June 2011

Guy Cunningham


"What Party?": Victor Serge’s Turn to Fiction

It would be a stretch to say that this is Victor Serge’s moment -- he remains largely unknown to the general public -- but his work is certainly enjoying more attention now than it has for quite a while, especially in North America. Though never the household name his fans and supporters George Orwell and Andre Gide were, Serge holds an important place in twentieth century letters. After all, Wallace Stevens wrote poetry about him, and no less a personage than Susan Sontag declared him to be “one of the most compelling of twentieth century ethical and literary heroes.” He participated in almost every major radical political movement of the first half of the twentieth century, from the Russian Revolution, to the Spanish Civil War, to the French Resistance during World War II, before dying in Mexico in 1947, isolated and broke. In fact, one of the reasons Serge isn’t more widely read is that details of his fascinating biography sometimes overwhelm any discussion of his writing.

Born Victor Kibalchich, politics dominated his life literally from the beginning -- he was born in Belgium only because his anti-czarist parents had been exiled from their Russian homeland. Serge saw himself first and foremost as a revolutionary, beginning his career with the European anarchist movement before traveling to Russia in 1919 to join the Bolsheviks. Most of his career was spent writing nonfiction tracts in favor of revolution, or in advancing radical ideas. During the early days of the Soviet Union, Serge worked for the Communist International (Comintern), writing propaganda on behalf of the Party. Despite his early, vocal support for the Soviet state, however, Serge became one of Stalin’s earliest and most ardent critics -- he is reputed to be the first person to call the Soviet Union a “totalitarian state” -- which led to his repeated imprisonment and, in 1936, he was permanently exiled from the USSR.

Serge first turned to fiction during his long battle against Stalin, beginning his first novel, 1930’s Men in Prison, at the age of thirty-nine. Though he came to the form late, Serge’s novels are among his most powerful, and most significant, works, and in recent years, his fiction has finally begun to earn him a wider audience. In 2004, NYRB Classics published a new edition of Serge’s most famous novel, the Case of Comrade Tulayev (written in the early 1940s and first published, posthumously, in 1950). A new translation of Serge’s final novel, Unforgiving Years, a meditation on the Second World War (written in 1946 and also published posthumously) followed in 2008. Earlier this year, they published a new edition of Conquered City (1931), a novel set amid the Russian Civil War of 1919. All three books draw heavily on Serge’s firsthand experience with the Soviet regime. Serge is in many ways a unique witness to the pivotal events of early Soviet history -- the only Bolshevik-turned-dissident to turn the drama of this era into literature. Serge’s characters are men and women squeezed on two sides -- facing the external threats of civil war, foreign invasion, or economic hardship on one side, while on the other being terrorized by a dictatorial state.

In many ways, The Case of Comrade Tulayev is Serge’s defining work, because it brings together all of his greatest concerns: the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, the violent excesses of Stalinism (and totalitarianism in general), and the intense belief in Communism among Party members themselves. The novel focuses on a “purge,” as the random murder of a Soviet official named Tulayev leads to a spiraling “investigation” which ends in the execution of several current and former Soviet officials (none of whom had anything to do with the crime itself). Interestingly, all of the accused are -- at the core -- loyal to the Party and the memory of the Russian Revolution, even those who disapprove of the Party’s current leader, a (very) thinly fictionalized version of Stalin they call the Chief. While the accused are all very different in background, ethics, and behavior, all share a belief in the Party itself. All of them still cling to the ideas behind the Russian Revolution -- as Serge himself did, even as he repudiated the state the Revolution created. The irony, of course, is that the investigation of the Tulayev murder is meant to uncover evidence of a betrayal -- a plot against the Soviet state by disloyal Party members -- and instead, it embodies a betrayal -- a plot by the Soviet state against loyal Party members.

The book’s most poignant figure, the man who seems the most betrayed, is Kiril Rublev, a former revolutionary now living as a minor academic. In his younger days, Rublev was a man of deep ethical conviction. In a flashback to the 1919 Civil War, we see Rublev in the city of Petrograd, helping his fellow “Red Bolsheviks” battle their opponents, the “Whites.” The Reds’ quick use of violence troubles him, and Rublev regrets his actions instantly, telling his comrades, “I hope we have to pay for this, you and I; I tell you we are besmirching the revolution.” But later, in the 1930s, as he sees the violence of the state creeping closer and closer to his own person, Rublev fights to stay loyal, even to the point of squelching his earlier criticism of the Party’s ways. Rublev has invested too much of himself in the Party to reject it outright. He tells his wife Dora, “it was an old mistake of bourgeois individualism to seek truth for the sake of conscience, one conscience, my conscience… to hell with truth if the Party can be strong.” To which his wife replies -- simply, powerfully -- “What party?”

