Victor Serge

Conquered City


I, too, sometimes crossed the frozen river on those arctic nights. The pathway was silent underfoot. It was like moving through the void. I reflected that only yesterday we were nothing. Nothing: like the nameless men of the forgotten village which had vanished from these banks. Between that yesterday and the present centuries seemed to have passed, or between the times of those men and our own. Only yesterday countless lights were burning along these banks inside rooms where the power, the wealth, and the pleasure of others reigned. We put out those lights, brought back primordial night. That night is our work. That night is us. We have entered it in order to destroy it. Each of us has entered it, perhaps never to leave it So many harsh, terrible tasks must be done; tasks which demand the disappearance of their performers. Let those who come after us forget us. Let them be different from us. Thus what is best in us will be reborn in them.

Yesterday, we only counted as statistics: labor force, emigration, death rate, crime rate, suicide rate. The best of us also counted In the records: file B, wanted lists, political police, reports, prison rolls. This is no metaphysical void! No commodity is more common and more depreciated than man. Is he even worth the weight of his flesh? They wouldn’t let a draft animal starve in the gray autumn fields. But a man in a big city? As far back as I search in my memory, I find not theories but images, not ideas but impressions, brutally imprinted in my nerves and soul, reminding me that we were nothing. Childhood moments in London. There are two of us kids: one will later more or less starve to death. We are playing in the lamplight at building an Angkor Temple. Strident whistle blasts explode in the street, like lightning flasbing in all directions in the darkness, crisscrossing through the sky. Because a dark shape, more furtive than a shadow, had spun past the window. The street is an abyss, the windows of the poor open onto infinity. Downstairs some bobbies, carefully avoiding getting bloodstains on their trouser cuffs, are bending over a pile of old rags and flesh. “It’s nothing, children. Be still now!” But we had overheard whispering, we discovered a dark infinity in the windows, we sensed the profundity of the silence.

... And that hunted Jewish couple, in another city, with whom the child died on a happy June evening. There were no more candles, there was no more money, the room was bare. We had gone without eating in order to pay for the doctor’s useless final visit. Reflected light from a café across the street projected the backward silhouette of a sign on the ceiling.

We don’t need gas explosions burying miners, communiqués from quiet sectors where thirty men spill out all the blood of their bodies (nothing worth reporting), memories of executions, the history of crushed insurrections, memoirs of deportees and prisoners, we need no naturalist novels to understand our nothingness. But b of us has all that behind him.

The snow track faded on the river bordered by dark granite. The dark shape of the Winter Palace stood out vaguely among the shadows. In that corner – I knew without thinking – between two bay windows dominating a wide panorama of river and town, stood the Autocrat’s desk, on which his cigarette holder was lying.

A buddy’s jibe: “Man. The thinking reed! They taught him to stop thinking years ago. Today they dry him out; soften him up~ and weave baskets out of him for every use, my friend, including the least appetizing. Pascal didn’t think of that?”

Now things will change. Now we are all: dictatorship of the proletariat. Dictatorship of those who were nothing the day before. I break out laughing, alone in the dark, to think that my papers are in order, that I am using my name – that in my pocket I have an order in the name of the Federated Republic enjoining

“all revolutionary authorities to lend aid and assistance to Comrade —— in the performance of his functions.”

and that I am a member of the governing party which openly exercises a monopoly of power, unmasks every lie, holds the sword unsheathed, ideas out in the open.

I laugh climbing the hard snowbank up to the embankment. I trip over black potholes which I know to be white – thus black and white can be one and the same.

A harsh voice, piercing the night hails me:

“Hey, there! Come out in the open!”

Then, more slowly, as I approach the invisible shouter:

“What do you think you’re doing here?”

A ruddy glow spills out from behind the sharp corner of a woodpile. I perceive a heap of glowing coals and, near the coals, a soldier freezing in his long overcoat, which skirts the ground. The man is standing guard over this precious wood, which people come to steal, log by log, from the riverside.

“You got a permit to go around at night?”

