Victor Serge

Recollections of Maxim Gorki

Pages from the Diary of Victor Serge – V


From The New International, July-August 1950, pp.249-51.
Translated & annotated by James M. Fenwick.
Thanks to Roland Ferguson.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Fedin and Gorky

July 10, 1945. A certain period of my youth comes to life in me again as a read Constantine Fedin’s Gorky in Our Midst, published in Moscow in ’43. It is remarkably well done; Gorky is living, natural; Blok [1] also, and even Zamyatin [2] – portrayed in a few lines. I knew Gorky well during this period. That endangered Petrograd, polar and with such a tragic internal richness, had been mine. I can follow the recollections of Fedin (1919-21) step by step. F. himself I got to know only years later when I reviewed his books Cities and Years, The Brothers; I saw in him a young Russian Romain Rolland preoccupied by human problems in an inhuman epoch; full of a hardly voiced but very profound protest against all that was stifling mankind, incapable of understanding the revolutionists who knew and felt all of that but, out of necessity adopted surgical measures ...

Fedin related the remark of Gorky to me: “The party commissar is at one and the same time policeman, censor and archbishop: he grabs hold of you, blue pencils your writings, and then wants to sink his claws in your soul.” Fedin had a handsome thin face, a broad forehead, thin lips, penetrating gray eyes, an air of self-effacing discretion-and great confidence in himself. (Married, two children.)

He must have suffered unbelievably and if a free Russian literature some day becomes possible no one will be able to explain better than he the nature of that suppression under the terror. He has survived, and even in becoming a master craftsman of that flexible and docile special literature which accumulates such enormous silences, has manifested a minimum of the indispensable conformity necessary to exist and still in occasionally producing worthwhile works. For example, this Gorky. The young and uninformed reader, foreign or Russian, will finish reading this book enriched and even enthusiastic. He will see a great man close up, he will be initiated into a powerful form of love for mankind, and into an art which basically manifests itself as a form of love for mankind.

However, if the book is judged with an objective severity, what indignation! The lying in it – through omission and silence – is infinitely greater than the truth. Everything is truncated. To all that I have just noted there is not a single allusion. To the grumbling and sometimes vehement bitterness of Gorky, to his constant struggle against the tenor and the abuse of authority, a struggle which made him ill, there is not an allusion. That Gorky spent more time intervening with the Cheka in order to save intellectuals and other victims than with writers cannot be denied. That he had confidence in Lenin because his intercessions were customarily crowned with success cannot be learned. (One day I brought a message from Zinoviev to G. in his apartment on Kronversky Prospect – Zinoviev had censored an article by G. He received me with fury. “These bolsheviks – you don’t know them! How many crimes and stupidities. Tell Z. that I’ve had enough of them!” etc. I had to tone down the violence of the message and G., moreover, yielded and his article went through censored.)

The lie by omission sometimes produces an enormity. Beautiful and true to life portrait of Alexander Blok, but “he (A.B.) never says that he was reduced to silence.” A.B. is depicted as a rallier to the regime. He was a revolutionist, a stubborn though discreet protestor. He never said that he was suffocating. Allied with the destroyed and persecuted Left Soc.-Rev. Party, he maintained a friendship with Ivanov-Razumnik [3] and Andrei Biely [4] he was put in prison and a moving essay on A.B. in a cell of the Cheka was published, lie died in good part from sadness and privation, with the beginnings of scurvy. C.F. describes the funeral of Blok. I was there. He is silent about its being a double demonstration of mourning and of silent protest: in the first row of his friends, not far from Liubova Dmitrievna Blok, walked Olga Gumileva, with her big brown eyes in a child’s emaciated face, the widow of the great poet Nicholas Stepanovitch Gumilev, who had just been shot ... C.F. is silent on Gumilev, silent on that execution which shocked Petrograd, Silent on Ivanov-Razumnik, one of the stimulating forces in Russian thought, because I.-R. disappeared in ’33. What abominable silences!

