Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Victor Serge
The Third Congress of the Communist International met at Moscow, in an atmosphere much the same as that of the previous Congress, except that the attendance was larger and the proceedings were more relaxed. With the coming of the N.E.P., the famine was getting a little less severe, and people anxiously expected a policy of appeasement to follow. The foreign delegates showed no interest in the tragedy of Kronstadt and, except for a few, deliberately closed their minds to any understanding of it. They sat in commission to condemn the Workers Opposition; this they did with enthusiasm, without giving it a hearing. They considered N.E.P., amenably enough, to be (as one of the French delegates put it to me) an inspired turn to the Right that had saved the Revolution. It was hardly inspiration to yield to a famine after the situation had become quite insupportable. But the majesty of the Russian Revolution disarmed its supporters of all critical sense; they seemed to believe that approval of it entailed the abdication of the right to think.
At the Kremlin, in the great throne-room of the Imperial Palace, Lenin defended the New Economic Policy. As he spoke, he stood beneath tall, extravagantly gilded columns, under a canopy of scarlet velvet bearing the insignia of the Soviets. Dealing with international strategy, he argued for an armistice and a real effort to win over the masses. He was warm, friendly, genial, talking as simply as he could; it was as if he was determined to emphasize with every gesture that the head of the Soviet Government and the Russian Communist Party was still just another comrade — the leading one, of course, through his acknowledged intellectual and moral authority, but no more than this, and one who would never become just another statesman or just another dictator. He was obviously concerned to steer the International by persuasion. While some of the speeches were going on he would come down from the platform and sit on the steps, near the shorthand reporters, with his note-pad on his knee. From this position he would interrupt now and then with a little caustic comment that made everybody laugh, and a mischievous smile would light up his face. Or he would buttonhole foreign delegates, people who were almost unknown and practically insignificant, and take them into a corner of the hall to carry on, face to face, with the argument he had put forward. The Party must go to the masses! Yes, the masses! And not turn into a sect! And the N.E.P. was not nearly so dangerous as it looked from outside, because we still kept all the fullness of power.
Several times I saw him coming away from the Congress, wearing his cap and jacket, quite alone, walking along at a smart pace with the old cathedrals of the Kremlin on either side of him. I saw him batter Bela Kun with a speech of merciless invective, genial as ever, his face bursting with health and good spirits. This was at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the International, held during the Congress in a banqueting-room of a hotel on Theatre Square below the Kremlin, the Continental, I think. This speech marked a real turning-point in Communist policy.
I had some personal knowledge of Bela Kun, whom I found a wholly unattractive personality. We had been most anxious on his behalf when, after the defeat of the Hungarian Soviets, he had been interned in a Vienna mental asylum, where the Austrian Social-Democrats actually lavished attention on him. A Socialist who in the course of military service had been taken prisoner in Russia, he had begun his revolutionary career in Siberia with the Tomsk Bolsheviks. At the time of the Left Social-Revolutionary uprising of 19 18 in Moscow, he had won some distinction by his creation of an international brigade in support of the Party of Lenin and Trotsky. He was jailed at home and came out to become Chairman of the Council of Peoples Commissars of Hungary and leader of the Hungarian Communist Party. In these posts he had been responsible for a succession of faults and vacillations; he riddled his own Party with backstage repression and allowed a military conspiracy to gain control over practically the whole country. His personal role during the defeat of the Hungarian Soviets had been pathetic (though this was hardly ever mentioned, since a popular legend was being allowed to grow around his name). After some reverses the small Red Armies of Hungary regained the initiative. They beat the Rumanians and advanced into Czechoslovakia, where the popular movement gave them a sympathetic welcome. Clemenceau, alarmed by this recovery, sent a telegram to Bela Kun, asking him to call off the offensive and hinting that, if this were done, the Entente would negotiate with Red Hungary. Kun was taken in by this trick and halted the offensive; the Rumanians rallied their forces and counterattacked. That was the end.
I cannot help thinking that for the rest of his life Bela Kun was dominated by his sense of failure, and never stopped trying to compensate for it. During his mission in Germany he had, on 18 March of the previous year (192 1), instigated an uprising in Berlin which was both bloody and, given the undeniable weakness of the Communist Party, doomed to failure from the beginning. The Party emerged from the incident weakened, and divided by the expulsion of Paul Levi who strongly opposed such insurrectionary adventures.
[Paul Levi (1883-1930): Rosa Luxemburgs lawyer and a former leader of the Independent Social-Democrats; co-founder of the Spartakusbund and later a leader of the early German Communist Party; supported Serratis objections to the 21 Conditions'; after 1921, founded a small independent group, then joined the Left wing of the Social Democrats; apparently committed suicide.]
