Victor Serge

Conquered City


You had to wander for a long time through the corridors of the university before finding, in the end, the room where Professor Vadim Mikhailovich Lytaev still came on certain evenings to teach his class. It was like being in a city of another time, in the middle of a sort of abandoned monastery. The night and the cold penetrated even here. Hard rectangles of night pressed in through the white frost-ferns on the windows. The blackboard seemed a bay window open on the night. The professor kept his fur cloak On; his students urged him not to remove his hat so that his high, gray brow with its strands of white hair should not be too defenseless against the icy darkness waiting to envelop men. The audience listened, frozen, in their coats. From the height of his lectern, which was dimly lighted by a green-shaded lamp (the only one in the room), the professor could make out only a dozen indistinct forms from which a few sketchy faces emerged, as through a fog. He could be seen a little more clearly. He was an old man of about sixty, thin, erect, and sturdy. Sunken cheeks, parchment lips. Wrinkles surrounded his eyes which, when lowered, were those of the statue of an ascetic, but when raised showed themselves to be warm and brown. You noticed at such moments the delicacy of the nose, which was straight despite its high bridge, the regular mouth, the unruly, graying beard, and that this combination of features formed one of those faces, of somber aspect and luminous expression, which the Novgorod icon painters usually gave to their saints, not out of fidelity to a mystical type but much more probably through the sanctification of some ancient Greek portraits.

The professor spoke of the reforms of Peter I with a passion so sure of itself that it was almost subdued. You had to say Peter I now instead of Peter the Great Most often Lytaev said simply Peter, emphasizing the strength of the man in the mighty Czar. When his class was over, Vadim Mikhailovich Lytaev entered a present night as vast as that of the past. He followed a path of ice on the Neva, crossing the wide river obliquely toward the Winter Palace. Parfenov usually accompanied him, for they both lived In the center of town. Parfenov walked alongside the master with an even tread which was absolutely silent as if non-existent With his felt boots, fox fur coat, and fox hat whose long earflaps hung down over his chest and his heavy shapeless face, he appeared to be only a shadow, huge and light From a few paces off, you would have taken him for a bear.

The moonlight was diluted by a light, icy mist which allowed only an intense, gray, diffuse phosphorescence to shine through. From the middle of the Neva limitless landscapes were visible. The shapes of palaces appeared dimly above the two circular banks as if on the edge of a lunar crater – black but fluid, shimmering in an atmosphere like an ocean floor. Somewhere to the right, beyond the high granite rampart of the embankment. In the middle of a colonnaded square, a giant reared his horse atop a rocky crag, crushing; without seeing it, a serpent bronze like himself. His hand reached out toward the sea, the north, the pole. Peter: a broad face of power with little insignificant mustaches.

Vadim Mlkhailovich was carrying home his scholar’s rations, which he had received at the university after waiting two sullen hours among academicians: one pound of herrings, one pound of posts, two pounds of millet, two packs of cigarettes (second quality). He shifted the sharp straps of his knapsack on his shoulders and said:

“Look, Parfenov. We are outside of time. The night was the same on this river centuries ago. Centuries will pass, night will he the same. Two hundred twenty years ago, before Peter came, there were five thatched hub made of logs lost somewhere out there on these banks. Seven men scratched for a living here – for they only counted the males – with their females and their young. Seven men identical to their unknown ancestors who had conic from the east. That village was called Ienissari.”

“But Peter came,” said Parfenov. “And now we have come. flow happy men will be in a hundred years! Sometimes it makes me dizzy to think of it. In fifty years, in twenty years, maybe in ten years ... yes! Give us ten years and you’ll see! The cold, the night, everything ...”

(Everything? What did he mean by that vague word, vaster than the cold and the night?)

“... everything will be conquered.”

They walked a moment in silence. The other bank got imperceptibly closer.

... This Parfenov, what an enthusiast! Lytaev smiled in the darkness at the myths that drive men through history.

“Parfenov, you are right to believe in the future. It is the new God, the reincarnation of the oldest divinities, which makes the present bearable. I believe in it too, but differently, for the future is an endless spiral ... Are you satisfied at the factory. Parfenov?”

“No. In fact I’ve had about enough. Vadim Mikhailovich, I’m getting ready to leave you. I have requested permission to leave for the front; the branch secretary is supporting me. I’ll get it.”

He needed to talk. And Lytaev listened with a kind of vague joy to that young male voice filtered through the harsh sounds of the day. The walk through the darkness on the ice in the midst of this solitude made it possible for the two men to understand each other far beyond the precise meaning of words.

“The factory? It takes us a week to produce what we produced in a day last year. I bad to reintroduce the practice of searching the workers on the way out: they steal everything. They came and cursed me: ‘Policeman! Have you no shame! You yourself protested against searching in ’17, an indignity you said it was! Just wait a little, Commissar, your turn will come ...’ The worst part of it is that searching doesn’t help very much. They tie up packages and throw them out the window. The women workers carry out tlread between their legs and linings rolled around their stomachs. I can hardly ask the men on the door to pinch their asses! They thumb their noses at me.”

Lytaev replied softly. “Parfenov, they’ve got to make a living.”

“Yes that’s the worst of it. So they steal. With the cloth from the tunics they make slippers that sell for forty rubles on the market. The workers have got to live, but the Revolution must not be killed. When I tell them this, some of them answer me: ‘Isn’t It killing us?’ Some of them have no consciousness at all, Vadim Mikhailovich.”

“... And it’s with that blind force, Parfenov, that you want to change the world?”

