Victor Serge 1935

Notes on Russia

Source: esprit. 4th yr, #47-48, September 1, 1936;
Translated: for 2012 by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2012.

Events are currently occurring in the USSR that can’t be easily explained. Let us briefly recapitulate them: measures of tolerance towards believers, restoring of the right to vote to priests, announcement of a new constitution consecrating the Communist Party’s leading role and monopoly of political activity, liquidation of the large state agricultural enterprises in the northern Caucasus, fixing of the age of military service at 19, a sudden call to the colors by virtue of this law of a supplement of 500,000 young men, a wave of repression, and trials of the Old Bolsheviks.

  1. Pravda and Izvestia opened a wide-scale discussion of the proposed constitution. The tone of the opinions expressed is best summed up by the expressions of a Professor Bleykin who declared “this monument of Stalinist wisdom cannot be improved” and that of a professor of music who compared it to “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony” (sic!). One can’t help but think that less enthusiastic opinions in great numbers were heard, for the Soviet press has just published threatening notes addressed to the “counter-revolutionary elements” that manifested themselves in meetings on this subject by protesting against the absolute hegemony of the party. We thus learn that they were – and will be – brought back into line. In other words, those citizens who expressed critical opinions on the proposal were thrown in prison.
  2. In the first days of August, on a signal from Pravda, there began a strange campaign of decimation of the services of the party. Every day “Trotskyist” centers are discovered in the heart of the leading organs, in the governments, in the editorial staffs of Communist newspapers, in army units, everywhere... Ten years of experience in these environments allows me to state that among the thousands of people arrested in these circumstances there can be but a tiny number of real Oppositionists. In order to belong to party bureaus one must have demonstrated a stubborn conformism for many years, have gone through various purges, have distinguished oneself in countless circumstances by falsifying opposition elements, and, in all circumstances, showed admiration, love, veneration, etc., for the Leader. But it’s of no avail. On August 3 the arrest of the editors of “The Star” of Byelorussia. The 4th, arrests in Kharkov. The 6th, in Dnepropetrovsk. The 7th, in Leningrad (the leaders of the Viborg section). The 8th and 9th in Kursk and Orel. The 11th, the arrest of many young communists in Minsk. The 12th of a team of leaders of the Volga German Republic. We learn that the secretary general of the Armenian party, Khandjian, committed suicide at the time of his arrest. New arrests in Leningrad in the higher spheres of the railroads. The 14th the editors of the newspaper of Stalinobad (Tajikistan in Central Asia) and several party functionaries of that capital, declared terrorists and Trotskyists, are thrown in prison (twelve influential functionaries, according to an official list). The 16th a similar discovery in Kiev among the editors of “Visti.” Still on the 16th, the mass arrest in Baku of members of the party committee and the editors of “The Baku Worker.” The 16th, new arrests in Minsk, this time of the leaders of the state bookstore and schools. The 19th, simultaneous discovery of several plots in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Many veteran militants of the party, all belonging to governmental circles, are accused of counter-revolution, terrorism, of Trotskyism. Among them a number of veterans of the Revolution and even Stalin’s cousin, Djugashvili. Still according to the Soviet press, from the 16-20 the arrest in western Russia of the Old Bolshevik Kliavs-Kliavin and eight of his “accomplices;” discovery of a terrorist center in the party in Nizhni-Novgorod, now called Gorky; arrests of government figures in Turkmenistan, arrests in Tula... Agency dispatches I was unable to verify announce, according to the Soviet press, the arrest during the Moscow Trial of as many as 400 communists in Moscow, among them several generals of the Red Army. An official note makes known that a judicial investigation has been opened of Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky, Radek, and Piatakov, all companions of Lenin who occupied important positions from the time of the Revolution until recently. I learn that one of the great militants of the Ukraine, one of the founders of the Soviet regime in that country, Kotziubinsky, was arrested some time ago and was recently executed. On the 23rd Mikhail Tomsky, former member of the party’s Political bureau, longtime leader of the Russian unions, friend and companion of Lenin, and who, ill and reassigned to an unimportant position, lived on the sidelines for several years, upon learning that he'd been named at the Zinoviev trial put an end to his days. Sokolnikov, member of the Central Committee that made the October Revolution, former Soviet ambassador to London, was arrested.
  3. On the 19th the trial of Zinoviev, Smirnov, Kamenev and others opened in Moscow. A strange trial, one difficult to characterize. Former opponents who rallied to Stalin several times after making resounding abjurations, these men have all been in prison for many months or years, Smirnov since 1932, Zinoviev and Kamenev since 1934. But even before that, since at least 1928, they have known only deportation or conditional freedom. They are, most of the accused, founders of the party, participants in the front ranks of all the struggles of the revolution. Zinoviev and Kamenev, the former ex-chairman of the Leningrad Soviet and the Communist International and the latter ex-chairman of the Moscow Soviet and the Labor and Defense Council, were the longest-standing collaborators of Lenin’s and once (from 1923-26) formed, along with Stalin, the leading “unshakeable triumvirate.” They are accused of having, on the orders of Trotsky – who has been banished since 1929 and who they had completely broken with in 1927 – formed plots with the aim of suppressing Stalin. The accused confess, and confess at great length, denounce each other, demand the death penalty for themselves, praise Kirov “who they declare they killed,” sing the praises of Stalin, who they declare they wanted to kill, and curse Trotsky. It is certain that the death penalty hangs over their heads. At the time I write I don’t know if they will still be alive tomorrow, but I am certain that barring unforeseen circumstances they will never recover their freedom. After having loaned themselves to this trial for quite understandable reasons they cannot be released. Around them strange companions confess themselves to have had relations with the Hitlerite Gestapo and also denounce Trotsky (I think that these doubtful characters will have to be executed). All of these people suddenly accuse the old leaders of the party of every tendency of having desired the assassination of Stalin. It appears that this assassination – that no one seriously attempted – was desired and willed, by most of the Old Bolsheviks. What a bizarre moral and political situation is that of the “beloved” (and I quote) leader under such conditions. The accusations the defendants make against themselves and Trotsky are in complete contradiction with their past, their doctrines, and the Marxist and Bolshevik tradition. As concerns Trotsky they attract the most glaring denials and it’s possible that the debate has just begun. Is it a question of the assassination of Kirov committed December 1, 1934 by a member of the party? More than 130 executions answered for this, several trials – every bit as mysterious and confused as that of yesterday – seem to have, if not cast light on the drama, at least to have served a political purpose from the governmental point of view. After the Kirov Affair several thousand Leningrad communists were deported, a few dozen Trotskyists (arrested while in deportation!), several hundred socialists and anarchists, and tens of thousands of residents of Leningrad belonging to the former owning classes were imprisoned or deported.
  4. All of this coincides with the exaltation of the entire press for the mystique of the Leader. The aviator Tchkalov declared on August 18 in Izvestia, “Wherever Stalin appears there is no longer darkness: the sun shines.” An eastern poet quoted by the same newspaper the day before yesterday says that the story-tellers of his country don’t find “pearl-like words sparkling enough to praise you, you who are in my soul, Oh, Stalin!” The newspapers publish veritable litanies to the “Brilliant leader,” to the “greatest man of all time,” to “the beloved whose tenderness warms the workers.”