After his return from Germany in the disgrace of another failure, Bela Kun had gone off to win glory in the Crimea.
At a meeting of the Executive of the International Lenin made a lengthy analysis of the Berlin affair, this putsch initiated without mass support, serious political calculation, or any possible outcome but defeat. There were few present, because of the confidential nature of the discussion. Bela Kun kept his big, round, puffy face well lowered; his sickly smile gradually faded away. Lenin spoke in French, briskly and harshly. Ten or more times, he used the phrase les betises de Bela Kun': little words that turned his listeners to stone. My wife took down the speech in shorthand, and afterwards we had to edit it somewhat: after all it was out of the question for the symbolic figure of the Hungarian Revolution to be called an imbecile ten times over in a written record!
Actually, Lenins polemic marked the end of the Internationals tactics of outright offensive. The failure of this approach had to be clearly stated, and besides Russia was now entering a period of internal appeasement; of these two considerations, of unequal worth, I am not sure which was the more influential. In its official resolution the Congress still praised the fighting spirit of the German Communist Party, and Bela Kun was not removed from the Executive.
If the Revolution had not been in such a parlous condition at the time, Kun would have had to face questioning about two other crimes. He had been a signatory to the treaty of alliance with Makhnos Black army; he had also been one of those who tore it up as soon as the joint victory had been achieved. Then too, he had been a member of the Revolutionary Council of the Red Army, which in November 1920 had forced Baron Wrangel out of the Crimea. In this capacity Bela Kun had negotiated the surrender of the remnants of the White army. To this assortment of former Monarchist officers he promised an amnesty and the right to resume civilian work; later he ordered them to be massacred. Thousands of war prisoners were thus treacherously exterminated, in the name of purging the country.
Trotsky came to the Congress many times. No one ever wore a great destiny with more style. He was forty-one and at the apex of power, popularity and fame — leader of the Petrograd masses in two revolutions; creator of the Red Army, which (as Lenin had said to Gorky) he had literally conjured out of nothing'; personally the victor of several decisive battles, at Sviazhsk, Kazan, and Pulkovo; the acknowledged organizer of victory in the Civil War Our Carnot! as Radek called him. He outshone Lenin through his great oratorical talent, through his organizing ability, first with the army, then on the railways, and by his brilliant gifts as a theoretician. As against all this Lenin possessed only the pre-eminence, which was truly quite immense, of having, even from before the Revolution, been the uncontested head of the tiny Bolshevik Party which constituted the real backbone of the State, and whose sectarian temper mistrusted the over-rich, over-fluid mind of the Chairman of the Supreme War Council. For a short time there was some talk, in various small groups at the Congress, of elevating Trotsky to the chairmanship of the International. Zinoviev must have been outraged by these pressure-groups, and doubtless Lenin preferred to keep his own spokesman at the top of the World Party. Trotsky himself intended to give his attention to the Soviet economy.
He made his appearance dressed in some kind of white uniform, bare of any insignia, with a broad, flat military cap, also in white, for headgear; his bearing was superbly martial, with his powerful chest, jet-black beard and hair, and flashing eye-glasses. His attitude was less homely than Lenins, with something authoritarian about it. That, maybe, is how my friends and I saw him, we critical Communists; we had much admiration for him, but no real love. His sternness, his insistence on punctuality in work and battle, the inflexible, correctness of his demeanour in a period of general slackness, all imparted a certain demagogic malice to the insidious attacks that were made against him. I was hardly influenced by these considerations, but the political solutions prescribed by him for current difficulties struck me as proceeding from a character that was basically dictatorial. Had he not proposed the fusion of the trade unions with the State — while Lenin quite rightly wanted the unions to keep some of their independence? We did not grasp that the trade-union influence might have actually worked upon the structure of the State, modifying it more effectively in a working-class direction. Had he not set up labour armies ? And suggested the militarization of industry as a remedy for its incredible state of chaos? We did not know that earlier, in the Central Committee, he had unsuccessfully proposed an end to the requisitioning system. Labour armies were a good enough expedient in the phase of demobilization. Had he not put his signature to a repulsively threatening manifesto against Kronstadt? The fact was that he had been in the thick of everything, acting with a self-confident energy which tried out directly opposite solutions by turns.
During one session, he came down straight from the platform and stood in the middle of our French group to give a translation of his own speech. He spoke passionately, in slightly incorrect but fluent French. He replied sharply when he was heckled — about the Terror, about violence, about Party discipline. Our little group appeared to irritate him. Vaillant-Couturier, Andre Morizet, Andre Julien, Fernand Loriot, Jacques and Clara Mesnil, and Boris Souvarine were all there. Trotsky was easy and cordial, but imperious in argument. On another occasion he flew at the Spanish delegate, Orlandis, who was attacking the persecution of the anarchists. Trotsky seized him violently by the coat-lapels and almost shouted, I should certainly like to see that happening to you, petty-bourgeois that you people are!'
