|Russia||Russian Revolution||Soviet Union 1920-45|
Victor Serge, the son of Russian Polish parents, was born in Belgium in 1890. His father, an officer in the Imperial Guard, was a member of the Land and Liberty group and was related to Nikolai Kibalchich of the People's Will. After the arrest of Kibalchich as a result of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, Serge's father fled the country. He eventually found work as a teacher at the Institute of Anatomy in Brussels.
The family moved to France where they became involved in the radical Russian émigré community. Serge found work as a photographer's apprentice in Paris and later worked as a draughtsman. He read a great deal and was influenced by the political theories of Peter Lavrov.
Serge was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party before joining the Anarchists. He became editor of the l'Anarchie and in 1910 he was judged to be involved in acts of terrorism. Serge received a five-year prison sentence in solitary confinement and several of his friends were executed.
Serge was in prison on the outbreak of the First World War. He immediately forecast that the war would lead to a Russian Revolution: "Revolutionaries knew quite well that the autocratic Empire, with its hangmen, its pogroms, its finery, its famines, its Siberian jails and ancient iniquity, could never survive the war."
In September, 1914, Serge was in a prison on an island in the Seine, twenty-five miles or so from the Battle of the Marne. The local population, suspecting a French defeat, began to flee, and for a while Serge and the other inmates expected to become German prisoners.
On his release in 1915 he went to live in Spain. He returned to France and after the overthrow of Nicholas II in February, 1917, Serge attempted to get to Russia to join the revolution. He was arrested and imprisoned and held without trial. In October, 1918 the Danish Red Cross intervened and arranged for Serge and other revolutionaries to be exchanged for Bruce Lockhart and other anti-Bolsheviks who had been imprisoned in Russia.
When Serge arrived in Russia in 1919 he joined the Bolsheviks. For a while Serge worked for Maxim Gorky, at the Universal Literature publishing house. Soon afterwards he was employed by Gregory Zinoviev who had been appointed as President of the Executive of the Third International. Serge's knowledge of languages enabled him to organize international editions of the organization's publications.
Serge soon became disillusioned with the Soviet government. He joined with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to complain about the way the Red Army treated the sailors involved in the Kronstadt Uprising. A libertarian socialist, Serge protested against the Red Terror that was organized by Felix Dzerzhinsky and the Ckeka.
In 1923 Serge became associated with the Left Opposition group that included Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek, Adolf Joffe, Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov. Later Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev joined in the struggle against Joseph Stalin. Serge was an outspoken critic of the authoritarian way that Joseph Stalin governed the country and is believed to be the first writer to describe the Soviet government as "totalitarian".
In 1928 Serge was expelled from the Communist Party. He was now unable to work for the government and over the next few years he spent his time writing Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930) and two novels Men in Prison (1930) and Birth of Our Power (1931). These books were banned in the Soviet Union but were published in France and Spain.
Serge was arrested and imprisoned in 1933. Most of the Left Opposition that were arrested were executed but as a result of protests made by leading politicians in France, Belgium and Spain, Serge was kept alive. The Communist Secret Police (GPU) obtained a confession from his sister-in-law, Anita Russakova, that Serge and her had been involved in a conspiracy led by Leon Trotsky. Serge knew from his contacts in the Communist Party that if he signed the confession he would be executed.
Protests against Serge's imprisonment took place at several International Conferences. The case caused the Soviet government considerable embarrassment and in 1936 Joseph Stalin announced that he was considering releasing Serge from prison. Pierre Laval, the French prime minister, refused to grant Serge an entry permit. Emile Vandervelde, the veteran socialist, and a member of the Belgian government, managed to obtain Serge a visa to live in Belgium. Serge's relatives were not so fortunate: his sister, mother-in-law, sister-in-law (Anita Russakova) and two of his brothers-in-law, died in prison.
On his arrival in France in 1936, Serge resumed work on two books on Soviet communism, From Lenin to Stalin (1937) and Destiny of a Revolution (1937). He also published several novels and a volume of poetry, Resistance (1938) about his experiences in Russia.
When France was invaded by Germany in 1940, Serge managed to escape to Mexico where he continued to publish novels such as The Long Dusk and The Case of Comrade Tulayev. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, was first published in the United States in 1945.
Serge's health had been badly damaged by his periods of imprisonment in France and Russia. However, he continued to write until dying of a heart-attack in Mexico City on 17th November, 1947.
(1) In 1910 several of Victor Serge's anarchist friends in Paris were arrested and executed for acts of terrorism. This included Andre Soudy, a man he wrote about in his book Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945).
I had often met Soudy at public meetings in the Latin Quarter. He was the perfect example of the crushed childhood of the back-alleys. He grew up on the pavements: T.B. at thirteen, V.D. at eighteen, convicted at twenty (for stealing a bicycle). I had brought him books and oranges in the Tenon Hospital. Pale, sharp-featured, his accent common, his eyes a gentle grey, he would say, "I'm an unlucky blighter, nothing I can do about it."
