Victor Serge 1936

Open Letter to André Gide

Source: Victor Serge, 16 Fusillés. Paris, J. Lefeuvre, 1936;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2004.

Dear André Gide:

You once presided in Paris at an international writer’s congress gathered for the defense of culture, where the question of the freedom of thought in the USSR was brought up only insofar as it concerns me and, it seems, against the will of the majority of those at the congress. I have learned that at that time you attempted several steps to save some of my manuscripts that were being held by the censor in Moscow. They are still there, along with all my personal papers, all my keepsakes, all the works I’d begun, all that one gathers of precious papers during a lifetime... I thank you for all that you have done for me, as well as the impartiality you have shown towards the friends who defend me and who have been refused the right to speak. If my case interests you, you will find some information about it in a letter to Magdeleine Paz, a copy of which I’ve attached. In any event, I am at you disposal.

In the great drama in which we participate it is in reality very little a question of you and I. You have come to assume a place among revolutionaries, André Gide, so allow a communist to speak to you frankly of that which is most important to us. I remember the pages of your Journal in which you noted in 1933 your adherence to communism because it assures the free development of the personality. (I am reconstituting your thought from memory; not a single book remains to me and I don’t have the leisure to look for your text.) I read these pages in Moscow with contradictory feelings. At first I was happy to see you come to socialism, you whose thought I’d followed – from afar – since my days of youthful enthusiasm. And then I was saddened by the contrast between your affirmations and the reality in which I was plunged. I read the pages of your Journal at a period when no one around me would have risked keeping a journal, convinced as we were that the political police would without fail have come looking for it some night. Reading you I felt a sentiment very much like that of combatants who, in the trenches, received the gazettes from the rear and found lyrical prose about the war, etc. Is it possible, I asked myself, that you know nothing of our struggle, nothing of the tragedy of a revolution ravaged from within by reaction? It was no longer possible for a worker to express any kind of an opinion, even in a whisper, without being immediately chased from the party, from the union, from the workshop, imprisoned, deported…Three years have passed since then, and what years they’ve been! Marked by the hecatomb that followed the end of Kirov, by the deportation en masse of a part of the population of Leningrad, by the imprisonment of several thousand communists of the first hour, by the overpopulating of the concentration camps that are without any doubt the most vast in the whole world.

If I correctly understand you, dear André Gide, your courage has always been that of living with your eyes wide open. You cannot close them today on this reality, or you would no longer have the moral right to say a word to workers for whom socialism is much more than a concept; it’s the work of their flesh and their spirit, the very meaning of their lives.

What is the condition of thought? A dry doctrine, emptied of all its content, strictly imposed in all domains, and reduced in all it prints, without any exceptions, to the word for word repetition or to the flattest commentaries on the statements of one man alone. History completely revised every year, encyclopedias rewritten, libraries purged in order to cross out the name of Trotsky, to suppress or soil the names of other companions of Lenin, putting science at the service of the agitation of the moment, making it yesterday denounce the League of Nations as a low instrument of Anglo-French imperialism, and today making it revere in the League of Nations an instrument of peace and human progress ...

