Victor Serge

Conquered City


The long nights seemed reluctant to abandon the city. For a few hours each day a gray light of dawn or dusk filtered through the dirty white cloud ceiling and spread over things like the dim reflection of a distant glacier. Even the snow, which continued, to fall, lacked brightness. This white, silent, weightless shroud stretched out to infinity in time and space. By three o’clock it was already necessary to light the lamps. Evening deepened the hues of ash, deep blue, and the stubborn gray of old stones on the snow. Night took over, inexorable and calm: unreal. In the darkness the delta resumed its geographical form. Dark cliffs of stone broken off at right angles lined the frozen canals. A sort of somber phosphorescence emanated from the broad river of ice.

Sometimes the north winds blowing in from Spitsbergen and farther still – from Greenland perhaps, perhaps from the pole. across the Arctic Ocean, Norway, and the White Sea – gusted across the bleak estuary of the Neva. All at once the cold bit into the granite; the heavy fogs which had come up from the south across the Baltic vanished and the denuded stones, earth, and trees were instantly covered with crystals of frost, each of which was a barely visible marvel composed of numbers, lines of force, and whiteness. The night changed its aspect, shedding its veils of unreality. The north star appeared, the constellations let in the immensity of the world. The next day the bronze horsemen on their stone pedestals, covered with silver powder, seemed to step out of a strange carnival; from the tall granite columns of St Issac’s Cathedral to its pediment peopled with saints and even to its massive gilded cupola-all was covered with frost. The red granite façades and embankments took on a tint of pink and white ash under this magnificent cloak. The gardens, with their delicate filigree of branches, appeared enchanted. This phantasmagoria delighted the eyes of people emerging from their stuffy dwellings, just as millennia ago men dressed in pelts emerged fearfully in wintertime from their warm caves full of good animal stench.

Not a single light in whole quarters. Prehistoric gloom.

People slept in frozen dwellings where each habitable corner was like a corner in an animal’s lair: the ancestral stench clung even to their fur-lined cloaks which were never taken off or which they put on to go into the next room, to pry up a few floor boards in order to keep the fire going-to get a book-or to empty the night’s excretions at the end of the corridor onto piles of excrement likewise covered by the lovely frost whose every crystal was a marvel of purity. The cold entered freely through broken windowpanes.

The city, crisscrossed by broad, straight arteries and winding canals, surrounded by islands, cemeteries, and huge empty stations, sprawled over the tip of a narrow gulf on the edge of a white solitude ...

but the nights, unreal or studded with constellations, reigned implacable and calm, and during those nights alders armed with heavy Mauser pistols, carrying fifty lovely pointed bullets, a flask of brandy, four pounds of black brec4 twenty lumps of sugar, a well-forged Danish passport, and a hundred dollars sewed into the lining of their trousers, moved resolutely with long strides into that desel4 where nothing urns worse than meeting another man;

and women clutching their children by the hand, old men, cowardly men, all of them cringing against the great wind of the terror, deadlier still than the polar blasts, likewise entered that desert of ice led by traitors and spies, guided by hate and fear, sometimes hiding their diamonds, like convicts their money, in the secret and obscene folds of their flesh.

Seen from high above, from the red-starred airplane circling overhead every morning, the Neva looked like a thin white snake darting two thin blue tongues into the desert from its open mouth.

The half-empty slums were hungry. The factory chimneys no longer smoked, and when by chance one started smoking the women, huddling in their rags at the door of a communal store, watched that bizarre smoke climb with bleak curiosity. “They’re repairing cannons. They get extra rations ... – How much? How much? – four hundred grams of bread a day; yeah; but its not for us; it’s only for them. We know who works in that factory, the bastards ...”

