Letters of Disappointment

Dora García

February 25, 2022,1:00 –5:00pm
Géza, 306 Maujer

While studying the conflictive relationship between socialism/revolution and feminism, Dora García came across diaries, notes, and letters from pivotal female figures as Hannah Arendt, Leslie Feinberg, Alexandra Kollontai, Audre Lorde, Rosa Luxembourg, María Dolores González Katarain (Yoyes), and Clara Zetnik, among others. A common theme in these documents is a sense of profound and bitter disappointment in their companions of work and struggle.
These crucial moments mark the passage from an initial period of action and enthusiasm to a phase of bitterness and sadness, which then gives way to a last stage of active, solidary resistance.

For this seminar, Dora García proposes a collective exercise that begins with a group reading of these “Letters of Disappointment”. After the reading the participants are invited to dicuss personal experiences and specific disappointments, all while aiming to answer the question, “Revolution, when will you fulfill your promise?”

Image: Portrait of Alexandra Kollontai, author unknown, probably date 1920.

Dora García, “Letters of Dissappointment”

Dora García’s selection of 4 letters and diary entries of Alexandra Kollontai from the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow (translated into English), read by a group of artists and poets.

These recordings are part of the documentation of Dora Garcia’s exhibition and learnshop Revolution, fulfill your promise and the learnshop that was held at Amant from January-March, 2022.

(0:00-26:44) Alexandra Kollontai, Love Letters (Kärleksbrev, 1945) read by Mette Edvardsen. Alexandra Kollontai, Letter to Pavel Dybenko (7-8 February 1922) read by Olga de Soto. Alexandra Kollontai, Diary draft, 12th of March 1922, read by Samah Hijaw. Alexandra Kollontai, Letter to a member of the Academy of Science, I.M. Maiskij (1952) read by Alex Reynolds.

Time remaining:
  1. Love Letters (Kärleksbrev, 1945) read by Mette Edvardsen

I once looked through old papers and letters and decided to burn them. There were bundles of letters which I had loyally kept through many years. Love letters. I had kept them during all the years of exile, trusting them to the care of a good friend. I had saved them through the storms of revolution and even longer through all the years of diplomatic work. But now I was firmly determined to destroy them. Could they ever interest anyone? Did they have any historical value? Psychological value, maybe? But will the future writers of history be interested in the psychological problems and conflicts of our generation? Will the next generation understand what formed our happiness and our pain?

There were letters from men who, long ago, now it seems centuries ago, gave me so many beautiful names. Passionate letters, or hopeless letters from those I shamefully abandoned. Regretful letters from one who assured me that he still loved me, but nevertheless had to give me up. Then I found the bundle of my own letters. Letters I wrote in pain and despair, love letters full of ecstasy and happiness. He loves me. Letters where I tried to ease the pain of the loss of love. When I tried to wrap it up in tender words. Did that ease the pain? So many letters. Letters I never sent. Why did I keep them? I have always had the conviction that my life was a mission and that the way I once handled my love affairs could help other women sort out their own affairs of the heart and the psychological complications. You must not forget that our generation appreciated psychology and believed in the analysis of the soul.

Many of my letters were written at night. In the morning when the sun was shining, the problem did not seem so tragic or unsolvable. Just the fact of going through the process of writing down those feelings on paper somehow sorted out the love troubles, and the typical end of my love stories was almost always some serious trouble. Before I burned them, I read the letters. Some were magnificent, real, true and strong. Some I could even think of as literature. Do the young people of today write and receive such letters? I once talked to a young girl of today about the long letters we used to write to each other during our love conflicts. Astonished, she asked, “How could you waste so much time on writing letters, and not even typed? I would have settled the matter with one or almost two phone calls.” But private telephones were a luxury beyond the reach of simple homes in those years. And by the way, how could you by telephone convey a train of thought that took ten pages to write down? It would sound like nonsense on the phone but, written on a piece of paper in your own style with some tears here and there on the paper, it reached the most hidden depths of the heart of the receiver. I read the letters from my young husband who could not understand why I wanted to abandon him. Why couldn’t I be happy with him? Why did I want to travel and study at the University of Zurich? There were letters from the man who became my great love, my great romance, and the many, many letters I wrote to him. Some to the front during the Civil War and the Revolution, others from my posts as a diplomat. Was it really me who suffered so immensely then?

