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International Socialism, Spring 1993


Richard Greeman

The return of Comrade Tulayev

Victor Serge and the tragic vision of Stalinism


From International Socialism 2 : 58, Spring 1993, pp. 79–117.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Introduction [1]

1993 ... 1974 ... 1936 ... How short our historical memories are! When the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from Russia in 1974, the event was hailed as unique. His aura as an uncompromising resister to totalitarian oppression compelled instant respect, while his powerfully truthful novels and painfully detailed revelations about the inner workings of the Gulag Archipelago exploded like bombshells. The Solzhenitsyn phenomenon shocked the conscience of the liberal West and provoked a major shift in the political intellectual climate, particularly in France where former Leftists were overnight converted to a ‘new’ philosophy of neo-liberal authoritarianism.

Yet four decades earlier, in 1936, when the writer and revolutionary Victor Serge was expelled under strikingly similar circumstances, there was no such attendant hullabaloo, much less any shift in the political atmosphere as a result of Serge’s unmasking of the mass persecutions, slave labour camps and sensational frame up trials in Russia. Serge too, had established a reputation as both an uncompromising literary artist and a dissident prepared to pay with his person for the right to criticise the Stalinist regime. Like Solzhenitsyn, his persecution had become a celebrated cause among intellectuals.

Yet no Swiss bank accounts were waiting for Serge and his family when, stripped of their belongings (including several manuscripts never recovered [2]), they were escorted across the border to ‘freedom’. No Nobel Committee awaited Serge, nor did publishers press him with lucrative offers or journalists flock to hang on his every word. On the contrary, ill and penniless, supported only by a few friends on the independent left who were scarcely better off than himself. Serge found himself boycotted by the liberal and socialist press and forced to fall back on his old trade as a proofreader to earn a precarious living in Brussels and Paris. Deprived of his Soviet citizenship, heaped with abuse by the pro-Communist press. Serge nonetheless managed to survive and to continue writing in exile. Although he laboured mightily to reveal the explosive truths about the then triumphant Stalinist system and to warn the world about the potential threat to humanity posed by Stalin’s totalitarian power, his words fell on deaf ears.

Yet Serge’s credentials as a witness were impeccable. Born to a family of exiled Russian revolutionaries in Belgium in 1890, Victor bore a famous name – that of the populist martyr, Kibalchich, one of the assassins of Tsar Alexander II. (‘Serge’ was a pen-name he later adopted.) By the age of 21, Victor had himself achieved notoriety as one of the principal accused in the sensational Paris trial of anarchist bankrobbers, known as ‘the Bonnot gang’, where his refusal to play the informer earned him five years in the penitentiary. [3]

When the 1917 revolution broke out in Russia, Serge immediately embraced it. After 18 months detention in a French concentration camp as a ‘Bolshevik suspect’, he arrived in Petrograd in January 1919 at the height of the civil war. Serge soon joined the Bolsheviks, although he retained his libertarian outlook. Zinoviev immediately put his talents as a journalist to work in the newly founded Communist International, and it was through Serge that many French readers first discovered the Russian Revolution (much as John Reed’s writings had revealed it to Americans). By the early 1930s Serge’s history of Year One of the Russian Revolution and his novels Birth of Our Power and Conquered City had established his reputation in Paris as an outstanding pro-Soviet writer despite his 1928 expulsion from the Russian party as a Left Oppositionist.

Serge’s arrest in 1933 thus provoked a sensation and led to a sustained campaign of protest by both intellectuals and revolutionary militants in France. The controversy eventually involved writers as famous as Gide, Rolland, Malraux, Barbusse, Giraudoux, Duhamel, Aragon, Ehrenburg, Pasternak and Gorky as well as four heads of state, and by the end of 1935 Stalin agreed to release Serge – an unparalleled event.

However, as with the exiled Trotsky, no Western democracy was willing to open its doors to Serge, for the celebrated literary dissident was also a notorious anarchist-cum-communist. It was not until April 1936 that Serge’s friends finally obtained him a Belgian visa. This was not a moment too soon. Four months later Stalin launched the blood purge of old Bolsheviks (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov et al.). Obviously Stalin never would have allowed a knowledgeable insider like Serge to escape once the first Moscow frame up trial had been planned (proof to Serge that it was not planned).

Yet despite Serge’s relative celebrity and outstanding credentials, his efforts to expose the bloody fraud of the Moscow Trials and the counter-revolutionary totalitarian system that spawned them went largely unheeded. This was as much as a result of the indifference of Western intellectuals and of their popular front mentality, which rejected any criticism of their new Russian anti-fascist ally, as it was of Russian machinations. To be sure, Stalin’s agents used every means short of assassination to neutralise Serge’s dangerous testimony. On 1 July 1936, the Russian government stripped Serge of his passport and Soviet citizenship, thus placing him in the insecure position of a man without a country. Moreover, the Soviet consular official in Belgium withheld official confirmation of this change in status, which made it impossible for Serge to obtain travel documents and effectively sequestered him in Belgium at a time when he might have found an effective platform in Paris. He was also the victim of police harassment provoked by GPU inspired denunciations. He was accused of agitating among the striking miners and preparing to assassinate the King of Belgium. The police rented a flat on the first floor of the house where Serge lived and his apartment was searched on a regular basis. On one occasion, a policeman even searched the cradle of Serge’s infant daughter while supposedly looking for arms intended for the Spanish republicans!

Unable to strike an effective blow against Serge personally, Stalin’s government took revenge on his relatives in Russia. His older sister, mother-in-law, two brothers-in-law and two sisters-in-law – all apolitical – were arrested and disappeared into the gulag. Serge and his wife Liuba never heard from them again. The fate of his family must have weighed heavily on Serge and there is evidence that they held him responsible for their persecution. How could he fail to feel guilty, especially when faced daily with the spectacle of Liuba’s severe mental illness, which can only have been exacerbated by the news from Russia?

Collective guilt – the use of hostages to ensure the good behaviour of their relatives – was one of the most effective and barbarous methods employed by Stalin’s Terror. Like the ‘choices’ imposed on the Jews in the Nazi camps, it imposed moral dilemmas of an exquisitely painful nature, designed to destroy the very souls of its victims. Only individuals with a powerful hold on life, a clear political vision and a coherent sense of selfhood could survive it and preserve their moral and psychological integrity. Serge was such an individual, as was his sister-in-law, Anita Russakova, who survived nine years in the gulag (Viatka, Vorkuta). Interviewed in Leningrad at the age of 83, she told me that she bore no resentment against Victor, although she was certain that she, her mother, sisters and brothers, had been arrested because of Serge.

Harassment and persecution were reinforced by attacks on Serge in the media. The Communist press demanded his expulsion from Belgium ‘in the name of respect for the right of asylum’, and a slander campaign was mounted in Paris by a former friend, Jacques Sadoul. [4] Parisian editors were pressured to refrain from publishing Serge’s articles and one by one the columns of newspapers and magazines were closed to him – La NRF, L’Europe, Vendredi, Le Populaire – until the boycott was almost total. Only the Belgian daily, La Walonie, of Liege, the Catholic personalist review Ésprit, and a few small circulation, far left journals like La Révolution proletarienne, Les Cahiers Spartacus, and Les Humbles provided him with a regular platform. Unable to live by writing, Serge was obliged to fall back on one of the trades of his youth, proofreading, and to earn his bread correcting the pages of some of the very left wing papers that were boycotting him.

Along with Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov, the Austrian Social Democrat Fritz Adler, the old Russian Marxist Boris Nikolayevski, the Yugoslav Communist Anton Ciliga, and a few others, Serge laboured mightily to expose the wholesale slanders and falsifications spewing forth daily from Russia – fabrications which were swallowed by the bulk of liberal opinion and endlessly repeated in the press. It was a Sisyphean task. No sooner had one enormity been exposed than two new ones were invented. But Serge was too deeply attached to Russia, its people, its revolution, and to the defendants, whom he had known in more heroic hours, to abdicate.

Serge helped organise a ‘Committee for Inquiry into the Moscow Trials and the Defence of Free Opinion in the Revolution’, which met in the backrooms of cafés in Paris. Its members included the Surrealist poet Andre Breton, the pacifist Felicien Challaye, the poet Marcel Martinet, socialists like Magdeleine Paz and Andre Philip, writers like Hentry Poulaille and Jean Galtier-Boissiere, worker militants like Pierre Monatte and Alfred Rosmer, left journalists such as Georges Pioch, Maurice Wullens and Emery, and the historians Georges Michon and Dommanget. Serge had insisted on the awkward two part title, for he already foresaw the need to defend anti-Stalinist militants like Andres Nin in Spain from GPU inspired slander and assassination.

Meanwhile, Trotsky’s own followers in France were apparently too preoccupied with their own sectarian squabbles to rise to the historic occasion. ‘How vexatious, how disgusting,’ Serge wrote to Trotsky, ‘to see so much paper blackened over the personal chicanaries of Molinier [the leader of one of the rival factions] when they haven’t found a way to publish a single pamphlet about our comrades in Stalin’s jails!’ [5] There was little Trotsky could do, since a week later he would find himself under house arrest in ‘liberal’ Norway, forbidden to write or even listen to the radio reports of his own trial taking place in Moscow!

Among the literati, he found sympathy from Georges Duhamel (who nonetheless felt powerless to act), Leon Werth and the Catholics around Emanuel Mounier. Serge had addressed a bold open letter to Andre Gide on the eve of the latter’s celebrated voyage to Moscow and, far from taking offence, Gide met with him several times on his return. If Gide took the precaution of keeping his association with Serge a secret (so as to avoid the accusation of ‘Trotskyist influence’), there is considerable evidence that he relied on Serge’s information and advice in writing his Retouches on the Retour de I’URSS. [6]

On the other hand, Romain Rolland, whose intervention on Serge’s behalf had probably been instrumental in saving him, remained silent when Serge exhorted him to use his unique moral authority in the USSR by questioning the Moscow Trials. Serge ironised:

So many literary men have succeeded in keeping silence, gaily, with a supreme revolutionary elegance. They have found it possible to publish weeklies and monthlies and whole books without letting the truth glimmer through. That is a sign of great artistry. And it is a terrible danger.

Even intellectuals who did express concern often confined their activity to agonised handwringing. Typical was Victor Basch, one of the heroes of the Dreyfus affairs and the chairman of the League for the Rights of Man. He gave Serge a long interview, promised that an investigation would be undertaken and did nothing.