During this summer of 1921 I formed, among the comrades from abroad, a number of lasting and even life-long friendships. I resorted to those who came to Moscow with more concern for truth than orthodoxy, more anxiety for the future of the Revolution than admiration for the proletarian dictatorship. Our relationships were always initiated by conversations of an absolute frankness in which I set myself the responsibility of disclosing all the evils, dangers, difficulties, and uncertain prospects. In an era of fanatical conformism this was, as I still believe, a meritorious thing to do, demanding some courage. I gravitated towards people of a free spirit, those who were fired by a desire to serve the Revolution without closing their eyes. Already an official truth was growing up, which seemed to me the most disastrous thing imaginable. I became acquainted with Henriette Roland-Holst, a Dutch Marxist and a notable poet.
[Henriette Roland-Holst (1869-1952): Dutch Tribunist and then Communist; founded a short-lived Independent Communist Party in 1924; later became a Christian Socialist, pacifist, and opponent of colonialism; doyenne of Dutch literature over many years.]
Lank, scrawny and grey-haired, her neck disfigured by a goitre, she had a delicately sculptured face with an expression of gentleness and intellectual austerity. The questions she raised with me were symptomatic of a most scrupulous anxiety.
Two young men from the Spanish delegation gave us pledges for the future which they were destined to fulfil at tremendous cost: Joaquin Maurin and Andreu Nin. I have always believed that human qualities find their physical expression in a mans personal appearance. A single glance was enough to tell the calibre of Maurin, the teacher from Lerida, and Nin, the teacher from Barcelona. Maurin had the bearing of a young Cavalier from a pre-Raphaelite painting; Nin, behind his gold-rimmed spectacles, wore an expression of concentration which was softened by his evident enjoyment of life. Both of them gave their lives to the cause: Maurin destined to an unending succession of jails; Nin to a horrible death during the Spanish Revolution. At this time the overwhelming impression they conveyed was one of idealism and the thirst for understanding.
The French, more sophisticated and more sceptical characters, were generally of a different stuff. Andre Morizet, the mayor of Boulogne, paraded his admirably sound and practical face and his drinking-songs for the benefit of us all. (Even now, at Suresnes, in occupied France, he is still fighting to keep his office as Labour mayor; he has returned, after a long interval, to traditional Socialism.) Andre Julien was piling up countless annotations for a work so compendious that he was never to write it. (In 1936 and 1937, he was to be one of the Socialist stalwarts of the Popular Front.)
Paul Vaillant-Couturier, a tank officer during the war, a poet, popular orator and ex-servicemens leader, was a tall, chubby young man of extraordinary talents, but fated to become a great disappointment to me. He understood everything that was going on; but in the future he was to acquiesce in his own corruption, to become increasingly entangled with all the villainies of Bolshevisms degeneration, and to die, in working-class Paris, enviably popular.
Boris Souvarine, a Russian Jew by origin but a naturalized Frenchman, had no Socialist background; he came to us, at the age of twenty-five, from the world of left-wing journalism rather than from the working-class movement, with an amazing zest for knowledge and action. Slight and short, his eyes masked by lenses of unusual thick ness, speech lisping slightly, manner aggressive and often quick both to offend and to take offence, he had a habit of coming out suddenly with awkward questions; he would deliver mercilessly realistic verdicts on French personalities and events, and amuse himself by deflating swollen heads by smart pinpricks of his own devising. His stock was then very high, even though his first request on arrival was for a tour of the prisons. All the time he showed a magnificent facility for analysis, a lively grasp of realities, and an aptitude for polemic that was designed to leave a trail of indignation wherever he went. He became one of the leaders of the International and a member of its Executive Committee. Souvarine, despite his expulsion from the Comintern in 1924, was for some ten years to be one of the most trenchant and perceptive brains of European Communism.
