Victor Serge

In a time of duplicity

Alexis Tolstoy

February 24, 1945.

Deaths follow one after the other, so many deaths! lit is a time of death. This morning, the announcement of the death of Alexei Nicolaievitch Tolstoy, a minute paragraph in microscopic type in El Popular. [5] Orders will come and there will be fine articles.

It was in ’23, in Berlin, Tauentzienstrasse, an airy business section, with pretty, green turf growing between the rails of the streetcar track: I saw our handsome Serge Zorin of the dark days in Petrograd coming along the sidewalk, tall, fair-haired, with the air of a Viking. With him a stocky gentleman with a massive head and heavy chin, not a soldier, but a reflective bourgeois, with, I believe, little brown crossed eyes, behind a pince-nez which was askew: Alexis Tolstoy. He was negotiating with Zorin the question of his rallying to the support of the i-evolution and his return to Moscow.

“How interested he is!” exclaimed Z. “Gosisdat [6] must put out a complete edition of his works – and the author’s rights must be guaranteed to the last kopek!”

All three of us were in a little café when Zorin began to evoke the Chudin affair, concerning which he retained a profound sadness: “In him we shot a very fine fellow, a man of 1905, and he was not guilty, but there was nothing else to do.” (It was this conversation which crystallized in my mind the idea for one of the dramas in Ville Conquise. [7])

After 1926, in Leningrad, I got to know A.T. better, at first at the sumptuous dinners of the historian Pavel Elisseievitch Shchegolev, to which came Anna Akmatova [8], thin, delicate, white as a porcelain statuette. firmly unyielding and very affected (the pose with her long fingers on her shoulders) and her beautiful sad, gray-green eyes; Karl Radek and Larissa Reisner [9], amazon and intellectual, an extraordinary human achievement.

All are now dead, even little Pavel Pavlovitch with his childish head like that of a young official out of a comedy by Gogol. T. and Sh. made millions of rubles with melodramas on Rasputin and the Empress. They enjoyed life and believed in a moderate counter-revolution, liberal and agrarian. They called themselves “sympathizers” of the CP, uneasy sympathizers, cynical and inoffensive.

“My office boy at Byloe (The Post) got drunk,” related Sh., “and confessed that he was a stoolpiegon for the Cheka. I said to him: ‘I’ll not fire you, my friend; I like it this way, now I know where I stand.’ ”

Sh. detested Trotsky. I remember that he went into a sort of hysteria in front of me in speaking of that “little journalist, that correspondent for reactionary sheets in Kiev” – and that there was an .incident, smoothed over by Pilniak. [10] (L.T. had already fallen from power, of course.) A.T., on the contrary, never spoke of T. but with respect and admiration.

A.T. felt himself insecure and he sometimes wrote magnificent pages, a short story on a civil war fighter disoriented by the NEP, for example. He spoke a magnificent Russian. He was rather proud and reserved in manner but easily became warm, sensitive, moving. With Liuba and Vladi [11] we went several times to his home at Dietskoye Selo. His wife was a Russian beauty like those Kustodiev used to paint, plump with clear eyes.

Their traditional household, small white house, garden, birches, Paul I furniture, collections, miniatures, old books, landscapes, great comfort, simple and luxurious. A.T. invited us to hear the first chapters of his Peter I. He was greatly influenced at that time by the seventeenth century peasant economist Possoshkov, who died in the Peter-and-Paul fortress. He thought of his novel as an oppositional work which would trumpet the suffering and the power of the peasants. He said: “What we are living through is a return to the revolutionary and autocratic barbarism of Peter the Great.” (This was during the farm collectivization period and it seemed probable that Stalin would fall because of the famine and that the “right,” Rykov, Tomsky, Bukharin, to which A.T. was friendly, would win on a program of appeasing the peasantry.)

A.T. read in a serious and velvety voice, full of emotion. His first identification of Stalin with Peter I was that of a discreet pamphleteer, for the historical novel was an evasion for him. (All the topflight writers used this evasion: Tynianov with Griboyedov and Pushkin, Kaverin with Lieutenant Kije, others with Pugachev or Catherine the Great and even Toussaint L’Ouverture ...)

When I became too compromised our relations naturally became less frequent. Tolstoy skirted disgrace, but Boris Andreievitch Pilniak who was incontestably first among the young writers, the leader (along with Vsevolod Ivanov) of Soviet literature, was plunged into disgrace and persecution, rescued by Stalin, then semi-boycotted once again, censured by Yezhov (the future successor of Yagoda in the GPU, the future executioner’s victim).

Gorky returned from Italy, but I did not see him again; his secretary Kriutchkov (of the GPU) closed his door in my face (K. was shot with Yagoda): Furthermore, Gorky was unrecognizable, ascetic and like a skeleton. I happened to meet him on the street and was startled to see the dead man behind the living one.