Serge did not give in to discouragement, for his struggle was not only to save the oppositionist comrades he had left behind in the gulag but also to keep their ideas alive. This task involved rescuing both Marxism and the truth about the Bolshevik revolution from the flood of Stalinist distortion. It also meant explaining how and why a liberating movement with the highest ideals became transformed into an oppressive totalitarian nightmare, that is to say, facing the biggest challenge to Marxist thought since the collapse of the Socialist International at the outbreak of the First World War.

In pamphlets like The Sixteen Who Were Shot and Yagoda’s End, Serge used his insider’s knowledge of Stalinist police methods and of the character of the old Bolshevik leaders to explain the enigma of the Moscow Trials, where outstanding revolutionaries like Zinoviev and Bukharin confessed to the most absurd crimes. However it was in books like From Lenin to Stalin and Russia Twenty Years After [UK title: Destiny of a Revolution] (1937) and Portrait of Stalin (1940) that Serge explored the historical, economic, sociological and political roots of the new system which the Stalinist bureaucracy was erecting on the ashes of the Russian Revolution.

Serge wrote these books in great haste, within months of his liberation. However, they have stood the test of time: Serge’s accounts of the Soviet Union combine the insights of an eyewitness with the scrupulous documentation of a professional writer and the analytical acumen of a sophisticated Marxist. Ralph Manheim’s English translation of From Lenin to Stalin has frequently been reprinted and is in constant demand for socialist education classes, while Serge’s account of the Terror in Russia Twenty Years After has been complemented, but by no means contradicted, by more recent massive studies by Solzhenitsyn, Medvedev and Conquest.

Serge’s analysis was no doubt strongly influenced by the ideas of Leon Trotsky, whose The Revolution Betrayed Serge was translating from Russian into French at the same time he was preparing his own books on Russia. However, Serge also drew on his knowledge of the various theories circulating in Russian prison and exile communities where surviving Left Oppositionists, often in sharp disagreement with each other, were attempting to describe Stalinism in Marxist terms.

Like Trotsky’s, Serge’s writings were often prophetic. In Russia Twenty Years After, he foresaw that without genuine democracy and worker participation, the triumphant progress of Soviet industry would eventually bog down in a bureaucratic morass. He also predicted that if the bureaucracy were not overthrown by the workers, it would eventually make its peace with the Western bourgeoisie and invite capitalists into joint ventures to share in the exploitation of Soviet labour. Indeed, in an unpublished new preface entitled ‘Russia 30 Years After’ (1947), Serge foresaw the post-1989 wholesale rejection of Marxism along with the tarnished ‘Marxism’ of Stalinists as well as the rise of nationalist ideologies in its place, describing them as likely consequences if Stalinism collapsed in the absence of a proletarian revolution.

Although Serge’s underlying methodology in these historical and sociological books was Marxist, his presentation was largely descriptive – letting facts, figures and accounts of the situation of the workers under their new Stalinist masters speak for themselves. I believe this was only partly because he was writing for the broadest possible popular audience and not just for Marxists. Serge was also convinced both that it was too early to classify the Stalinist system under a single theoretical formula and that such premature attempts would only lead to sectarian squabbles among dogmatists. Thus, although Serge was perfectly familiar with such formulae as ‘degenerated workers’ state’, ‘state capitalism’, and the distinction between a ‘caste’ and a ‘class’, he tended to reject labels in favour of more concrete descriptions of the actual relations between workers and their bureaucratic exploiters from which his readers could draw their own conclusions.

When Serge completed the manuscript of Russia Twenty Years After on Christmas Day of 1936, he heaved a sigh of relief. ‘The militant’s job is now completed,’ he wrote to Marcel Martinet. ‘I’m going to attack something completely different.’ That ‘something’ was fiction, to which he was increasingly dedicated. Serge had experienced something of a rebirth in 1928, when he was expelled from the Russian Communist Party, arrested for the first time and suffered a heart attack. He realised that he was ‘politically dead’ as far as Russia was concerned and resolved to devote what remained to him of life and freedom to literary creation designed to preserve the memory and inner meaning of the unforgettable people and events he had known-and to which he was one of the few surviving witnesses. Although as a long-time professional revolutionary Serge retained a healthy suspicion of aestheticism, he began to see that artistic creation held the promise of leaving behind a significant and lasting testimony to the struggles and the mentality of a generation that the counter-revolutions he saw rising in Russia and in Germany, now threatened with extinction.

Serge’s first three novels, written in semi-captivity in Russia, had chronicled the rise to power of the revolutionary movement and, through their subtle ironies, posed the paradoxical problem of defeat in victory – the anger within. The two novels he wrote in exile in central Asia were, as we have seen, confiscated by the secret police. Now at last Serge was free to write openly about Stalinism, and his first novel. Midnight in the Century, described the resistance of Oppositionists in prison and exile against the backdrop of collectivisation.

Midnight was mentioned for the Prix Goncourt in 1939, but suppressed, like its author, at the fall of France. It was thus only later with his sprawling social and psychological novel, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, that Serge succeeded in capturing the essence of the whole society, from its summits to its depths, and to epitomise the world of Stalinism. And by the time the book was actually published, in 1948, Serge had died, isolated and impoverished, in Mexican exile. It is thus altogether fitting that today, 100 years after Serge’s birth and 50 years after he completed his masterpiece, International Socialism should be devoting attention to The Case of Comrade Tulayev on the occasion of the new British edition, which Journeyman and Bookmarks have just published.

The life of Serge’s books has been hard, yet tenacious, like that of their author. Boycotted by both conservatives and fellow travellers, they never achieved the success of works like Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Malraux’s Man’s Fate, or Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat – arguably novels of lesser artistic merit and political penetration. Trotsky, who was an afficianado of the French novel, opted not to read them and his disciples have largely ignored them. On the other hand, Serge’s novels, essays and particularly his Memoirs of a Revolutionary have enjoyed the loyalty of a steadily increasing readership over more than 50 years, with something of a boomlet in the 1960s in response to the rise of a new left. His books have also been translated into many languages. Indeed, Serge may be better known in English than in the original French thanks to the translations of the late Peter Sedgwick, an early contributor to International Socialism, and my own modest efforts.

The recent centennial of Serge’s birth was marked by yet another revival of interest. Public meetings were held in London, Glasgow and Madrid, while in Brussels, Serge’s birthplace, the Free University sponsored a two day colloquium, whose papers were later published in the Belgian review, Socialisme. These contributions and other essays on Serge are scheduled to appear in English in a special edition of Critique (Glasgow). Meanwhile, Bill Marshall’s excellent study Victor Serge: The Uses of Dissent has been published by Berg (Oxford, 1992), and two of Serge’s novels have at last appeared in Russian in the former Soviet Union.

However, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, the novel in which he best penetrated the essence of Stalinism and which many consider his masterpiece, has long been out of print in English, and it is our pleasure to introduce it to a new generation of readers. For if Serge the political thinker was in some ways a prophet, Serge the literary artist was a visionary and his fiction was designed precisely to reach across the generations and transmit not just the ideas but the ethos of the revolutionary movement.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Serge composed The Case of Comrade Tulayev under the most trying conditions when his very survival and the fate of his manuscript were open to the severest doubt. He began it in Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War, at the very moment when Grasset, under government pressure, was withdrawing his Portrait of Stalin from circulation. He continued it, after the defeat of the French army, during his two years of precarious flight through Vichy France and across the Atlantic. A sketch drawn by Serge’s son, Vlady, in the old leper colony on Martinique, where he and his father were detained by the Vichy authorities, shows Serge, characteristically, at his typewriter. Stranded for months under a torrid Caribbean sun at Ciudad Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic, Serge again returned to his manuscript, which he completed in Mexico in 1942.

I imagine him writing with the calm courage of a shipwrecked explorer setting down his observations before placing them in a bottle and consigning them to the waves. [7] Despite adversity, Serge somehow found the inner tranquillity to write what may be his finest novel, ‘for the desk drawer,’ that is to say with little or no hope of publication. Work was always his refuge, and perhaps the creation of a literary world – even the grim world of Tulayev – served him as a kind of defence against the world that was crumbling around him and his own insecure position in it. In any case, it was an act of courage and faith in an uncertain future.

In a Note of the Author [8] Serge made the apparently contradictory claim that Tulayev was ‘rigorously authentical (sic) in all its details, but also essentially fiction.’ I think that he is suggesting two points here. The first is that Tulayev should not be read as a roman à clef, the second relates to the difference between history and literature. Serge underscores this first point in the disclaimer printed opposite the title page of his novel:

This novel belongs entirely to the domain of literary fiction. The truth created by the novelist cannot be confounded, in any degree whatever, with the truth of the historian or the chronicler. Any attempt to establish a precise connection between characters or episodes in this book and known historical personages and events would therefore be without justification.

To be sure, such disclaimers are standard for novels about public life, and they are often meant to be taken with a grain of salt, especially in cases of genuine romans à clef, but Serge’s has an earnestness that resists our scepticism. It is true that the fate of many of Serge’s characters parallel those of known historical figures. ‘Erchov’, Serge’s security chief, is engulfed in the purge he conducted and ends up shot like Yagoda. ‘Rublev’ bears a certain resemblance to Bukharin. ‘Stephen Stern’ is kidnapped by the GPU in Barclona like Kurt Landau. ‘Kondratiev’ is compromised by what he witnesses in Barcelona, like the historical Antonov-Ovseyenko, and, of course, ‘Tulayev’ is assassinated like Kirov. But the parallels do not go much further, and, in any case, the interest of the novel does not reside in the fictionalised ‘revelations’ about real persons. Moreover, Bukharin, Landau, Antonov-Ovseyenko and other historical personages are mentioned by name in the novel in such a way as to frustrate the attempts of any reader perverse enough to look for ‘precise connections’. (I confess I tried.)

On a deeper level, Serge’s disclaimer connects with the second point mentioned above: the difference between the truth of the chronicler and the truth of literary creation. Serge respected both. He chronicled the Stalinist Terror in his non-fiction works, but when he turned to the novel, he was aiming at a higher, more general truth: the truth of human experience lived, felt, and made meaningful through the structure of an artistic creation. He did so in the belief that fiction has the power to touch us on unconscious levels that arguments based on fact (what Serge rejected as ‘theses and polemics’) [9] generally failed to reach. His friend and colleague Leon Werth clearly understood Serge’s intentions when he wrote: ‘In The Case of Comrade Tulayev, nothing is historical – not in the sense that political philosophers and the authors of textbooks understand history.’ [10]

Moreover, Serge felt that art alone can adequately convey the complex totality of human motives and circumstances that give an historical experience its human significance and communicate it to us in a way that makes it somehow ours. Solzhenitsyn made this same point in his 1972 Nobel Prize speech:

Art is capable of the following miracle: it can overcome man’s characteristic weakness of learning only from his own experience, so that the experience of others is wasted on him. From man to man, augmenting his brief span on earth, art can convey the whole burden of another’s long life experience, with its cares, colours and flavour, can recreate in the flesh the experiences of other men and enable us to assimilate them as our own.

