The Outcast as Witness: Victor Serge and the Russian Revolution

In Serge, the spirit of the Revolution found its perfect embodiment. But in the end, the same Revolution disowned and very nearly destroyed him.

Only a few hours before he died in Mexico City on November 17, 1947, Victor Serge wrote what were to be his last few lines, a poem meditating on ‘a Renaissance terracotta of a pair of hands, old and with knotted veins’:

What astonishing contact, old man, your hands establish with our own!
How vain the centuries of death before your hands…
The artist, nameless like you, surprised them in the act of grasping
…who knows if the gesture still vibrates or has just ended?

To Serge, those rough hands symbolised centuries of human suffering, but also of human resistance. The knots on them looked so like the veins that stood out on his own two shrunken hands. There were tears in his eyes as he read the lines aloud to his wife.

Serge had meant to bring the poem to his son, who lived not far from the father. But Vladimir was not at home. Serge then walked down to the Central Post Office and mailed the poem to Vlady from there. A little later he was dead, on the road in a taxi which he had hailed but which didn’t know his destination. The body was taken to a police station where Vlady found it later that day.

Serge’s upturned shoes had holes in them; his clothes were threadbare. There was a plaster death mask over his face, and Vlady was unable to draw a portrait of his dead father. “I limited myself to drawing his hands, which were beautiful,” Vlady was to recall later. “A few days later I received his poem ‘The Hand”.

Also read: Sergei Esenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky: Parallel Lives, United in Death

The first chapter of Victor Serge’s autobiography, Memoirs of A Revolutionary, is captioned World without Possible Escape. One imagines Serge should really have given that title to the last chapter, just as Leon Trotsky had called the last chapter of his autobiography The Planet without A Visa.

For when Serge sought refuge in Mexico in 1940-41, all five continents had barred their doors, firmly and irremediably. The Soviet Union had cancelled his passport, so he was stateless. But since he remained an unrepentant Marxist revolutionary, he was an enemy of every state of liberal democracy (not to mention the Fascist/Nazi regimes) – while his opposition to Stalin made him an enemy of all the communist parties of Europe and elsewhere.

Finally, as the US and the USSR were now war-time allies, Serge had transitioned overnight from being a highly-regarded author and columnist to  persona non grata in even the world’s oldest democracy.

His relief in finding his feet on Mexican soil was palpable:

“In the Mexican street, I taste a singular sensation. I am no longer an outlaw, no longer a hunted man, due any minute to be interned or to disappear. Only I am told now: ‘There are certain revolvers you must beware of…’ That goes without saying. I have lived too long to live anywhere but in the immediate present. For me, the gracious lights of Mexico are superimposed over the prospect of distant cities, restless, devastated, and plunged into blackout, and in these I see men walking, the most hunted men in the world, whom I have left behind me.”

But even Mexico’s gracious lights began to soon enough to dim on this penniless fugitive from tyranny. The Mexican Communist Party identified Serge as another hostile alien (after Trotsky, who had already been assassinated) in their midst and spared no effort to make life – and writing – impossible for this bruised veteran of many battles. Journals carrying Serge’s articles were coerced into shedding him, and a particularly stubborn publishing group was bought out with Russian money, whereupon its new management promptly cold-shouldered Serge. His public engagements became increasingly difficult to handle.

At a meeting where Serge was due to speak, armed thugs laid about them with such determination that one of his comrades was wounded grievously, while Serge himself escaped death by the skin of his teeth. Often, the family didn’t have enough money to buy food. Serge’s heart condition from his sojourn in France in 1936-40 must have gotten a lot worse during these years. Though the end came suddenly, it did not really surprise anyone who had known him.

Victor Serge was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich on December 30, 1890 in Brussels to anti-Tsarist Russian exiles who were obliged to live peripatetic, permanently impoverished lives. A cousin of Serge’s father had been executed for his involvement with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and Serge’s father Lev, himself member of a Narodnik group, fled Russia soon thereafter.

Serge dropped out of school early, was politically active since his early teens, belonged as an adolescent to the left wing of the Belgian Workers’ Party, from which he was expelled for his opposition to Belgium’s annexation of the Congo. In 1909, he moved to Paris, where he became a confirmed anarchist, writing for and eventually editing L’anarchie, the main journal of French anarchism, and earned his bread by working at sundry minor jobs. He was arrested in 1912 as an associate of a militant anarchist group which had been embroiled in some violent incidents (in which Serge had had no part).

Serge was sentenced to five years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, and was expelled from France upon completion of his sentence. He travelled to Spain, where he was active in revolutionary syndicalist circles for close to a year. During this period, he  veered away from anarchism towards organised mass action of the dispossessed.

The revolution in Russia – a country he had never set foot on but of which he was a national by birth – exercised his imagination powerfully and he returned clandestinely to France so as to try and travel to Russia and be part of the young revolution. Instead, he was arrested again for defying his expulsion and held in detention till the end of 1918 when in a fortuitous exchange of prisoners between Russia and France, he was released and deported to his ’original’ homeland.

Serge’s Memoirs in Spanish.

In Russia in January 1919, Serge joined the Bolsheviks and worked initially as an inspector of schools. His experience in many countries on the continent, proficiency in several European languages, and felicity with the written word earned him a position in the Communist International, and soon he was helping Grigory Zinoviev, then the Comintern’s Predident, as a translator, editor and pamphleteer.

He plunged into his many duties with characteristic energy and passion, making his mark quickly and establishing friendships with a wide cross-section of Russian and European activists and intellectuals. He was deputed to work in Germany and in Austria, helping further the Comintern’s agenda in both countries.