He earned his living in grocers' shops in the Rue Mouffetard, where the assistants rose at six, arranged the display at seven, and went upstairs to sleep in a garret after 9 p.m., dog-tired, having seen their bosses defrauding housewives all day by weighing the beans short, watering the milk, wine and paraffin, and falsifying the labels.
He was sentimental; the laments of street-singers moved him to the verge of tears, he could not approach a woman without making a fool of himself, and half a day in the open air of the meadows gave him a lasting dose of intoxication. He experienced a new lease of life if he hears someone call him "comrade" or explain that one could, one must, "become a new man".
Soudy's last-minute request was for a cup of coffee with cream and some fancy rolls, his last pleasure on earth, appropriate enough for that grey morning when people were happily eating their breakfast in the last bistros. It must have been too early, for they could only find him a little black coffee. "Out of luck", he remarked, "right to the end."
He was fainting with fright and nerves, and had to be supported while he was going down the stairs; but he controlled himself and, when he saw the clearness of the sky over the chestnut trees, hummed a sentimental street-song: "Hail, O last morning of mine".
(2) Victor Serge was in prison in France when he heard that the First World War had begun. He immediately predicted that the war would result in a Russian Revolution.
The outbreak of war was sudden, like an unexpected storm in a season of clear weather. For me, it heralded another, purifying tempest: the Russian Revolution. Revolutionaries knew quite well that the autocratic Empire, with its hangmen, its pogroms, its finery, its famines, its Siberian jails and ancient iniquity, could never survive the war.
(3) Victor Serge met Lilina Zinoviev soon after arriving in Russia.
Zinoviev's wife Lilina, People's Commissar for Social Planning in the Northern Commune, a small crop-haired, grey-eyed woman in a uniform jacket, sprightly and tough, asked me, "Have you brought your families with you? I could put them up in palaces, which I know is very nice on some occasions, but it is impossible to heat them. You'd better go to Moscow. Here, we are besieged people in a besieged city. Hunger-riots may start, the Finns may swoop on us, the British may attack. Typhus has killed so many people that we can't manage to bury them; luckily they are frozen. If work is what you want, there's plenty of it!" And she told me passionately of the Soviet achievement: school-building, children centres, relief for pensioners, free medical assistance, the theatres open to all.
(4) Victor Serge wrote about the Mensheviks in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
I met the Menshevik leaders, and certain anarchists. Both sets denounced Bolshevik intolerance, the stubborn refusal to revolutionary dissenters of any right to exist, and the excesses of the Terror. The Mensheviks seemed to me to be admirably intelligent, honest and devoted to Socialism, but completely overtaken by events. They stood for a sound principle, that of working-class democracy, but in a situation fraught with such mortal danger that the stage of siege did not permit any functioning of democratic institutions.
(5) Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)
An Anarchist schoolmaster and former political prisoner, named Nestor Makhno, opened up guerrilla warfare at Gulai-Polye, with fifteen men at his side; these attacked German sentries to obtain weapons. Later on, Makhno was to form whole armies. The Germans repressed these movements with the utmost vigour, executing prisoners en masse and burning down villages; but it was all too much for them.
(6) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
Since the first massacres of Red prisoners by the Whites, the murders of Volodarsky and Uritsky and the attempt against Lenin (in the summer of 1918), the custom of arresting and, often, executing hostages had become generalized and legal. Already Cheka, which made mass arrests of suspects, the was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control of the Party, but in reality without anybody's knowledge.
The Party endeavoured to head it with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerzhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous, with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor: tall forehead, bony nose, untidy goatee, and an expression of weariness and austerity. But the Party had few men of this stamp and many Chekas.
I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?
By the beginning of 1919, the Chekas had little or no resistance against this psychological perversion and corruption. I know for a fact that Dzerzhinsky judged them to be "half-rotten", and saw no solution to the evil except in shooting the worst Chekists and abolishing the death-penalty as quickly as possible.
(7) The winter of 1920 brought severe food and fuel shortages. Serge wrote about the situation in his book Memoirs of a Revolutionary.
The winter of 1920 was a torture (there is no other word for it) for the towns people: no heating, no lighting, and the ravages of famine. Children and feeble old folk died in their thousands. Typhus was carried everywhere by lice, and took its frightful toll. Inside Petrograd's grand apartments, now abandoned, people were crowded in one room, living on top of one another around a little stove of brick or cast-iron which would be standing on the floor, its flue belching smoke through an opening in the window. Fuel for it would come from the floor-boards of rooms near by, from the last stick of furniture available, or else from books. Entire libraries disappeared in this way.
(8) Victor Serge, along with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, had attempted to mediate between the Kronstadt sailors and the Soviet government. His account of the uprising appeared in his book Memoirs of a Revolutionary.
The final assault was unleashed by Tukhacevsky on 17 March, and culminated in a daring victory over the impediment of the ice. Lacking any qualified officers, the Kronstadt sailors did not know how to employ their artillery; there was, it is true, a former officer named Kozlovsky among them, but he did little and exercised no authority. Some of the rebels managed to reach Finland. Others put up a furious resistance, fort to fort and street to street; they stood and were shot crying, "Long live the world revolution! Hundreds of prisoners were taken away to Petrograd and handed to the Cheka; months later they were still being shot in small batches, a senseless and criminal agony. Those defeated sailors belonged body and soul to the Revolution; they had voiced the suffering and the will of the Russian people. This protracted massacre was either supervised or permitted by Dzerzhinsky.
