful, still convinced that her country was building a great society, and, finally, willing to admit in writing that she had abandoned none of her feminism, and that she resented the price she had paid. She could have left the service of her country, but she stayed on, to be stained by her association with brutality and then redeemed by her work for Finland. She said she had survived by putting her faith in the future.
This childlike ability to dream helped me all my life; I not only saw what was real, but I could easily imagine how it would be if life were changed. This ability to dream helped me to look into the future when our Soviet state would begin to be built. I can tell myself that I lived intensely, that by my nature and persuasion I was very active, and widely and greedily seized life, and my imagination made life even more interesting.117
She was a dreamer at the end, as she had been in the beginning; the utopian vision which had made her a revolutionary sustained her. She was a human being of beauty and hope and compromise and despair and vanity and dignity and belief. She outlived her illusions, but she remained faithful to her dream, even though its earthly manifestation took too much blood. She never found the reconciliation she sought between independence and community. To the women who continue that search after her, she left an epitaph.
One must write not only for oneself. But for others. For those far-away, unknown women who will live then. Let them see that we were not heroines or heroes at all. But we believed passionately and ardently. We believed in our goals and we pursued them. We were sometimes strong, and sometimes we were very weak.