I have one. He examines it. Either he doesn’t care or can’t read. It is a typewritten permit. The typist mistakenly put her carbon wrong side up, and the writing on the back is illegible. It suddenly reminds me of those advertising handbills which, folded, look like halves of bank notes. If I closed my eyes, I could see a piece of the sidewalk at the corner of the Place de la République and Boulevard du Temple again. The soldier hands me back my paper. We are cold. We are both dressed in the same rough gray cloth which looks so much like the Russian soil. We are the dictatorship of the proletariat.

He says:

“They steal the wood; it’s incredible how they steal. I’m sure that if I walked around the stock, I’d find somebody on the other side handing logs down to the Neva. There’s a hole on the ice out there. A while ago the man on guard finally fired a shot, to scare the thief. He was a twelve-year-old kid, whose mother sent him out every night She waited for him under one of the gates on the embankment, No. it The kid got scared. He fell right into the hole with a log on his head. He was never seen again. I pulled the log out when I got there. I found a wood-soled shoe at the edge of the hole. Look.”

There, in the snow turned gold by the glow of the coals, was the dark print of a little schoolboy’s foot.

“There’s always a strong current under the ice,” said the soldier.


He had taken me for another wood thief at first. I could have been one. People steal the wood that belongs to everyone, in order to live. Fire is life, like bread. But I belong to the governing party and I am “responsible,” to use the accepted term, that is to say, when all is said and done, in command. My ration of warmth and bread is a little more secure, a little larger. And it’s unjust I know It And I take it It is necessary to live in order to conquer; and not for me, for the Revolution. A child was drowned today for the equivalent of my ration of warmth and bread. I owe him its full measure in human weight: flesh and consciousness. All of us alike. And he who is dishonest with himself, who takes it easy, holds back, or takes advantage, is the lowest of swine. I know some. They an useful, nonetheless. They also serve. Perhaps they even serve better, with their oblivious way of profiting from the new inequality, than those who feel guilty. They pick out furniture for their offices; they demand automobiles, for their time is precious; they wear Rosa Luxembourg’s picture on medallions an their lapels. I console myself by thinking that history naturally turns these people, despite themselves, into martyrs quite as good as the others. When the Whites capture Reds, they hang the phonies from the same limbs as the genuine articles.

I move on through the night: on the left I should soon see, through this crosshatching of spindly branches, the vast horseshoe of Uritski Square with its granite column and its four-home chariot surging forward atop Headquarters Arch in a motionless gallop. I think about those bronzes in the same way as I would place my hand on them, to refresh my soul. I too need all my lucidity in order to find my own way through another darkness. On the right, pale lights flicker under a row of high windows, glimpsed slantwise between white columns. The Special Commission works day and night. That is us too. The implacable side of our face we turn to the world. We, the destroyers of prisons, the liberators, freedmen, yesterday’s convicts, often marked indelibly by our chains, we who investigate, search out, arrest we, judges, jailers, executioners, we!

We have conquered everything and everything has slipped out of our grasp. We have conquered bread, and there is famine. We have declared peace to a war-weary world, and war has moved into every house. We have proclaimed the liberation of men, and we need prisons, an “iron” discipline – yes, to pour our human weakness into brazen molds in order to accomplish what is perhaps beyond our strength – and we are the bringers of dictatorship. We have proclaimed fraternity, but it is “fraternity and death” in reality. We have founded the Republic of Labor, and the factories are dying, grass is growing in their yards. We wanted each to give according to his strength and each to receive according to his needs; and here we are, privileged in the middle of generalized misery, since we are less hungry than others!

Will we succeed in overthrowing the ancient law which bends us to its will at the very moment when we believe we are escaping it?

The Gospel said “Love one another” and “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Nothing but the sword is left under the crucifix. “Whoever would save his soul will lose it ...” Well, I’ll be glad to lose my soul. Who cares? It would be a strange luxury to worry about it today. Old texts, old, old inner captivity. What haven’t they built on the Gospel! Destroy! Destroy! The main thing is to destroy thoroughly.

