Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

X – Last Installment:
Life and Culture in 1918

Written: 1925-1928, Vienna, Leningrad, Dietskoye Seloe
First Published: L’An 1 de la révolution russe, 1930
This Version: New International, Vol.XV No.5, July 1949, pp.157-159.
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

For this final installment from Victor Serge’s The Year One of the Russian Revolution, we skip to the last chapter for a picture of intellectual life and living conditions in Russia at the end of the first year of Soviet power. Famine, civil war, economic breakdown under the cordon sanitaire of the Allies, have taken their toll. The long-looked-for German revolution has taken place, but it is still under the control of the right-wing Social-Democrats and the bourgeoisie.

We regret that we cannot continue publishing further sections of this most interesting work. It is hoped that the entire book will one day be published in English. – ED.

The shift among the advanced bourgeoisie was clearly reflected in literary circles. It may be said that every Russian writer had been openly hostile to Bolshevism.

We already know the attitude of Maxim Gorky, even he who had been associated with Lenin for years. We have seen him flay “the brutal socialist experiment of Lenin and Trotsky,” which could end only in “anarchy and the free play of instinct.” Gorky became one of the first to rally to the revolution, to recognize its grandeur and the necessity for its defense. He published the following general appeal:

“The experiment conducted by the Russian working class and the sympathetic intellectuals, a tragic experiment which may cost Russia every last drop of her blood, is a great experiment, a lesson for the whole world. In its time almost every people feels it has a messianic mission, feels itself called on to save the world, to give its best to the cause ... Come with us toward the new life we are building amid all ... our suffering and mistakes, without sparing ourselves or anyone else.”

Leonid Andreyev, Ivan Bunin, D. Marezhkovsky, and A. Kuprin, the most influential Russian writers, who had all played the part of revolutionists under the old regime, remained unrelentingly hostile to the new government; but with astonishing intuition the poets grasped the deeper meaning of the revolution. In a few months time, the greatest Russian poets came over to the revolution and gave it a whole literature of exceptional strength.

The classicist Valery Brussov hailed the coming of the “just barbarians” who were to renovate civilization. Alexander Blok, the disciple of the mystic Soloviev, wrote the most popular and the purest of the masterpieces of the heroic period, The Twelve. Twelve Red Guards travel through the darkness and snow, arms in hand and preceded, unknown to them, by an invisible Christ with a crown of roses ... This Christian conception of the revolution was also to be found in the Christ Is Risen of the symbolist Andrei Biely, and in the profoundly orthodox mystic poems of Nicholas Kluyev and Sergei Yessenin.

By 1919 all the great prose writers were either very hostile or openly counter-revolutionary, with the exception of Gorky; almost all the great poets had rallied to the new regime.

With the exception of these great works, literary production was almost completely interrupted. If they wrote at all the writers devoted themselves to politics.

In the working class and the party the Proletcult movement (proletarian culture groups) was enlarged. The ambition of these circles was to renovate the whole of capitalist culture in conformity with the aspirations of the proletariat. They dealt with great problems. In the cities they formed lively enough little groups occupied with the theater, poetry, and literary criticism. They produced only a few poets and even these frequently fell into commonplaces about the factory and victorious work and proletarian heroism.

Education, The Sciences, The Arts

The class war raged also in intellectual circles. Men of letters refused to shake Alexander Blok’s hand after he wrote The Twelve. Any association whatever with the Bolsheviks was infamy in the eyes of many literary men.

Almost the entire Academy of Sciences remained stubbornly hostile to the new government. It took years of hard struggle to break the resistance of the university faculties. The immense majority of the teachers were hostile; their trade union was only gradually purified and reorganized; the schools were conquered for the proletariat inch by inch.

The Commissariat of Public Education under Lunacharsky undertook a radical transformation of the curriculum. The old system of lower schools reserved for the people and high schools practically reserved for the bourgeoisie was replaced by a single work-school system. The old method of training subjects for the czar and believers for the Orthodox Church was succeeded by a necessarily improvised anti-religious socialist program based on work instruction. It was necessary to prepare producers for intelligent social functioning.

They drew up a plan for combining school and factory. In order to better impress the equality of the sexes from infancy, the schools were often coeducational, boys and girls meeting in the same classes. But everything had to be improvised. The old textbooks were good only for fuel. The greater part of the old teaching staff resisted, sabotaged, misunderstood, and only awaited the end of Bolshevism.

The schools themselves were tragic ruins. They lacked paper, pencils, notebooks, and pens. In winter the ragged children met around little stoves installed in the middle of the classrooms, where they often burned the remaining furniture to keep out the cold. There was one pencil for each four children; the teachers were starving.

Despite this immense poverty a tremendous impulse was given to public education. Such a thirst for knowledge was revealed in the country that new schools, adult courses, universities, and workers’ colleges sprang up everywhere.