It is through the interplay of character and circumstance that fiction accomplishes this ‘miracle’ and that is why Serge insists on designating Tulayev first of all as a ‘psychological (and social) novel.’ [11] If Serge’s characters, like Solzhenitsyn’s, are authentic in the sense that they are based on intimate observation, on real, rather than invented events and experience, it is through their inner life, the psychological complexity and freedom with which Serge’s creative imagination invests them, that they strike us as authentic in the literary sense. Again, Leon Werth is right on the mark when he writes:

[Serge’s] characters are not examples in demonstration, arguments in a proof ... Their thoughts and feelings are not Victor Serge’s. Victor Serge does not pass judgement based on political prejudices, on his social preferences or his personal morality. The novel is not for him a courtroom where a single judge, the author, passes final judgement on the innocent and the guilty. The characters are not judged according to a Koran or a code. They live their lives, full of nuances and contradictions. Like the men and women they are. Creatures of flesh and bone whose behaviour, secret thoughts, repressed emotions, even whose erotic lives are revealed by Serge. Serge doesn’t prove. He describes. [12]

The point is not that Serge lacked or concealed his convictions – his socialist humanism certainly pervades the novel. However, for him there was no confusion between the militant and the artist. Serge’s Marxist world view resides in the novel on the level of imagination, as an underlying structuring element. It is in this sense that we understand why Serge wrote to Dwight Macdonald that his ‘novels are exclusively about atmosphere’ and chose The Earth Was Beginning to Tremble [La Terre Commencait a Trembler] as his original working title for Tulayev.

The novel is divided into ten chapters (or ‘complementary panels’ as Serge called them in a prospectus). [13] Each is more or less self-contained. Each focuses on a different central figure, although several of the characters appear in more than one section. The plot evolves chronologically from the unplanned, almost accidental assassination of Tulayev, a high party official, to the execution, a year later, of three men, all important Communists, who become entangled in the net of the investigation and are selected to take the responsibility for the unsolved crime. The reader follows the ramifications of the purge from a wide variety of perspectives: those of the investigators and those of the victims, including loyal Trotskyists. According to Serge’s prospectus, the plot ‘ends with neither optimism nor pessimism, in the expectation of war, with: life goes on.’

Rather than concentrating on the ‘biography’ of a single individual, Serge simultaneously develops a varied spectrum of characters in the manner of Dos Passos, Pilniak, and the Unanimists. The multiplicity of his characters, each of whom is ‘central’ for the time he occupies the stage, thus permits us to assimilate the experience of many lives and through them to recreate the life of an entire epoch. For Serge was convinced that individual existences are only meaningful in relation to the existence of all, especially in the epochs of revolutionary transformation. By breaking the mould of the traditional novel, with its focus on the single hero, Serge’s realism may be considered revolutionary. The structure of the novel could be termed ‘polyphonic’ to borrow the expression coined by Solzhenitsyn to describe his own novels.

This loose yet dramatic form permits Serge to penetrate every aspect of Russian society from the lives of Arctic fishermen and peasants on a kolkhoze to the inner sanctum of the General Secretariat in the Kremlin. He extends his canvas to Barcelona, where the Trotskyists are being hunted down as the embattled Spanish republic is drowning in defeat and to Paris, where the massacres of old Bolshevik revolutionaries is greeted with pious platitudes and maddening indifference. Moreover, through flashbacks and biographical sketches of his characters, Serge opens an historical perspective and extends his story back in time to the heroic days of the revolution and civil war. The ten ‘panels’ of his fictional fresco thus open a vast panorama of Russian life and history and permit the reader to penetrate both the structure of the system and its origins.

‘Comets are born at night’

The first panel is entitled Comets Are Born at Night and it stands as a kind of prologue to the various episodes that make up the body of the novel. Structurally, the chapter is framed by two unpremeditated and apparently irrational actions. It opens as Kostia, a Young Communist employed at the Moscow subway construction site, impulsively buys an expensive antique miniature portrait of a young girl with the money he has been saving for a desperately needed pair of boots. It ends when he impulsively shoots Tulayev, whom he has never met, with a revolver supplied by his neighbour, a mousey old clerk named Romachkin. The two impulsive actions are symmetrical and opposite, as are the characters of the two men; yet on a psychological and thematic level, they are all, somehow, complementary.

Romachkin is a slightly ridiculous figure: a timid, aging, petty bureaucrat with colourless eyes and a grey complexion: a relic of the old regime, reminiscent both of the pathetic clerk in Gogol’s The Overcoat and of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Romachkin’s problem is that he thinks. His tiny room is lined with grey paperbacks and adorned by portraits of his intellectual heroes: Ibsen, Mechnikov, Darwin, and Knut Hamsun. Employed as a statistician in the Office of Salaries of the State Cloth Trust, his job is to calculate the wages of the workers according to the directives that come down from the Planning Commission. Almost in spite of himself, he discovers that these figures add up to a lie: that each nominal raise in wages – based on new ‘triumphs’ of socialist production – is counteracted by depreciations of paper currency and by rises of rents, prices and taxes so as to actually reduce the workers’ miserable standard of living. As he eats his miserable meal of cold gruel in the office cafeteria, he concludes, ‘I am fleecing the poor.’

Romachkin becomes obsessed with the idea of injustice, of life’s iniquity. For a while he considers the possibility that he is insane, reads up on schizophrenia, and consults a psychiatrist. The passage in which Serge describes this dialogue of the deaf with the bland, self-satisfied psychiatrist anticipates, by 30 years, the accounts of recent Soviet dissidents who were confined to mental hospitals for insisting that Soviet reality should live up to its official ideology. ‘You keep talking about the Constitution and the laws,’ the doctors explained to the dissenter, Vladimir Bukovsky, ‘but what normal man takes Soviet laws seriously? You are living in an unreal world of your own invention, and you react inadequately to the world around you.’ [14] When injustice masquerades as justice and exploitation parades as socialism, the individual who lacks the cynicism to ignore the contradiction is, necessarily, mad. Romachkin’s psychiatrist ends up telling him ‘not to worry’ about injustice and recommends sexual intercourse twice a month. Romachkin departs reassured and amused. ‘The patient is yourself, Citizen Doctor,’ he muses. ‘You have never had the least notion of justice.’ The doctor’s advice on sexual hygiene leads Romachkin to a Dostoevskyian encounter with a young, half-starved prostitute in a dingy room in which a newborn baby is sleeping. It is in the course of this encounter that he experiences a revelation of his own iniquity and that of the world and sees the connections between his feelings and the nature of the regime. The girl is a peasant, a refugee from the forced collectivisation drive that has ravaged her village. After they make love, she tells Romachkin the pathetic story of how her father tearfully slaughtered the family horse, who was starving to death because the government refused to furnish fodder. ‘Where I come from, horses are more precious than children,’ the girl states matter of factly:

There are always too many children, they come when nobody wants them – do you think there was any need for me to come into the world? But there are never enough horses to do the farm work with. With a horse, your children can grow up; without a horse a man is not a man anymore, is he? No more home – nothing but hunger, nothing but death.

The girl’s story is at once an indirect account of why this simple child of the country ended up as a Moscow prostitute, a political expose of the disastrous effects of Stalin’s agrarian policy, a commentary on the value of human life in Romachkin’s society. It is typical of the way Serge compresses a wealth of meaning, social reality and experience into the rapid evocation of a minor character who never reappears.

The ageing clerk is touched with pity and offers the girl an extra 50 kopeks. At the same time, his brain begins putting things together, making intellectual connections between his human experience and his mathematical calculations as a statistician. When the girl complains that business is slow, he thinks: ‘Of course. Sexual needs are influenced by diet.’ Out of his obsession with iniquity, he poses the question: Why? Who is responsible?

Romachkin’s confused feelings of anxiety and revolt are crystallised by his involuntary reactions to official propaganda. As he walks down a dark, deserted street, his consciousness is assaulted by a strident female voice:

Insults spewed into the darkness from a forgotten loudspeaker in an empty office. It was frightful – that voice without a face, in the darkness of the office, in the solitude, under the unmoving orange light at the end of the street. Romachkin felt terribly cold. The woman’s voice clamoured: ‘In the name of the four thousand women workers ...’ Romachkin’s brain passively echoes: In the name of the four thousand women workers in this factory ... And four thousand women of all ages – seductive women, women prematurely old (why?), pretty women, women whom he would never know, women of whom he dared not dream – were present in him for an incalculable instant, and they all cried: ‘We demand the death penalty for these vile dogs: No pity!’ (‘Can you mean it, women?’ Romachkin answered severely. ‘No pity? All of us need pity so much, you and and all of us ...’) ‘To the firing squad with them!’ Factory meetings continued during the trial of the engineers – or was it the economists, or the food control board, or the old Bolsheviks, who were being tried this time?

The sudden, disembodied clamour and the fact that it is a female voice increase the shock value for Romachkin and the reader. Woman – mother, the Madonna – is traditionally associated with suffering and pity, and the encounter with the childlike prostitute, with which this passage is juxtaposed, has brought these tender feelings to the fore. The effect is heightened as Romachkin’s imagination endows the factory women with bodies and brings them to life as potential lovers. Serge begins with documentary material – the radio broadcast – but goes beyond the technique of literary collage à la Dos Passos by drawing them into his characters stream of consciousness through rapid shifts between the outer and inner voice. It is also significant that the identity of the ‘traitors’ is left vague. What is important is that victims must be sacrificed to distract from the emptiness of the triumphs proclaimed by the regime and to shoulder the blame for the dismal reality behind the official lie. This is the truth which is slowly impinging on Romachkin’s (and the reader’s) consciousness.

Romachkin now returns to his apartment building to find the neighbours in a panic over a new purge of employees and new regulations concerning internal passports. ‘They give you three days to get out, Comrade Romachkin, and you have to go somewhere at least 60 miles away – but will they give you a passport there?’ Romachkin then retires to his room and picks up the newspaper. ‘The face of the Chief filled a third of the front page, as it did two or three times a week, surrounded by a seven column speech. Our economic successes ...’ Again, the documentary text merges with the subtext in Romachkin’s mind. He knows that the 12 percent raise in nominal wages triumphantly proclaimed by the Chief is, in reality, a 30 percent reduction in spending power. As he reads the speech, he is terrified to catch himself thinking: ‘How he lies!’ The ‘feeble, faraway, hesitant’ idea that was born to Romachkin in the prostitute’s room now possesses him totally. He knows why and who is responsible:

The terrible thought which, until now, had matured in the dark regions of a consciousness that feared itself, that pretended to ignore itself, that struggled to disguise itself before the mirror within, now stripped of its mask. So, at night, lightning reveals a landscape of twisted revelation. He saw the criminal. It did not occur to him that his new knowledge might avail him nothing. Henceforth it would possess him, would direct his thoughts, his eyes, his steps, his hands. He fell asleep with his eyes wide open, suspended between ecstasy and fear.