I was on very close terms with both the French Communist groups in Russia, and was more or less the leader of the one in Petrograd. These groups formed striking instances of the law whereby mass-movements transform individuals, impel them into unpredictable courses of development, and mould their convictions. They also illustrated the law that the ebb-tide of events carries men away just as surely as the flood-tide brings them in. Although their ranks included several former French Socialists (whose inclinations had been quite alien to Bolshevism), these zealous Communists, who for the most part were perfectly sincere, came from all points of the political horizon only to make a speedy departure once again in equally variegated directions. The Moscow group was a little nest of vipers, although it was led by Pierre Pascal, a man of exemplary character. The quarrels, grudges, denunciations, and counter-denunciations of its two leading figures at the time, Henri Guilbeaux and Jacques Sadoul, completely demoralized it and finally earned the attentions of the Cheka. Guilbeauxs whole life was a perfect example of the failure who, despite all his efforts, skirts the edge of success without ever managing to achieve it. He wrote cacophonous poetry, kept a card-index full of gossip about his comrades, and plagued the Cheka with confidential notes. He wore green shirts and pea-green ties with greenish suits; everything about him, including his crooked face and his eyes, seemed to have a touch of mould. (He died in Paris, about 1938, by then an anti-Semite, having published two books proving Mussolini to be the only true successor of Lenin.)
Jacques Sadoul was quite different: a Paris lawyer, an army captain, an information-officer in Russia on behalf of Albert Thomas, a member of the Comintern Executive, a flatterer of Lenin and Trotsky, a great charmer, a splendid raconteur, a sybarite, and a cool careerist to boot. However, he had produced a volume of Letters on the Revolution which is still a document of the first importance.
[Albert Thomas (1878-1932) was Minister of Munitions in the First World War and visited Russia after the February Revolution of 1917 in an attempt to arouse enthusiasm for the Allies.]
He had been condemned to death in France for crossing over to the Bolshevik side, but was one day to return home, times having changed, with an acquittal. After that he trailed alongside the full course of Stalinism, both as a lawyer acting for Soviet interests and as an agent in Parliamentary circles, though at heart he did not entertain the slightest illusion about Russia. The bread of bitterness tasted by revolutionaries held no temptations for him.
Rene Marchand, once the Petrograd correspondent for the Catholic-reactionary Figaro, was a fresh convert troubled by perpetual crises of conscience. He was soon to go off to Turkey, there to renounce Bolshevism and become an apologist, doubtless a sincere one, for Kemal Ataturk.
The outstanding figure in the Moscow French Communist group was Pierre Pascal, probably a distant descendant of Blaise Pascal, of whom he reminded me. I had met him in Moscow in 1919. There, his head shaven Russian-style, sporting a big Cossack moustache and smiling perpetually with his bright eyes, he would walk through the city barefoot and clad in a peasant tunic to the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, where he used to draft messages for Chicherin. A loyal and circumspect Catholic, he used St. Thomass Summa to justify his adherence to Bolshevism and even his approval of the Terror. (The texts of the learned saint lent themselves admirably to this task.) Pascal led an ascetic life, sympathizing with the Workers Opposition and hobnobbing with the anarchists. He had been a lieutenant with the French Military Mission, in charge of coding; he had crossed over to the Revolution in the middle of the intervention, to dedicate himself to it body and soul. He discussed its mystical significance with Berdyaev and translated Bloks poems. He was to suffer terribly as the birth of totalitarianism progressed. I met him again in Paris in 1936. He was now a professor at the Sorbonne, the author of a solid biography of the Archpriest Avvakum, and more or less a Conservative. We, who had almost been brothers, could not talk together about the battle of Madrid....
The Executive had decided, on Russian initiative of course, to set up a trade-union International affiliated to the Comintern. Salomon Abramovich Lozovsky (or Dridzo), an ex-Menshevik of recent vintage and an inexhaustible orator, was in charge of the new organization.
[Lozovsky afterwards became Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs and then head of the Soviet Information Office; he was shot in 1952 at the age of 74.]
He had the air of a slightly fastidious schoolmaster amidst his world-wide assortment of trade-union militants whose political horizons did not extend very far beyond their own working-class districts at home. Not far from him, a one-eyed giant would pass through the crowd, downcast and solitary, but now and then distributing vigorous thumps on the shoulders of his mates. This was Bill Haywood, a former timberman, organizer of the I.W.W., who had come to end his days in the stuffy rooms of the Lux Hotel, among Marxists not one of whom tried to understand him and whom he scarcely understood himself. Still, he got a big thrill out of the red flags in the public squares.
Here too I met a Russian militant who had been in a British prison and was now home from Latin America: Dr. Alexandrov, I think. He was thirty-five, with a swarthy commonplace face, dark hair, and black moustache; very well-informed on all the happenings in the great world outside. He was later to become Comrade Borodin, the Russian political adviser to the Kuomintang at Canton.
[Later still Borodin edited the Moscow News, an English-language newspaper produced, at first, largely for foreign technicians working in the Soviet Union. In 1949 he was arrested with most of his staff, and deported to Siberia, where he died early in 1953. Chinese intervention is said to have saved him from execution.]
