Victor Serge

Intellectual Life in Russia

(12 August 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 68, 12 August 1922, pp. 513–514.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I remember that number of Mercure de France which by some chance reached us in Petrograd in the first months of 1921, and I also recall the joy of a certain Russian savant, to whom I eagerly handed it over. I recall also the conversation we held after the reading of that precious volume. This Russian was neither revolutionist nor Communist; but his disappointment was as great as mine, and he communicated it to me with great bitterness. The summary of this learned work, like the rest of it, reeked of such a characteristic ignorance that I accepted it as a type-specimen. Three pages devoted to Einstein, (already in fashion), these pages being the best or the least bad of the volume; a minute history of the capture of one of the forts of Verdun by the Boches, a revolting feuilleton, saturated with murder, having for its heroes, Ali-Bey, a count of Rachilde, and containing the desired dose of exoticism, horror, color and eroticism to satisfy any nervous lady after dinner. “This is supposed to be one of the most noted French revues”, said the Russian savant. “How will you explain this disconcerting ignorance?” “Undoubtedly”, he proceeded, “undoubtedly, the war psychosis still dominates all this ..." Then he concluded with the following words: "It seems to me that the prewar bourgeoisie was more intelligent.”

At this time, in spite of civil war, in spite of great privations, and in spite of the paper-shortage and the enormous difficulty of accomplishing any great intellectual work in the face of the cold, the famine, the uncertainty of the morrow and the physical and nervous exhaustion of the whole world, there were nevertheless, in Petrograd and in Moscow, centers of intense intellectual efforts, and nearly everything that left the nationalized press was interesting, powerful, imbued with the intense, raw and violent life of the hour. However, that did not prevent us from deploring a certain uniformity in tone and depth, more apparent than real, in revolutionary thought. But when side by side with the hollow and rank post-war literature of one of the leading Paris revues, articles like those of Bucharin and Preobrashinski in the Krasnaia Nov, on political economy, impressed us in a new light. There, on the one hand, was not a solitary new idea, not the semblance of an effort to think, not the least preoccupation with the immense problems that confront the man of today, and that are so vital for the future of a whole civilization ... Here, on the other hand, an impassioned research, a certain grandeur, an effort wrapped in social transformation. It is a year since Russia began to emerge from her absolute isolation. Civil war is at an end. And already, intellectual life is surging so intensely over the new soil. Of the old literature and of the old revues, nothing has remained. Instead, new writers are springing up, some of whom will soon be recognized as masters; innovating initiative is developing with great success.

Until this very day, literary and scientific criticism in the capitalistic countries, are often allied with publicity forces, and are usually given second place in the journals and revues, and assigned to “interested” specialists. For the public as a whole there is really no bibliography worthy of the name. Russia should serve the other countries as a model. In Petrograd and Moscow, the necessity was felt, of systematizing and enlarging bibliography and criticism and putting it at the disposal of all. Two excellent revues were founded for this purpose: Books and the Revolution, appearing in Petrograd, and The Press and the Revolution, appearing in Moscow. Almost all the Russian writers contribute to these revues, each one treating the subject most familiar to him, the sole aim being to formulate a sincere and conscientious opinion of the works revued.

Let us turn, for example, to Volume III of the Press and the Revolution; it contains 350 pages with colored illustrations. The revue is divided into two parts: articles of a general nature, dealing with the life of the artist and with the book, and bibliographical notes. A study on Russian engravers, on the psychology of the reader, on the periodical press, on Dostoyevsky and Bakunin. The number in question contains two articles on Bakunin’s Confessions, both of them signed by noted Russian anarchists, (I. Grossman Rostchin and A. Borovoy), whose contributions to a work of the State Library are noteworthy. The purely bibliographical part contains no less than one hundred long notices, classified into 22 divisions, beginning with Socialism and Communism and ending with philology and medicine. From the first page, we are struck by the serious nature of this work, and it is sufficient to glance through one of these truly encyclopedic revues carefully, to get a general idea of the present intellectual life of Russia. All one needs to do in order to be instructed on the current works in any field of thought, is to consult the desired subdivision.

In no other country but in Russia, has the history of the labor and revolutionary movement yet been made the material for a permament work in spite of its vital importance. Often, the most useful documentation, which is of the greatest value to the militant revolutionist, gets lost or is scattered here and there, and it then becomes more and more difficult to learn the facts of the past, and to draw instruction from them. What an Herculean task it would be to gather a documentation on the evolution of French syndicalism! And the number of subjects on which no documentation as yet exists, is great. How are we to get a clear idea of the white terror that now rages in Spain! Revolutionists neglect their past. Their daily struggle does not permit them to look back at the ground covered. But to whom does this apply more than to the Russians? Yet, the Russians have made good this deficiency in their press, by founding revolutionary historical revues. One is an old one, the personal work of an historian, The Past, published in Petrograd, the other, a recent publication, called The Proletarian Revolution, published in Moscow, an organ of the Historical Commission of the Party. Both of these are compact, filled with various material, which is presented with great clearness. The Proletarian Revolution contains four divisions: articles, documents, memoirs, and bibliography. Among the contributors to number 3 of this revue, we find, besides L. Trotzky and Kolontai, an old impenitent Menshevik, who is one the founders of the Russian Social Democracy, his name is Leo Deutsch. Being written by those who have actually lived it, this history of the revolutionary movement, has besides its intrinsic value, considerable value as a propaganda vehicle, for it contributes to the making of revolutionists.

Of the Russian revues, let us also cite the Krasnaia Nov, a literary, artistic and scientific revue, which corresponds pretty nearly, to the great revues of the East, Military Science and the Revolution, a scientific periodical whose title gives us an idea of its contents.

The first volume contains 500 pages, and besides the technical studies on the Russian revolutionary wars, written by men who have led the Red Army in its moments of trial and in its victories, (Frounzé, Tukatchevsky, etc.), it contains various articles signed by a former Kerensky Minister, Verkhovsky, and by an anarchist, H. Sandomirsky. The main divisions are: Theory and History of Military Science, Organization and Administration, Military Life in Foreign Countries, Foreign Policy and Strategy.

Not less than 25 to 30 periodicals are appearing in Moscow. The State Library is publishing, among other things, The Medical Revue and Proletarian Culture. The organizations of the Communist Party are issuing two Youth organs and one woman weekly. The Red Army has six periodicals. The large trade unions have their own periodicals. The private libraries are multiplying and are carrying on as intense an activity as the paper shortage permits. And now to conclude with: In spite of its misery, in spite of the fact that it is today the most devastated country on earth, Russia, which stands on the morrow of the great revolutionary work, is carrying on an intense and original activity. It having become possible to compare the fruits of this activity with the cultural work of the bourgeois countries, this activity seems to us to be superior in quality to that of the latter.

Last updated on 5 May 2020