To be afraid of words, of old ideas, of old feelings, those feelings that are so firmly riveted into our beings, by which the old world still holds us. A poor fighter he who holds back thinking, when it is necessary to reload your rifle and shoot with the greatest concentration – like shooting at dummies on a rifle range – at the men climbing that hill over there. Simple truths, sure, hard as granite, formulated with algebraic clarity; that is what we need. We are millions: the masses. The class which, owning nothing, has nothing to lose but its chains. The world must be made over. For this: conquer, hold on, survive at any cost. The tougher and stronger we are, the less it will cost. Tough and strong toward aura selves first. Revolution is a job that must be done without weakness. We are but the instruments of a necessity which carries us along. drags us forward, lifts us up, and which will doubtless pass over our dead bodies. We are not chasing after some dream of justice – as the young idiots who write in little magazines say-we are doing what must be done, what cannot be left undone. The old world dug its own grave: it is now falling in. Let’s give it a little shove. Millions of men who were nothing are rising into life: they are unable not to rise. We are those millions. Our only choice is to understand this and to accomplish our task with our eyes open. Through this consent, through this clear-sightedness, we escape from blind fate. All that was lost will be found again.

The square is lined with dark old palaces. At the bottom, the Maria Palace, that low edifice with an ill-defined shape. The Imperial Council used to meet there. There’s a big Repin painting showing that council: busts of bemedaled old men posing around a semicircular table. They appear through a yellow-green aquarium light which makes them all look dead. At the center, the Emperor, the portrait of an obliterated face. Those thick necks resting on embroidered collars have all been smashed by bullets. If any one of these great dignitaries still escapes us, it is probably that old man with the big bony nose drooping over flabby lips who sells his daughters’ old shawls in the mornings at the Oats Market ... Thick peasant fingers test and fondle the beautiful cashmeres.

On the right in the indistinct light falling from the windows of the Astoria, the former German Embassy stands behind its massive columns which support no pediment. There used to be some bronze horses on top. During the first days of the war, furious crowds toppled these statues, threw them down to the pavement from their high granite perch, and dragged them to the neighboring canal where they are still under the ice. Behind the embassy’s barred windows there remains only the simple desolation of places long since plundered. Bandits get in through the courtyards and live there, careful that no light can be seen from outside to betray their presence. They play cards, drinking old cognac swiped from the cellars of great houses or fiery brandy fabricated in secret stills on the outskirts of town. Girls with lips painted fiery red, with names like Katka-Little-Apple, Dunya-the-Snake, Shura-Slant-Eyes (also known as The Killer), and Pug-Nose-Maria-Little-Cossack, who wear luxurious dirty underwear and dresses by the great couturiers, taken from empty apartments, sometimes peer out, invisible, from behind the dark windows of the great hail of the embassy, at our lighted windows across the way.

“The commissars live good,” says Katka.

“They sure live it up,” says Dunya, “with their short-haired whores, partying every night of the week.”

“I know one of them,” says Shura, “what a pervert.”

Her bitter laughter flashes through the darkened hail. A thin ray of light slides across the floor. A triumphantly masculine voice calls out:

“Hey, girls, we’re waiting!”

Another voice, a bass, is humming Stenka Razin’s Complaint.

There is also the huge dark mass of St. Isaac’s with its massive columns, its enormous archangels spreading their wings at each corner to the four corners of the earth, its steeples, its gold-plated cupola visible from far out at sea ...

The windows of the Astoria burn until dawn. They are the only lighted ones in town, along with those of the Special Commission and the Committees. Nocturnal labor, danger, privilege, power. The powerful façade repels the darkness like a shell of light. People crossing the square in the evening on the way back home to their airless hovels cast hate-filled looks at the hotel of the commissars (“naturally most of them Jewish”) where it is warm and light and where there is food to eat, it’s certain, where no one fears house searches, where no one’s heart leaps into his mouth at the first sound of a doorbell ringing at night, where no one ever hears rifle butts falling on the doorsteps ... Passers-by murmur: “A fine trap. You could catch the whole lot of them at once!”