It is difficult and premature to conclude. In any case, the following considerations impose themselves:

In the USSR we are clearly on the eve of a decisive and perhaps official consecration of Stalin’s personal power. This consecration imposes the elimination of all the influential political figures of the old party and the first periods of the Revolution.

In internal or external politics, and perhaps in both of these two necessarily connected fields, the USSR is on the eve of a new turn which is capable of producing, if not strong reactions in public opinion (these reactions being impossible in every way), at least profound discontent. The blows to the ranks of the party have no other obvious object than that of checking in advance any possible resistance, however hidden, however buried.

People are already fixed on what the new constitution will bring the Russian people, a constitution which M. Romain Rolland said will be “the most humane of constitutions.” The totalitarian state is brutally fortifying itself. The new constitution will accord greater formal independence to the federated republics like Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, the Ukraine... But it is precisely the leading communist circles of these republics that are being struck with a characteristically harsh repression.

It would be extremely desirable for the western world and especially the world working class to awaken from its indifference in the face of the multiple dramas of the USSR, whose international repercussions are and will be immense. (I am thinking less here of the purely political repercussions than about a mass of others of an intellectual and moral order.) Would it not be possible to form commissions in several European centers composed of personalities enjoying the confidence of working class and truly avant-garde organizations in order to finally open a serious investigation, honestly and impartially conducted, concerning what is occurring there. Commissions that will someday deliver judgments more worthy of being listened to, fairer and healthier than those of a press which we prefer not to characterize, partisan papers whose bad faith is clear on every line, and political organs where so many sordid interests are treated with kid gloves that there is nothing left for the truth?

Brussels, August 25, 1936

Editor’s note: We have just learned of the execution of all the accused at the Moscow Trial.

There were seven men around Lenin. One is in exile, Trotsky. A second, Tomsky, has just committed suicide upon hearing himself mentioned at the trial. Four were just shot in a cellar.

The author of these six executions is a seventh fellow combatant, Stalin. In the USSR this is what is meant by revolutionary continuity.

We must choose: either the Russian Revolution is still, after twenty years, in a period of war, which is a confession concerning the alleged popularity of the regime. Or it is deeply rooted and the executions in Moscow are the gratuitous act of a dictatorship.

What is the difference between all this and Matteoti?

“Esprit” has always signed protests in favor of the victims of political oppression, from wherever the initiative comes. Henceforth, when this initiative will come from the Communist Party, which dares claim it is the representative of workers’ democracy, we will respond in the name of the workers’ cause which remains unshakably dear to us: You are not competent to do this! Or rather, the Stalinist political sect, when it comes to fascism and oppression, has just demonstrated that it is unquestionably competent in one thing; it has the competence of an assassin for assassination.