For a moment, Romachkin forgets that he is nothing but a clerk, an office rat, a timid, colourless creature of routine and passive obedience. Nourished by the legends of pre-revolutionary terrorists, his mind instinctively turns to assassination. He manages to get hold of a revolver and spends his lunch hours in a garden near the Kremlin waiting for his opportunity. It arrives. The Chief walks within six feet of him, but Romachkin is paralysed. He cannot act. ‘We are all cowards,’ he concludes, and he returns to his office – not a minute late. As an afterthought, he makes a present of the revolver – a thing of power and beauty, now useless – to his young neighbour, Kostia. Ironically, and unwittingly, he passes on his mission of justice along with the weapon.

Kostia is apparently everything Romachkin is not: young, healthy, self-confident, practical. Yet his first action, in the scene that opens the novel, is the purchase of the cameo, revealing at once his impulsive spontaneity and his unconscious yearning for an ideal of beauty and harmony absent from his harsh existence. In Serge’s scheme, Kostia and his neighbour, Romachkin, complement each other, for each is only half a man. Symbolically, their two cubicles, separated by a thin partition, were once a single room – one of six in a collective apartment that now houses 22 people (reminiscent of the one Serge inhabited on Jeliabov Street in Leningrad).

The realistic detail is developed as a significant structure. The two men’s desks are situated symmetrically, back to back, on either side of the partition, and at one point they sit facing each other, invisible, each contemplating the cherished object on which he has spent several months salary: Kostia, with his portrait, lost in dreams of beauty, and Romachkin with his revolver, dreaming of doing justice. I think of that partition – it is hardly a wall – as a kind of semi-permeable membrane which permits the passage of matter from one organism to another or between two parts of a single organism. In the scene just referred to the two men sense each other’s presence and make contact out of a half felt need to share their dreams. Romachkin hands Kostia the revolver to hold and notes that he looks like ‘a proud, young warrior’. Kostia, for his part, is merely amused. ‘You will never use it,’ he tells his timid neighbour.

Indeed, Kostia finds it difficult to take his fussy, eccentric companion seriously. If he is drawn to Romachkin’s philosophical speculations, he views his character with indulgent and amused contempt. Their conversations are generally limited to the books which Kostia comes to borrow from his elderly neighbour. But even these exchanges are significant: Romachkin chooses a volume of Prison, published by the ‘Society of Former Convicts’ for Kostia to read and tells him that it contains ‘the stories of brave men.’ In fact, they are stories of assassins, of the daring pre-revolutionary terrorists who struck out at Tsarist officialdom in the name of the people’s will. It is as if Romachkin had passed the active and idealistic part of himself, symbolised by the book and later the revolver, through the membrane of the partition in order to give them new life in the body of a more vital organism. After he abandons his obsession with doing justice and passes the revolver onto Kostia, Romachkin begins to appear aged and shrivelled, as if the flame had gone out within him.

Kostia is led to revolt along his own inner, emotional paths and here again it is in connection with a woman that his sense of iniquity and injustice is crystallised. The woman, really a girl, is Maria, a worker at the subway construction site where Kostia is employed as a timekeeper and Young Communist activist. Maria is a silent, rather prim, inoffensive creature. One day Kostia remarks that she has been absent from work and learns that she has drowned herself in the Moskva after being humiliated by a Young Communist wall poster denouncing her as a ‘demoralised, petty bourgeois element’ in a manufactured campaign against venereal disease. The whole affair had been routine. The Central Committee had sent down a directive, and the local leadership had applied it, choosing their victim more or less by chance. Only Maria had taken it seriously. Her suicide note reads: ‘As a proletarian, I cannot live with this filthy dishonour. Accuse no one of my death. Farewell.’

Kostia is stunned:

You big fool, why let yourself get so desperate? Everybody knows that men are bastards. Nobody pays any attention to the Wall Gazette, it’s only fit to wipe your arse with! How could you be so dumb, you poor baby, oh for God’s sake, oh hell!

I am once again reminded of the psychiatrist’s remark to the dissenter Bukovsky: ‘What normal man takes Soviet law seriously?’ Kostia, as a Young Communist, feels he is partly responsible. Faced with the pathetic little corpse in the morgue, his self-protective veil of cynicism drops away and he connects with a powerful sense of grief and outrage. When the guardian of the morgue asks him under what heading to place the deceased, Kostia replies angrily: ‘Is there a heading, “Collective Crimes”?’ Henceforth, he too will be obsessed with injustice.

In contrast with Romachkin, who consciously planned but failed to carry through his act of justice, Kostia’s action is totally impulsive. It is ten o’clock on a February night scintillating with stars. Kostia emerges, discouraged, from a dreary Young Communist meeting about work discipline at which he has said nothing, knowing that his ideas would be unacceptable: ‘For more discipline, more food. Soup first! Good soup will put a stop to drinking.’ But the magic of the frosty, starry night (a central, recurring image in the novel) revitalises him as he strides along. Suddenly, a powerful black car pulls up and Tulayev gets out. ‘Tulayev? Tulayev of the Central Committee? Tulayev of the mass deportation in the Vorogen district? Tulayev of the university purges?’ wonders Kostia. Curious, he moves closer. Before he realises what he is doing, his hand ‘remembers the Colt’ and an explosion shatters the night.

Only later does Kostia recognise the rightness of his unthinking act. It comes to him as a feeling of joy: ‘Pure joy. Luminous, cold, human, like a starry winter sky.’ Kostia’s healthy body and spontaneous emotion symbolically carry through the action of which the anguished, meditative, overly intellectual Romachkin was incapable. As if by osmosis, the one half man completes the other to produce that rarity in totalitarian society – a whole man who is unafraid to act. Kostia’s joyful sense of freedom contrasts with the frustration he felt at the Young Communist meeting where he despairingly censored his perfectly communist solution to the problem of work discipline. What Serge is suggesting is that if labour does not nourish the labourer and if the regime does not allow his just resentment to be expressed through the official party of the revolution, then this pent up anger and revolt will inevitably take the form of primitive isolated acts of terrorism – a reversion to the pre-Marxist methods of the Narodniks under the old Tsarist autocracy. [15]

The chapter ends as Kostia, overflowing with joy and excitement after his adventure, bursts in on Romachkin to find him lost in rapture reading an old French novel about innocence and romantic love, Paul and Virginia. After a brief exchange, Romachkin notices Kostia’s exaltation and asks him what has happened. Naturally, Kostia cannot share his secret with anyone, least of all his eccentric old neighbour, about whose own assassination fantasies he is in any case ignorant.

Taking his cue from the old man’s infatuation with Paul and Virginia, he replies: ‘I’m in love, Romachkin, my friend – it’s terrible.’ This ironic role reversal completes the osmosis between the two half men. In the beginning it was Kostia who nursed the dream of innocent, romantic love, symbolised by the antique portrait of the young girl, while Romachkin dreamed of justice. Now, the old clerk is lost in romantic fantasies of bygone innocence, while the young avenger hides his exaltation under the ironic pretext of ‘love’. At the end of the novel, in a kind of epilogue, Kostia, who has married and made a new life for himself on a kolkhoze, returns to visit Romachkin in his old room and makes him a present of the miniature, thus completing the exchange. This resolution is fitting both psychologically and thematically. Serge seems to be suggesting that the idealism of the old, pre-revolutionary liberal generation has run its course and that, henceforth, the impulse for justice will be incarcerated by the rising generation of Soviet youth. As we will see below, this theme of generations, traditional in the Russian novel, is central to the structure and import of The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

The social world of Stalinism

Comets Are Born at Night is a masterpiece of fiction writing that works on many levels. It could easily stand on its own as a short story. The action is complete and self-contained. The characters are fully developed and the underlying social, political and historical themes are totally integrated into the structure. Indeed, I am painfully aware that in interpreting Serge’s text I have not done justice to the experience of it as a fiction. The story moves forward as a kaleidoscopic succession of scenes and interior monologues with a rapidity and density of texture, the effect of which is inevitably blunted by summary and analysis. The action flows from the characters’ psychology and circumstances in a way that makes us accept it as inevitable, and it is only on a second reading that one realises how much significance Serge has packed into these 20 odd pages. Although the focus is on the symbiosis of the two characters, the social world Serge reveals to us is already vast. Through the eyes of Kostia and Romachkin we explore an office, an apartment building, a construction site, a Young Communist cell, an illegal marketplace, the streets of several neighbourhoods and (through the prostitute) a peasant village in the throes of forced collectivisation.

Moreover, although Serge never preaches, we are made to understand the basic, underlying social conflicts of this world. The principal economic contradiction, the official ‘triumphs’ of the Five Year Plan and the actual misery of the workers, is expressed in the figures that haunt the fevered brain of the old statistician and in the long lines, empty shops, hunger, overcrowding, and squalor, physical and moral, which we experience through the protagonist’s eye. It is symbolised by the dynamiting of the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour to make room for a Palace of Peoples in which Romachkin, a believer in progress, wistfully assumes people will be happier. It takes its most poignant form in the poor peasant forced to slaughter the horse that ‘makes him a man’ and whose daughter has been ‘collectivised’ as a prostitute as a consequence of the state’s intervention in the life of the village.

These social contradictions are the underlying cause of the omnipresent manifestations of the Terror – the never ending trials, purges, and repressive directives proclaimed on loudspeakers, at mass meetings, in the newspapers and in the neighbours’ gossip. A new purge, provoked, ironically, by Kostia’s act of justice, will now spread its nightmare tentacles into every comer of society. It is the subject of the sprawling novel of which Comets Are Born at Night is the prologue.

What is striking here is that from the outset, and without preaching or polemicising, Serge has succeeded in rooting this political phenomenon in the concrete conditions of life and labour of the masses, in the social contradictions engendered by these conditions. This depiction of the interconnections between material life, politics, and the fate of the individual soul could only be conceived by someone with Serge’s profoundly proletarian and socialist outlook. Yet, as Leon Werth observed 40 years ago, unlike writers like Barres, Serge does not confront the reader with theses. His Marxist outlook is operative rather on the deeper levels of imagination: politics as vision.