There was this other bundle of letters which I could not burn. They have neither historical nor psychological value. I don’t think I ever had any deeper feelings for the author of those extremely well written letters. And still, it is to this man that my memory today sends their warmest thoughts. At the time of our relationship. I was in the middle of highly regarded and exciting work. It was an extraordinarily rich and happy time. Rich with all kinds of events, but also with the results. He admired me just because I achieved these results. He valued my talent. That was a pleasant feeling. Not many men valued intellectual qualities of the woman they love. They’re usually only proud as far as her glory somehow upgrades, gives prestige to them as a couple, as if she is their legal wife. I kept all the letters from him, this admirer I did not care so much for. Strangely enough, I even kept his first formal lines, a short letter about the business matter. And here I had his last letter, a friendly greeting after not seeing each other for a very long time. There was no farewell letter, no break; no drama had separated us. Love had burned out quite normally without any crisis, without pain. Was that why I was so grateful to him and so unwilling to burn his friendly, encouraging and wise letters?

It began in August. My heart was badly wounded and empty. I had just endured a painful love tragedy. It will never happen again, I told myself. From now on, all my energy, all my thoughts and feelings will be for my great new, very necessary work. My heart is filled with ashes. No more fires of desire. I had had enough of them. That is what I thought.

It was a warm August night with a touch of autumn. We had been to the theater together. It was his initiative. I had no time for theater. We decided to walk. We talked business. But in the air was this something that made me smile and continuously repeat, “What the wonderful night, and look at those stars.” I had a very light summer hat and the wind played with my short, cropped hair. “May I carry your hat? Please give it to me.” When a man is willing to relieve you from such a light burden, then it means something. I gave him my hat. We did not turn to the right as we should have. We just went on. We had so much to talk about. About what? I really don’t remember. But my whole self, filled with renewal and happiness, and the black silhouettes of the trees along the streets, the warm August night with its fresh autumn breeze, it all remains clearly engraved somewhere in the lines of my mind. It was past two in the morning when I hurried up to my room. There was a mirror opposite the door. I stopped to look at myself. I imagined I must have changed, looked different from when I had reluctantly left my room to go to the theater performance, already regretting the hours I would be stealing from my work. And now I stood there, radiant and smiling. Had life started anew? My heart was certainly no longer a burnt-out heap of ashes.

  1. Letter to Pavel Dybenko (7-8 February 1922) read by Olga de Soto

Night of the 7th to the 8th of February, 1922.

It’s late at night, around 6 o'clock. Where are you Pavel? Where are you, my close friend, and yet right now so far? Is it possible that your heart, your love for me, doesn’t tell you how hard it is to listen, hour after hour, for the steps in the corridor? Another night is almost gone… And we have so few of them! Pavlusha! The night isn’t only for kisses, the value isn’t in the kisses for us, but in the communication of the hearts, that for both of us is so valuable. The night is passing, but in my soul, there is cold, cold… I’m lonely, horribly in pain…

Where are you? Why don’t you appreciate the hours that we could have together? No, I know, I trust in your love, in its depth. I know that I am closer and more precious to you than anyone else in the world. But exactly for that reason, because we mean so much to each other, I write this letter. I don’t want this pain that tortures me now, to happen again, my kind Pavlusha. I love our love too much, big and beautiful, to not want to keep it. But I know too well the laws of love, and pain will always leave a trace. That is why I’m writing to you, my beloved sweetness, my big boy.

I’m in pain, Pavel. I suffer so acutely when you leave, and I don’t know where you go. The most painful is not to know what keeps you away from me. I think, I think… in the long night hours, the imagination works feverishly. I start guessing, making suppositions. What would you say, Pavlusha, if I came to Odessa and, after a day or two, started mysteriously disappearing for a night, for half a night? Just imagine it, and maybe you will understand my struggle.

Where are you? There are two options, either at the club with friends, or else, there is another love interest there, some flirt. Pavlusha, dear! You should understand, I know too much about life and psychology to suffer. If I knew directly from you that yes, now you have a “flirt”… Why would that be special, unusual? Would it take away your love, lessen it? Of course not. Understand, Pavlusha, that would not bother me.

But that you may be constructing “a plot” with strangers, a “secret agreement”, secret from me, this is the real pain! Not the fact that women are fascinated by you (I even like it: let them be smitten by my beautiful Pavel, I know he is mine!), and not the fact that your physical needs might push you to it. All of that is understandable and does nothing to me.

