Memoirs Of A Revolutionary
Victor Serge; translated by
Peter Sedgwick & George Paizis
New York review of books
Rs. 1,050 pp 521
When Rabindranath Tagore landed in Russia on September 11, 1930, he could not have been aware that one professor Karatygin and his 47 co-defendants were being massacred without trial that very day on unproven accusations of sabotage of meat supply. With the complete English translation of Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge (real name Victor Lvovich Khibalchich) hitting bookstands in the west, the English-reading public can get a grip on the reality of the Bolshevik regime, and the extent of State terror. Serge wrote Mémoires d'un révolutionnaire between 1901 and 1941. It was published in Paris in 1951 and Serge did not live to see it on print. He died in penury in 1947, six weeks before his 58th birthday, in a taxi in Mexico City. “The first thing I noticed were his shoes. They had holes in them,” wrote his son Vladimir in the memoir’s epilogue.
His writings — whether novels like The Long Dusk and The Case of Comrade Tulayev or collection of poems like Resistance or political writings like From Lenin to Stalin and The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky — contain the unmistakable impress of a literary genius, one in league with the likes of Arthur Koestler, George Orwell and Franz Kafka. But Serge never went to school. He told his father, an anti-Tsarist Russian émigré intellectual with a revolutionary past, that he would “study without being a student”. It was a rare success story of self-education and intellectual enrichment. In nine chapters and an afterword, Serge with balanced detachment takes us through a historiographic narrative spanning the European continent to observe revolutionary aspirations in France and Russia and the republican resistance in France.
Serge wrote mostly in jail or while on the run. He had an amazing ability to transcribe his experience and could dexterously oscillate between journalism and fiction.
Serge had a genetic gravitation towards libertarian struggle. “We revolutionaries, who aimed to create a new society, ‘the broadest democracy of the workers’, had unwittingly, with our own hands, constructed the most terrifying State machine conceivable: and when, with revulsion, we realised this truth, this machine, driven by our friends and comrades, turned on us and crushed us”, he wrote.
Serge’s life was a saga of unremitting struggle against injustice and inequality. Prosperity, for him, was neither coveted nor accessible. From his involvement with anarchists in France to dispassionate critiquing of aberrant Bolshevism, his commitment remained unflinching and undiminished.
Even before he had turned 20, Serge had plunged into protests against the atrocities in Congo by the colonial regime of King Leopold II of Belgium. Aversion to gradualism took him to France where he plunged into anarchist militancy. He went to Paris — “a terrifying world of utmost poverty, spiritless degradation” — in the midst of the ‘second explosion of anarchism’ in France. It failed and Serge was thrown into solitary confinement for five years.
He moved to Russia with the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution. But his libertarian principles clashed with that of the Bolsheviks. He got his first rude shock at the autocratic stance of Lenin and Trotsky in trampling the Kronstad sailors who played a great role in the February Revolution (1917). They sympathised with protests of Petrograd Soviet against repression of workers. There was no bloodshed but Lenin-Trotsky’s circular read: “Surrender or you will be shot down like rabbits”.
About the plight of Serge during the Stalin era, the less said the better. Stalin expelled him from the party and sent him to jail in 1928. He escaped execution due to intervention by French writer Romain Rolland. Yagoda, head of the political police, found “nothing in his files. Stalin promised that I would be authorised to leave the USSR.”
Sankar Ray is a Kolkata-based writer