Deciphering the hieroglyphics of terror

Toward the end of The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Serge depicts the irreducible Oppositionist Ryzhik in a moment of visionary lucidity:

Ryzhik clearly deciphered the hieroglyphics (perhaps he was the only person in the world to decipher them, and it gave him an agonising feeling of vertigo) – the hieroglyphics which had been branded with red hot iron into the very flesh of the country. He knew them almost by heart, the falsified reports of the three great trials; he knew all the available details of the minor trials in Kharkov, Sverdlovsk, Novo Sibirsk, Tashkent, Krasnoyarsk, trials of which the world has never heard. Between the hundreds of thousands of lines of the published texts, weighted down with innumerable lies, he saw other hieroglyphs, equally bloody but pitilessly clear. And each hieroglyph was human: a name, a human face with changing expressions, a voice, a portion of living history stretching over a quarter century or more.

A random encounter sparks a vivid stream of memory and consciousness for Ryzhik. He recalls the raucous debates of the 1920s, the triumphs and tragedies of War Communism, the heady days of insurrection, the isolated moments before the revolution. ‘If he had credited himself with the slightest poetic faculty,’ Serge writes, ‘Ryzhik would have allowed himself to become intoxicated by the spectacle of that powerful collective brain, that brain which brought together thousands of brains to perform its work during a quarter of a century, now destroyed in a few years by the backlash of its very victory, now perhaps reflected only in his mind as in a thousand faceted mirror.’

Yet as Ryzhik regretfully acknowledges, these human faces, voices, the history of an entire generation has been horribly swept away in a convulsive dance of death. ‘All snuffed out, those brains; all disfigured, those faces, all smeared with blood. Even ideas were swept into a convulsive dance of death, texts suddenly meant the opposite of what they stated, a madness carried away men, books, the history that was supposed to have been made once and for all; and now there was nothing but aberration and buffoonery ...’

If the secret desire of Stalin, the gravedigger of the revolution, was, as another of Serge’s fictional characters argues, ‘to destroy all the mirrors in the world,’ Serge’s non-fiction writings on the Moscow Trials, and especially his fictional masterpiece The Case of Comrade Tulayev, are truly a multi-faceted mirror by which we can decipher, understand and perhaps ultimately find cause for hope and courage in the events of those cruel years.

In the central sections of Tulayev, Serge brilliantly brings to life the personal and political worlds of several different political types – the men who are eventually arrested and prepared to appear in a show trial to be organised around the Tulayev assassination. In a series of varied characterisations, he depicts their dilemma and explores the range of their responses. In the process, he allows the reader to explore the atmosphere of a variety of locales and social milieux ranging from the depths of a Siberian prison to the halls of the Kremlin, from the collectives of the Russian countryside to the GPU prisons in republican Spain, with historical excursions going back to the Russian Civil War and beyond.

At one end of the spectrum stand Erchov, Serge’s fictional security chief, and Makayev, an ex-peasant and former civil war partisan who has risen to the status of provincial bureaucrat. Both are loyal Stalinists who have made a profession out of persecuting others. Both will be ground up by the repressive machine they imagined they were controlling.

In Makayev, Serge presents an almost Balzacian portrait of the social ascension of a provincial peasant, for whom the party of the revolution has come to mean power, the exercise of his will over others. His biography encapsulates the social history of the revolution in the countryside, from the original spontaneous seizures of land by the peasants, through the civil war, the NEP, and collectivisation. ‘For almost ten full years, Makayev’s life had consisted in inflicting or swallowing humiliation. The only art of government that he knew was to abolish every objection by repression and humiliation.’ [16] His meteoric rise as one of the ‘new men whom history and the genius of the Chief have summoned up for the salvation of the country’ was based on the vilification and destruction of men he recognised as his betters and whom he persecuted all the more harshly for this knowledge.

In his pride as a builder, a blindly obedient yet powerful cog in the party’s invincible machinery, Makayev imagined that he belonged to a ‘different race’ from the men he had humiliated and executed. When his turn comes to play the victim, he is forced to recognise his former self in the harsh, impassive faces of his persecutors. His will to resist is shortlived. He collapses in the shock of recognition and signs the most abject of confessions.

The centre of the spectrum is occupied by the two ‘capitulators’ Rublev and Kondratiev, whose horror at the crimes and blunders committed by Stalin in the name of ‘socialism’ is overshadowed by their loyalty to the party and the regime. They are neither cowards nor time servers but dedicated and scrupulous revolutionaries whose divided consciousness reflects the contradictions of their era and renders them passive and helpless. Here is how Rublev expresses his inner conflict and torment in a dialogue (which is really a monologue) with his wife:

... Our party can have no opposition, it is monolithic because we reconcile thought and action for the sake of a higher efficiency. Rather than settle which of us is right and which wrong, we prefer to be wrong together because in that way we are stronger for the proletariat. And it was an old mistake of bourgeois individualism to seek truth for the sake of conscience, one conscience, my conscience. We say: to hell with my and me, to hell with self, to hell with truth, if the party can be strong.

‘What party?’

Dora’s two words, spoken in a low, cold voice, reached him at the instant when the pendulum within him began to swing in the opposite direction.

... Obviously, if the party is betrayed, if it is no longer the party of the revolution, that position of ours is ridiculous and meaningless. We ought to do exactly the opposite – in that case, each of us should recover his conscience ... We need unfailing unity to hold back the thrust of hostile forces ... But if those forces exercise themselves precisely through our unity ...

For a moment, at least, the old Bolshevik is actually prepared to entertain the thought that the party is mistaken, indeed worse than mistaken, perhaps the real enemy. In contrast to Serge’s Stalinist apparatchiks like Erchov and Makayev (and to Koestler’s protagonist, Rubashov, in Darkness at Noon) who are totally imprisoned in the logic of Stalinism, Rublev exhibits a genuine dialectic in which the arguments for the party and the individual conscience are both given full force. Rublev knows that the party will soon ask him to become another sacrificial victim. His anguished reaction to the radio broadcast of the trial of others prefigures his own response:

... Hearing them over the radio, he sometimes thought ‘How he must be suffering: But no – that is his normal voice – what is it? Is he mad? Why is he lying like that?’ Dora walked back and forth across the room, bumping against the walls, Dora collapsed onto the bed, shaken by dry sobs, choking ‘Wouldn’t it be better if they are poisoning the soul of the proletariat? That they are poisoning the springs of the future?’

‘They do not realise it,’ Kiril Rublev said. ‘They believe that they are still serving socialism. Some of them hope they will be allowed to live. They have been tortured ...’ He wrung his hands. ‘No, they are not cowards: no, they have not been tortured. I do not believe it. They are true, that is it, still true to the party, and there is no more party, there are only inquisitors, executioners, criminals..No, I’m talking nonsense, it is not so simple. Perhaps I would do as they are doing if I were in their place ... ’

At that instant he thought, perfectly clearly: ‘Their place is mine, and some day I shall be there, infallibly ... and his wife knew, perfectly clearly, that he was thinking it.

‘They assure themselves that it is better to die dishonoured, murdered by the Chief, than to denounce him to the international bourgeoisie ... ’ He almost screamed, like a man crushed in an accident:

‘And in that, they are right.’

Later, he arranges a clandestine meeting in a snowy wood with two old comrades. The purpose of their gathering is to try to arrive at an assessment of their situation and come to some decision about what they will do when arrested. Each voices profound criticisms of the direction in which the Chief is leading the country. But their discussion is as pointless as their situation is hopeless. Suddenly, Rublev, perhaps inspired by the contact with nature, throws off the burdens of politics and reverts to the gaiety and spontaneity of boyhood. He takes up a snowball he has been pensively kneading and strikes his comrade square in the chest with it, crying, ‘Defend yourself, I attack ...’

... And they began to fight like two schoolboys. They leaped, laughed, sank into snow up to their waists, hid behind trees to make their ammunition and take aim before they let fly ... Vladek stood where his was, firmly planted, methodically making snowballs to catch Rublev from the flank, laughing until the tears came to his eyes, showering him with abuse: ‘Take that, you theoretician, you moralist, to hell with you’ and never once hitting him ...

It is a poignant scene in which the claims of the life force, of warmth and humanity, momentarily overcome the grimness of political reality. Rublev’s natural honesty and vitality sustain him when he is arrested. He refuses to co-operate until he has been granted pen, paper and three weeks of peace in which to set down his thoughts. Imprisonment sets him free to write the truth for the first time in years. He tells his interrogator:

I am writing for the future. One day the archives will open. Perhaps my memorial will be found in them. The work of the historians who are studying our period will thereby be enlightened. I regard that as much more important than what you are probably commissioned to ask me ... [17]

Rublev’s moment of freedom cannot last. The party understands that his defiance springs from the same source as his ultimate loyalty. There is no need to resort to the more brutal forms of interrogation in his case. When the moment comes, they send an emissary from the Central Committee to his cell with confidential information about the imminent danger of war. Faced with the choice of being right against the party, of denouncing it to the world bourgeoisie in a moment of national peril, Rublev’s decision is a foregone conclusion. He capitulates and is shot. But Rublev’s voice continues to reverberate. The novel ends as the security official Fleishman (who appears in several earlier novels) reads Rublev’s memorial, nods his agreement with its principal ideas, and then closes the Tulayev case by sealing the file with red wax symbolic of blood.

We were an exceptional human accomplishment, and that is why we are going under, [writes Rublev in this testament to his revolutionary generation] ... We acquired a degree of lucidity and disinterestedness which made both the old and the new interests uneasy. It was impossible for us to adapt ourselves to a phase of reaction: and as we were in power, surrounded by a legend that was true, born of our deeds, we were so dangerous that we had to be destroyed beyond physical destruction, our corpses had to be surrounded by legend of treachery ...

We alone, in this universe in violent transformation, had the courage to see clearly ... We were the intolerable evil prophets of social cataclysms; to those who were comfortably established inside our own revolution, we represented adventurism and risk ...

Upon one point we lacked clarity and daring: we were unable to perceive what the evil was which was sapping our country and for which for a time there was no remedy. We ourselves denounced as traitors and men of little faith those among us who revealed it to us ... Because we, ourselves, loved our creation blindly.