“With them and for them. Otherwise, they will never be men. Despite them, if necessary. ‘Policeman?’ I told them. ‘Okay, I’m not afraid of words. Insult me as much as you like, I’m your comrade and your brother, maybe that’s what I’m hue for: but I will defend against you what belongs to the Republic. If someone has to get killed, I don’t mind getting killed, with you, as long as the Revolution can live...’”

“Do they understand you, Parfenov?”

Parfenov meditated. “It’s hard to express. It seems to me they hate me. It seems like I could get killed. They write in the toilets that I’m a Jew, that my real name is Schmoulevich, Yankel. And nothing can be done about the stealing because it is the hands of hunger that steal. But under all their hate I believe they still understand me, they know I’m right; that’s why they haven’t yet knocked me off, even though I walk home alone every night.”


The main entrance to the house had been closed for months as a precaution. Lytaev went in through the wicket gate at the carriage entrance. An old lady, on guard duty, stared at him in the dark. Her response to his greeting was a nod of calculated dignity, which he didn’t see, for she disapproved of the idea of such a respectable man consenting to teach under a government of bandits. Having crossed the courtyard, Lytaev felt his way carefully up a narrow stairway smelling of damp and of garbage and knocked heavily at the double door of what had once been a kitchen. He had to identify himself before the servant woman inside would raise the iron bar and unhook the safety chain. “It’s me, Agrafena, me ...”

A gentle warmth reigned in the study where they were now living around a cast-iron stove and an oil lamp. For thirty years the same feminine face had appeared in front of Vadim Mikhailovich at the calm hour of midnight tea, just before rest; he had watched that face climb through the full light of life, then decline, fade, wane, without losing the clarity of its gaze, the only youth that lasts; he knew that face so well that he forgot it, that he saw it without see- big It that he rediscovered it at times in his memory with helpless astonishment – Here we are, old people ... What, then, what is life? – The same hands, at first tapered with rosy polished nails, hands he compared to flowers and which he sometimes covered with kisses; then little by little faded, wrinkled, slightly thickened, with ivory hues, placing the same silver service before him. The same voice, imperceptibly changed like the hands, talked to him of the day, which was now over. This evening the hands placed thin slices of black bread and marinated herring in the circle of light they passed the sugar bowl in which the sugar was frugally broken into tiny crumbs. The voice said:

“Vadim, we’re going to have butter. They promised me fourteen pounds in exchange for the Scotch plaid.”

Perhaps an image passed rapidly, from very far away, through the two minds or between them (so rapidly, from so far, that they didn’t notice it): the image of a couple in a blue brougham, the Scotch plaid on their bees; and the white peaks, the pines, the torrents, the green valleys dotted with steeples, the feudal towns of the Tyrol fled as youth and life had fled.

“Vadim, they conducted a search last night at the Stahls’ and made off with a gold watch ... Vadim, Pelagueya Alexandrovna received a letter saying that her son died at Bugulma ... Vadim, milk is up to thirty rubles ... Vadim, my backaches have started up again ...”

Vadim listened to these remarks, always the same, and let himself sink into a feeling of sad contentment This warmth was certain and that other life, that other part of his life, tremendously foreign, tremendously dose. He answered softly, distractedly, but with an attentive air, giving the right replies. Relieved of the weight of another day, his mind wandered off to grapple with the usual great worry. “Thank you, Marie,” he said, as he had said thirty years earlier, and yet very differently. “I’m going to work for a while.” After moving the lamp behind the screen that separated off his nook, he sat down over a needlessly opened book, reached for one of those unfolded old envelopes on the backs of which he took his notes, and began to draw patiently with his pencil: geometric designs in the manner of Arab artists, childlike faces, bits of landscape, animal silhouettes. During these moments of meditation he was always bothered by the temptation to sketch the faces of women with huge eyes and long lashes; but he repressed it with some shame, not really knowing if he was ashamed of the temptation or ashamed of himself for not giving in ... He remained there for an hour face to face with his thoughts, no longer expressed in words, like blind men locked into an irregularly shaped room, more worries than thoughts.

Another worry raised its voice at last behind him in the semi-darkness.

“Vadim, you ought to go to bed. You tire yourself too much. The stove has gone out.”

“Yes, dear.”

The cold had begun to penetrate his motionless arms and legs. He got undressed, slowly, dreamily, blew out the lamp, slipped shivering between the sheets, and stretched out as if “for eternity.” And now his mind began to give birth to clear sentences forming, all by themselves, into paragraphs which would have made good sections of articles. “The death rate in Petrograd this year was higher than in the Punjab during the great plague of 1907!!!” “Peter I’s great reform seemed to some of the best minds of old Russia the beginning of the reign of the Anti-Christ ...” “At the time of Peter I’s death, the Empire had been depopulated ...” But no, that wasn’t it History explained nothing. What if, in order to understand, it was necessary to think less, to know less? What if things were much simpler than they seemed? A title for a work: The Fall of the Roman Empire. What could be clearer? No explanation. What’s to explain? The Fall of Christian Civilization. No, not Christian, European. Not right either. The Fall of Capitalist Civilization. If the newspapers were telling the truth, if you could believe the posters in the streets, the speeches at the assemblies, if ...?

He remembered Parfenov, asleep at this hour on some makeshift cot not far from here, in an unknown house, sure of the greatness of men in ten years, twenty years, provided this necessary night could be got through. “They don’t know history. but they are making it ... But what are they making, what are they making?”


Last updated on 25.6.2004