Meanwhile, the civil war was raging furiously in Russia, hunger and chaos were rife, and the besieged revolutionary government felt obliged to stamp out counter-revolution with increasing vehemence, in the process often growing paranoid about, and coming down hard on, all manner of dissent, including that from within the revolution.

The Cheka, the political police, was stepping up hard on terror and was soon to become a formidable new locus of political power, steadily undermining the revolution’s first principles of democracy and openness. Serge was a strident critic of bureaucratic and other excesses.

As Stalin began to consolidate his hold on the party and the government after Lenin’s death, Serge aligned himself with the oppositionists and spoke out freely against increasing centralisation and the consequent loss of democratic values. As Stalin went about ruthlessly putting down all dissent within the Soviet system, Serge felt increasingly alienated, but unlike many leading oppositionists (like Grigory Zinoviev), he never capitulated.

In 1928, he was expelled from the party, arrested and detained for two months without being charged, released under pressure from international communist groups, and barred from any work anywhere in the country. Arrested again in 1933, he was sent out on internal exile to Orenburg in the Urals, where he and his young son grappled with poverty and police surveillance to eke out a miserable existence.

By 1936, international pressure (notably from Andre Gide and Romain Rolland) forced a reluctant Stalin to allow Serge to travel to Europe, though the dictator robbed the revolutionary of his Russian citizenship soon thereafter. However, this move certainly saved Serge’s life, for Stalin began the horrendous show trials of veteran revolutionaries – in which virtually the whole first generation of Bolsheviks was wiped out – soon after Serge had left Russia.

Also read: World War Two Poetry: Songs From the Other Side of Mankind

Shuttling between Paris and Brussels in search of a residence permit, Serge re-established contact with some old friends, though many others had begun to disown him on account of his falling-out with Stalin.

Living a life perched precariously on uncertainty, Serge was forced out of Paris as Hitler invaded France in 1940. By now, Serge was ‘stateless’, and no country in Europe was willing to open its borders to him. Through desperate efforts of some American and Spanish comrades, Serge and Vlady left by the last ship out of Marseille bound for Mexico, then considered a safe haven for dissidents. On the way, however, the Serges were forced to disembark at Martinique and were arrested again. Detention followed again in the Dominican Republic and finally they arrived in Mexico City in early 1941. He was to die here six years later.

Death was hardly more kind to him than life:  ‘stateless’ at death, no Mexican cemetery was willing to receive his body, obliging his fellow Spanish exiles to bury him in the French cemetery as a Spanish émigré; seven years after his death, the term of his burial plot having expired, he was disinterred and buried in a common grave. One of the most complete internationalists in history seemed to have fallen irredeemably foul of every nation state on earth.

Stalin’s wrath was visited on most of Serge’s next-of-kin. His sister, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and two brothers-in-law all died in Soviet prisons, while his father-in-law lost his job, was deported and died as an exile. His (first) wife Lyuba was driven by years of unnatural stress and anxiety to insanity, being confined to mental institutions since the late 1920s.

The 1929 book Year One of the Russian Revolution.

Serge was a prolific writer of both prose and poetry, and his oeuvre includes fiction, history, essays, reminiscences and poetry – not mentioning pamphlets  and other political literature of which there understandably exists a large corpus. A great majority of his writing is in French, the language of his first, most impressionable years.

He was a competent propagandist and persuasive political polemicist, but it is in his creative writing that he comes into his own – as a highly imaginative chronicler of dystopia, and with his incandescently beautiful reminiscences and deeply sensitive poetry.

His fictional narratives of the Stalinist apocalypse, of the great purges and the Moscow trials are unsurpassed in their intensity and their well-rounded characterisation. Every line that he wrote is shot through with an irreducible light of authenticity, as consider this sentence from the Memoirs:

“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, and this feeling has been for me the source of a certain courage, if that is the right word for it.”

Or his musings on Trotsky’s last home, where the assassin’s hatchet had split open the great man’s skull:

“The garden is opulent with vegetation, cactus and palm trees surrounding a little monument in gray concrete: monument bearing the hammer and sickle  – and flagstaff. The rabbit hutches with which the Old Man occupied himself are empty and neglected. Sunlight, sunlight everywhere, butterflies in flight, a heat crackle in the calmness, the silence…”

Also read: Two Poets Baptised by the Fire of History’s Greatest War

Much of what Serge wrote was not published till years after his passing for he was ostracised so completely that willing publishers were impossible to come by in his later years. He knew that everything that he wrote in Mexico, including the last great novels Unforgiving Years and The Case of Comrade Tulayev, besides Memoirs, was meant “only for the desk-drawer”, and wondered

“past age fifty, facing an uncertain future, not to mention the hypothesis that the tyrannies will last longer than I have left to live, what would be the result?”

“We have conquered everything, and everything has slipped out of our grasp,” says a character in Serge’s Conquered City. He captures the same thought in these luminous lines:

If we roused the peoples and made the continents quake,
…began to make everything anew with these dirty old stones,
These tired hands, and the meagre souls that were left us,
it was not in order to haggle with you now,
sad revolution, our mother, our child, our flesh,
our decapitated dawn, our night with its stars askew…

Serge’s writing harks back to the ‘decapitated dawn’ often enough, leading some commentators to the view that the Victor Serge of the later years had moved decisively away from Marxism, even Socialism. Such views can only be put down to personal biases, for a close reading of everything that he wrote shows that, for all his disillusionment with ‘Stalinist socialism’, Serge remained wedded to the hope of  a socialist future for mankind. For the last word on where he was headed as a socialist thinker, we can scarcely do better than turn to Serge himself.

This is how, in From Lenin to Stalin, he approaches the question of the decline of the Russian Revolution:

“It is often said that ‘the germ of Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its very beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?”

Anjan Basu writes on a range of issues. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com