Victor Serge

Conquered City


Each day the sun rose slowly, late, at an hour when in other cities of the world, of whose existence people here were abstractly aware, the pulse of life was already beating ardently. London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna. Did they really exist? London Bridge with its river of humanity crossing the Thames furrowed in the fog by dark tugboats with lingering, hoarse whistles? Was it possible? Were there still crowds in Piccadilly as in the old days, crowds on the corner of the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, armies of ants going about their mysterious business around the Porte St. Denis, on the Alexanderplatz – long since washed clean of the blood of the Spartacists – in the great Gothic shadow of St. Stephen’s and the despair of Austria! Phantom capitals belonging to the past and to another world which could only be glimpsed through the new prisms of this city: expected uprisings, outcome always in suspense, dispatches, stunning as blows, from the Rosta win services proclaiming endless crises, the collapse of old nations, thrilling upheavals. Gaudy posters attacked the counterrevolutionary alliances: Lloyd George and Clemenceau, potbellied, wearing top hats, personally aiming battleship deck guns at the Revolution. Night came, merging bit by bit into the stones, the dwellings, the great empty courtyards, the cellars, leaving imperceptible traces of shadow behind; and on the walls gray sheets of newsprint announcing:

Leaving or entering the city without speclal permission prohibited.
   Cloth coupons to be distributed in the near future: one for every 8 people.
   Extra requisition of matresses for the Red Army.
   Nationalization of bathhouses. (Closed, in any case, for lack of fuel)
   Mobilization of Latvian Communists.
   “... verdict of history, verdict of the masses ... riots in Milan ... Today Italy, tomorrow France, the next day the universe ... (A white flame of unstuck paper flapped against the wall in the cold wind.) Signed, Kuchin.
   Dance Lessons, from 4 to 8. Modern interpretive and ballroom dancing, waltz in a few days. Moderate prices. Tel. 22.76. Madame Eluse, certified graduate.”

The street ran straight, all white. Night stretched out over damp-stained building façades and lingered in dark windowpanes. People still stood guard in doorways. They were mostly women, hands buried inside the sleeves of old cloaks, wizened faces wrapped in woolen scarves. Some of them emerged from the stones and moved slowly through the snow like little old ladies in paintings by the elder Breughel, feet laden by rubber boots, toward Communal Store No.12. There they gathered like woodlice in a hole.

Around ten o’clock the street took on a feeble animation. People suddenly rushed by on urgent necessary, imperious, deadly tasks. They moved quickly, similar in their diversity – uniforms and black leather – men and women alike, young or ageless, carrying overstuffed briefcases under their arms: dossiers, decrees, transcripts, theses, orders, mandates, absurd plans, grandiose plans. senseless paperwork and the quintessence of will, intelligence, and passion, the precious first drafts of the future, all this traced in little Remington or Underwood characters, all this for the task, for the universe; plus two potato pancakes and a square of black bread for the man carrying these burdens. This was also the hour when those who had accomplished the tasks of the previous night returned homeward, chilly and agitated with oddly wrinkled yellowed faces, yet feeling a final rush of energy mixed with their fatigue.


This was the hour when Xenia went home. She found an old woman, in a room filled with bitter smoke, kneeling on a floor covered with scraps of bark, ashes, and wood. A square stove of freshly laid unfaced bricks, which occupied the whole middle of the room, proclaimed the intrusion of primitive poverty into this ravaged household. Unmade bedding had been left lying on the couch. The old woman half rose and turned toward the tall blond girl with a fresh, erect body who came in from the night, from the committee, from the unknown, with revolting words on her lips and criminal theories under her high forehead. (Only yesterday, it seemed, that brow had shown between the twin ornaments of flaxen braids.)

“Well, well, well, look at your mother, look at her, kneeling in ashes and filth, hands all black, eyes watering from smoke. The chimney won’t draw, can’t you see? And you won’t be able to make it work with all your ideas about the new life! Lovely, the new life. Filimochka won’t take money for his milk any more; ‘I’ve got a trunkful,’ he says, ‘of those worthless bills. I’m going to have my isba wallpapered with ‘em,’ he says, ‘give me some cloth.’ ... Well, answer me, answer, Won’t you!”