At the far end of the spectrum stands the old Trotskyist Ryzhik, one of those men who Rublev and his colleagues had persecuted for warning them of the coming disaster. Ryzhik’s principled and intransigent opposition to Stalinism goes back to the early 1920s. He is the character who best incarnates the revolutionary purity and stoic self-sacrifice of the rank and file Bolshevik in Serge’s novel cycle. Conquered City opens and closes with the image of Ryzhik, exhausted beyond endurance, stricken by grief and loss, yet grimly determined to remain at his post. Midnight in the Century depicts his inflexible resistance after six years of imprisonment and Stalinist persecution. The Case of Comrade Tulayev picks up his story four years later, when he is ordered to Moscow to stand trial. Ryzhik’s very survival is an anomaly. At the age of 66, he has been in prison for so long that he has been nearly forgotten and has thus survived the successive purges that carried off his comrades. His own political testament, dictated to Elkin in Midnight in the Century, circulates in the camps among prisoners who think he is dead. By all the laws of history, he should be, for he represents the last living cell of the collective brain of what was once the Bolshevik Party. Ryzhik understands, as Rublev does not, that only the truth serves the proletariat, that its betrayal is not a matter of ‘personal conscience’ but of the life or death of the revolution.

Ryzhik’s death is as exemplary as his life. He refuses to participate in the corruption of the Bolshevik ideal by co-operating in the sinister farce of a show trial in which he would be cast in the role of counter-revolutionary agent of Judas-Trotsky. Called out of exile in the frozen north to play a role in the projected Tulayev trial, he experiences an epiphany of joy and rebirth under the Siberian stars which prepares him to face death with equanimity. Transported to Moscow for interrogation, he cheats his accusers by engaging in a fatal hunger strike and sabotages the projected trial by depriving the prosecution of its star witness – himself.

His suicide is his final act of service to the revolution. Paradoxically, it is also an act of hope for the future. As a Marxist, Ryzhik had rejected suicide as an individualist solution. As one cell in the collective brain of proletarian self-consciousness, he considered survival a duty as long as there was any hope of serving. He knows that the purpose of the Terror is to kill that consciousness and that the spectacle of old revolutionaries confessing and grovelling in the mud of lies and self-accusations is a way of killing it twice over by sullying its image in the eyes of the masses. It is this second death he refuses by committing suicide, for he has faith – the faith of a Marxist materialist – that class consciousness will arise again in the new proletariat that is coming into being through the very process of Stalinist forced industrialisation. It is only a glimmer of hope, but it sustains him. In the depths of a filthy prison Ryzhik comes to terms with his death and his place in history:

Perhaps he was no longer waiting for anything but the chance to spit his disgust into the face of some anonymous sub-torturer who was not worth the effort? Perhaps he had lost even that useless passion? Police, jailers, examiners, high officials – all climbers who had climbed aboard at the eleventh hour, ignorant, their heads stuffed with printed formulas – what did they know about the revolution, had they ever known anything about it? Between him and their kind, no common language remained. And anything written vanished into secret files which would never open until the earth, shaken to its bowels, should gape under the palatial government buildings. What use would anyone have for the last cry of the last Oppositionist, crushed under the machine like a rabbit under a tank? He dreamed stupidly of a bed with sheets, a quilt, a pillow for his head – such things existed. What has our civilisation invented that is better? Socialism itself will not improve the modern bed. To lie down, to fall asleep, never to wake again ... The rest are all dead, all of them, all of them! How much time will this country need before our new proletariat begins to become conscious of itself? Impossible to force it into maturity. You can’t hurry the germination of seeds under the ground. You can kill it, though ... Yet (reassuring thought!) you can’t kill it everywhere or kill it always or kill it completely ...

Serge’s fictional Stalin

Serge’s poetic talents are particularly evident in his fictional dramatisation of Stalin in The Case of Comrade Tulayev. The British critics David Craig and Michael Egan describe Serge’s characterisation as a ‘masterpiece ... weighty’ and ‘complex’ in comparison to which they find Solzhenitsyn’s Stalin in The First Circle a mere ‘animated wax-work’, a stage villain. [18] This is because Serge’s understanding of the objective relationship between the individual and society enables him to depict even Stalin as a thoroughly human character, without resorting to propagandistic stereotypes. Thus Craig and Egan conclude: ‘as throughout the novel, we are being shown the truth: the things we call “monstrous” are not done by monsters but by persons.’

The Chief appears in the novel neither as invincible hero or bloody villain but as a shrewd, suspicious, powerful man – sometimes cruel, sometimes almost sympathetic – who is more than half aware of the extent to which he is a prisoner of the system he has created and the myths and lies with which he has surrounded himself. Characteristically, the first time we meet him in the novel he is presented in a sympathetic light. He appears at GPU headquarters and orders the interrogators to stop the ‘useless torture’ of Tulayev’s chauffeur, who has been grilled past endurance although he obviously knows nothing about the crime. (This does not prevent the Chief from increasing the man’s sentence, in a mood of cold anger, later on.)

Unlike Arthur Koestler’s rather abstract presentation of Stalin in Darkness at Noon, where he is reduced to a cipher, ‘no. 1’, and seen only through the eyes of the prisoner Rubashov, for whom he represents another abstraction, the party [19], Serge gives us a multiplicity of perspectives on Stalin. We see him through the eyes of those who are totally devoted to him, those who hate and fear him, those who remember him as a comrade from the days before his apotheosis.

The security chief, Erchov, for example, identifies with Stalin to such an extent that, even when the latter is trying to break him, he finds that ‘the Chief’s voice resembled ... his own inner voice ...’ However, we get the most complex picture of Stalin through his relationship with his old comrade and Central Committee colleague Kondratiev, whom Serge has loosely modelled on Antonov-Ovseyenko, the Bolshevik who led the attack on the Winter Palace in 1917 and who was later Stalin’s envoy to the Spanish republic.

Kondratiev returns from a mission to Spain compromised and presumes on his long acquaintance with the Chief (whom he addresses in the familiar form as ‘Iossif’ or ‘brother’) to confront him in his office in the Kremlin. Realising that he is doomed, Kondratiev attempts to be entirely frank and truthful with Stalin, who holds his life in his hands. The French writer Leon Werth refers to this scene as ‘an episode of an art at its state of perfection, a tour de force of an episode.’ [20] Werth is aware of all the dangers inherent in Serge’s theme, the dialogue between a tyrant and his victim:

How to avoid descending to the ridiculous, to the theatrical, to some sort of historical convention here? We’ve seen these gaudy potentates in the theatre, with their ferocious eyes, their insinuating voices, playing cat and mouse games with their victims ... But Serge doesn’t show a Stalin built of cruelty. I won’t say that he proposes that we like him. But instead of the marionette of the state or of history, Serge has substituted a man among men, doomed to his own fate. More hard than cruel. Mystery of a perfect art: I don’t judge Stalin from the outside, but I penetrate within him. I become indulgent toward him, as I would be toward myself if I were Stalin.

This is of course is how Serge imagined all his characters: from the inside. He identified with Dostoevsky and Balzac, who ‘bring to life with love criminals that the political man would shoot without love.’ [21] The scene in question opens as Stalin emerges from the empty seeming solitude of his vast office and warmly takes both of Kondratiev’s hands in his, bringing tears to his comrade’s eyes (‘could he actually be good?’ wonders Kondratiev). As in all the scenes with the Chief, Serge focuses obsessively on his hands and eyes, whose gestures and expressions are closely watched by his interlocutors. The words Serge reiterates to create the atmosphere of Stalin’s office during the scenes – ‘clearly lighted’, ‘whiteness’ – symbolise both the Chief’s basic icy remoteness and the clarity that emerges between the two men. The two old revolutionaries reminisce in a moment of wordless friendship, and the Chief invites Kondratiev to be totally frank:

You know brother, veterans like you, members of the old party, must tell me the whole truth ... Otherwise, who can I get it from? ... I live on the summit of an edifice of lies – do you know that? The statistics lie, of course. They are the sum total of the stupidities of the little officials at the base, the intrigues of the middle stratum of administrators, the imaginings, the servility, the sabotage, the immense stupidity of our leading cadres.

‘Isn’t all of that a little your own fault?’ risks Kondratiev sensing an excuse. ‘I’d like to see you in my place, old man ...’ retorts the jovial Chief. ‘Old Russia is a swamp ... to remake the hopeless human animal will take centuries. I haven’t got centuries to work with, not I ...’ [22]

Serge reveals the deep tensions underlying this conversation with a dictator when Kondratiev commits a faux pas through a clumsy attempt at flattery. Spain, he informs Stalin, is like Russia in 1918, ‘But without the Party, without Lenin,’ – Kondratiev hesitated for a fraction of a second, but it must have been perceptible – ‘without you ... ’ [23] Discomfort and embarrassment keep clouding the atmosphere as Kondratiev touches on forbidden topics like the disappearance of the old generation. Finally, Stalin, in the most natural voice, asks Kondratiev for a direct opinion: ‘Do you think I have committed many errors, Ivan?’ In the dialogue that follows, Serge brings us as close as the conventions of realism allow to that Shakespearean mode that the Belgian writer Charles Plisnier had in mind when he compared Serge’s Portrait de Staline to The Tragedy of Macbeth. [24]

‘It is not for me to judge you,’ said Kondratiev uncomfortably. ‘You are the party.’ He observed that the phrase was well received. ‘Me, I’m only an old militant ...’

The Chief waited like an impartial judge or an indifferent criminal. Impersonal, as real as things.

‘I think,’ said Kondratiev, ‘that you were wrong in “liquidating” Nicolai Ivanovich.’ [Bukharin – RG]

Liquidating: the old word that, out of both shame and cynicism, was used under the Red Terror for ‘execute’. The Chief took it without flinching, his face stone.

‘He was a traitor. He admitted it. Perhaps you don’t believe it?’

Silence. Whiteness.

‘It is hard to believe.’

The Chief twisted his face into a mocking smile. His shoulders hunched massively, his brow darkened, his voice became thick.

‘Certainly ... We have had too many traitors ... conscious or unconscious ... no time to go into the psychology of it ... I’m no novelist.’ A pause. ‘I’ll wipe out every one of them, tirelessly, mercilessly, down even to the least of the least ... It is hard, but it must be ... Every one of them ... There is the country, the future. I do what must be done. Like a machine.’

Nothing to answer? – or to cry out? Kondratiev was on the point of crying out. But the Chief did not give him time. He returned to a conversational tone:

‘And in Spain – are the Trotskyists still intriguing?’