What is the condition of the writer, i.e., that of the man whose profession is speaking for all those others who have no voice? We have seen Gorky revise his memories of Lenin in order to have Lenin say in the latest edition the exact opposite of what he said on certain pages of the first. A literature guided in its least manifestations. A literary mandarinate admirably organized, royally remunerated, bien-pensant, as could be expected. As for the others...What has become of the brother in spirit of our great Alexander Blok, the author of a “History of Contemporary Russian Thought,” Ivanov-Razumnik? He was in prison at the same time as me in ’33. Is it true, as has been said, that the old symbolist poet Vladimir Piast ended up committing suicide in deportation? His crime was great: he tended towards mysticism. But there are materialists of various nuances: what has become of Herman Sandormirski, author of highly thought of works on Italian fascism, condemned to death under the ancien régime? In what penitentiary, in what deportation is he passing his time, and why? Where is Novomiski, he too a prisoner under the ancien régime, initiator of the first Soviet encyclopedia, recently condemned to ten years of concentration camp. Why? These two are veteran anarchists. Allow me to name as well communists, fighters of October and intellectuals of the first rank (it pains me to name them): Anychev, to whom we owe the only “Essay on the History of the Civil War” that we have in Russian; Gorbachev, Lelevich, Vardin, all three of them critics and historians of literature. These last four were suspected of sympathizing with the Zinoviev tendency: concentration camp. The following are Trotskyists, the worst treated because they are the firmest, imprisoned or deported for eight years: Fedor Dingelstadt, professor of agronomy in Leningrad, Gregori Yakovin, professor of sociology, our young and great Sointsev died in January as a result of a hunger strike. I limit myself to naming writers, André Gide, when it would whole pages would be covered with the names of heroes. It humiliates me to make this concession to the caste feelings of men of letters, so forgive me. What has become of the exemplary Bazarov, pioneer of Russian socialism, who disappeared five years ago? What has become of the founder of the Marx-Engels Institute, Ryazanov? Dead or alive after his long struggles in the prison of Verkhneouralsk, the historian Soukhanov who gave us a monumental history of the revolution of February ’17? What price is he paying for the sacrifice of his conscience that was demanded of him and that he consented to?

What is the human condition? You see full well that we must stop. No internal threat justifies this senseless repression, if not that which is invented in the shadows for the needs of the security forces. It is striking that the gratuitous functioning of a formidable police apparatus, causing a multitude of victims, establishes veritable schools of counter-revolution in Soviet penitentiaries, where the citizens of yesterday are tempered into enemies of tomorrow. Only one explanation is possible, and that’s that, frightened by the consequences of its own policies, and used to the exercise of absolute power over a mass without rights, the ruling bureaucracy has lost control of itself. Here we must talk about the problem of real wages, which have generally fallen to an extremely low level; about labor legislation, into which constraint scandalously intervenes; about the system of internal passports, which deprives the populace of the right to move about; about special laws instituting the death penalty against workers and even against children; about the system of hostages, which pitilessly strikes an entire family for the fault of one alone; about the law that punishes with death any worker who attempts to cross the border of the USSR without a passport (keep in mind that it is impossible for him to obtain a passport for overseas travel), and orders the deportation of those close to him.

We are confronting fascism, but how can we block its path with so many concentration camps behind us? Duty is no longer simple, as you see, and it is up to no one to simplify it. No new conformism, no sacred lie can prevent the oozing of this wound. The line of defense of the revolution is no longer only on the Vistula and the Manchurian border. The obligation to defend the revolution from within against the reactionary regime that has installed itself in the proletarian city, little by little frustrating the working class of the greatest part of its conquests, is no less imperious. In one way alone does the USSR remain the greatest hope of the men of our time; it’s that the Soviet proletariat has not said its last word.

Dear André Gide, it’s possible that this bitter letter will teach you something. I hope so. I beg of you not to close your eyes. Look behind the new Marshals, the ingenious and costly propaganda, the parades, the congresses – how old world all this is – and see the reality of a revolution wounded in its living work and calling on all of us for help. Grant me that we not serve it by being silent about its illness or by covering our eyes in order not to see it.

No one better than you represents that great Western intelligentsia which, even if it has done much for civilization, has much to ask forgiveness of the proletariat for not having understood what the war of 1914 was; for having misunderstood the Russian revolution at its beginnings, in its grandeur; for not having sufficiently defended the freedoms of the workers. Now that it turns with sympathy towards the socialist revolution incarnated in the USSR, it must choose in its heart of hearts between blindness and lucidity. Allow me to say that only with lucidity can one serve the working class and the USSR. Allow me to ask you, in the name of those there who are full of courage, to have the courage of that lucidity.

Your fraternally devoted,

Victor Serge