When I first heard of ‘Love of Worker Bees’ I was so excited because I hadn’t yet discovered Teffi and was feeling terribly guilty about the gender imbalance in my Russian reading. I realise it’s not Kollontai’s fault that I then learned of Pushkin Press’s publication of ‘Subtly Worded’. I’m going to try not to judge Kollontai harshly by comparison, but it won’t be easy.
Alexandra Kollontai was a fascinating woman. Just days after the Bolsheviks seized power she became the People’s Commissar of Social Welfare, the first woman in Russia ever to hold such a high ranking post. Although she was eventually sidelined politically, she nonetheless made her mark, most famously because of her revolutionary theories around love, sex and marriage. Kollontai clearly had no truck with the pure and celibate ‘marriage of minds’ espoused (if you’ll excuse the pun) by Chernyshevsky and Lenin. ‘Love of Worker Bees’ is where she uses fiction to explain what Orlando Figes calls her ‘little…understood’ and ‘highly idealistic’ theories of sexual emancipation.
Kollontai believed that ‘sexuality is a human instinct as natural as hunger or thirst.’ So the three stories in this book are filled with infidelity, followed by jealousy followed by understanding and acceptance. Given that there had just been a socialist revolution, you can understand why Kollontai had hope that her theories might be understood and accepted, but, while I applaud her views on sexual equality, I do wish she was better at characterisation. The majority of the writers I’ve looked at in this project are great story-tellers, the minority were political theorists who realised that fiction is a good way to appeal to the masses. Essentially Kollontai’s book is of historical and social interest, but I can’t stay it stands up on literary merit alone.
Also, and again, this is a reflection on me not her, as well as reading Teffi recently, I’ve also read Paull’s ‘The Bees‘ this year, which has no relation to Kollontai’s book at all, except for the fact that I found her title a continual distraction.
So there we are, ‘Love of Worker Bees’ is a short book and an interesting book, but if you want to read a great female Russian writer, read Teffi. On the other hand, I may well be looking out for a biography of Kollontai to really learn about her contribution to Russia at this time.