Victor Serge

Twice Met


From International Socialism (1st series), No.20, Spring 1965, p.13-15.
Translated by Peter Sedgwick
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Parijanine’s life and mine crossed only twice: both times were unforgettable. In the Year Three of the Russian revolution’s calendar (1920), I was living in the Hotel Astoria, which was the principal ‘House of the Soviets’ in Petrograd. Zinoviev lived two floors above me, and Yevdokimov and Bakayev were my neighbours ... Parijanine, my peaceable companion, see how it is: no sooner do I recall you than I am back again, among the ghosts of the great ones, all shot now ... Our meetings together had no importance other than the simply human; but they were of such a kind, and our age is such an age, and we ourselves are such in ourselves, that in thinking of you I see and test the intimacy that binds the dead with the living, and how history sweeps us on, whoever we may be, more or less along the same track, history which works its way through the bodies of us all, inexorably.

We lived under close guard and discreet surveillance. The gate officer rang me with the news that a Frenchman, duly armed with a letter from Guilbeaux, was asking to see me. A few moments later I opened the door of my room to one misshapen and with gentle eyes, eyes of a timid, sly sort of man. He appeared to have some difficulty with his walking, but that was just an impression he gave. I can see him now, undulating over the dark red carpet, holding out a letter to me and explaining how he had just been on his way back to France, only without a cent to his name, and how Guilbeaux had offered him some hope of doing a little work with me in the French Section of the Third International’s executive ... Work I certainly had. For Lenin, for Zinoviev, for Trotsky, for the International itself, whose agitation was the sole weapon at our disposal on a world-wide scale, there were texts to translate, revise, edit, correct, print, disguise in a hundred ways, and then transmit via Finland, Estonia (enemy territories), or via Murmansk, the Arctic Ocean and the little northernmost ports of Norway ... I employed the most variegated persons on my staff, demanding of them only a knowledge of languages and a strict minimum of punctuality. Madame de Pfehl, who had lately been received at Court (‘... and I can assure you, Comrade, the Emperor was a really good sort, so far as I knew him, a splendid man he was, and loved the people ...’); Madame de Pfehl was the usual translator employed in my departments for the Proclamations of the President of the Communist International to the Proletariat of the World. Her style, which at times recalled that of the Comtesse de Segur (née Rostopchin), was brushed up by Monsieur Konstantin P——, who until not so long ago had been an editor on the official St Petersburg Gazette, Monsieur Bak, a former businessman and journalist for a Steel Cartel in the days of the Empire, a small, smooth-faced gentleman, appallingly refined and reserved, was agreeable to translating articles on theory, but not revolutionary appeals. ‘Pardon me, Citizen,’ he would remark, ‘My conscience ...’ Naturally I respected his conscience.

I had scarcely any time to see faces properly; no time to chat, to dream, to get to know a man, except in a hurry. There was little sympathy between Parije and myself. ‘Communist?’ I had at once asked him. ‘No, not exactly: a sympathiser ...’ This was a sympathiser, quitting the land of the Revolution in the middle of civil war – blockade – famine – terror? That did not please me, but it was his business. In any event, he spoke perfect French (quite the scholar), and he knew Russian inside out. All this would be happening in June: we were making arrangements for the Second World Congress of the Communist International, and I had just received a bulky manuscript of Trotsky’s. I passed half of it on to Parije. I thought I saw him wince slightly as he pondered on the title of the work: Terrorism and Communism. It was subtitled: Anti-Kautsky. ‘Does that upset you?’ I asked him, a little ironically. ‘Oh no,’ he replied mildly, ‘No more than the Terror does ...’ I have kept a memory of that sentence, or of one very like it, illuminated by a distinct, though reticent, glance from those eyes ... We had to do the job quickly, very quickly. Trotsky had just finished dictating the book to his secretaries in the course of his endless travels on the train-cum-mobile-headquarters that for two years now had been transporting him from one front to the next, through devastated territories lying prey to epidemics, warring bands and peasant counter-rebellions, whole tracts disputed by flags of red, white, blue-and-gold (Ukrainian), black or green. The ‘white nights’ lit up the city with a huge and everlasting twilight, whose spell was unending, soul-stirring, and rather fatiguing. We spent more than one of them crouched over the pages of Anti-Kautsky.