Serge brings to life a real human being, shrewd, ruthless, confident, yet lonely, self-aware, half mad behind his facade of gruff bonhomie. However, to me the weightiest phrase in that dramatic scene is ‘impersonal, as real as things.’ The point is that it is objective political necessity, not personal villainy, that ultimately dictate the cruelties of the Stalinist Terror. Serge’s attempt to dramatise the humanity of a world historical figure succeeds where others fail precisely because his novel enables us to understand and dramatise the necessity he incarnates. For just as all the multiple threads and ramifications that make up the ‘case’ of the murdered Tulayev lead necessarily into Stalin’s hands, so the social forces and political conflicts explored in the novel find a pole of expression in the person of the Chief. Serge’s genius is precisely, as Plisnier put it, to have ‘incorporated among the most exact, the most cruel facts, the lyricism of a great poet.’ [25]

In a brilliantly climactic scene (which should be read in its entirety) Kondratiev, speaking for all the murdered old Bolsheviks and expecting to share their fate within the hour, loyally confronts Stalin with his tragic fate:

‘We shall soon be at war ... Accounts will be settled, all the dirty old accounts, you know it better than I do… And the earth is going to begin shaking [26] as when all the volcanoes come to life at once, from continent to continent. We shall be under the ground at the dark hour – and you will forgive us for having begun socialism with so much senseless barbarity ... That your shoulders are strong, I know ... As strong as ours: ours carried you ... Only – we [know] the place of the individual in history ... not a very big place, especially when a man has isolated himself at the peak of power ... I hope that your portraits, as big as buildings, have not given you any illusions on the subject.’

The simplicity of those words accomplished a miracle. They walked up and down together over the white carpet. Which led the other? They stopped before the map of the globe: oceans, continents, borders, industries, green expanses, our sixth part of the globe, primitive, powerful, threatened ...

This is indeed tragedy on a grand scale. The seismological imagery reflects the depths of the social upheaval, while the map, and the world it represents, is the measure of the individual’s, of the tyrant’s, responsibility ... and helplessness. To quote Leon Werth:

Stalin has built his empire, but his empire constrains him. One feels him ready to give way to pity, not over the comrade who will be sentenced to death by him, but over the necessity which drives him, Stalin; over the chains that bind his life: over the obligation to liquidate anyone who opposes him under the pain of being sentenced to death himself; over a Stalin who is not free. [27]

Writing in International Socialism, I cannot resist the temptation to speculate on how the idea of ‘state capitalism’ stimulated Serge’s poetic imagination, particularly with respect to this scene. The phrase appears earlier in the novel on the mouth of Rublev’s friend, the old Bolshevik Philippov of the Central Planning Commission, who insists that the ‘land of socialism’ has become the land of ‘state capitalism’. Another ‘state capitalist’ in Serge’s fiction is Colonel Fontov in the posthumous Les Années sans pardon, who declares that ‘political economy is worse than war’. The military imagery is shared by young Rodion in Midnight in the Century who visualises state capitalism as ‘a sort of enormous tank, covering the whole horizon, which is going to crush everything.’

Curiously, the image of a tank occupies a central – perhaps symbolic – place in Kondratiev’s confrontation with Stalin. The Chief routinely asks Kondratiev for his opinion on the performance of the new Russian tanks in Spain, and Kondratiev replies with a lengthy, emotional account of the terrifying experience of being inside this modern weapon designed to crush the enemy. ‘The machine crushes man,’ Kondratiev tells his old comrade-in-arms. Cut off from the world, trapped behind the armour amid the noise, the stench, the jolting, ‘there was panic in our guts ... Instead of feeling protected and powerful, you feel reduced to nothing.’

Is this not a monatory image of the dictator who has turned society into a terror machine to protect his power and is now trapped within it? And when Stalin asks Kondratiev for the ‘remedy’, the latter replies ‘better designed machines’, a phrase which anticipates the elaborately developed comparison between society and a ‘dark machine’, with its nostalgia for a better designed ‘transparent machine’, which Serge places at the conclusion of his novel.

The passage of generations

As we have seen, Kostia, the young Communist whose spontaneous act of revolt unwittingly unleashes a new wave of terror, is only dimly aware of what he is doing. In the central panels of the novel, Serge develops characters who do possess a clearer systematic understanding of what is happening – old revolutionaries, Marxist theoreticians, veterans or sympathisers of the various inner party oppositions. The lucidity of this older generation contrasts with the half formed consciousness of Kostia’s. The problem is that, like Romachkin, they are unable to act, albeit for different reasons. In the impasse of the revolution for which they have lived and would willingly die, their theoretical knowledge is, for the moment, impotent. They come to recognise themselves as members of a doomed generation, prisoners of an irony of history that has transformed the victorious party of revolution, incarnating the highest level of human self-consciousness united with will, into the blind instrument of a power system that cannot permit that consciousness to survive. That is their tragedy.

There are alternative themes in the novel that run in contrary motion to the theme of the destruction of the old revolutionary generation in the purges, suggesting an olive branch of hope for revolutionary renewal after the deluge. Rublev, in the conversation that follows the snowball fight, gives voice to some of these hopes:

... We must cultivate consciousness. There is sure progress under this barbarism, progress under this retrogression. Look at our masses, our youth, all the new factories, the Dnieprostroi, Magnitogorsk, Kirovsk ... We are all dead men under a reprieve, but the face of the Earth has been changed, the migrating birds must wonder where they are when they see what were deserts covered with factories. And what a new proletariat! Ten million men at work in 1927. What will that effort not accomplish for the world in half a century?

In the scheme of Tulayev, the theme of industrialisation, of renewal through the machine, is intimately connected with the theme of the renewal of life through nature and the passage of generations. Construction and destruction are linked by a dialectical tension at the same time as the elements of hope in the novel are muted by the threat of war. I think that this is what Serge had in mind when he described his novel as ending in ‘neither optimism nor pessimism, in the expectation of war, with: life goes on.’ Serge prefigured this dialectical movement in his opening chapter in the apocalyptic image of the dynamited cathedral that will hopefully be replaced by a ‘people’s palace’ and in the symbolic osmosis that links the two generations exemplified by Romachkin and Kostia. As the novel moves towards its conclusion, Serge enriches this theme and elevates it to a cosmic level through a series of images relating to the stars. Thus humanity’s regeneration, industrial progress and the cosmos itself are linked in a nexus of imagery that lends the novel its lyricism and sense of spirituality.

The theme of the fruitful connection between the old and new generations is implicit in Serge’s treatment of all the positive characters: Ryzhik with his Marxist theory of the ascension of a new proletariat, Rublev with his testament written for future generations. However, it is most fully developed in the story of Kondratiev. His mission to republican Spain is a ‘Journey Into Defeat’. He realises that the magnificent courage of the Spanish masses has been betrayed and that he can do nothing to save the republic from entering its final agony. His crisis of conscience is crystallised by his encounter with the young Trotskyist, Stephen Stem, who has been kidnapped by the Russian secret police in Barcelona and implicated in the Tulayev assassination plot. Kondratiev tries vainly to save him and succeeds only in compromising himself. But Stern’s courage and unflinching revolutionary lucidity infects Kondratiev. As the despairing old revolutionary meditates on the tragedy of a revolution turned savagely against its most conscious representatives, Stern’s image comes unbidden into his mind: ‘Forgive me ... There is nothing more I can do for you, comrade. I understand you very well, I was like you once, we were all like you ... And I am still like you, since I am certainly done for like you ...’

Back in Moscow, Kondratiev expects to be arrested at any moment, and his existence takes on an unreal, hallucinatory quality. After a sleepless night spent wrestling with suicide, he resolves to fight. Not for himself – he knows he is doomed – but for future generations: ‘Somewhere on earth there are young people whom I do not know but whose dawning consciousness I must try to save.’ His victory over despair is associated with the eternally recurring victory of dawn over the night:

Morning brightened at the window, the street along the Moskva was still deserted, a sentry’s bayonet moved between the crenellations of the outer Kremlin wall, a wash of pale gold touched the faded dome on the tower of Ivan the Terrible, it was barely perceptible light, but already it was victorious, it was almost pink, the sky was turning pink, there was no boundary line between the pink of dawn and the blue of the vanishing night, in which the last stars were about to be extinguished. ‘They are the strongest stars, and they are going out because they are outshone ...

The last stars of the night are emblematic of Kondratiev’s doomed generation. A few – the strongest – will survive to mingle their light of consciousness with that of the dawning generation. Kondratiev now falls asleep. In his dream the image of the stars explodes into a vision of the birth of the universe. This vision then merges with other images of renewal: a sunflower, a young woman, salmon swimming upstream to spawn:

Enormous stars of pure fire, some copper coloured, others transparent blue, yet others reddish, peopled the night of his dream. They moved mysteriously, or rather they swayed; the diamond-studded spiral of a nebula appeared out of darkness, filled with an inexplicable light, it grew larger. Look, look, the eternal worlds! – to whom did he say that? There was a presence too; but who was it, who? The nebula filled the sky, overflowed onto the earth, now it was only a great, bright sunflower, in a little courtyard under a closed window, Tamara Leontiyevna’s hands made a signal, there were stone stairs, very wide, which they climbed at a run, and an amber torrent glided in the opposite direction, and in the eddies of the torrent big fish jumped, as salmon jump when they go up rivers ...

Serge’s next paragraph slyly invites us to interpret the dream: ‘When he shaved, about noon, Kondratiev found fragments of his dream floating in his mind; they did him good. Old crones would say ... But what would a psychoanalyst say? To hell with psychoanalysts!’ The dream does him good because it symbolises his reconciliation with the life force. Tamara Leontiyevna represents the new generation to whom Kondratiev wishes to reach out his hand. She is also the sexual mate with whom Serge hints he will be united at the end of the novel. Thus historic consciousness, human reproduction, the life cycles of animals and plants (the fish, the sunflower), the ever expanding Einsteinian universe are integrated into Serge’s cosmic vision. The present is dark, he tells us, but life goes on.

Called upon to give the routine propaganda speech to the graduating class of the Red Army Tank School that evening, Kondratiev arrives in a state of dream like serenity. He finds himself departing from the cliches of his prepared text in order to find ‘words that are alive’ to share with the young men who are soon to face death. [28]

... Perhaps, young men, I shall never speak again ... I have not come here, in the name of the Central Committee of our great party, that iron cohort ...’

Iron cohort? Hadn’t that phrase been coined by Bukharin, enemy of the people, agent of a foreign intelligence service?

‘... to bring you the copybook phrases which Lenin called our Communist lie, ‘Comm-lie’! I ask you to look at reality, be it baffling or base, with the courage of your youth, I tell you to think freely, to condemn us in your consciences – we the older generation, who could not do better; I tell you to go beyond us as you judge us ... I urge you to feel that you are free men under your armour of discipline ... to judge, to think out everything for yourselves, socialism is not an organisation of machines, a mechanising of human beings – it is an organisation of clear thinking and resolute men, who know how to wait, to give way and to recover their ground ... Then you shall see how great we are, one and all – we who are the last, you who are the first, of tomorrow ...’