First House of Soviets. I push through the revolving door. From the hotel desk the single eye of a machine gun fixes its infinite black gaze on me. The machine gunner dozes, his sheepskin hat pulled down to his eyes.

This is the threshold of power. All who cross over this doorstep know what they want, what is necessary, and feel themselves under the great shadow of the Revolution; armed, carried forward, disciplined, by the structure of the Party. Droning voices trail out from the guardroom. A gilded plaque fastened to the open door reads (in French): Coiffeur à l’entresol. Another sign in black ink: Present your papers when requesting your pass. You need a pass, which you return on the way out, to get in to the people who live in this building; these little papers are then sent on to the Special Commission. Somebody collects them. Somebody has to know who comes to see me at what time. We must not be allowed to be killed with impunity; we must not be allowed to destroy, we must not be allowed to know strangers, for we have power, and the power belongs to the Revolution.

“Evening, Ryjik.”

He comes out to meet me, carefully carrying his tin teapot from which scalding steam is escaping. Ruddy stubble covers his face up to his eyes. He is in slippers: the broad folds of a magnificent pair of cavalry breeches (raspberry colored) float around his hips. Why do they call these breeches gallifets? Ryjik wears a satisfied smile.

“You’re looking at my gallifets? What material! Take a look, feel it. A real find, eh? And a love letter in the pocket my friend ... Come up to my room, you’ll see Arkadi: I have your newspapers.”

Red carpets muffle our steps. This is a huge stone ship, am pointed like a luxury liner anchored in the polar city. Wide corridors, oak doors marked with discreet gold numbers. The calm is profound, the warmth – after the nocturnal cold – like a hothouse. Isn’t one of these doors going to open on a haughty couple? She, shapely in furs crackling with electricity, her mouth a purple-blue line; he, slender, high cheekboned, a flash of light dancing off his monocle.

... A champagne bucket behind then in the room leaves a silver glow. They pass like phantoms: I wouldn’t even turn around ... A door has opened quietly, the phantoms vanish.

“Come on in,” says Ryjik, appearing in the doorway.

I can already see Arkadi’s oriental profile in a mirror. Shapely in his close-fitting black uniform, his waist cinched by narrow Montagnard belt with sculptured silver pendants, a large metal insignia – silver and red – on his right breast, like a commander’s star; he is smoking, leaning back on the divan. Without smiling, he shows his handsome white teeth. Ryjik pours us tea.

“Here are your newspapers,” Arkadi says to me. “From now on they’ll be a hundred and twenty rubles a copy.”

(A hundred and twenty czarist rubles, out of circulation.)

“Your smugglers are too much. It was eighty three weeks ago.”

The package, tied with heavy twine, smells of printers’ ink. L’Intransigent, Le Matin, the Manchester Guardian, Corriere della Sera, bought in Vyborg ... Men, eyes peering out of white furs, ears straining to hear the slightest crackle of branches, cross the front lines bent under the weight of these bundles. Sometimes explosions shatter the absurd silence around them; running, they pull long-range Mausers out of their frozen wooden holsters and crouch even closer to the snow; inside their chests, startled-beast terror changes into the will to kill, and an extraordinary lucidity bursts inside their skulls.

“They’re still expensive,” I say.

“They say two of their men got killed during the past two weeks: that’s certainly worth two raises of twenty rubles a copy. And it’s true. Jurgensohn knows that two bodies were picked up in the zone. The place is getting hot.”

Ryjik says:

“They haven’t delivered any bread for the last three days in the Moscow-Narva district. Ataev claims that the trains take twenty days to reach us instead of eight Nothing to burn. There’s gonna be trouble in the factories.”

“Rather!” snapped Arkadi between his white teeth.

“I think we should put out emergency calls for special conferences of non-Party people, or the discontent will break out by itself. I suggested it at Smolny.”

“... better lock up the Left Social Revolutionaries first ... According to our informers, they’re cooking up something. Goldin has arrived, it must be for a putsch.”

“Indeed,” I say, “I’d like to see him.”

“He’s staying here, Room 120.”

