Is there any 20th century political regime, besides Nazi Germany, that has been as endlessly chronicled as Soviet Russia? Every year seems to bring fresh biographies of Stalin or Lenin, new litanies of terror, ineptitude, and economic disaster. The USSR’s literary footprint is greater even than that of the Third Reich. Whose high school or college didn’t require a reading of 1984, Animal Farm, Darkness at Noon, or A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?
Although the notoriety of the regime is well deserved, readers can be forgiven if they suffer from Soviet fatigue. But outside the writings of the higher ranking comrades (Trotsky and Lenin especially), or the initial enthusiasms of John Reed, the standard Soviet syllabus lacks the perspective of critical, but active, participants. And where Trotsky ferociously attacked the Stalinist regime, his writings during the early Soviet Union reflect little interest in democracy or a state free from the death penalty and the secret police.
Enter Victor Serge, novelist, Russian, and revolutionary, and the rare Bolshevik who lived to see the end of the Second World War. A well-known literary figure of his time, Serge has since sunk into ill-deserved obscurity. But thanks to the New York Review of Books, whose imprint been one of the most exciting literary developments of the last decade, three of Serge’s novels are now available in English.
The NYRB also published his Memoirs of a Revolutionary: 450 pages of on-the-ground remembrances from a committed leftist intellectual who both fought in and wrote about some of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century. It is an invaluable contribution to the literature about the early Soviet Union, from a man who was both excited by the possibility of the revolution (something that is lost in the uniformly grim exhaustion of Koestler and Orwell’s novels) and clear-eyed about the forces gnawing at it from within.
Serge was born in Belgium, the son of Russian revolutionaries who fled the motherland in 1881 to avoid persecution after the assassination of the Czar and crackdown that followed. He grew up poor and befriended a cadre of anarchists whose passions he admired, though he had little time for their emotional and unfocused brand of politics, which eventually turned into a spree of bank robberies. Almost all of them would be executed, or die in gunfights with the police. Despite Serge’s remove from their criminal activities, his refusal to testify against them got him thrown in jail. He would spend a fifth of his life in prisons, concentration camps, and exile villages in the Soviet interior.
Upon his release, Serge went to Spain where he helped plan a failed anarchist uprising in 1917. After hearing of the Russian Revolution, he traveled across war torn Europe to his homeland, arriving in Petrograd just in time to join the starving ranks of a citizenry under siege. (An experience he put to good literary use in Conquered City.) Although an enthusiastic Bolshevik (he actively fought to defend the Revolution against the forces of reaction), Serge quickly detected a troubling lack of democracy and free speech among some of his comrades.
He could see the arguments for such measures during the early years of the revolution, when intervention from the Western powers was expected and White Russian armies threatened from every side. But Serge feared that once democracy and internal debate was suppressed by the secret police, it might never remerge. But he never doubted the righteousness of the Revolution and devoted himself to the cause, reasoning that the best way to effect change was from within.
Serge immediately began pushing for the abolition of the death penalty and the secret police. But his victories were short lived and the Cheka only grew in strength; in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Serge paints a chilling portrait of the particular tragedy of a leftist revolution devolving into a tyranny. The ideological contortions of the regime grow ever more grotesque as egalitarian ideas and rhetoric are twisted to meet oppressive ends. Serge and his allies’ struggles against the Cheka, and against Stalin’s rising star, end in prison, exile, and death.
Serge was saved from the last fate by his relative fame as a novelist. Throughout his memoirs he makes little mention of his writing, other than to note which events inspired particular novels. But his output was astounding for a family man, with numerous friends, who was also deeply involved in political life. All of his writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, deal directly with events he experienced or was tangentially involved with: life in a besieged city, men in prison, the day-to-day life of a secret agent. Serge considered these writing extensions of his political work. By carefully documenting the reality of life and the very real challenges and hopes of a revolutionary life, he set himself against the dull pabulum of official Soviet literature and conservative anti-revolutionary writings.
Serge was allowed to leave his internal exile right before the Great Purges, which would result in the slaughter of all of his comrades who remained in the Soviet Union. But Western Europe afforded Serge little opportunity for truth-telling in the era of the popular front, when Communists appeared to make common cause with other forces on the left. “How can we block [Fascism’s] path, with so many concentration camps behind us?”, Serge asks, to little effect.
The book ends with Serge in flight from Europe, as the Nazis advance victoriously behind him. Amazingly, for a man who saw his revolutionary hopes dashed time and again, the book ends on neither a hopeless nor an assertion of coming revolutionary triumph. “For this age must be witnessed: the witness passes, but his testimony manages to endure–and life still goes on.” The revolutionary without power or hope ends as a witness to revolutions failed, in the hope that his successors will not make the same mistakes.
Serge died in Mexico, in 1947. His works were venerated by Orwell and American anti-Stalinist leftists like Dwight McDonald, but he never gained much cache in the English speaking world beyond these enclaves. Perhaps it’s because he never forsook his leftist dreams of an egalitarian future, never quit Marxism to swell the ranks of the conservative intelligentsia. Nowadays communism is remembered as a litany of bloody terror, or as a stiflingly bureaucratic and inefficient economic system. We get breathlessly rote polemics from conservatives and free market fundamentalists about the failures of the Soviet Union. (Occasionally, we hear the excuses of apologists like Slajov Zizeck.)
Serge’s perspective is a refreshing alternative to both: a Marxist whose egalitarian commitments did not end with the storming of the Winter Palace, a revolutionary who fought for a better future against oppressive and self-serving forces no matter the color of their banners. Serge never lost sight of the need for radical change, even as the revolution he loved metastasized into tyranny. Such a perspective is invaluable to understanding both the Soviet Union’s sad history, and the possibilities, and dangers, inherent in all revolutions.