Grimy red flags hung over the doors of old palaces, oxblood in color, built by Master Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who delighted in eighteenth-century Italian elegance with its gracious structures beribboned like shepherdesses. They had been mansions of empresses’ favorites, of the conquerors of the Crimea and the Caucasus, of great lords owning millions of souls, ignorant intriguing, and thieving nobles whom the Secret Chancellery subjected to torture one day before exiling them to the forests of the east. When guides from the Department of Political Education explained to simple folk who had come to the capital to attend government conferences that these palaces were the works of the architect Rastrelli, the visitors quite naturally heard “the works of one who was shot,” for in Russian rastrellanny means “shot.” The palaces and mansions dating from Napoleonic times, mote austere, with noble symmetrical pediments placed over mighty colonnades, bore the same red rags over their doors. The different periods of the Empire had thus marked the streets with imposing structures which might make you dream at night of the tombs of the Pharaohs of a Theban dynasty. But the ashes of this dynasty were still fresh in a bog in the Urals; and these tombs, those of a regime to be sure, bore signs: R.C.P. (b). SECOND DISTRICT COMMITTEE; R.F.S.S.R. PEOPLE’S COMMISSARIAT FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION, ADMINISTRATION OF EDUCATIONAL SERVICES FOR BACKWARD CHILDREN; R.F.S.S.R. SCHOOL FOR RED COMMANDERS OF THE WORKERS’ AND PEASANTS’ ARMY. People were working in these dead palaces – dead because they had been conquered, uncrowned because they were no longer palaces. The machine guns squatting in the vestibules often in the shadow of huge stuffed bears who used to hold out frays for visiting cards, seemed like beasts of steel, silent but ready to bite. The noisy clatter of typewriters filled rooms designed for princely comfort; a coarse conqueror, Comrade Ryjik, was sleeping with his boots on in an elegant Louis XV room on the same divan where, eighteen months earlier, an old epicurean of the august race of the Ruriks amused himself by staring full of enchantment and despair at naked girls. Now this epicurean was stretched, out someplace else, no one knew where, in an artillery range, naked, with a bristly beard, and a hole clean through his head, under two feet of trampled earth, four feet of snow, and the nameless weight of eternity.

One flight up dossiers were filed in boudoirs which bad been divided into offices by unpainted wood partitions; an odd collection of requisitioned mattresses was laid out on the floors of the great reception rooms, transforming them into dormitories. Huge crystal chandeliers still tinkled weakly when trucks passed. Humbled captives, who in the old days might well have climbed the marble staircases of this very mansion with dignified steps under the impassive gaze of liveried footmen, now waited in the cellar to be transferred to the Special Commission. [1] Every once in a while the bored sentry sitting elbows propped on a dirty table at the door to the cellar stairs would get up, wearily shoulder the strap of his rifle, carried muzzle down, and go to open the padlock of this prison.

“All right!” he would say, not unkindly. “Financiers to the crapper, three at a time!”

With familiar shoves, be herded the heavy stumbling forms down the narrow corridor; they paused a moment at the sight of the dazzling snow in the courtyard ... Snoring came from the former kitchens, where the guardroom had been established.

Ryjik could no longer keep track of the time. His days had neither beginning nor end. He slept whenever he could, by day, by night sometimes at the beginnings of departmental committee meetings when the speaker was long-winded. At such times be would doze off in his chair, head thrown back, red-mustached mouth open; and his limp hands, draped across his knees, expressed in their sudden stillness an enormous weariness. For a long while the telephone – that bizarre little voice designed to capture the eat, that voice that made you think of insects scratching underground – had made him nervous and anxious. Now he dictated and received orders over the phone and he copied down telephone messages in his large schoolboy hand on the backs of cigarette boxes: “Transmit to Committees of Three: Complete requisition of warm clothing within twerty-four hours.” “Remove a barrel of herring from warehouse 12, cut back the men’s rations.” “Arrest the first ten hostages on the list transmitted by the Committee of Five ...”

He listened, his eyes wandering, dazed from the days fatigue, in front of the telephone table, dotted with the crumbs of black bread. “Hello, Gorbunov? Get me Gorbunov. Is the raid over?” The shapeless insect scratched away at the earth in its hole and somewhere far off an unknown voice answered brutally: “Gorbunov has a bullet in the groin; buzz off.” And the line went dead. Ryjik cursed. The bell rang again with joyful urgency: “Hello? Is that you, Ryjik? The Saburov Theater is giving away twenty tickets to The Little Chocolate Girl ...” The door had creaked behind him, he sensed a comforting but vaguely irritating presence: “Xenia?” “It’s me. Go to bed, Ryjik.” Xenia wore a grass-green soldier’s tunic and steel-rimmed glasses; the holster of an automatic hung from her belt. She was carrying a book Ryjik, in his great weariness, dreamed of two soft firm globes of flesh and a warm mouth. Xenia looked at him sedately: “Tomorrow at six. Department meeting.” He blushed. “Okay Good night.” He went down the marble staircase. A kind of senseless anger was brewing within him against this young woman who was so simple and frank around him that her very presence banished the idea that they could ever be, even for an instant face to face as man to woman, disarmed by each other and abandoned to one another.