I can imagine Parije now, sitting in this wan light inside his room at the Hotel International, working through this book of victorious civil war, with all his scruples of a grammarian, a poet, a romancer, polishing up those powerful, caustic pages. (The Hotel International, if I remember, later got back its old name of Hotel Anglia.) It is entirely possible that Parije occupied the same room there in which, six years later, a quite different poet, whom he admired so much, Sergei Yesenin, would write his last lines with a rusty nib dipped in a few drops of his blood, before proceeding to hang himself. In these same rooms I knew others again who vanished: Raymond Lefebvre, Lepetit, Vergeat, Sasha Tubin. Dead, and then more dead.

My memories of Parijanine are today hard to separate from that particular book and that particular epoch. More recently the work has been re-issued under a misleading title: In Defence of Terrorism. In it Trotsky does not defend what is usually meant by terrorism, but he does demonstrate the unconditional necessity for the working class to prove its strength and its ability to use all the severities of war, in those revolutionary periods when its only choice is to win or die ... There too he refutes the criticisms directed against Bolshevism by Karl Kautsky, in the name of democratic Socialism which desires no dictatorship, not even that of the proletariat, not even its own. There too he refutes Austro-Marxism, the doctrine of the great Socialists of Vienna, Karl Renner, Friedrich Adler, Max Adler, Otto Bauer. Kautsky in this period was in some sense the ideologue of the Weimar Republic, the most liberal democracy that ever was, sealed, it is true, in the blood of Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartakist workers. The Austrian Marxists thought that they could put off the future by avoiding the seizure of power, with its accompanying cost of a difficult, dangerous struggle. Wisely, prudently, acutely, they legislated on behalf of the working class. In Vienna they were going to build the finest working-class housing in the world, the very best municipal baths, the most brilliantly lit public halls ... Dead, and then more dead. The Weimar Republic is dead. Socialist Vienna is dead. Karl Kautsky has just passed away in exile at Amsterdam, Otto Bauer has just died in exile in Paris, ravaged by his sense of defeat; the Third International has a thousand bullet-holes in the back of its neck ... This much has to be said: looming through all these deaths and defeats, the thinking embodied in that book of 1920 is still masterfully and prophetically alive. (And many of the objections it provoked from the Menshevik defenders of working-class democracy in the Revolution, have acquired a fresh potency; that debate is certainly not finished.)

Once the book was out of the way, Parije took the train for Finland. I took the Moscow train, travelling with Angel Pestaña of the CNT (he died last year); in the restaurant-car we met Frossard and Marcel Cachin. In Moscow, the Second Congress of the International laid down the Twenty-one Conditions for its affiliates. It addressed an appeal to the anarchists, and discussed Lenin’s theses on the colonial question, which were fiercely contested by Serrati (dead, and then more dead ...). Lenin, smiling and good-natured, passed among us in his old jacket dating from exile days, brushed clean for the occasion. In the President’s chair, beneath the gold ceiling of one of the throne-rooms in the Kremlin, Zinoviev would be tossing his long, soft locks. The throne had been put away in a nearby ante-room where typists were busy setting up their machines. A few paces from the throne and the Remingtons, a map, spread out over the hangings on the wall, attracted various groups to discuss around it. Lenin, Radek and Zinoviev were standing there with foreign delegates, their eyes glued to the progress of the little red flags that Tukhachevsky was pushing towards Warsaw – on the way to rip up the Versailles Treaty, to create a Soviet Poland, then tomorrow a Socialist Germany, and soon a United States of Socialist Europe. All of us had in our briefcases Tukhachevsky’s theses on the Red Army in the service of the International ... One evening a despatch from Kharkov spread the rumour that Tukhachevsky, Rakovsky and Smilga had entered Warsaw ...