He wrote official articles, really abominable, justifying the secret trials in the name of culture, proclaiming that “the enemy who does not surrender has to be exterminated and privately he gave vent to bitter outbursts. He internally resisted this scornful and violent bitterness, he sometimes burst out; he entered into conflict with Stalin. All his old friends much as Julie and Ekaterina Pieshkova [12] broke with him because he let his former collaborators on Novaya Zhizn [13] be imprisoned, Ginsberg and Sukhanov, whose honesty he was aware of; because he refused to offer the slightest objection to the execution of technicians: became the contrary of himself.

It was in this atmosphere that; at a meeting of forty writers at Gorky’s home, which Stalin attended, Pasternak [14] and Alexis Tolstoy had the courage to complain of the censorship. Stalin rebuked the secretary general of the Proletarian Writers, Leopold Auerbach, who had immediately attacked their proposals as counterrevolutionary – and left taking Tolstoy in his car. (Auerbach, the nephew of Yagoda, was shot in ’37 or ’38.)

The personal friendship of A.T. and S. was thus born in an excess of frankness and courage, probably stimulated by vodka. S. was liberal and warm-hearted, as he sometimes sought to be. He granted a passport abroad to the son of Alexis Nicolaievitch.

A.T. was seduced. The comparison with Peter I flattered S. – the reforming czar had only to be humanized, and this was an order.

In the same epoch began the disparagement of Pokrovsky’s great (Marxist) history of Russia, considered up to then as a fundamental work, but which contained a terrible portrait of Czar Peter. (Pokrovsky was to die in isolation, under the disapprobation of the schools, just in time to escape a worse fate.) A. T. recast his Peter I, not without internal struggles, and made a play out of it, which S. came to see, beaming with contentment.

During the height of the famine, A.T. one winter night gave a royal party at Dietskoye Selo, with a buffet which set all Leningrad talking, violin orchestra, troikas for driving the guests through the snow. We said: Pir vremya chumy [15] “The feast during the plague.”

A.T. was a writer by birth, loving and understanding the human problem, a good psychologist and student of manners, a worshiper of his profession, possessor of a fine feeling for language: everything necessary to make a great writer, if only the despotism and the cowardice which despotism imposes had been absent. He needed a great deal of money and official favor. He feared disgrace, censure, repression. to which his émigré, bourgeois and aristocratic past made him more vulnerable than others. He had the zeal of an apostate, but he probably suffered a great deal, for he was intelligent, liberal, rather good. He probably found an internal justification for his conduct in his love of Russia, a love which embraced the inevitable suffering of the chosen and martyred people, and in his expectation of a new Russian greatness which he could really envisage only in terms of an empire.

The Ralliers group of 1923, Smeno-Vekhovtsi (the “New Orientation ), of which he had been a member, had been decimated – and more than decimated – by the terror, from 1929-30 on.

A member of the Union of Soviet Writers, A.T. had seen his friend, Boris Pilniak, and Tarassov-Rodionov, and Galina Serebriakova, and the stage director Meyerhold, and Babel, and so many others disappear. He saw the old Bolsheviks shot, who had admitted him to their company when they were in power, and whom he had admired. He had a profound knowledge of the totalitarian tragedy.

He never made the slightest protest, he explicitly endorsed – as was requested – all the crimes. It is true that he had described at length the execution of the streltsy [16] under the walls of the Kremlin, at which Czar Peter forced his boyars and his favorites to kill them with their own hands, as he himself did, thereby establishing an obvious and common bond of Complicity.

He died at 62, a millionaire in a country of the greatest misery, weighed down with honors, having obstinately suppressed a nameless sorrow.

(I once ran through a historical novel on the civil war, written on request by A.T. at the time, in ’35, when the recent past was being violently falsified: in it Lenin was inspired by Stalin, they won the revolutionary war and Trotsky was not mentioned.)




5. A Stalinist-controlled paper published in Mexico and edited throughout the preceding period by Lombardo Toledano.

6. The state publishing trust

7. One of Serge’s novels.

8. A poet, born in 1889. She suddenly reappeared in print in 1940, publishing until 1948 when her writing fell under the official ban.

9. Active in the civil war, her brilliant literary sketches of which were very popular.

10. Boris Pilniak, author of The Volga Flows to the Caspian Sea.

11. Serge’s first wife and his son.

12. Gorky’g first wife, from whom he early separated.

13. Gorky’s paper during the period of the Revolution.

14. Boris Pasternak, the poet.

15. The title of a play by Pushkin.

16. Palace guards who had revolted against Peter.


Last updated on 21.3.2004