On the whole, the foreign delegates were a rather disappointing crowd, charmed at enjoying appreciable privileges in a starving country, quick to adulate and reluctant to think. Few workers could be seen among them, but plenty of politicians. How pleased they are, Jacques Mesnil remarked to me, to be able to watch parades, at long last, from the official platform! The influence of the International was expanded only at the expense of quality. We began to ask ourselves whether it had not been a grave error to split the Socialist movement to form new little parties, incapable of effective action, fed with ideas and money by the Executives emissaries, and fated to become propaganda factories for the Soviet Government. We were already putting these problems to ourselves, but were reassured by the instability of Western Europe and the wave of enthusiasm which still held us. All the same, I did conclude that, in the International as well, the danger lay in ourselves.
The New Economic Policy was, in the space of a few months, already giving marvellous results. From one week to the next, the famine and the speculation were diminishing perceptibly. Restaurants were opening again and, wonder of wonders, pastries which were actually edible were on sale at a rouble apiece. The public was beginning to recover its breath, and people were apt to talk about the return of capitalism, which was synonymous with prosperity. On the other hand, the confusion among the Party rank-and-file was staggering. For what did we fight, spill so much blood, agree to so many sacrifices? asked the Civil War veterans bitterly. Usually these men lacked all the necessities: clothes, decent homes, money; and now everything was turning back into market-value. They felt that money, the vanquished foe, would soon come into its kingdom once again.
I personally was less pessimistic. I was glad that the change had taken place, though its reactionary side — the outright obliteration of every trace of democracy worried and even distressed me. Would any other resolution of the drama of War Communism have been possible? This was by now a problem of only theoretical interest, but one worthy of some reflection. On this I developed some ideas, which I remember expounding on one occasion particularly, at a confidential meeting I had at the Lux Hotel with two Spanish Socialists. Fernando de los Rios was one of them.
[Fernando de los Rios (1879-1949): Professor of Ethics at Granada University, Minister of justice and of Education in the first Spanish Republican Government, and Ambassador to Washington during the Civil War.]
They ran as follows:
Through its intolerance and its arrogation of an absolute monopoly of power and initiative in all fields, the Bolshevik regime was floundering in its own toils. The big concessions to the peasantry were unavoidable, but small-scale manufacture, medium-scale trading, and certain industries could have been revived merely by appealing to the initiative of groups of Producers and consumers. By freeing the State-strangled co-operatives, and inviting various associations to take over the management of different branches of economic activity, an enormous degree of recovery could have been achieved straight away. The country was short of both shoes and leather; but the rural areas had leather, and shoe-makers cooperatives would have easily got hold of it and, once left to themselves, would have sprung into action at once. Of necessity they would have charged relatively high prices, but the State could, in the process of assisting their operations, have exercised a downward pressure upon their prices, which in any case would have been lower than those demanded by the black market. In Petrograd I could see what was happening to the book trade; the stocks of the bookshops, which had been confiscated, were rotting away in cellars which as often as not became flooded with water in the spring. We were most thankful to the thieves who salvaged a goodly number of books and put them back, clandestinely, into circulation. The book trade could, if it had been turned over to associations of book-lovers, have speedily recovered its health. In a word, I was arguing for a Communism of associations — in contrast to Communism of the State variety. The competition inherent in such a system and the disorder inevitable in all beginnings would have caused less inconvenience than did our stringently bureaucratic centralization, with its muddle and paralysis. I thought of the total plan not as something to be dictated by the State from on high, but rather as resulting from the harmonizing, by congresses and specialized assemblies, of initiatives from below. However, since the Bolshevik mind had already ordained other solutions, it was a vision confined to the realms of pure theory.
Ever since Kronstadt some of my friends and I had been asking ourselves what jobs we were going to do. We had not the slightest desire to enter the ruling bureaucracy and become heads of offices or secretaries of institutions. I was offered entry into a diplomatic career, in the Orient at first. I was attracted by the prospect of the Orient, but not by diplomacy. We thought we had found a way out. We would found an agricultural colony in the heart of the Russian countryside; while the N.E.P. reinstated bourgeois habits in the towns and furnished the new rulers with sinecures and easy careers, we would live close to the earth, in the wilds. The earth of Russia,
with its sad and calm expanses, is endlessly fascinating. Without much ado we found a large, abandoned estate north of Petrograd, not far from Lake Ladoga, comprising some hundreds of acres of woodland and waste field, thirty head of cattle, and a landlords residence. There, together with French Communists, Hungarian prisoners-of-war, a Tolstoyan doctor and my father-in-law Russakov, we founded the French Commune of Novaya-Ladoga.
