Victor Serge

Leon Sedov


From La Révolution prolétarienne, No. 265, 21 February 1938.
David Coterrill (ed.), The Serge-Trotsky Papers, London 1994, pp. 203–7.
Translated by Ian Birchall.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Leon Lvovich Sedov died on 16th February at eleven o’clock in the morning in a Paris hospital, as a result of two operations made necessary by a sudden attack of appendicitis. For several months Sedov had been complaining of various indispositions, in particular of a rather high temperature in the evenings. He wasn’t able to stand up to such ill-health. He had been leading a hard life, every hour taken up by resistance to the most extensive and sinister intrigues of contemporary history – those of a regime of foul terror born out of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was obvious that his physical strength was exhausted. His spirits were good, the indestructible spirits of a young revolutionary for whom socialist activity is not an optional extra but his very reason for living, and who has committed himself in an age of defeat and demoralisation, without illusions and like a man. Such epochs alternate, in our century, with other periods, of revival and strength, which they prepare the way for – which it is the job of all of us to prepare the way for.

Leon Lvovich seemed amazingly true to himself, in the middle of a daily life where there was no shortage of emotional strain, and of misfortunes. Our meetings were always hasty, anxious, tense for fear of wasting a minute. Five minutes after I shook his hand for the first time, we were working together to identify agent provocateurs, the Sobolevicus brothers (Senine); we combed our memories, unfortunately without success, for the name of a wretched man shot long ago, an enthusiastic little French comrade, who in Paris and then in Constantinople had been the collaborator of Jacob Blumkin, and who had been shot at the same time as he was (1929), probably without ever knowing why. Only once was some sort of human contact established between us, as we were roaming, after midnight, near the Place de Breteuil, between us the shadow of Ivan Nikitich Smirnov, one of the sixteen executed after the first Moscow trial. Sedov had known him well; he spoke to me sadly about his wife, Safonova, who had testified against him at the trial, and thereby ensured his ruin, and her own. Sedov spoke favourably of her: “She was a true Communist, a person of fine character: they must have convinced her that she was saving him in order to get her to take that attitude; and she was shot herself afterwards ...” It was the same time as the Rue Michelet affair. Then Trotsky was interned in Norway. Sedov was afraid that Stalin’s political police would manage to kidnap his father in Oslo, or kill him later, on a cargo-boat ... Sedov, with the eyes of experience, could see danger looming when it was still a long way off A few months went by and Ignaz Reiss was murdered the day before the meeting that had been fixed with Leon Lvovich and some other friends ... Amid all these circumstances Sedov kept the good humour of a practical man; he was so anxious that his face was permanently wrinkled into a frown, but he could still smile easily, and he was always wondering what had to be done next so that he could do it straightaway. He was by no means a pure theoretician or a dreamer: he had the temperament of a technician who could not be bothered with rest. A humble technician of the revolution in years of reaction: he would not have sought to be praised in any other terms.

What a passion-filled life he had led! As a child he had shared his father’s internment in Canada, and experienced the first rejoicings at the Russian Revolution, that magnificent time of newly unfurled red flags, when everything seemed to be simple and within grasp; his father’s fame, his father’s victories, the dangers to his father, his travels, his portraits in all the public buildings, his speeches which galvanised the crowds; the agony of the Civil War ... There was no place amid all this for childhood, he needed a grown man’s courage – and what could be more simple? As an adolescent he had lived through the difficult years of the struggle against the bureaucracy – plots, suicides, theses, discussions, oppositions, Lenin’s death ... The young man stood alongside his father in 1927, when defeat was inevitable, with exile or execution into the bargain. He was there when they broke down the doors of a modest home in Moscow, in order to seize the Organiser of Victory and deport him to Central Asia, near the Chinese border. He was at Alma Ata when unknown assailants tried to break into the exile’s home; Sedov defended that home. Later he was at Prinkipo, where Trotsky’s house was burned down by mysterious hands. He was in Berlin when the Trotskyist group there was disrupted by the activity of provocateurs, and when his sister Zinaida took her own life ... He was torn in two in his private life; he has left a wife and child in Russia. He was a good mathematician, and skilled in military matters (which, in August 1937, made him consider going to Spain; his friends advised him strongly against it).

Stateless – yet more devoted than anyone to the workers’ homeland of Russia! He obtained visas and residence permits only with the greatest difficulty; he had escaped from Germany before Hitlr came to power, and lived in poverty in the XVth arrondissement. Such poverty, sometimes, that he explained to me that one meal a day was quite adequate, but that in the end you felt the effects of it. He was just coming to the end of a period of privation when there opened up for him, and for all of us, the hell of the Moscow trials. It must be admitted: if anything could have broken men with wills of iron, it was this flood of tangled lies, of baffling confessions, culminating in the murder in cellars of those who were once the great leaders. The highest moral values formed by the revolution had collapsed into the mud. For Moscow Sedov was one of the main targets of a nameless intrigue, which was even more inept than it was pernicious. I remember his sheer amazement at the clumsiness of fasifiers who accused him of meeting people in a town which he could easily prove he had never visited. He worked tirelessly to gather together documents and evidence to refute the lies. M. Malraux, author of Days of Contempt, refused to testify on his behalf ... The League for the Rights of Man had to be asked repeatedly before they would give him a hearing, and then they refused to take a position on the question. None the less there were courageous people willing to accept his evidence and documentation, at a meeting chaired by old Modigliani, who was familiar with totalitarian swindles ... Those who were present, in a small ball in the Mutualité, at the confrontation between this chairman and his witness, across a conference table, will never forget the occasion: they learned how much passion and intelligence can be put into the search for truth.