The comrade who’s preparing a putsch against us is right downstairs. Handsome, daring, and sensual, he seems to have been playing with death – his own and other people’s – for years.

“I suggested,” resumed Arkadi, “arresting him tonight if not sooner: better before than afterward. The Commission wouldn’t hear of it. Misplaced scruples.”

The conversation breaks off. Three o’clock sounds. Ryjik wipes his lips with the back of his hand and asks:

“Do you know how people in town spell out S.B.N.E. [Supreme Board for National Economy]?”

A great guffaw is already stretching his jolly red cheeks.

“No? Well, it seems it stands for ‘Slave But Never Eat.’ Not bad, eh?”

We laugh. Arkadi yawns. He spends his days and part of his nights at the Special Commission. He does everything himself, with precise movements, a clipped voice designed for command, and shining teeth. Difficult raids, arrests of men who must be taken by surprise before they can fire their Browning; complicated investigations, and probably also automobile rides through the rising mist at dawn down lanes lined with dark pines and spindly bushes fleshed with white, toward that little wood located seven vents out on the Novgorod road where ... In the back seat of the Renault, opposite two silent Latvians, sit two pale handcuffed passengers chain-smoking – impatiently lighting a fresh cigarette with slightly trembling bands from the dying one as if it were essential that this infinite dying fire should be kept going ... An aura surrounds them. Their sprouting beards (depending on which way the shadows fall) give them faces like evil Christs or pure-browed criminals. They say that it’s cold; they converse about indifferent matters in hoarse cracking voices ... Back in his room – a room identical to this one, except for a portrait hanging above the couch: Liebknecht’s head [1], thrown back with a horrible red carnation blooming at the temple – Arkadi pours himself a big glass of confiscated samogon (Russian “moonshine”), a fiery brew that rasps the throat and numbs the brain. And so he will be able to sleep until it’s time for interrogations. He has the regular features, narrow, fleshy eagle nose, and green eyes flecked with yellow and white of a falconer of Adjaristan, his native land. Adjaristan wit its hot rains pelting the red earth with liquid hail. Adjaristan with its mimosas blooming in the damp shadows, its tea bushes on pyramidal hills, the palm-lined walks of Batum, its little Greek cafés, rows of scorched mountains, white minarets towering over flat roofs, brown tobacco leaves drying on racks; Adjaristan with its veiled women who are submissive, beautiful, and industrious.

I open the newspapers: Le Journal, wire dispatch in Le Matin: Tragedy on Rue Mogodor: “She was cheating on him; he kills her and then commits suicide.” Do they think they’re alone in the world? Rue du Croissant at this hour: presses rolling breathlessly in the print shops; bicycle delivery men brush past night revelers as they slip away on their silent machines. Old Fernand, the good, melancholy hobo, wanders along the sidewalk headed God knows where ... Terror in Petrograd. “Bolshevism is at bay; only its Chinese praetorians still defend it ...” Arkadi! Ryjik! Listen to what they are saying about us! Apoplectic Socialists, seeing the inadequacy of the blockade, whose inhumanity they condemn, pronounce themselves, with words of triple meaning, in favor of military intervention, on the condition (for Woodrow Wilson is a prophet) that the sovereignty of the Russian people will not be impaired ... They dream of bayonets which respect the law. We sense fear, stupidity, hatred sweating through these printed lines. How they long for our death back there, for the death of the Republic whose insignia you wear on your chest, Arkadi, for which we do every sort of job, which we want to see survive because it is still the greatest hope, the birth of a new kind of justice, honesty in deeds and words – implacable deeds and truthful words! – the work of those who have always been vanquished, always duped first and then massacred, who were nothing yesterday, who are still nothing in the rest of the world!



1. Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919), German revolutionary and martyr. He was the only member of the Reichstag to vote against the war in 1914 and was jailed for pacifism in 1916. Freed in 1918, he founded the Spartacus League and was shot in the head during the workers’ uprising of 1919, along with his collaborator, Rosa Luxembourg. – Trans.


Last updated on 25.6.2004