We made a valiant beginning to this experiment, which turned out to be very hard going. The estate had been abandoned because the peasants would not agree to exploit it collectively; they demanded that it be shared out among them. Two chairmen of short-lived communes there had been murdered in the space of eighteen months. The village nearby boycotted us, although the children came at all hours to stare at the extraordinary creatures that we were. At the same time they spied everywhere, and if you forgot a shovel it disappeared at once. One night our entire stock of corn, which was to last for both food and seed until harvest-time, was stolen from us. It was a real state of famine and siege. Every night we waited up in case anyone tried to set the house on fire. We knew who was hiding our corn, but we did not, as they expected, go out with our revolvers to search for it, which only increased the suspicion and hatred surrounding us. The peasants had all the necessities, but refused to sell anything to the Jews and Anti-Christs that we were.
We decided to break this blockade; I went off to the village with Dr. N — , an old believer and Tolstoyan whose musical voice and benign solemnity would, we hoped, have some effect. A peasant woman curtly refused us everything we asked for. The doctor opened the neck of his blouse and brought out the little golden cross that he wore over his breast. We are Christians too, little sister! Their faces lit up and we were given eggs! And little girls made so bold as to come to see us in the evenings, when we would all sing French songs together.... However, it could not last; in three months hunger and weariness forced us to abandon the project.
Since Kronstadt there had been a revival of the Terror in Petrograd. The Cheka had just liquidated the Tagantsev conspiracy by executing some thirty people. I had known Professor Tagantsev a little: a skinny little old man with white side-whiskers, a jurist and one of the longest-established university teachers in the former capital. With him they shot a lawyer named Bak to whom I used to send translation jobs and who had never concealed his counterrevolutionary opinions from me.
At the same time they executed the splendid poet Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev, my comrade and adversary back in Paris. I called on his home at the Moyka Art House, where he had a room with his very young wife, a tall girl with a slender neck and the eyes of a terrified gazelle. It was a huge room, with murals showing swans and lotuses — it had once been the bathroom of a merchant who had a taste for poetry with this sort of imagery. Gumilevs young wife said to me in a low voice, Havent you heard? They took him away three days ago.'
['Monsieur Bak, a former businessman and journalist for an Iron and Steel Board in the days of the Empire, a small, smooth-faced gentleman, appallingly refined and nice, was agreeable to translating articles on theory, but not revolutionary appeals. Pardon me, citizen, he would remark, my conscience.... Naturally, I respected his conscience. . . . Serge, Deux Rencontres.]
The comrades at the Soviet Executive gave me news which was both reassuring and disturbing: Gumilev was being very well treated at the Cheka, he had spent some nights there reciting his poems — poems overflowing with stately energy to the Chekists there; but he had admitted to having drafted certain political documents for the counter-revolutionary group. All this seemed likely enough. Gumilev had never concealed his ideas. During the Kronstadt revolt the circle at the university must have believed that the regime was about to fall, and had thought to assist in its liquidation. The conspiracy could have gone no further than that. The Cheka made ready to shoot all of them: This isnt the time to go soft! One comrade travelled to Moscow to ask Dzerzhinsky a question: Were we entitled to shoot one of Russias two or three poets of the first order? Dzerzhinsky answered, Are we entitled to make an exception of a poet and still shoot the others? It was dawn, at the edge of a forest, when Gumilev fell, his cap pulled down over his eyes, a cigarette hanging from his lips, showing the same calm he had expressed in one of the poems he brought back from Ethiopia: And fearless I shall appear before the Lord God. That, at least, is the tale as it was told to me. Over and over again, with mingled admiration. and horror, I read the verses which he had entitled The Worker, where he describes a gentle, grey-eyed man who, before going to bed, finishes making the bullet that is going to kill me. ...'
The faces of Nikolai and Olga Gumilev were to haunt me for years afterwards.
At the same time another of our greatest poets was dying of debility, which was the same thing as starvation: Alexander Blok, at the age of forty-one. I knew him only slightly, but admired him boundlessly. Together with Andrei Bely and Sergei Yesenin he had inspired the mystical vision of the Revolution: the Christ crowned with roses who, invisible and silent, walks in the snow-storm before the Twelve Red Guards, soldiers in peak-caps whose rifles are aimed at the citys shadows. He had told me of his rebellions against the Revolutions new absolutism, and I had heard him reading his last great work. His two poems, The Twelve, and The Scythians, were being translated into many languages, and they remain spiritual monuments of that era. The first proclaimed the Messianic character of the Revolution; the second revealed its ancient, Asiatic face. Contradictory, but so was reality. Blok was a gentlemanly Westerner, rather like an Englishman, blue-eyed and with a long, serious face that hardly ever smiled. He was restrained in his gestures, with a fine dignity about him. Ever since the rise of Symbolism, fifteen years ago, he had been the foremost Russian poet. I followed his corpse to the Vassili-Ostrov cemetery at the moment when the Cheka was passing sentence on Gumilev.