The question knocks Rublev back. His eventual reply is one of the most illuminating passages in all of Serge’s fiction:

Obviously if the Party is betrayed, if it is no longer the Party of the Revolution, that position [of loyalty] of ours is ridiculous and meaningless. We ought to do exactly the opposite -- in that case, each of us should recover his conscience.

When the authorities finally come for him, Rublev agrees to “admit” his “role” in the nonexistent “plot” to kill Tulayev (the Chief demands his investigators always induce the “guilty” to confess) in exchange for one thing -- he wants three weeks to write. In contrast to his earlier reluctance to embrace “individualism,” he now thinks in terms that anticipate mid-century existentialism -- “A man feels singularly free when all is lost” -- and declares that, “I am writing for the future. One day the archives will be open. Perhaps my memorial will be found in them.” Most tellingly, when his interrogators attempt to prod Rublev to help their investigations out of loyalty to the Party, he responds with, “I know more or less what is expected of me… But what Party?” Rublev is not merely breaking from the Communist Party, he is recovering his conscience. This is not just a political act, and it is not just a personal act. It is both.

In it telling that Rublev’s embrace of individualism -- luxuriating in the existential “freedom” of his predicament, writing for the future (instead of the Party), a dismissal of the Party itself -- coincides with his turn to writing. In Unforgiving Years -- Serge’s’ final, and most harrowing, novel -- a former Soviet intelligence agent named Daria, undergoes a loss of faith similar to Rublev’s. After Daria’s mentor, an agent named only D, resigns from the Party’s service to protest Stalin’s excesses, she finds herself exiled to a distant backwater -- essentially she is guilty be association. While in the Soviet hinterlands, Daria comforts herself by keeping a journal. Now, though, the act of writing has become even more personal. Unlike Rublev, who at least writes for “history,” Daria’s work is exclusively private, written in a highly symbolic style that only she can truly understand: “since it could be seized -- it could not contain a single name, a single recognizable face, a single unmistakable strand of the past…” And when this journal is finally read, and praised, by a superior (who is vetting Daria’s journal on behalf of the ever-suspicious Party leadership), Daria quickly destroys it: “She burned all the books without a twinge of regret. (There was not one line in them about regret.)”

It is tempting to conflate the individualistic, solitary strain of Serge’s novels with the isolation he endured after his disillusionment with communism. But that would be a mistake. The truth is, Serge’s interest in the human individual as such is apparent throughout his work, including the pamphlets he wrote for the Comintern. Haymarket has just published a new edition of a Revolution in Danger: Writing from Russian 1919 – 1921, a posthumously assembled collection of nonfiction piece wrote during his Bolshevik days. This animated his thinking even during his activism. For example, in Revolution in Danger’s “The Anarchists and the Experience of the Russian Revolution,” he praises the anarchist movement for its “ethical value for the individual” and warns of the “danger of state communism.” Indeed, Serge’s antiauthoritarian streak and distrust of too much centralization made his eventual disillusionment with the Bolsheviks all but inevitable.

By coincidence, Revolution in Danger covers the exact same ground -- namely the defense of St. Petersburg (then known as Petrograd) during the Russian Civil War -- as the novel Conquered City, which is also freshly available in the US again. Examining the two side by side, it becomes clear that Serge’s views of human nature didn’t really change -- the difference is that fiction allows him to explore these views in a way nonfiction did not. Conquered City is a blunt depiction of wartime living. Again, Serge anticipates existentialist fiction -- most obviously Camus’s novel The Plague -- by showing how an unrelenting siege puts pressure on people as individuals. Unlike the pamphlets contained in Revolution in Danger -- which focus on major figures, such as Leon Trotsky, or major political issues, such as the goals of the Russian Revolution -- Conquered City drifts among the city’s populace, looking at Reds, Whites, common criminals, and ordinary Russians. It is a portrait of the entire city, where everyone, regardless of their political views, shares the same collective burden of war and incipient dictatorship.

Throughout the novel, Serge excels at using minor details to reveal an individual’s inner life, and then using that inner life to comment on the book’s key themes. The most striking example of this may be the character of Gavril. A member of the proletariat, Gavril might be expected to support the Revolution, which is being fought in his name. But his interactions with Zvereva, an important functionary in the Communist Party, show he takes a more cynical view. When he meets with Zvereva, he immediately notices her “sumptuous luncheon” and reflects, “So they were true, eh, the stories they told about special rations set aside for these people. After all, they are masters.” In just one short scene, Gavril cuts to the heart of where the Revolution has gone wrong.

As a novelist, Serge achieves imaginatively what he could not do as an activist -- he makes the case for a society of individuals, each entitled to his or her own personal dignity, but each sharing a fate with the entire nation. This is Serge’s great contribution -- he is unique in his ability to tease out the dual nature of people as individuals in the most libertarian sense and as members of a wider community. For that reason Serge’s fiction both transcends “politics” and gives his political beliefs to their fullest expression.