Innumerable experiments discovered new and hitherto unexplored fields. Schools for backward children were founded; a whole system of kindergartens sprang up; and abbreviated adult courses put education within the reach of the workers for the first time. The conquest of the universities began somewhat later.

At the same time, the museums were enriched by the confiscation of private collections; extraordinary honesty and care were shown in the expropriation of artistic treasures. Not one single well-known work was lost. It happened that valuable collections had to be removed in the midst of riots, as in the case of the Hermitage collection; but they were returned safe and sound.

The scientific laboratories carried on heroically. Taking their share of the general privation, on strict rations, and without lights, fire, or water during the winter, the scientists, whatever their basic political beliefs may have been, generally continued their customary labors.

In the evenings the nationalized theaters played their usual repertories, but before a new public. The ballet corps gave performances during the terror which was exterminating the very aristocracy for whose pleasure it had been created; but the gold-decorated halls were filled with workingmen and women, with Young Communists whose hair was close-clipped to avoid the typhus-carrying lice, with Red soldiers on leave from the front. With the same voice that had once thundered God Save the Czar, Chaliapin sang The Song of the Flea for the trade-unionists.

Expressionist painters decorated the public places for celebrations. Wooden or plaster monuments to the heroes of. the French Revolution and the founders of socialism were raised. Most of these quite mediocre works have since disappeared.

The newspapers lost the richness and variety of democratic times. They were gradually limited to three sorts of journalism all emanating from the same source: the Soviet newspapers, the two Izvestias in the two capitals, the Communist Party papers, the two Pravdas, and the trade-union papers.

The life

The winter of 1918-19 was terrible in the large cities, ravaged by famine and typhus and lacking fuel, water and light. The water and sewer pipes froze in. the buildings. Families gathered around little stoves called Bourzhouiki, an ironic derivation from “bourgeois.” Old books and furniture and the woodwork and flooring from empty apartments were used for fuel. Most of the wooden houses in Petrograd and Moscow were torn down and used for firewood.

The interminable Russian nights were lighted only by candles and night-lamps. The toilets did not function and heaps of sewage gathered in the courtyards under the snow, ready to cause new epidemics with the return of spring. Long lines of customers were permanently stationed outside the cooperatives. Vast illegal markets, periodically ransacked by robbers, were held on the city squares. The survivors of the former bourgeoisie came there to sell their last possessions. Domiciliary visits and requisitions combated the inevitable speculation.

The blockade gradually killed off the weaker people. The dictatorship of the proletariat did the impossible in looking after the needs of the working class, the army, the fleet, and the children. The former middle and wealthy classes were hardest hit by the famine. It was not rare to see old people fall starving in the streets. The mortality rate, especially among the babies and old people, rose steadily. The number of suicides, on the contrary, diminished considerably.

After chasing the dispossessed bourgeoisie out, the workers took over their modern, houses. Every apartment peopled with armed proletarians, Bukharin wrote, must become a revolutionary fortress. Unfortunately the comfortable arrangement of the bourgeois apartments frequently made it impossible to adapt them to the needs of their new occupants. Thus quarters were lacking for childrens’ homes, for schools, and for community lodgings. The architects of the old regime had designed the houses for quite another purpose.

The Soviets instituted the obligations to work for the bourgeoisie in the form of compulsory public works. However, the bourgeoisie was largely successful in dodging this duty. In September there were only four hundred bourgeois to be found in Petrograd for “rearguard work.” Requisitions of warm clothing were undertaken. Every bourgeois had to furnish one complete winter outfit.

The legal recognition of free union, the facility of divorce, the authorization of abortion, the complete emancipation of women and the end of male and church authority in the family did not produce any real weakening of the family ties. This destruction of obstacles made life simpler and healthier without provoking any noteworthy crises. In Petrograd and Moscow, crime was reduced to a peacetime level. Prostitution never disappeared entirely, but the disappearance of the wealthy classes who were its main support reduced it to relatively insignificant proportions.

Religious life continued a nearly normal course, although a certain number of actively counter-revolutionary priests were shot by the Cheka. The clergy was divided into two camps: the partisans of active resistance led by the Archbishop Tikhon, and the partisans of passive resistance. The Communist Party and the Council of People’s Commissars several times affirmed that no obstacles would be placed in the way of believers.

The standard of living varied sensibly from one region to another. All of the cities sank into complete darkness in the evening. Petrograd, the most exhausted and danger-ridden, lived an austere and calm life. The same privations were received more nervously in Moscow, already a bureaucratic capital, where the tonic air of the front was lacking. The cities of the Ukraine were prey to the partisan and robber bands, constantly pillaged and burned, devastated anew by every new occupant, and lived in a constant state of terror; a panicky clamor mounted over Kiev as evening fell. At times it seemed that the bandits were the real rulers of Odessa.