I belonged to the last surviving free-thought society; in all probability I was the only Communist member. This was the Free Philosophic Society, or Volfila, whose real guiding spirit was another brilliant poet, Andrei Bely. We organized big public debates, in which one of the speakers was often a shabby, squinting little man, wretchedly dressed, whose face was scored with perpendicular wrinkles. He was Ivanov-Razumnik, the historian and philosopher, still one of the finest representatives of the old revolutionary intelligentsia of Russia. Sometimes the discussion would dissolve into grand lyrical effusions on the problems of existence, consciousness, and the Cosmos. Like Blok, both Bely and Ivanov-Razumnik were somewhat attracted, by reason of their revolutionary romanticism, to the persecuted and silenced Left Social-Revolutionary Party. On account of this sympathy, and because the philosophical flights of the two poets trespassed beyond the bounds of Marxism, the Cheka and the Party had their eye on the Volfila. Its organizers wondered every day whether they were going to be arrested. We held our private meetings at Andrei Belys. At the time he was living in a huge room of the old military headquarters opposite the Winter Palace, just above the offices of the police-militia. There we would ask one another how we could preserve liberty of thought as a principle, and prove that it was not a counter-revolutionary principle. Bely suggested convening a World Congress of Free Thought in Moscow, and inviting to it Romain Rolland, Henri Barbusse, and Gandhi. A chorus of voices cried back: It'll never be allowed! I told them that if they appealed to intellectuals abroad, who were certainly incapable of any real understanding of revolutionary Russia, the Russian intellectuals ran a risk of discrediting the Revolution, which was already the object of indiscriminate attacks by the émigrés.
Andrei Bely, a daring stylist, a splendid writer of poetry and prose, and a theosophist (or anthroposophist, as he himself termed it) was just over forty. He was embarrassed at being bald, and so always wore a black skull-cap beneath which his great seers eyes, of a stony greenish-blue, gave out a continual glitter. The vitality and variety of his mind was prodigious. His whole behaviour reflected spiritual idealism, with sometimes the postures of a visionary, sometimes the frank outbursts of a child. In the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, he had won fame through a psychological novel about the period, a mystical, revolutionary work impregnated with German and Latin culture. Now he was beginning to feel that his great energies were bankrupt.
What can I do now in this life? he asked me despondently one evening. I cannot live outside this Russia of ours and I cannot breathe within it!'
I answered that the state of siege was sure to end, and that Western Socialism would open out vast prospects for Russia. Do you think so? he said thoughtfully. However, at the beginning of the autumn of 1921, as the carnage of the Terror was filling us with horror, we saw even the Volfila disintegrate.
I am well aware that terror has been necessary up till now in all great revolutions, which do not happen according to the taste of well-intentioned men, but spontaneously, with the violence of tempests; and that it is our duty to employ the only weapons that history affords us if we are not to be overwhelmed through our own folly. But at the same time I saw that the perpetuation of terror, after the end of the Civil War and the transition to a period of economic freedom, was an immense and demoralizing blunder. I was and still am convinced that the new regime would have felt a hundred times more secure if it had henceforth proclaimed its reverence, as a Socialist government, for human life and the rights of all individuals without exception.
The tragedies continued. From Odessa we had monstrous news: the Cheka had just shot Fanny Baron (the wife of Aaron Baron) and Lev Chorny, one of the theoreticians of Russian anarchism. Lev Chorny had been well known to me in Paris twelve years earlier. A figure straight out of a Byzantine icon, with a waxy complexion and eyes that flashed from hollow sockets, he lived in the Latin Quarter, cleaning restaurant windows and then going off to write his Sociometry beneath the trees of the Luxembourg Gardens. His death incensed Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.
[Aaron Baron was later deported to the north; but he was arrested during the purges of 1937 and never heard of again.]
During the Third Congress of the International Emma Goldman had thought of making a scene, after the manner of the English suffragettes, by chaining herself to a bench on one of the public balconies and shouting out her protest to the Congress. The Russian anarchists had persuaded her to change her mind. In the country of the Scythians such demonstrations had little value; far better to keep on nagging at Lenin and Zinoviev.
Meanwhile, our persistent campaign for the release of the victimized prisoners had met with some success: ten anarchist prisoners, including the syndicalist Maximov and Boris Voline, were authorized to leave Russia, and others were freed. Kamenev promised that Aaron Baron would be banished; a promise that was not fulfilled, since the Cheka was to oppose it. Certain Mensheviks, notably Martov, also obtained passports to travel abroad.
