By Alexandra Kollontai, January 1946
Lenin’s ability to think about the great and important, while not forgetting the small details of everyday life, always amazed me. I was amazed that, while engaged in creating a totally new kind of state, he never missed the opportunity to remind us, even in relation to small details, of the fact that the state, and particularly a socialist state, requires accountkeeping and order. I will cite one example.
It was December, 1917. Christmas was approaching, but at Smolny no-one was thinking of holidays. We were working non-stop. Winter had still not set in properly, sleet was falling and a cold northerly wind was blowing along the Neva.
Nadezhda Konstantinovna was trying to persuade Vladimir Ilyich to leave town for a few days over Christmas. She argued that he needed a respite from work, he was sleeping badly and was clearly suffering from fatigue.
The doctor who ran the Halila sanatorium in Finland, on the Karelian Isthmus, came to see me at the People’s Commissariat for Welfare and told me that his sanatorium had a new private residence, warm and well-lit, which he would be more than willing to put at Lenin’s disposal. Vladimir Ilyich, however, brushed aside all our arguments. Although we told him that there was a magnificent forest nearby where one could go hunting as much as one wished, Vladimir Ilyich would only answer: ‘Hunting is a fine thing, but we have no end of work to do. True, we have already made a start, but even the Bolsheviks cannot organise a new state in two months. That will take ten years at least.’
Nadezhda Konstantinovna interrupted him: ‘What? Does that mean you are going to spend all those years sitting at your desk without a break?’ ‘Well, we’ll see how things are later on,’ was Lenin’s reply.
However, a few days later it occurred to Vladimir Ilyich that if he went away for a few days, he would manage to write a complete new work that he could not find time for at Smolny. This idea so took hold of him that the following morning he said to Nadezhda Konstantinovna: ‘If Kollontai at the People’s Commissariat really does have a private residence in a forest where no one will disturb me, then I am willing to go.
On the morning of 24 December I went to the Finlyandsky Station to see Vladimir Ilyich off. He, Nadezhda Konstantinovna and Maria Ilyinichna had only just got into their compartment. Vladimir Ilyich sat beside the window, right in the corner of the carriage, in order to be less noticeable. Maria Ilyinichna sat beside him, and Nadezhda Konstantinovna sat opposite. Vladimir Ilyich thought it would be safer if he went in an ordinary passenger compartment with two Red Army soldiers and a trusted Finnish comrade.
Vladimir Ilyich was wearing his old autumn coat that he had been wearing when he came back from abroad, and also, despite the keen frost, a felt hat. A comrade carrying three fur-coats and a fur hat with earflaps followed me into the compartment.’You can put these on,’ I said to Vladimir Ilyich,’when you have to cross open fields in a horse-drawn sleigh, for then, naturally, it will be very cold, and it is a long way from the station to the sanatorium. The fur-coats, I added, are from the stores of the People’s Commissariat.’ ‘That is evident,’ said Vladimir Ilyich, opening one of the furcoats, on the inside of which was sewn the number of the storehouse and the item. ‘I suppose you did this so that we should not leave the coats behind? State goods like book-keeping, and that is as it should be.
Vladimir Ilyich wanted me to go with them, but I was detained by urgent business at the People’s Commissariat, mainly the organisation of aid for mothers and young children. I promised to join them later.
Vladimir Ilyich suddenly remembered that he had no Finnish money. ‘It would be a help if you could get hold of at least 100 Finnish marks to pay the porter at the station, and to cover any other minor expenses.’
I ran to the currency exchange desk, but I had only a small amount of money with me, not enough to get even 100 Finnish marks.
Vladimir Ilyich said: ‘So, the house stands alone and is well-heated, you say, and one can go hunting in the forest. And what if there are hares?’ I answered, that I could not promise hares, but that there were certain to be squirrels. ‘Hmm, shooting squirrels is a children’s pastime.’ Nadezhda Konstantinovna added: ‘If Vladimir Ilyich will only go for walks in the forest, and not spend the whole three days sitting at his desk.’ ‘But there even the air inside will be cleaner,’ Vladimir Ilyich interrupted her.
The train started to pull out of the station. No-one else on the platform realised that the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars was travelling as an ordinary 2nd-class passenger.
A few days later, Vladimir Ilyich was back at work at Smolny.
I got a handwritten note from Vladimir Ilyich:
‘I thank you for the fur-coats from the stocks of your People’s Commissariat, which I return to you safe and sound. They came in very useful, for we were caught in a snowstorm. Halila itself was very pleasant indeed. I am not sending you any Finnish marks as yet, but I have worked out roughly how much it comes to in Russian money – 83 roubles – and I enclose them with this note. I know that you have not got much money to spare. Yours, Lenin.
It was typical of Vladimir Ilyich that, amidst all his enormous problems of state, he could remember such details and always find time to be an attentive comrade.
Previously published on the marxists.org website.