Mother and daughter stared at each other, enemies; the one, her gentle face distorted by desperate anger, the other turned in on herself, feeling the excitement of her walk through the snow suddenly fall away from her and fatigue weigh down her thoughts. (Inside her mind a little voice, clear, yet barely audible, was whispering: “I see you dearly enough. You are my mother and you are nothing; and I am nothing. You are incapable of understanding us, you are blind. You can’t see that the Revolution is a flame, and the flame will burn us – you: full of pain and spite in this misery; me: anywhere, happy and consenting.”)

She said:

“Let me help you, Mama, I’m not tired ...”

Then, sharply:

“... And you know, if this is new for you, it’s because we were privileged. Millions of women have never known any other life?”

The mother kept silent, blowing on the fire, in the age-old pose of women before the hearth. Heavy blue curls of smoke floated through the room, as in a nomad’s tent when the wind is bad. A breath of frozen air came in from above the window through a vent which opened out on a morning as vast as a steppe.

Undressed and in bed, the girl once more became the smooth-browed child she had always been; her close-cropped hair added a bright touch. The mother brought her a bowl of warm milk and watched her drink, softened, recognizing the greedy pout of lips that used to take her breast.

Xenia listened to the noises of the house dying away inside her. The fire caught at last, the window was pulled shut. Someone knocked. It was the secretary of the Poor People’s Committee of the House; he asked for Andrei Vassilievich: another registration of ex-officers bad been posted.

With the communicating door open you could just hear Andrei Vassilievich’s bass voice arguing, in the next room, with his habitual visitor, Aaron Mironovich, who also wore a beard but was round-shouldered, fat, and smiling. The secretary of the Poor People’s Committee was speaking too softly. “Speak louder,” said AndreI Vassilievich, “she’s asleep. She came home exhausted?” “All right. So yesterday we moved out the general’s furniture; the clubroom of the house is being set up in his place?” “And the comrades stole everything, eh?” Andrei Vassilievich asked gleefully. “No, not everything, for the sailor from the Vulture stayed until nightfall. But I can sell the old oak dining-room set: Grichka took the Karelian birchwood bed ...” The muffled laughter, muffled perhaps by the sleep weighing on these voices, drifted slowly off. These scum should have been arrested a long dine ago, and Uncle Andrei with them ...

“How much?”

“Six thousand?”

They were seated around the samovar, huddled in their furs, sipping tea through tiny pieces of sugar held between their teeth. Happy not to be under arrest, they discussed the news of the day while carrying on business. “Did you read, Aaron Mironovich, that they are nationalizing the news dealers’ business, now that there is no more paper, no more newspapers, and no more business?” Andrei Vassilievich’s hands were holding a miniature composed entirely of hues of blue, gray, and pink – you might have thought it was painted with colors borrowed from the flowers of the field – depicting a young officer. “Come, four hundred; take it, Aaron Mironovich, and I’ll leave you half the butter.” Without us, they told each other, the city would die of hunger: and how many art treasures would be lost! What they call speculation is the heroic struggle of energetic and competent men against famine. What they call looting the national wealth, in this great anarchic looting known as expropriation, is in fact the rescue of the treasures of civilization. Whatever is stolen is saved. Whenever Andrei Vassilievich expressed these ideas in front of Xenia, he would draw himself up in his chair, his voice trembling with bitterness:

“When Razuniuskoe was sacked, the mujiks carried off Chinese vases in their carts because they were handy for salting down cucumbers .... I have seen Mordvins sharing out a chandelier, pendant by pendant I have seen drunken soldiers smash a Gardner porcelain for fun ... And you don’t even know what a Gardner is!”

“We would smash all the porcelains in the world to transform life. You love things too much and men too little ...”