New Relation Between the Party and the Masses

An observer who crossed Russia in those days would have reported the singular and false impression of general hostility among the people for the Soviet government. This hostility was very real among the dispossessed, among the majority of the middle classes. Important as it was, the evolution we traced affected only the most advanced and intelligent elements.

The masses of the petty bourgeoisie in the country were too close to the kulaks not to resent the attacks on the latter. In the cities the petty bourgeoisie had formerly gained its living from its service and business with the big bourgeoisie, and its situation now seemed hopeless. Here and there, the petty bourgeoisie was more numerous than the proletariat, which was used up by the civil war. We are already acquainted with the modifications that took place in the social composition of the proletariat itself.

The proletariat was nevertheless the only element on whose fidelity the revolution could count. But even the proletariat suffered too much. The individual worker was not able to see beyond the small horizon of his own life. The education and information which might permit him to understand necessities, perspectives and consequences were often lacking, and his selfish instincts resisted the higher interests of society when the latter demanded sacrifices. The workers suffered too much not to complain, to recriminate, to become desperate at times. The anti-Soviet parties made good use of this state of mind in their agitation. If the Russian working class was able to resist and finally vanquish all its enemies, the main responsibility rested with the Communist Party.

The party had only 250,000 members at the time, but those who joined were selected by history itself. It is true that a certain number of adventurers were to be found in its ranks, where they hoped to share the eventual fruits of power. Negligible from the point of view of numbers, this minority of false Communists did great harm, contributing to the discredit of local authorities. Thus they appreciably facilitated Denikin’s conquest of the Ukraine, where they gravitated to the granary. But the immense majority of the workers who joined the party volunteered for the civil war and accepted all kinds of dangers.

At times the working class became disgusted and lent an ear to Menshevik orators, as during the great Petrograd strikes in the spring of 1918. But when it was faced with the choice between a dictatorship of the White Guards and a dictatorship of its own party, there was, and there could be, no other choice but that every last man took down his gun and lined up silently beneath the windows of the party headquarters.

The party saw, thought, and willed for the masses. Its intelligence and organization made up for their weakness . Without the patty the masses could have been no more than a swarm of men with imperious needs, confused aspirations, and gleams of intelligence lost in the mob for lack of a conductor to carry ideas into action on a vast scale.

By its incessant propaganda and agitation, always speaking the unvarnished truth, the party raised the workers above their narrow individual horizons and revealed to them the vast perspectives of history.

Every attack was concentrated on the party, and every defense force rallied to it. During and after the winter of 1918-19 the revolution became the work of the party. That is not to say that the masses were any less active in the revolution, but their activity was of a different sort. Thereafter they acted only through the party, in the same way that a very diversified organism makes contact with and acts on the outside world only through its nervous system.

A certain transformation came over the party as a result. It was closely adapted to its new functions and the new conditions. Discipline became stricter to facilitate action, purify the party, and paralyze alien influences. The party was really the “iron cohort” that it was later called.

Its thinking, nevertheless, remained living and free. The Anarchists and Left S-Rs of yesterday joined its ranks. Since he had been wounded and since the German revolution had vindicated his policy, Lenin’s prestige had grown even greater, but his simplicity still triumphed, so that none feared to criticize or contradict him. His was purely the authority of universally recognized intellectual and moral superiority.

The former democratic regime of the party gave way to more authority and centralization. The needs of the struggle, and the influx of new members who had neither Marxist education nor temper, forced the Bolshevik “old guard” to ensure their own political hegemony.

A new code of law was elaborated inside the party, and by extension became the law of the newly formed society. It was a soldiers’ and workers’ law, founded on the revolutionary mission of the proletariat. Necessity, utility, conformity, and solidarity were its cardinal principles. It knew no better justification than success and victory. It demanded the constant subordination of individual to general interests.

Every Communist and participant in the revolution felt himself the unimportant servitor of an immense cause. The greatest compliment one could pay such a man was to say: “He has no private life.” Yesterday, at the command of the party, such a man was an army commissar leading the troops at the front; today he was a member of the Cheka ruthlessly carrying out his orders; tomorrow he might be speaking to the peasants in the country at the risk of being murdered in the night, or managing a factory, or carrying out some perilous secret mission among the enemy.

There was not a party member who did not fill two or three, or five or six, posts at once, and change around from day to day. The party did everything. No one discussed its orders. “Conformity to the goal” was the general rule.

The moral health of the party was reflected in its absolute honesty. It scorned the customary lying formalities and equivocations, the game of two faces, one for “the elite” and the other for “the masses.” It scorned to differentiate between thought and word, between word and action. Everything was called by its right name. Ideas were clear and simple in their grandeur.

Idea, word, and action were all part of a single drive which was at once the cause and the consequence of a clear proletarian policy. For social lies rise out of the desire to satisfy, or appear to satisfy, interests which are in reality incompatible.


Last updated on: 8.2.2009