I lost sight of Parijanine; several years later I resumed contact with him by post. We were working as joint translators on Against The Stream, the volume by Lenin and Zinoviev dating from the War. I was living for a while in Berlin, then in Vienna. The International was torn asunder by successive crises, in the wake of bungled (or simply crushed) revolutions in Germany and Bulgaria. The succession to Lenin now lay open. Zinoviev and Kamenev were inventing ‘Trotskyism’ for the purpose of refuting it, and in the shadows, noiseless as yet but growing larger and larger, was the silhouette of Stalin, who was unknown not only to the masses but even to the old militants of the Party and the International. Intrigue and conformism were invading the machinery of the International. At the very height of some obscure battle against Trotskyism, Parije and I, he in Paris and I in Vienna, decided to translate the splendid book that Trotsky had just devoted to Lenin, a work that was becoming heretical. We refrained from putting our names to the book, which was published by Hasfeld. Parije was fighting the good fight: the fight, that is, for a clear mind and for good faith kept before history.

Years went by: dark years, going darker and still darker. The Revolution changed its face, ridden by deep-seated maladies for which there was no cure. It was all a tale of persecutions, lengthening proscriptions, heresies annihilated. Men stopped thinking, men stopped talking. Poets declaimed hexameters in support of the death penalty, today against engineers, tomorrow against economists, the day after that against old Socialists. The Soviet Union became the vastest prison on earth. For myself, this was to last ten years. Then, in 1936, Wullens came to see me in Brussels with greetings from Parije. Things were not well with Parije, not well at all ... It had very nearly been curtains for him, nobody had really got to the bottom of this sudden illness of his. Was he maybe beginning to feel he had had enough of it all?

I was to see him again in ‘37, after an interval of seventeen years, in a small hotel in Invy, one of those small hotels occupied on a weekly rental by couples, troubled or else troublesome, by émigrés, by people without families, by unemployed men with an allowance for lodging, by abandoned or self-abandoned folk of all kinds: here sleep is sold at the fag-end of night, a dowdy, almost comfortable establishment ... Parije had grown stout; he opened his heavy eyelids to us, rather put out, because he was not used to having visitors. In the room there was wallpaper of the colour that goes with poverty, some books on a tiny table, manuscripts spread over the bed, a bottle of wine at the bed’s foot. He gave out the breath of defeat, of weariness with living, of loneliness. What could he do now? What use would it be? If you are not a climber or a faker, or one of those sharp gentlemen who know how to get banknotes, in units of hundreds or of thousands, rolling out of the presses of journals which are subsidised by unutterable swine: when once and for all time you have taken seriously ideas, places, and some faces which deserve to be trusted and to be loved, there comes a day to you, during epochs of reaction, when you ask yourself quite suddenly and simply whether there is any usefulness or point in going on with this drab and even slightly disgusting game, which is life ... Parije, living on unemployment benefit, was still writing short stories and poetry. Duhamel had just carried a few of his poems in the Mercure de France; this was, I am pretty sure, the last satisfaction he was to experience as what is generally called a ‘man of letters’ ... Together with Wullens, we summoned back, in that waiting-room for death, Moscow, the Revolution, the fullest twenty years, charged with hope and suffering, that there have been for centuries, the old comradeships, the defeated friendships, the betrayals, the recantations, the shootings, and our own friendship, formed across time, distance, misunderstanding and even mistrust, but still close and solid, made weightier by sorrow, of which there had been plenty. It was good, and rather miraculous, to meet again like this after so many years, after all the traffic of life and its shipwrecks. We kept telling this to one another in the cafe, over a snack together, and at certain moments the eyes of Parije became young once more and very mischievous. He delivered himself of a few ironical wise-cracks, and of various plans, which, it was plain to see, he did not believe in ... We were supposed to see him again, but we never did. He died on his pauper’s bed, in the shadow of the poverty-coloured wallpaper, alone and weary of many things, but faithful, together with a few others, to a few things that are of overriding importance.

