A conversation with Dora García about Red Love

With Antonio Cataldo, Artistic Director, Fotogalleriet; Piet Mertens, Curator, Netwerk Aalst; and Pieternel Vermoortel, Artistic Director, Netwerk Aalst

Piet Mertens:

Alexandra Kollontai [b. 1872, St. Petersburg; d.1952, Moscow] is a figure who has been addressed in various feminist waves throughout history. What triggered you into exploring her work? Why now a new look at this figure?

Dora García:

The name of Kollontai has somehow always been there on my mind, because when I was a teen I was part of a political study group called the Flora Tristan Work Group [Grupo de Trabajo Flora Tristan]. Flora Tristan was a great French-Peruvian pioneer in feminism and a socialist. The group had a big library with an extensive section on Kollontai. I didn’t read those books at the time, but I remember holding them, so I knew they existed. When I was asked by curator Maria Lind to collaborate with Tensta konsthall and CuratorLab, Stockholm, on a one-year research project [2017–18] on Alexandra Kollontai, I started reading her texts. Two things struck me: first, that some of Kollontai’s specific concepts had to do with very contemporary concerns of what is called the fourth wave of feminism; and second, how important Kollontai seems to be in South America.

It’s very interesting to see how after her death she is remembered by everyone as it suits them best. In Russia, for example, her role as an agitator and sexual activist is completely erased—she is mostly known as a historical revolutionary and an ambassador.

In 1922 she wrote two articles for the magazine Rabotnitsa [The Woman Worker] that caused a big scandal. One was “Make Way for Winged Eros,” in which she explained what she meant by the concept of “comradely love,” which was not the “free love” that everyone was constantly talking about (in the sense that we would today understand polyamory or promiscuity). It meant something that is much closer to what we today would call “revolutionary love.” A love channeled through the community.

The second scandal was because she wrote an article titled “On ‘the Dragon’ and ‘the White Bird.’” Here she praised Anna Akhmatova as a model of the “new woman”—one that puts her work before family and marriage duties, one that dares to love beyond convention. Akhmatova was probably the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century and an enemy of the people, an enemy of the communist state, but Kollontai championed her as someone from whom Russian women had much to learn.

These scandals marked the end of Kollontai’s publishing in Russia. But by that time, she was published all over the world. There was, as they would call it, a “Red Love fever” all over the world that took on a life of its own. Throughout history, different waves of feminism would make new alliances with Kollontai’s work. So, you have a major publication wave of her work in the 1930s, then hardly anything in the 1940s or 1950s, then she reappears in the 1960s and 1970s again (second wave of feminism) with translations into English and French, major publications, then again not much in the 1980s, then the work comes back in the 1990s (third wave), and now again (fourth wave). Her complete works are currently being republished in Argentina, and in the United States they are coming out this year.


Kollontai lived in a time of radical political and social change; one could argue that the conditions at that time worked in favor of the development of such ideas. Who do you see doing the work of Kollontai today?


The Soviet revolution was such an exceptional event. It was because of super specific circumstances and people that this was possible, but I think that many of the things that Kollontai tried to win then are not yet won; the battle over abortion is not yet won. Also, Kollontai’s ideas about supporting mothers and young children by professionalizing and collectivizing domestic work is something that is being talked about a lot today but is far from being resolved.

And she said something that is still incredibly relevant today: there will be no liberation of women until “the family is abolished,” meaning the bourgeois family as we understand it and the economic system that goes with it—capitalism. And only when the family as we understand it ends, will the emancipation of women begin. Or to put it slogan-like: there will be no real revolution unless there is a sexual revolution.

Who’s doing the work of Kollontai today? It is certainly a collective. There is a collectivity of people that are demonstrating and working for these things to happen. Think of the women’s movements in Poland, Mexico, and Argentina, for instance, that work to decriminalize abortion.

Antonio Cataldo:

Coming to the exhibition, could you explain a bit more about the concept of Red Love in general?


Yes, the story of the term Red Love. It comes from an interesting misunderstanding. Kollontai didn’t name any of her work “Red Love.” This was a kind of marketing strategy that was done in different countries while translating; she wrote a novel that was called A Great Love [Bolshaya lyubov], which was translated in the United States as Red Love.

At that time authors didn’t have any control over the translation. There was a translation into Latvian that, instead of from the Russian, was based on the English text, and they also called it Red Love. It was the same in Asia (Korea, Japan), but this time they mistitled Red Love not her novel A Great Love, but Vasilisa Malygina. The same thing also happened in Mexico: here a different text (again Vasilisa Malygina) than in the United States was called “Red Love.” The funny thing is that in Mexico the novel was sold as a sort of soft porn for men. Kollontai was explicit about sex, meaning that the characters in her novels had sex and they even spoke about how much they enjoyed it. As you can imagine, when Kollontai traveled to Mexico she was shocked that a novel she wrote to educate women about work and love was being sold to men as a sexually explicit novel.