Then he would turn around so thick-necked, so sure of himself, that his power nearly cut into the other truth:

“Men? But look what you’re doing to them ...”

(It is necessary to burn. Burn. That’s what he can’t understand.)

“You love men too much, men and things, and Man too little?”


The previous year, before the Austrian socialist leader had disappointed two revolutions, the old Horse Guards Street had been called Friederick Adler Street. Few people knew its present name, Barricades Street; the habit of a century was too heavy for it.

Number 12 was a tall commonplace dwelling with crumbling court. yards, crushed under the desperate grayness of old apartment buildings. There, for sixty years, meticulous lives had followed their inconspicuous courses. They kept the saints’ days there. They ate well there. They slept warmly there under feather beds. There money flowed quietly in from the countryside, from factories, from unknown obscure offices through underground rivulets like sewers. On a blue enamel plaque screwed over the main archway was written: Property of the Insurance Building Corp. By order of the Soviet of the and District, a sailor from the Vulture had come one December evening and tacked a handwritten paper bearing the seal of the Poor People’s Committee lower down on the door: “... has been proclaimed national property.” Sad-faced businessmen in worn overcoats – the type seen prowling around the consulates carrying property deeds as obsolete as sixteenth-century patents of nobility – still sold and resold that building every two weeks in Helsingfon restaurants, it still brought a fairly good price, but in czarist rubles, which were out of circulation everywhere except among smugglers and traitors.

On the ground floor the frosted glass store windows, now covered with dust and frost, half revealed tarnished mirrors. Celine, modes parisiennes. These words were written in gilt script flaring to a flourish at the bottom. Piss-stained curtains were hanging above the bright metal stands designed to show off the latest model hats imported from the Rue de la Paix. A Jewish family was living there. Sometimes, though a crack in the curtain, you could see a dark graceful eight-year-old slip of a girl rocking a bizarre rag doll with a beautifully painted face. An old man emerged every morning; you could only make out a long, drooping profile, flaccid cheeks, and rheumy eyes under his winter cap. He went to sell God knows what in a market place.

The other shopwindow, which used to be a bootmaker’s, now belonged to a half-deserted grocery: little tubes of saccharine, flower tea wrapped to look more or less like the genuine Kuznetzov tea of old, coffee made of some kind of anonymous evil-tasting beams. A few sprouting potatoes placed on a porcelain plate attracted the eye like rare out-of-season fruits. What kind of phantom commerce was bidden behind this shadowy merchandise? The Vulture sailor talked to the Poor People’s Committee about turning the whole shop inside out, as it was certainly full of stolen sugar and flour. Then the committee secretary, a busy little loudmouth with a limp, who claimed to have been wounded in Carpathia and was surely lying, calmed him down without appearing to by reassuring him that he was personally keeping an eye on “that highly suspicious place.”

Sometimes you could see an extremely old man in a gray greatcoat sweeping the morning snow in the courtyard; and when another old man in an astrakhan hat passed stiffly by with jerky steps, the two old men exchanged a long angry look. The privy councilor couldn’t forgive the regular state councilor for having entered the service of “those bandits” in an office that was certainly run by an illiterate brute. They also met at the Communal Store, where they both went to get their bread ration. The privy councilor, classified in the Fourth Ca gory (non-workers), slowly wrapped his fifty grams of black dough in a cloth which resembled a dirty handkerchief; he waited until the other man, that scum placed in the Third Category (intellectual workers), had picked up his ration, the double, in order to show him, with a sneer which he thought full of irony, the scorn he felt far this traitor’s reward. But the privy councilor’s toothless grin, intended to express sarcasm, hardly changed the habitual grimace on his sagging, swollen face; and the privy councilor’s glance, which fell on the regular state cauncilor’s ration, revealed itself to be charged not with severity but with bleak animal greed.