A few lines on the defense of Petrograd – but not one allusion to Trotsky who saved the doomed city. A scene from the second congress of the CI in the Tauride Palate, at which Lenin spoke, is well described, but not a word on the friends who surrounded Lenin in an affectionate circle and who did not leave him during the entire day-Zinoviev, Bakayev, Eudokimdv, all three of them shot. An absolute prohibition against mentioning those who were shot! I am uneasy over not finding the name of Vsevolod Mikh. Eichenbaum [5] – and reassured to find that of Nicholas Nikitin [6], who has disappeared from the literary scene. Can this be an act of courage? (N.N. is mentioned only incidentally.) The remarks of G. upon Lenin are faithfully reported but not the remarks of G. upon Trotsky, whom he admired without liking and whom he often criticized. In general I recognize G.’s style and the themes upon which he often spoke to me: “No phosphorous for the mind, the mysterious, contradictory, elementary strength of the mouzhik – the drama of the city devoured by the country – the mission of intellectuals – Russian incompetence, Russian anarchy – the beginning of new times. One word is missing, the word “planetary” which G. freely used, the “planetary transformation” -and an essential motif, the bezozrazia [god-awful mess], the abominations which C. collected and denounced with a tireless bitterness.

C.F. visited Gorky while the cannons were thundering on Kronstadt. That provides a guarded page where the anxiety of Gorky can be glimpsed. I saw him several times during that period and I once met him at the Cheka, Godokhovaya 2; he was taking steps on behalf of the prisoners; he was gray and taciturn. I spoke to him about the case of R. Abramovitch and Thodore Dan [7], both of them arrested, and whom the president of the Cheka, Semyonov, a narrow-minded red-head wished to shoot Zinoviev perhaps might have let it be done. G. promised me to intervene with Lenin and the preservation of the threatened men was doubtless due to this. There is not an allusion in C.F. to the terror and moreover Petrograd was living under the terror even more than it was under conditions of famine or of literary experiences. Is it now forbidden to speak of the “red terror”?

I again ran across the remarks of G. on the tortures which the Siberian peasants inflicted upon their prisoners, Communists for the most part. (G. had been informed about them by Vsevolod Ivanov. [8]) One day I asked G. where this tradition of refined torture, which it is difficult to invent, came from. “From the Golden Legend,” [9] he replied.

Still another enormous omission – in order to cover up a state crime – Boris Pilniak is not mentioned.

And Fedin writes: “Art consists in expressing sensations as well as possible; and the most lucid sentiment – that is to say, the truth-is the one which can be expressed with the most perfection.”

He shows G.’s attitude toward the mission of the writer very well, an attitude which G. passionately inculcated in the young. Literature was a calling, a method of serving humanity which engaged the personality totally and permanently, demanded honesty, conscientious craftsmanship. G. liked to call himself a craftsman masterovoy [master craftsman]. Such has been the guiding idea of several great schools of Russian writers. Literature contributes to the elevation of mankind from obscurity to consciousness; it has the mission of saying to men the truth about mankind.

I once asked Yuri Tynyanov [10] (whom C.F. said so greatly resembled Pushkin, and who also resembled a rabbi born old) why, with such a profound spirit of opposition, writers proved so unwilling to struggle. “Because,” he said to me, “each one thinks he has something important to do; and therefore is afraid to take risks, prefers to humiliate himself and gain time.” I admire Fedin for having swallowed so many humiliations, known so many hideous things without losing faith in himself – the feeling of his dignity – the will to create; and of knowing how, with cynicism and sadness, to be able to adapt himself so as to be able to write a little book which is, in spite of everything, living, moving, human, precious in several senses, like a gem from the Urals mounted in mud.

An edition of 25,000 copies-consequently, paying very well.

Victor Serge



1. Alexander Blok, the Russian symbolist poet. Died in 1921.

2. Eugene Zamyatin, pre-revolutionary Russian satirist. After 1917 formed part of the “inner emigration” within Russia. Was able to leave Russia for France in 1931, where he died in 1937.

3. Literary historian and critic.

4. Brilliant poet, novelist, critic and essayist of the pre-Stalinist period.

5. Author of works on Lermontov and Tolstoy.

6. Novelist, author of The Crime of Kirik Rudenko, a study of factory life in a Russian village.

7. Abramovitch was a Menshevik-Internationalist and Dan a Menshevik during the revolution. Both were well-known figures, leaders in the Second International following their expulsion from Russia.

3. Protégé of Gorky. Novelist and playwright.

9. The reference is probably to early chronicles of saints’ martyrdoms.

10. Writer of historical novels dealing in particular with the Decembrist uprising in 1825.


Last updated on 21.3.2004