I feel it’s important to mention Charles Fourier, a proto-socialist that spoke of the sexual revolution as the key or the condition sine qua non for a revolution, next to coining the word féminisme in 1837. Here he is paraphrased by Marx: “The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women toward freedom, because in the relation of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation.” A love revolution: that’s why I chose this title (Red Love), despite how much Kollontai herself disliked it, because of its capacity as an umbrella, to have many things under it. Using this umbrella function, I present many different aspects of the project under this title: films, publications, lectures and conversations, and a newly founded research group in Bern (“Position, Voice, Mundo,” at the Sommerakademie Paul Klee). All these parts somehow simultaneously contribute to advance this project. I try to establish clear connections to transfeminism and other dissidences, like the Crip/Queer Movement. There’s this saying: “Nobody is free until everyone is free.” (Fannie Lou Hamer)

Pieternel Vermoortel:

What kind of questions and messages do the exhibition and the works selected for the exhibition bring to the context in which they are presented?


The exhibition that we are making is the product of ongoing research since 2018. The part that chronologically comes first is Love with Obstacles. It’s a film that was made in the archives in Moscow in October 2019. This was made possible thanks to a grant from the Garage Field Research Program in Moscow and the help of Maria Lind. We gained access to the archives (which is relatively difficult). The film Love with Obstacles shows the complexity of Kollontai in four letters that are read by four women, in English, although you have the original language (Swedish, Russian) in the image: 1. working for the future, for what is yet to come; 2. how she wants her legacy organized; 3. relationships; 4. disappointment. These four letters are completed with a science fiction novelette in which she imagines what the Soviet Union would be like in 1970.

The second film, Si pudiera desear algo (If I Could Wish for Something), relates to the unfulfilled promise the revolution made to women. This film was made collectively and from a distance (in the years we could not travel, 2020–21), and follows women’s demonstrations in Mexico over the last three years, demonstrations that have the specificity of being an irate answer to a climate of extreme violence against women. Mexico has a very powerful feminist and transfeminist movement that brings with it incredible images and sounds. I worked with seven cinematographers who contributed their original footage that I later edited. I combined the editing of the footage with a song: a commission to a transgender singer in Mexico who made a very free version of an old Weimar song, titled in German “Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte,” and transformed it into “Si pudiera desear algo.”

Alongside these two films there are different documentary materials such as posters with the slogans that they are chanting in the protests in the film, some slogans coming from Kollontai herself, a selection of images, books of the time, and some facsimiles of letters, among which is a handwritten note by Kollontai (which is the most precious element of all) where she explains in a very intimate manner how important it was for her to pass the legislation that decriminalized abortion.


What happens to the material coming from demonstrations when you transfer it to the exhibition space?


It is a matter of transmission. What is shown in the exhibition is how I understand these events to have happened. The footage comes from people who were there, but not so many people have seen it live or through the media, and the people who have seen it through the media have seen very “conveniently” edited versions like the ones you see on Mexican TV news or the ones you see on YouTube. They all are very heroic, they are all very much made to impress the audience with how courageous these women are, but they distract from what I believe matters. From rage, from disappointment, from the feeling of abandonment of these women. Just as in the case of the archives of Kollontai, the most important feelings are not shown in official documentation. In the film you have women smashing walls; it is a very repetitive image, women smashing walls, walls where it is written “El Estado nos mata” [The state kills us], “Iglesia Pederasta” [Pedophile Church]; you will not see these images anywhere in the newspapers or on television. These are very strong images of women who are completely enraged; they have had enough and will stand for no more. The things they are singing and saying, to me, testify to a new chapter in the feminist movement. Many people have officially qualified this movement as violent, you know, as quasi-terrorist, as women who are destroying public property. But when you revolt, you’ve got to break something in the process. For me it was important to underline this. In the film I try to make sense of all these short footage pieces, mostly filmed with a telephone and rarely longer than two minutes. I try to make sense by giving a structure, and then I try to give it another turn with the memory of the Weimar song: imagining that the disappointment and sadness of women has been going on for so long, that it became a core element of their fight. Sadness. Not in the sense of putting them in the role of the victim, but on the contrary, to be able to empathize with so many collectives and communities, like the transgender community or the Indigenous community, that have horrific stories of rape and violence to share. This violence has become a common, a context. That is what the film is for. As most films, Love with Obstacles and Si pudiera desear algo are made to be shown in cinemas, but in an exhibition you have the advantage that you can contextualize it, accompany it with other documentation and to use it as a background for debate, which is something harder to do in a traditional cinema presentation.