by Susan Weissman
Verso, 2001, 364 pp., $35
In the months after the Nazi invasion of France, while hoping for an exit visa but expecting Stalin’s henchmen, Victor Serge managed to write some parts of a novel. “Not, however,” he assures us, “from any love of literature.” There were other reasons. For his work in the Berlin outpost of the Comintern, the Gestapo might have liked to speak with Serge; for his fearless denunciations of Stalin, the NKVD would have liked to silence him. “A man ends by concentrating a certain unique clarity in himself, a certain irreplaceable experience,” one character explains on the eve of his arrest in The Case of Comrade Tulayev, the novel Serge was then writing. How many people on earth understand Einstein-and if they were shot? “It would all be over for a century or two-or three, how do we know? A whole vision of the universe would vanish into nothingness.”
Thus the need to write, even when life pressed powerful claims. “Others, less engaged in combat, would perfect a style,” he explained in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, “but what I had to tell, they could not tell.” Serge could tell a great deal-it was that kind of life. Born in Belgium in 1890 to Russian exiles-their bare home in Brussels covered with pictures of revolutionaries who’d been hanged-he became an anarchist newspaper editor in Paris, spent five years in prison, worked for insurrection in Spain in 1917, and then rushed to the “vaster insurrection” taking place in Russia. On the way there, in the waiting room of the Russian Embassy in Paris, he met a fiery monarchist, also heading for Russia, and in the great tradition of that country they immediately began arguing, confessing, and pacing up and down. The man turned out to be Nikolai Gumilev, the husband of Anna Akhmatova and himself an important poet. “In 1921,” Serge recalled, “I was to struggle vainly for several days, trying to stop the Cheka [All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage] from shooting him.” Gumilev was the first major writer killed by the Bolsheviks; Serge would meet many more.
He arrived in Petrograd in January 1919. The city was a shambles-the factories had ceased operation, the streets were lined with frozen excrement, and the people were burning precious housing stock for fuel. The bureaucracy had already become a menace: “I witnessed members of government driven to telephoning Lenin to obtain a railway ticket or a room in the [official] hotel.” Serge canvassed opinion among anarchists and socialists. He found the Mensheviks “intelligent, honest and devoted to Socialism, but completely overtaken by events. . . .Every conversation I had...
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