Punctually at nine o’clock the regular state councilor appeared at the office – Ah! what personnel! – of the district council. He found only the old woman who swept the rooms. The employees came late and the director the latest of all. After going through the newspapers with deep sighs, the regular state councilor opened his files: Municipal Properties: Habitations To Be Razed (firewood) ... Around noon the director, a short fellow with a harsh, blond peasant’s face, had them bring him some tea made of carrot parings and gave his signatures. Since he could barely decipher handwritten script and often got the meaning mixed up, they had to read the propositions written in red ink in the margins of typewritten reports aloud to him. He rarely said no, probably only when he had been paid for it. He almost always signed, with a dissatisfied expression.

“House in good repair,” quietly explained the regular state councilor standing deferentially next to the director’s chair. “Lodging for twelve persons. To be razed in accordance with the decree.”

“I do my duty,” he would sometimes explain to his neighbor Andrei Vassilievicb, in the evening. “I am serving my country. A government, even one composed of madmen and bandits, nonetheless represents the country; and the people who live under it only get what they deserve. We’re tearing down the city, my friend. We’re creating a pickle of a housing shortage for the future, let me tell you! When all this business is over with, I tell you, the value of real estate will triple.”

He was the best expert in the district.


The whole house took an interest in the newborn baby in apartment 15. He had emerged from a tired womb in a fireless maternity ward because they hadn’t been able to get rid of him in time; and he had been clinging tenaciously to life for weeks now, contrary to all expectations. He inhaled the ammonia stench of his urine under a heap of old furs. He sucked implacably at the exhausted breast of a woman whose face had the radiance of the dying and who told her visitors, opening her large, slightly croaked eyes over her boy:

“He’s alive, he’s alive! Look at that ...”

People were amazed by this triumphant obstinacy.

People brought logs, grain, and lamp oil to apartment 15. They knew the husband was at the front; and the wife of an officer who was also at the front (but on the other side, so that if these two men met one would kill the other or, a prisoner, would put him coldly to death) went to get the mother’s bread. These two neighbor women read together, with the same anxiety, the names of cities lost or taken.

A little girl in a red beret still went every morning to the ballet school to learn the arts of toe dancing and leaping. The hurricane will pass, no? But the dance will remain; and the child has talent. When the weather permitted, she would read Andersen’s fairy tales on the way, wondering why no magic carpet ever appeared over the bleak housetops. She also read, and carefully repeated when she got home, the penciled notices posted at the Communal Store: “The Third Category will receive two herrings for coupon No.23 on the ration card ...” How sad life is without flying carpets!

Some workers, who were ready to move out at the first alert to avoid having their throats cut in this house where they felt like intruders, occupied the apartment of a lawyer who had disappeared. They had quickly bartered the salable furniture for foodstuffs from some marauding peasants, and they used the rest to keep warm. They had gutted the safe with an oxyacetylene torch but all they found were some ripped-open files from which the sheaves of documents had been torn by the handful. The gaping wound of the safe, which had been turned into a larder, was visible behind the great office desk, on which a lathe operator from the shipyard kept his tools; for as soon as he came home from the factory, where he mostly stood on line for his grain ration, the man fabricated pocket knives out of stolen machine parts which he later bartered for flour. The water pipes, which froze early in the winter, had burst. Their wives went down two floors to get their water at Professor Lytaev’s; loudly they longed for their warm old wooden cottage in the old neighborhood with its evening streets bathed in the yellow light of tavern windows. “That was the good life,” they said bitterly. “We’ll all croak, you’ll see. Hard times,” they added.


A poster announced that the Poor People’s Committee was opening the house clubroom with a lecture on the Paris Commune. A blue Vendôme column, broken in half, was falling into scarlet flames. DANCING WILL FOLLOW!!! The lecturer sent by the Central Club Service, a thin archivist with a faded goatee, spoke for an hour without raising his voice, which fell like a fine rain.

The poor man dealt with the history of “all that political butchery pitiably rewritten to suit the mood of the times, only because it fed him, and with him an ugly wife who suffered with rheumatism.