What with Kronstadt, these tragedies, and the influence of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman on the working-class movement in the Old World and the New, an unbridgeable gap was now to open between Marxists and libertarians: Later in history, this division would play a fatal part: it was one of the causes of the intellectual confusion and final defeat of the Spanish Revolution. In this respect, MY worst forebodings were fulfilled.
The American background of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman estranged them from the Russians, and turned them into representatives of an idealistic generation that had completely vanished in Russia. (I have no doubt that they were just as disconcerted and indignant over a good deal of what happened in Makhnos movement.) They embodied the humanistic rebellion of the turn of the century: Emma Goldman with her organizing flair and practical disposition, her narrow but generous prejudices, and her self-importance, typical of American women devoted to social work; Berkman with the inward tension that sprang from his idealism in years long past. His eighteen years in an American prison had frozen him in the attitudes of his youth when, as an act of solidarity with a strike, he had offered up his life by shooting at one of the steel barons. When his tension relaxed he became dejected, and I could not help thinking that he was often troubled by ideas of suicide. In fact, it was only much later that he was to end his life, in 1936, on the Côte d'Azur.
The winds of an immeasurable calamity swept upon us from the parched plains of the Volga. The Civil War had crossed these regions, and now drought had destroyed them. Millions, starved of all necessities, fled from the famine. I saw them coming up even as far as Petrograd, on foot or in carts. Not everyone had the strength or the means to flee; these were all to die in millions on the spot. This scourge, which struck at both the Ukraine and the Crimea, devastated areas populated by 23,000,000 inhabitants. The blow was so severe that authority tottered. Could the Bolshevik dictatorship overcome the ghastly spectre of death? I met Maxim Gorky, bony, grey, and frowning as never before; he told me of the formation of a committee of leading intellectuals and non-Communist technicians, which was to appeal to all the latent energies of the country, and might well be the germ of tomorrows democratic government. (The Government at first recognized this committee, which was headed by the Marxist-revisionist economist Prokopovich and the Liberal publicist, Ekaterina Kusskova; then it had these two arrested and expelled from the country.)
[S. N. Prokopovich (1871-1955) and his wife Ekaterina Kusskova (1869-1958) were prominent on the Liberal (and subsequently the revisionist') wing of the Russian Labour and co-operative movement. Prokopovich served as a Minister under Kerensky and wrote in exile important works on the Soviet economy. Kusskova was a leading figure in the group of émigrés who believed in the eventual liberalization of the Soviet regime.]
I did not share Gorkys opinion; the revolutionary regime seemed to me already encased in so impenetrable an armour that the skeleton hand of famine could not manage to dislodge it from power. And, despite everything, I was very definitely committed to the regimes survival; I had faith in its future and I knew that for some years Russia would be incapable of any fresh thrust forward from her present condition.
The two groups of friends whose company I kept, the French and the Russian, both suffered from a similar distress. Most of my comrades decided to abandon either political life or the Party. Novomirsky, a high official in the International, an ex-terrorist from 1905, an ex-convict and former anarchist who had been won for Bolshevism by Lenins goodwill, now sent his membership card back to the Central Committee on account of his fundamental disagreements. He devoted himself to scientific work, and nobody thought of bearing him any grudge. (All the same, he was to be remembered in 1937 when he disappeared, along with his wife, into the concentration-camps.) Marcel Body, a Socialist worker, arranged to be sent to the Soviet Embassy in Oslo. Another got sent to Turkey. Another went to manage a sawmill in the heart of the Far East. Pierre Pascal quietly withdrew from the Party and earned his living as a translator, at the same time working on his history of the schism of the Russian Church. I was tougher inside, and enjoyed (as I think) a broader vision of the Revolution, as well as having less individualistic sentiment in my make-up. I did not feel disheartened or disoriented. I was disgusted at certain things, psychologically exhausted by the Terror and tormented by the mass of wrongs that I could see growing, which I was powerless to counteract. My conclusions were that the Russian Revolution, left to itself, would probably, in one way or another, collapse (I did not see how: would it be through war or domestic reaction?); that the Russians, who had made superhuman efforts to build a new society, were more or less at the end of their strength; and that relief and salvation must come from the West. From now on it was necessary to work to build a Western working-class movement capable of supporting the Russians and, one day, superseding them. I decided to leave for Central Europe, which seemed to be the focus Of events to come. (The condition of my wife, who was now on the verge of tuberculosis as a result of all the privations, was another factor that encouraged me in this direction.) Zinoviev and the comrades on the Executive offered me a post in Berlin, working in illegality. If danger was within us, salvation must lie within us no less.