In the deserted library, next to the great Dutch earthenware stove, two soldiers were playing chess in the glow of a candle. The chess board was a mosaic of rare stones incrusted lit an elegant little stand; the ivory men of Chinese design, fine-chiseled, detailed, and grotesque. Ryjik leaned against the stove to let the heat penetrate him and closed his eyes. What a job! And what if I’m tired of being strong after all? What if ...? In these moments of extreme weariness he repeated three unanswerable words to himself: “It is necessary.” His battery magically recharged itself. This weariness was only the day’s fatigue: sleep could dissipate it. The night reigned, magnificently silent over the snows, the square, the city, the Revolution.

“Bushed, Ryjik?” asked one of the players, advancing a pawn. (He was a dark little man with wisps of straw glistening in his unkempt overgrown hair.) “Me too. Milk was up to twenty rubles in the market today. Sugar was forty. I just got back from Gdov. It’s pretty, the countryl At Matveevka, get this, a cominissar bad gone through requisitioning cows and watches. The yokels nearly tore me to pieces. Our supply details are pillaging, running away, or getting massacred. But I did run into some decent guys with guts – from the wire factory ... They were sleeping in the station to play it safe. They were smart.”

The other player coughed into a dirty handkerchief and said, without raising his small, craggy, hard head:

“I’ve had it. My wife covered sixty versts by rail and eighteen on foot to get forty pounds of flour from the village. They confiscated them all when she got back. Now she’s got a fever. It may well be typhus. I can’t even put the kid into the children’s shelter, they’re dying like flies ... Check ...”

“Gorbunov has a bullet in his groin,” said Ryjik.

“He’s a hustler,” replied the dark man casually. “I saw him inventorying typewriters. He didn’t know the difference between inventorying and requisitioning. He was making off with everything, even cameras. I told him: ‘You’re a slob, we’ll never make a class-conscious citizen out of you.’ All he knows is how to spout about world revolution.”

Ryjik was warm now and murky second thoughts were stirring under his brow, in those dark corners where we tirelessly, pitilessly repress a strange multitude of desires, dreams, suspicions, violent impulses, stifled joys, and curbed brutalities. He told the men curtly: “You: stand guard at the prison from two o’clock until five; you: at the door,” and went out. The icy night refreshed his face, but he didn’t feel any better. People were standing watch in dark doorways in accordance with the edict of the Executive. The night had become cloudy, the snow no longer glistened: it was like walking through soft opaque ashes which muffled the sound.


Around 3 A.M., at the moment when night is so vast, calm, and profound it seems definitive, the telephone finally silent, Xenia, alone in the great, parquet-floored hail of headquarters, was writing a few lines on the back of a pass:

Revolution: Fire
Burn out the man of old. Burn yourself.
Man’s renewal by fire.

She held her twenty-year-old head in her hands as she sat pensive over these lines. Regeneration of man through the red-hot iron. Plow up the old earth, tear down the old structure. Recreate life anew. And in all likelihood perish yourself. I will perish. Man will live. Yet still a dull anxiety. Is that too the man of old resisting? Victory, smile into the void: Very well, I’ll perish, I’m ready. “Ready.” She said it out loud. The word came back to her from the silence and the limitless night with a long inner echo. She didn’t sense that there was anyone behind her.

Ryjik approached quietly, treading so lightly that the floor didn’t creak under his suede boots; slightly stooped, brow hot hollow-eyed, carrying a great simple decision within him. He placed his hand heavily on the young woman’s shoulder. The warmth of that shoulder passed instantly through all his nerves. To gain a few seconds, the infinity of a few seconds, he asked:

“Writing, Xenia?”

“Oh, it’s you!”

Without any surprise, not even turning all the way around, she nodded at the lines she had just scrawled.

“Read it, Ryjik. And tell me if it’s all right.”

“Burn out the man of old. Burn ...”

Ryjik straightened up, totally subdued.

“All right? All right? I don’t know. I don’t like romanticism. Empty phases. Everything is much simpler: Imperialism, class war, dictatorship, proletarian consciousness ... See you tomorrow.”

He turned on his heels, a solid block. The leather thong of his Nagan revolver slapped against his leg. He went through the black corridors with the dogged step of a sleepwalker threw himself on his bed in the dark, and passed out.

... That night only seven cars of food supplies arrived in the city. (One was pillaged.) Forty suspects were arrested. Two men were shot in a cellar.



1. All-Russian Special Commission for the Suppression of Counterrevolution and Sabotage, established December 1917 and best known by its Russia acronym “Che-Ka” or Cheka. Replaced in February 1921 by the G.P.U. or political police. – Trans.


Last updated on 21.3.2004