It didn’t interest him any more than had, formerly, the genealogical research he did for new-rich families. And he sometimes had to restrain himself so as not to suddenly break out of this obstinate bad dream, wake up, interrupt himself, and say in a rejuvenated voice with the weight of twenty years lifted from his brow:

“... But let us leave all these terrible and futile things. The work of a poet is much more precious to humanity than all these massacres! Let us speak then of Pushkin’s youth ...”

At these moments he blinked his eyes strangely, like a dazzled man emerging from the dark; he was afraid of himself and searched the audience for some enemy face in order to surrender to it. Suppressed, his voice rose an octave for no apparent reason: “... the evacuation of the Fort of Vanves ...”

The hall was a ravaged former drawing room, ornamented in the corners by fat-cheeked cherubs made of gilded plaster holding candelabra, and furnished with leather armchairs, prettily fluted and embroidered boudoir chairs, and heavy dirty wooden benches from the neighboring barracks, On the walls hung photographs of the leaders, as they did everywhere. One appeared to be squinting: beneath his huge, balding forehead appeared a crafty, vaguely cruel expression, due to the photographer who, unable to comprehend his real greatness, had tried to give this simple man what he imagined to be the face of a statesman. (“... It wasn’t easy, I assure you,” this former court photographer repeated long afterward.) Another darted a brilliant glance into the abstract, through his rimless glasses; and this head, despite its gracious smile and the impression of irony created by its strong lips, thick mustache, and comma-like goatee, made you think of Draconian orders, of telegrams announcing victories, of proscriptions, of a conquering, exalting, and implacable discipline. There was also the unruly hair and flabby smile of a clean-shaven dictator who still appeared slightly overweight through these famine times. There were only a dozen people in this room, but a good wood fire gave it a feeling of well-being that evening. When the lecturer had finished, the Vulture sailor asked if anyone in the audience had questions to ask the reporter? As the hour for the dance was near, the hall was filling bit by bit. Heads turned toward the harmonica player who was sitting near the door with his instrument on his knees. But a soldier who looked like a clay figure from a shooting gallery rose heavily from his leather armchair at the back of the hail. His commanding voice could be heard very easily as he murmured:

“Tell the story of Dr. Millière’s execution?”

Standing massively with his head bowed, so that all you could see of his face were his heavy bearded cheeks, his sullen lips, and his wrinkled bumpy forehead (he resembled certain masks of Beethoven), he listened to this story:

... Dr. Millière, in a dark blue frock coat and a top hat, dragged through the streets of Paris under the rain, forced to kneel on the steps of the Pantheon, crying, “Long live humanity!” The remark of the Versailles guard leaning on the grill a few steps away: “We’ll give you humanity up the ass ...”

In the dark night out in the lightless street the clay figure joined the lecturer. The sounds of the harmonica faded behind them, devoured by the darkness.

“Here, you must be hungry.”

The archivist felt a hard package being thrust into his hands.

“They’re English biscuits I brought back from Onega. Those bastards eat, it’s not like us?”

The archivist took the biscuits. “Thank you. ... So you’ve come from Onega?” He spoke out of politeness. Onega, Erivan, Kamchatka, what difference did it make? But the man who had come from Onega had a secret on his lips. His momentary silence was charged.

“I was also in the government at Perm, last year, when the Kulaks rebelled. They cut open the stomachs of supply commissars and stuffed them with grain.

“On the road I had read Arnould’s pamphlet, The Dead of the Commune. I was thinking of Millière. And I avenged Millière, citizen! It was a beautiful day in my life, and I haven’t had many. Point by point, I avenged him. I shot the richest landowner in the area, on the steps of the church, just like that – I don’t remember his name, and I don’t give a damn!”

After a short silence he added:

“But I was the one who shouted, ‘Long live humanity.’”

“You know,” said the archivist, “basically Millière wasn’t a real Communard. He was only a bourgeois republican.”

“It’s all the same to me,” said the man who had come back from Onega.


Last updated on 21.3.2004