Leon Sedov had long lived under constant threat. Although he was well aware of this, and was prudent by nature, he took few precautions, for precautions have their price ... Stalin probably did not expect the resounding failure of the Moscow trials which satisfied nobody but the most well-tried time-servers. As the principal witness for the prosecution in the counter-trial initiated by history, of which the work done by the committees in Paris and New York is only a tiny part, Sedov had to be silenced, but skilfully, so as not to make the responsibility for the crime too obvious. If possible they wanted to set up a plausible accident. In November 1936 a section of his father’s archives, transferred by his efforts to the Institute of Social History in the Rue Michelet, were stolen during the night by GPU agents who cut through a door with an oxyhydric torch. A few days later Sedov realised he was being shadowed; the French police arrested a former Russian emigré, a member of the “Society of the Friends of the Soviet Fatherland”, who had recently returned from Moscow ... The investigation into the murder of Ignaz Reiss had revealed, through their own confessions, that Reiss’s murderers, under the direction of the top GPU officials, had for a long time been shadowing Leon Sedov, with alarming skill. In the summer of 1936 Sedov had gone to spend a few weeks by the sea in the south of France; Renata Steiner, who was arrested in Switzerland for having prepared the ground for Reiss’s killers, took lodgings in the same boarding house; every day she reported on his movements to another of those charged in the Reiss affair, Semirensky, who was living in the neighbouring house. He lived in Paris, under a false name, right next door to Leon Sedov. A little later, when Sedov had planned to travel to Mulhouse, the same executioners prepared an ambush for him in the station of that town. It was only by chance that Sedov didn’t make the journey.

Did he die a natural death? The medical evidence seems to confirm that he did. But in the atmosphere we live in, how can we dismiss terrible suspicions? Is it not possible to artificially provoke such ailments? Killers lived right alongside him. They may have missed their chance at a particular moment without letting him escape for good. If this is the case, medical tests will tell us nothing. For my part, I prefere to ignore this hypothesis: let us not add to what is akeady certain in this nightmare, which is great enough already ... Thus in one way or another the cynical warning of Radek to the “Trotskyists of France and Spain” has been fulfilled: “they are paying dearly”. Andrès Nin, disappeared – murdered – in a prison of the Spanish Republic: Kurt Landau, who was, with Trotsky and Rosmer, a member of the First International Secretariat of the Communist Left Opposition, has disappeared likewise; Erwin Wolf, who was Trotsky’s secretary in Oslo, has disappeared (and an agency report – admittedly unconfirmed – has announced that Erwin Wolf has been shot in Moscow, at the beginning of February, at the same time as Antonov-Ovseenko. Kidnapped in Barcelona, shot in Moscow?) ... Sedov, finally, dead of natural causes ... A year of horrors!

In him Trotsky may have lost his last child. His eldest daughter, Nina, died of tuberculosis in Leningrad during the period of his deportation. The Central Committee of the Party refused to give the exile permission to see her on her death-bed. His younger daughter, Zinaida, committed suicide in Berlin a few days after being stripped of her Soviet nationality, which meant she was cut off for ever from her husband and her homeland. His younger son, Sergei Sedov, a technician who was not involved in any kind of political activity, disappeared in Moscow about two and a half years ago, with his wife. We heard he was deported to Krasnoyarsk, and then agency despatches reported his arrest in this town where he was said to have “attempted to cause the mass asphyxiation of workers in the factory where he was employed”. Since then, there has been no news of him. Has he been shot? Imprisoned in a northern concentration camp? Who is even trying to find out?

In Leon Lvovich, Trotsky has lost more than a son of his own blood – he has lost a son in spirit, an irreplaceable companion in struggle. Let him at least know that this dark hour we are all with him, unreservedly. Whatever may divide us, in doctrine and in history, is in human terms of infinitely less importance than what unites us in the service of the working class against dangers which demand from each of us the greatest steadfastness. I know that I am writing here for many friends and comrades, who differ in their ideas, in their language, in their forms of action: and who are sometimes sharply divided by controversy – but who are united in something essential which gives meaning to their lives. We have all lost in Sedov a comrade of rare quality.

Farewell, Leon Lvovich, you leave us a proud memory. Let us go forward.

Victor Serge

Last updated on 18 April 2015