What is painful, Pavlusha, is this: I see that you fear to tell me directly: “Shourochka, I know a few women, right now one interests me, amuses me. I’m going to her. Don’t wait for me, I’ll be back in the morning. But you are in my heart”.

I would smile and feel your trust in me. And it would be light. The agreement would be between us two, and not with some lady stranger. But now it is not like this. Now you leave secretly, like a thief, and you remain silent. And me, I don’t ask questions and suffer by myself. And you know it. And our suffering grows.

  1. Diary draft, 12th of March 1922, read by Samah Hijaw

New chapter. Peaceful inside, reconciled, in the very depth. Let the trouble, tumult, bitterness stay on the surface; underneath, it’s quiet. No discord with myself.

22 comrades submitted their statement to the Extended Plenary Meeting of the Comintern Executive Committee, a critique of the internal relations within the party. One cannot fall any lower. And the Central Committee, the one whom you think is the cause of the wrong line, the wrong course, harmful for the regime of the party - is the Central Committee the one to answer the statement? That’s nonsense. The XIth congress? They will strangle it; they won’t let it pass.

It is true that ours (Shliapnikov, Medvedev and others) rushed ahead. They should have made it “an act”, prepared in advance, worked out the delegates, gathered the signatures. That was our mood, we couldn’t be patient! And myself on that day, the 26th of February, I did not manage to keep a controlled tone. Everything came together in such a way. There were debates around the issue of the united front. I agree with the idea, the principle of it, but the vagueness of the formulation is unacceptable. There are no outlines, the line is vague. I decided I would speak. I wanted to support the French and the Italians demanding a more concrete approach. I signed up for the morning. In the morning I looked into the list - I am not there. I ask to be signed in. Fries signs me in. Zinoviev sees it: I see there is an agitation in the presidium. Runs … to the phone. Trotsky shows up. Coming towards me: “We are planning to make a speech about the united front, are you for or against it?” - “For, but with proviso: concrete details are needed.” - “Hm… Will I have to have a polemic with you?” - “If you entirely support the thesis of Zinoviev, yes” - “Meaning, I will have to fight again?” (With a courteous smile) - “You will see”, as courteous.

We change subjects, speak about the day of women, and about why I did not question the united front during the conference. We part ways peacefully. Radek runs over to me: “What will you be saying about the united front?”

Do I have to speak with them? What are they scared of? It’s a pity. A few minutes later, Zinoviev: “Do you want to speak against the united front? But the statement of the party accepted it, the Russian delegation must stand for the united front. We don’t know what you will be saying. I beg you, do not take the stand”.

I refuse. The exchange with Zinoviev is less courteous. They leave me in peace for five minutes. Then Zinoviev steps down from the tribune again, comes over to me. The delegates are interested. Zinoviev proposes to “confer” (deliberate), in the neighboring room with the top of the presidium: Trotsky, Radek, Zinoviev, Sakharov and me. They sit down. Silence. They exchange glances. Trotsky speaks up. “In the name of the Central Committee!” They need to know what I am going to say when I take the stand… “Very well, in short I will inform you”. I tell them, but after the first few phrases, eyes on the floor, gloomy faces.

Why this comedy? I stop talking: “tell me directly: is the Central Committee prohibiting me from speaking? As a disciplined member of the party, I will obey. But there has to be a direct statement from the Central Committee”

Awkward silence.

Then Trotsky, distinctly: “Yes, we forbid you to take the stand.” - “In that case, I demand to write into the record that I was forbidden to speak in the conference. Sakharov, put it into the record, not only for you but for the whole Russian delegation, they have to obey the direction of the party.” - “The question of the united front is closed, why didn’t you speak against it in the conference in December?” I answer. We talk for few minutes. I throw out a few “truths” about the hushed opinions, about the fact that nothing is discussed beforehand.

We arrive, we look: is there an organization behind it? They criticize, blame, and try to wave it off… such a familiar picture! the Xth congress a year ago. But then it was worse, more difficult (my own let me down, disowned me…)

They announce the debate. Deadly silence. They were listening, frozen, afraid to move. Afterwards, in private conversations there are intense attacks. The greatest pity is their fear: I was so naive to believe in their independence, but Cachin, Terracini, Fries, all of them were marching to the beat they were given.