(9) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
The Workers Opposition, led by Shliapnikov, Alexandra Kollontai, and Medvedev, believed that the revolution was doomed if the Party failed to introduce radical changes in the organization of work, restore freedom and authority to the trade unions, and make an immediate turn towards establishing a true Soviet democracy. I had long discussions on this question with Shliapnikov. A former metalworker, he kept about him, even when in power, the mentality, the prejudices, and even the old clothes he had possessed as a worker. He distrusted the officials ("that multitude of scavengers") and was sceptical about the Comintern, seeing too many parasites in it who were only hungry for money.
(10) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
Maxim Gorky welcomed me affectionately. In the famished years of his youth, he had been acquainted with my mother's family at Nizhni-Novgorof. His apartment at the Kronversky Prospect, full of books, seemed as warm as a greenhouse. He himself was chilly even under his thick grey sweater, and coughed terribly, the result of his thirty years' struggle against tuberculosis. Tall, lean and bony, broad-shouldered and hollow-chested, he stooped a little as he walked. His frame, sturdily-built but anaemic, appeared essentially as a support for his head. An ordinary, Russian man in the street's head, bony and pitted, really almost ugly with its jutting cheek-bones, great thin-lipped mouth and professional smeller's nose, broad and peaked.
He spoke harshly about the Bolsheviks: they were "drunk with authority", "cramping the violent, spontaneous anarchy of the Russian people", and "starting bloody despotism all over again"; all the same they were "facing chaos alone" with some incorruptible men in their leadership. His observations always started from facts, from chilling anecdotes upon which he would base his well-considered generalizations.
(11) In 1933 Victor Serge was taken to the headquarters of the Communist Secret Police (GPU).
It was a prison of noiseless, cell-divided secrecy, built barely into a block that had once been occupied by insurance company offices. Each floor formed a prison on its own, sealed off from the others, with its individual entrance and reception-kiosk; coloured electric light-signals operated on all landings and corridors to mark the various comings and goings, so that prisoners could never meet one another. A mysterious hotel-corridor, whose red carpet silenced the slight sound of footsteps; and then a cell, bare, with an inlaid floor, a passable bed, a table and a chair, all spick and span.
Here, in absolute secrecy, with no communication with any person whatsoever, with no reading-matter whatsoever, with no paper, not even one sheet, with no occupation of any kind, with no open-air exercise in the yard, I spent about eighty days. It was a severe test for the nerves, in which I acquitted myself pretty well. I was weary with my years of nervous tension, and felt an immense physical need for rest. I slept as much as I could, at least twelve hours a day. The rest of the time, I set myself to work assiduously. I gave myself courses in history, political economy - and even in natural science! I mentally wrote a play, short stories, poems.
(12) Rutkovsky was one of the members of the Communist Secret Police (GPU) who interviewed Victor Serge in 1933. He attempted to get Serge to sign a confession agreeing that he had worked with Anita Russakova against the Soviet government. Serge knew that once he signed a confession he would be executed.
I can see that you are an unwavering enemy. You are bent on destroying yourself. Years of jail are in store for you. You are the ringleader of the Trotskyite conspiracy. We know everything. I want to try and save you in spite of yourself. This is the last time that we try. So, I'm making one last attempt to save you.
I don't expect very much from you - I know you too well. I am going to acquaint you with the complete confessions that have been made by your sister-in-law and secretary, Anita Russakova. All you have to do it say, "I admit that it is true", and sign it. I won't ask you any more questions, the investigation will be closed, your whole position will be improved, and I shall make every effort to get the Collegium to be lenient to you.
(13) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
And on 14 August, like a thunderbolt, came the announcement of the Trial of the Sixteen, concluded on the 25th - eleven days later - by the execution of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Ivan Smirnov, and all their fellow-defendants. I understood, and wrote at once, that this marked the beginning of the extermination of all the old revolutionary generation. It was impossible to murder only some, and allow the others to live, their brothers, impotent witnesses maybe, but witnesses who understood what was going on.
(14) Victor Serge, Destiny of a Revolution (1937)
The bureaucracy itself could, it seems, have a less disastrous policy without difficulty, if it had displayed more general culture and Socialist spirit. Its infatuation with administrative and military methods, joined to a penchant for panic in critical moments, reduced its real means. In despotic regimes, too many things depend on the tyrant.
(15) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
The young French and Belgian rebels of my twenties have all perished; my syndicalist comrades of Barcelona in 1917 were nearly all massacred; my comrades and friends of the Russian Revolution are probably all dead - any exceptions are only by a miracle. All were brave, all sought a principle of life nobler and juster than that of surrender to the bourgeois order; except perhaps for certain young men, disillusioned and crushed before their consciousness had crystallized, all were engaged in movements for progress. I must confess that the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent, and historical character, has often overwhelmed me.