Memoirs of
A Revolutionary

Victor Serge,
Peter Sedgwick,

(University of Iowa)
Victor Serge knew Lenin, Trotsky, Kropotkin, Bosch, Bukharin, Bakayev, Nin --- as well as the writers Gide, Romain Rolland, Boris Pasternak, Saint-Exupéry, André Malraux and Alexei Tolstoi. He participated in revolutionary activity not only in Russia, but in Paris, Berlin, Barcelona --- and, finally, Mexico. As with most revolutionaries, was despised when he did not toe the party line, which was most of the time. "In 1918," he writes in the last chapter of Memoirs of a Revolutionary. "I was nearly torn to pieces by my French workmates because I defended the Russian Revolution at the moment of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. Twenty years later, I was nearly torn to pieces by the same workers because I denounced the totalitarianism which had sprung from that Revolution."

He arrived in Russia in 1919, and immediately become involved in a number of vital functions: serving in a special defense battalion, teaching in schools for workers, writing and translating many manifestos, and --- as a commissar --- he was in charge of investigating Czarist police archives. During this period, he wrote a book on Soviet literary life and also translated a number of works by Lenin and Trotsky into French. Although not yet a member of the Bolshevik Party, Serge was asked to help in the founding of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919.

As the Revolution turned more bureaucratic, he remained loyal to its founding principals, and was gradually ostracized. In 1923 he became a member of the Left Opposition, created to protest the end of the earlier guiding principals: freedom of speech, freedom to organize, and the end of capital punishment.

In 1933, Serge was sent to the concentration camp in Orenburg in Central Asia and was ousted from Russia in 1936 just before the most fearsome of Stalin's purges.

§     §     §

Memoirs of a Revolutionary is clear-headed, free of cant, and not without drama. Since Serge was part of the inner circle, and since his memory of those days is so crystalline, we are with him at the center of power in the early days of the Revolution. This on Lenin at the Third Congress of the International:

    He was obviously concerned to steer the International by persuasion. While some of the speeches were going on he would come down from the platform and sit on the steps, near the shorthand reporters, with his note-pad on his knee. From this position he would interrupt now and then with a little caustic comment that made everybody laugh, and a mischievous smile would light up his face. Or he would buttonhole foreign delegates, people who were almost unknown and practically insignificant, and take them into a corner of the hall to carry on, face to face, with the argument he had put forward. The Party must go to the masses! Yes, the masses! And not turn into a sect! And the New Economic Policy was not nearly so dangerous as it looked from outside, because we still kept all the fullness of power.

Then there's this vignette of Trotsky from the very early days, as military commander darting back and forth between the various fronts (Soviet Russia was under attack by England, the United States, France, Finland --- and, until 1920 --- was blockaded by these same countries.)

    Trotsky was all tension and energy: he was, besides, an orator of unique quality, whose metallic voice projected a great distance, ejaculating its short sentences that were often sardonic and always infused with a true spontaneous passion. The decision to fight to the death was taken enthusiastically, and the whole amphitheatre raised a song of immense power.

In all of Serge's writing, there is the pointed sense of history being made. And it isn't history in a vacuum; he is quick to make the connections between the events of 1917-1918, earlier uprisings against the Tsar, the French Revolution --- and from before, the English Civil War. Serge's reflections on Trotsky's enthusiasm take us all the way back to the days of Charles II: "I reflected that the psalms sung by Cromwell's Roundheads before their decisive battles must have sounded no different a tone."

In his official journalist's rôle, Serge knew everyone, seemed to be everywhere. His portraits of the principals (not just Trotsky and Lenin, but the many other participants), are true-to-life, often funny, sometimes touching. This is his friend Appolon Karelin, "a splendid old man I had known in Paris:"

    He could be found studying co-operative problems in a little room on the Rue d'Ulm. He was now a member of the All-Russian Executive of Soviets, still living with his white-haired wife in a little room at the National Hotel (one of the Houses of the Soviets). There, broken by old age, his sight failing, his beard white and expansive, he would type, with one finger on an antique machine, his huge book, Against the Death Penalty, and expiate upon the virtues of a federation of free communes.

Radicals from all over the world swept into Russia in the early days. This was the long-awaited class war, the poor and the disenfranchised and the workers overthrowing the nobility, the capitalists, those who had owned the Russian government for centuries. Anarchists, Communists, Socialists, idealists, radicals of every persuasion came to be part of this revolution.

And, at the beginning, they were welcomed, were given positions of power, much as Serge was --- idealists joined to make possible for the common man to rule a new nation. Serge paints fascinating portraits of the great and the good and the noble and the strange, those who were to sacrifice their lives, their freedoms, and their families to the cause. This on the French Communist Pierre Pascal:

    I had met him in Moscow in 1919. There, his head shaven Russian style, sporting a big Cossack moustache and smiling perpetually with his bright eyes, he would walk through the city barefoot and clad in a peasant tunic to the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, where he used to draft messages for Chicherin. A loyal and circumspect Catholic, he used St. Thomas' Summa to justify his adherence to Bolshevism and even his approval of the Terror. (The texts of the learned saint lent themselves admirably to this task.)

He also reveals the not-so-great. Note the shades of green on this portrait of Henri Guilbeaux, a French Communist functionary, who was, Serge reports, one of "a little nest of vipers:"

    Guilbeaux's whole life was a perfect example of the failure who, despite all his efforts, skirts the edge of success without ever managing to achieve it. He wrote cacophonous poetry, kept a card-index full of gossip about his comrades, and plagued the Cheka [the secret police] with confidential notes. He wore green shirts and pea-green ties with greenish suits; everything about him, including his crooked face and his eyes, seemed to have a touch of mold.

Then there are the hints of a new pettifoggery creeping into the movement. He tells of "the great Bolshevist Evgenia Bogtdanovna Bosch committed suicide in 1924 because of the meaningless resolutions, the purges, the dictatorships of the secretaries, the broken promises, the death of Lenin." There was a debate in one of the local Committees about her funeral rites:

    The more rigorous comrades argued that suicide, however justified it might be by incurable illness, remained an act of indiscipline. Besides, in this particular case suicide was a proof of Oppositional leanings.

Finally, there are the wry touches, like this, on the early days, in Petrograd, where people lived in the grand apartments, prying up boards from nearby rooms, burning books to stay warm. "I myself burned the collected Laws of the Empires," Serge tells us, "as fuel for a neighboring family, a task which gave me considerable satisfaction."

Go on to Part II


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