Memoirs of
A Revolutionary

Victor Serge
(University of Iowa)

    I began to feel... this sense of a danger from inside, a danger within ourselves, in the very tempers and character of victorious Bolshevism. I was continually wracked by the contrast between the stated theory and the reality, by the growth of intolerance and servility among many officials and their drive towards privilege.

This is Serge's first hint that he and the thousands of loyal radicals who participated in the early days of the Russian revolution were witnessing an unexpected change:

    The maddening atmosphere of persecution in which they lived --- as I did --- inclined them to persecution mania and the exercise of persecution.

Only a few of the "old Bolsheviks" saw the drift that the country was taking: a new and stifling bureaucracy, repression, their fellows murdered or sent to labor camps or expelled from the country. And when Stalinism took hold, there was always the question (one that was to emerge again and again, most of all with the trials of 1936-37): how could Serge and the true believers stay loyal to the dream that was being so elegantly poisoned?

The answer is strange to us now, but was not so strange in 1927 or 1931 or even 1935. With all its malfeasances --- "the Terror," a revolutionary experiment hijacked by the bureaucrats and thugs (the Cheka, the G. P. U.) --- still, after all this, it was the only Revolution going.

The old Bolsheviks and anarchists staked their hopes on the export of revolution to France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, China. Once the people's government took hold in those countries, the pressure would be off; then, it was thought, Russia could resume its course towards being the true revolution --- democracy of the workers, freedom of speech, the ownership, by the people, of the very means of production.

Unfortunately, with the help of the United States (most diligently Herbert Hoover), England, France, and those who had manufactured the time bomb called the Versailles Treaty, the baby was murdered in the crib. Russia was forced to go it alone.

And despite the horrors Serge saw around him --- friends being exiled, murdered, sent to the concentration camps, hounded to death, suicides (the number of suicides among the old radicals was astonishing) --- despite the secret police, the disavowal of Trotsky, "the sordid taint of money," and what he calls "The Soviet Thermidor" --- it was still, still, the only game in town.

    Despite everything I was very definitely committed to the régime's survival; I had faith in its future... Nobody was willing to see evil in the proportions it had reached. As for the idea the bureaucratic counter-revolution had attained power, and that a new despotic State had emerged from our hands to crush us, and reduce the country to absolute silence --- nobody, nobody in our ranks was willing to admit it.

    From the depths of his exile in Alma-Ata, Trotsky affirmed that this system was still ours, still proletarian, still Socialist, even though sick; the Party that was excommunicating, imprisoning, and beginning to murder us, remained our Party, and we still owed everything to it: we must live only for it, since only through it could we serve the Revolution. We were defeated by Party patriotism: it both provoked us to rebel and turned us against ourselves.

§     §     §

This is fearsomely good writing. And the ultimate hero of Memoirs of a Revolutionary is not the one we would normally suspect: not Lenin, not Trotsky, not the multitudes of French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian Anarchists, Communists and radicals that Serge knew, describes so winningly (and sometimes was to deliver from the hands of the Cheka.)

Rather, the hero in this story is Serge himself. Always watching, identifying trends where others see nothing but confusion, trying in his own small way to keep the revolution pure and on course, most of all, working diligently to save the old radicals who were being left destitute, murdered, tortured, or --- like himself --- sent off to exile. And most wonderfully, no matter what those in power had forgotten, violated, smashed in the ground, Serge always true to the principles of the revolution as envisioned by the heroes of 1917 - 1918.

§     §     §

Despite ever-increasing danger Serge stayed on for seventeen years. He was able to survive for so long in this massive turmoil because he was world-famous --- a writer of novels, poems, scribe of the first years of the revolution. It was not only his international standing, there was about him a pervasive honesty and fearlessness that apparently protected him while the others were murdered or being driven off.

His story of the questioning by the G. P. U. gives a picture of an adroit and experienced dialectician being tested to the limits by those who held all the chips: "One moment of cowardice meant the triumph of falsehood, and then they could shoot us. I knew that the G. P. U. inquisitors worked under the scrutiny of different committees, especially the Central Committee's Control Commission, and that, before they could bring about the verdicts they wanted, they had to prepare their briefs according to the rules."

One thing peculiar to this narration is that with all the characters Serge knew there is only one that does not come clear. We get to see, first hand, Lenin and Trotsky and Bukharin and Maxim Gorky, as well as the radicals and writers and opportunists from other countries (André Gide, Romain Rolland, Emma Goldman). But Stalin... he remains a rather vague figure in the background, is often merely referred to as "The General Secretary." Serge first encounters him in Leningrad, in 1919, where the new government is fighting the famine that is plaguing the city. The Northern Commune Executive met in the former Austro-Hungarian Embassy, five regular members "and sometimes Stalin, who was practically unknown."

We don't meet Stalin again until six years later, at the Fourteenth Congress, December 1925, where Serge, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky as part of the Left Opposition Party address the Congress "at time when the Party was no more than a phantom in the imagination of the bureaucrats and the masses were apathetic and dormant."

Compared to the exquisite sketches of the many characters involved in this story, Stalin remains a blur ... in the background ... there but not there. Perhaps this was the nature of the man. Perhaps by not showing him in high relief, Serge gives us to wonder exactly who he really was, and how, ever so slowly, ever so diligently, he was able to poison the revolution, making Russia the sow that eats its own farrow.

§     §     §

In 1936, when forced into exile by the Russian secret police, Serge writes:

    My heart was utterly ravaged as I left; I was severing attachments of a unique quality. I should have liked to have those dear faces, that I would never see again, imprinted on my brain, and those landscapes of white countryside, and even some image of our great Russian misery, lived out by this brave, gritty, patient people. If I could have believed in any reasonable chance that I would not ultimately have been obliterated in a voiceless struggle which was already sterile, I should have been content to remain there --- even if it were in some little Mongol fishing village inside the Arctic Circle. But we do not live for ourselves; we live to work and fight.

Ever the writer, as Serge prepares to leave Moscow, he finds that his precious manuscripts have not arrived from home. He seeks a twenty-four hour delay on his departure to await the writings he has labored over during his three years in exile. He is told, firmly, quietly, by a friend,

    Go this very evening, don't press for anything. The secret-police officer just told me that you were not out of the country yet, and that he was sending Yagoda [the head of the political police] a fresh memorandum about you.

And Serge notes, "I demurred no longer."

Go back to Part I


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