During the debate: they laughed at me and at Shliapnikov too. We sat for three hours with Trotsky and Zinoviev, they were blaming us. The next day’s issue of Pravda is entirely dedicated to us: “The clear aim: blackmail”. The article was written by Radek, it was vulgar, low.

It was painful to know that all my private conversations with Fries, Cachin, went up to Zinoviev and were turned into “accusations” against me! What is this? How can such demoralization take place? It was painful, unspeakably so, a horrible torture to wait until Kreibach would announce the “verdict” and utter an accusative speech (the author of which was obviously Radek), woven with deft attacks.

It was painful to sense this wall of hostility between us and the committee, as we spoke, Shliapnikov and I. Radek spoke so impertinently against us, mainly against me, saying: “Here I do not polemicize with a lady, but with an enemy of our party”. And no one, no one protested! My old friend Clara, even she remained silent! How widespread has servility become, cowardice of the soul!…

At least someone dared to tell the truth. And it won’t just slip away, it will make them realize that it can’t continue like this. And most importantly, it will become easier for workers.

They have not decided what to do with us. At the top, there is a lot of hesitation. They speak of excluding Shliapnikov, me and Medvedev. They threaten with more, but not the top, only the second violins. The top has a wait-and-see attitude.

  1. Letter to member of the Academy of Science, I.M. Maiskij (1952) read by Alex Reynolds

Dear and much-esteemed friend, Ivan Mikhailovitch:

In the case of my death, I entrust to you my entire private archive – diaries, letters, notes, etc. Parts of this archive have already been submitted to the I.M.E.L. (the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute), where they have a foundation in my name. Yet the majority of it, including diaries and letters, is at my home. Comrade Emi Genrikhovna Lorenson knows where to find all the materials regarding this archive.

I have come to an arrangement with the writer, Captain Abel Naumovitch Panteleev, who will proofread the diaries dedicated to the years before the Revolution and before my diplomatic work.

To the writer Valeria Gerasimova I have entrusted the work on that part of my notes and diaries that concerns the women’s movement and the psychology of women. But the general management of what will be the subject of publication and which must remain in archival form at the I.M.E.L., I leave to you, Ivan Mikhailvitch. I also ask that you look through my diaries for the period of my diplomatic work, between 1922 and 1934, as well as notes made between the years 1040 and 1945.

Biographical materials exist separately, and of course, my writings, books and brochures are the best reflection of my biography.

The majority of printed materials are already at the I.M.E.L., although some articles I wrote abroad are still at my home.

I consider the following to be the most interesting of my activities:

First: participation in and preparation of the 1917 Revolution through the execution of Comrade Lenin’s assignments.

Second: my work on the emancipation of women and the struggle for their equality, which began in 1908 and continued as a consistent factor throughout all my work, including the diplomatic period.

Third: my considerable work during World War II on reducing the extent of the Red Army battle fronts. Also the preparation of the truce with Finland, twice, in 1940 and 1944, as well as efficient implementation of the policy of the Soviet Union regarding Sweden, preventing it from entering the war on the side of Germany.

Of my own academic works, I find “Society and Maternity” the most significant. Its central statements are now part of Soviet legislation on maternity protections and social security. Then, The Life of Finnish Workers, on socio-economic research on conditions of workers in Finland, published in 1903. Also, “The Condition of Woman” and “The Evolution of the Household”, lectures that I gave at the University of Sverdlovsk, published respectively in 1923 and 1926. A small book, New Morality and the Working Class, was published in 1923 and translated into many languages. For this book, I received an honorary title of Member of the British Society.

Of my work in fiction, I consider A Great Love the most interesting.

My brochure, “Who Needs War?”, published by the C.C. (Central Committee), played an important political role. It was released in 1915, and was reissued several times and translated into many languages.

The first and second parts of My Memories were published abroad, yet have not appeared in full in the Soviet Union. The complete version is at my home. Comrade A. A. Idanov has a copy of the galley proofs.

The materials that I have preserved in sealed envelopes are of course subject to your viewing, Ivan Milhailovitch, but may not be published without the permission of the Central Committee of the Party.

I thank you in advance and am certain of your friendly relation to me and of your understanding of my request. This is not meant to be in my personal interest, but in the interest of the history of our Party, so that my archives should not disappear or be wrongly used.“