Notes on the characters

G.Y. Yevdokimov and I.P. Bakayev were collaborators of Zinoviev in the defence and administration of Petrograd during the Civil War and after, and were shot along with him during the Moscow Trials. Serge has some very vivid sketches of these two relatively unknown Bolsheviks in his memoirs.

Henri Guilbeaux (1885-1938) was one of the leaders of the French Communist group in Moscow. He is described by Serge in the Memoirs as a particularly venomous character, who acted as informer to the Cheka about his colleagues. Later in life he became an anti-semite and supporter of Mussolini.

Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925), a brilliant lyrical poet of Bohemian character, was one of Serge’s literary contacts in the early Twenties. A passage in the Memoirs is devoted to his suicide.

Raymond Lefebvre, Lepetit (François Berthon), Jean Vergeat and Sasha Tubin participated as members of the French delegation in the Second Comintern Congress of June 1920. Lefebvre was a former internationalist militant from the First World War, and a promising novelist and anti-war poet; Lepetit and Vergeat were anarcho-syndicalists, and Tubin, their interpreter, was an old underground associate of Serge. All four were lost at sea on the return voyage from Russia via the Arctic, having embarked from Murmansk in a small fishing-boat.

Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), ‘the Pope of Marxism’, was the foremost theoretician of German Social Democracy and founder of its journal Die Neue Zeit. Defended Marxist theory against Bernsteintan revisionism, occupied a centrist position between internationalism and defencism in the War, and later become strongly anti-Bolshevik and parliamentarian.

Of the Austro-Marxists mentioned, Karl Renner (1870-1950) was a defencist in the War, a leading Right-winger who at various times was Chancellor of the Austrian Republic, Speaker of its Parliament, and leader of the Provisional Government (from 1945 to 1950). Friedrich Adler (1879-1960) assassinated the Austrian Premier in 1916; his death-sentence was later commuted. He chaired the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in 1918, and was later General Secretary of the Socialist International (1923-1939), a post from which he resigned because of the passivity of the International before fascism. Max Adler (1873-1937) was a sociologist and philosopher at Vienna University, active in the educational work of Austrian Social-Democracy. Otto Bauer (1881-1938) was a friend of Friedrich Adler, and a writer on the nationalities problem and Soviet perspectives (inter alia). Foreign Minister (1918-19).

Angel Pestaña was one of the principal builders of the syndicalist CNT in Catalonia and other parts of Spain. Became very hostile to Communism after his visit to Russia. Founded the Syndicalist Party (something of a contradiction in terms) in 1933.

Ludovic-Oscar Frossard (1889-1946) was a founder of the French CP, then its Secretary (1922); in 1924 he passed to the French Socialist Party, from which he resigned in 1935 to enter a series of bourgeois Cabinets.

Marcel Cachin (1869-1958) was a highly chauvinistic Socialist during the War but, along with the majority of the French Socialist Party, adhered to the Comintern after 1920. A Stalinist ‘elder statesman’, senator, doyen of the French Parliament, etc.

Giacinio Serrati (1872-1926); prominent Italian Socialist; internationalist during the World War. He hesitated for a while over the 21 Conditions for affiliation to the Comintern, but eventually joined the Italian CP. His objections to the Leninist colonial platform were based on his suspicions of colonial nationalist leaderships.

Maurice Wullens was editor of a review (Les Humbles) which functioned as a platform for Serge in Paris in the Thirties. Serge broke with Wullens, a pacifist, after the latter had opened his columns to pro-Nazi apologias.

Georges Duhamel (1884-        ), a notable French novelist of the provincial rural scene, encouraged Serge’s literary work and campaigned for his release from Russia in 1936.
Top of the page

Last updated on 15 April 2010