Paradoxically, the Chief decides to pardon Kondratiev’s defiant heresy – at least for the moment. Instead of being executed, he is ordered to northern Siberia to administer the search for gold – gold that will be needed to finance the coming war. As he prepares to depart, he invites two representatives of the new generation to accompany him: Tamara Leontiyevna and a desperate young student whom he meets on a park bench. Kondratiev thus progresses from the consciousness of historical defeat, through despair to a precarious and almost paradoxical reintegration with the forces of renewal.

‘Listen to the earth, listen to your nerves’

Star imagery is associated with all of the positive characters – Kostia, Rublev, Ryzhik, Kondratiev – who experience moments of transcendent foresight. Serge’s cosmic lyricism serves as a kind of counterweight to the horror of the historical catastrophe he has elected to chronicle. It reminds us that our short life span encompasses only a moment in a movement whose rhythms must be measured in by generations, centuries and millennia. Within this sidereal time scheme – which begins with the explosion of nebula and includes the eons of biological evolution and the successive epochs of human civilisation – our lives may be experienced as tragic, but perhaps not as meaningless. The tragedy arises from the reversal of our intentions and expectations, and even Marxism, the highest form of historical consciousness, is not exempt from such reversals (although it may also contain the only means of transcending them).

The tragic reversal of Serge’s period (which is still ours) is that the great victory of the Russian Revolution, conceived as the first step toward the socialist transformation of humanity, led to its opposite: the usurpation of the Marxist ideal by a bloody, anti-working class dictatorship and the defeat of international socialism for a whole epoch. In The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Serge depicts his collective hero at the moment of catastrophic self-awareness.

To the insistent question, ‘What is to be done?’ Serge can provide no easy answer. The situation, an historical impasse, is entirely new. Ryzhik’s response is intellectual: ‘Theoretical conclusions, the chief thing being not to lose our heads, not to let our Marxist objectivity be perverted by this nightmare.’ [29]

Serge’s response includes this but broadens it. Survive, live, think, build, look to the future – these are the messages implicit in the structure, imagery and emotional tone of Tulayev. We feel them in the sense of wonder that suffuses the scene where Ryhzik encounters another old Marxist during a prison transfer:

‘Our meeting is absolutely extraordinary ... An inconceivable piece of negligence on the part of the services, a fantastic success compounded by the stars ... the stars which are no longer in their courses. We are living through an apocalypse of socialism. Comrade Ryzhik ... why are you alive, why am I – I ask you! Why? Magnificent! Staggering! I wish I might live for a century so that I could understand ...’

‘I understand,’ said Ryhzik.

‘The left theses of course ... I am a Marxist too. But shut your eyes for a minute, listen to the earth, listen to your nerves ... Do you think I am talking nonsense?’


The critic Irving Howe, commenting on this passage in his seminal book which poses the question of Politics and the Novel, remarks: ‘this seems to me as good a prescription for the political novel ... as we are likely to get: amidst the clamour of ideology – the indispensable, inescapable clamour – listen to your nerves.’ [30] It is not that Serge poses this vision as a substitute for the Marxist interpretation of history: rather he completes it with a lyricism that encompasses the stars, the earth, the centuries, and the unique emotional response of the individual.

Just as the tragic poets of ancient Greece, Aeschylus and Sophocles, juxtaposed hymns and choruses celebrating man’s triumphs and the harmony of the universe to the catastrophic fall of kings and heroes, so Serge’s humanism and cosmic lyricism create the context for a tragic appreciation of the fate of the modem proletariat. Toward the end of the novel, Kostia, in a burst of enthusiasm, exclaims: ‘The earth is revolving magnificently ... Can you see it revolving, our green globe inhabited by toiling monkeys?’ The shift in perspective is bold and striking. We are suddenly transported from the dingy confines of a Moscow apartment to the point of view of a cosmonaut circling the globe, from clock time to evolutionary time. The human moment fuses with the eternal while both the Marxist and Darwinian view of man are compressed into the phrase, ‘toiling monkeys’.

Classical Greek tragedy achieves this double perspective through lyricism of its choruses and the presence of the gods that see beyond human pain because they live forever. Choruses and gods create the distancing effect that permits the spectator to experience the tragic emotion intensely without being devastated. Where the ancients drew on mythology for their symbols of harmony and permanence, Serge draws on the sciences to round out his vision.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the final chapter of the novel, And Still the Floes Come Down, which serves as an epilogue in which the tragic echoes of the shots that smash the skulls of Rublev and his co-defendants mingle with the reverberating strains of Serge’s cosmic lyricism. As the threads of the plot are tied together and the characters are brought back for their final exit, Serge introduces the curious figure of Filatov, an old Moscow proletarian, whose sole apparent function in the novel is to prolong the theme of the cosmos and relate it to the theme of justice, which is central to the novel. Filatov is a rather simpleminded fellow, a son of the people who becomes Romachkin’s first real friend and spiritual advisor. He lives, symbolically, in the shadow of a church, but his religion is modern science. Left a widower at the age of 55, Filatov has enrolled in the ‘free night course at the Higher Technical School to learn mechanics and astrophysics’. As he explains to Romachkin:

Mechanics rules technology, technology is the base of production, that is, of society. Celestial mechanics is the law of the universe. Everything is physical. If I could begin my life over again, I would be an engineer or an astronomer; I believe the real engineer must be an astronomer if he is to understand the world. But I was born the grandson of a serf, under the Tsarist oppression. I was illiterate until I reached 30, a drunkard until I reached 40. I lived without understanding the universe until my poor Natassia died.

There is something slightly comical in Filatov’s naive mixture of science, Marxism and religion, but his very simplicity is also both touching and profound. Just as Shakespeare, in his dramatic irony, often puts wisdom in the mouths of his commoners and fools, so Serge uses Filatov to explore the notion of a materialist spirituality implicit in his cosmological themes and imagery. Filatov continues:

When she was buried at Vagankovskoye, I had a small red cross set up on her grave, because she was a believer herself, being ignorant; and because we live in the socialist age, I said: let the cross of a proletarian be red! And I was left all alone in the cemetery, comrade Romachkin, I paid the watchman 50 kopeks so that I could stay after closing time until the stars came out. And I thought: What is man on this earth? A wretched speck of dust which thinks, works, and suffers. What does he leave behind him? Work, the mechanisms of work. What is the earth? A speck of dust which revolves in the sky with the work and sufferings of man, and silence of plants, and everything. And what makes it revolve? The iron law of stellar mechanics. ‘Natassia,’ I said over her grave, ‘you can no longer hear me because you no longer exist, because we have no souls, but you will always be in the soil, the plants, the air, the energy of nature, and I ask you to forgive me for having hurt you by getting drunk, and I promise you I will stop drinking, and I promise you I will study so that I may understand the great mechanisms of creation.’

Serge’s Filatov also connects with the Russian literary tradition in which the solidity and simple wisdom of an old man of the people serves as a foil for the anguished uncertainty of the educated. He recalls Platon Karatayev, the old peasant soldier, whose proverbs for every occasion sustain the troubled Pierre Bezukov during the burning of Moscow in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He also anticipates the figure of Spiridon Yegorov, the old peasant prisoner whose moral values inspire Gleb Nerzhin, the hero of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. Both these figures are reflections of the Russian tradition of populist Christianity in which the peasant, the man of the soil, is seen as the ‘real’ Russia and the repository of its spiritual values. Serge’s Filatov springs from the Russian soil too. He is the ‘grandson of a serf’. But he also reflects the impact of 20th century industrial, political and intellectual revolutions on the masses and he thus transcends traditional populist ideology. [31]

Filatov sees the world in the image of the machine: ‘I have not had time to think about the universe, comrade Filatov,’ says Romachkin, ‘because I have been tortured by injustice.’ ‘The causes of injustice,’ Filatov answers, ‘lie in the social mechanism.’ Romachkin has by now forgotten that he once dreamed of assassinating the Chief and has settled into life. He votes his approval of the execution of Tulayev’s ‘murderers’, but he is deeply troubled by his act. ‘Did I betray pity? Should I have betrayed the party if I had not raised my hand? What is your answer Filatov, you who are upright, you who are a true proletarian?’

‘The machine,’ said Filatov, ‘must operate irreproachably. That it crushes those who stand in its way is inhuman, but it is the universal law. The workmen must know the insides of the machine. Later there will be luminous and transparent machines which men’s eyes can see through without hindrance. They will be machines in a state of innocence, comparable to the innocence of the heavens. Human law will be as innocent as astrophysical law. No one will be crushed. No one will any longer need pity. But today, comrade Romachkin, pity is still needed. Machines are full of darkness, we never know what goes on inside them ...’

As long as society remains a ‘dark machine’, pity will be needed. In their heroic attempt to create a ‘transparent machine’, Serge’s old Bolsheviks experience what Engels called ‘the tragic collision between the historically necessary postulate and the practical impossibility of its realisation.’ As the dark machine crushes them, they evoke the tragic responses of admiration, pity and fear. A new generation of ‘toiling monkeys’ will take up the struggle, preserving the continuity of Serge’s collective hero, as the ‘green globe’ continues to revolve.


1. Earlier versions of parts of this article have previously appeared in the Minnesota Review (Fall 1980), La Revista de la Universidad de Mexico (July 1980) and in my translators introduction to Serge’s Conquered City.

2. These manuscripts included two novels Serge had completed during his Central Asian exile (1933–36): Les Hommes perdus (about the pre-war French anarchist movement) and La Tourmente (about the Russian Civil War). In addition to the copies seized at the Russian-Polish border. Serge had painstakingly typed numerous other copies, some of which were addressed to Romain Rolland and ‘lost’ in the Soviet mail and others of which were deposited with Soviet institutions or friends in Russia. Serge’s dogged persistence may yet be rewarded now that the Russian archives are opening. For further details see The Searchers: Literary Detectives on the Trail in Weekend Guardian (London, 22–23 September 1990).

3. See R. Parry’s excellent The Bonnot Gang (London 1987).

4. Sadoul was a captain in the French military mission in Russia who sympathised with the Bolsheviks in 1917. His Letters from Russia provided the French public with a sympathetic eyewitness account such as John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World. Serge had known Sadoul during the heroic civil war days in Russia and worked with him in Berlin in 1923. In 1936 he published two widely circulated and translated articles urging a boycott of ‘the bandit’ Kibalchich. He characterised Serge as a common criminal, the ‘brains’ behind the Bonnot gang of 1911, an unscrupulous sneak who had attempted to hide his criminal appetites behind the anarchist flag at the 1913 trial and was now once again using ‘politics’ to camouflage his complicity with the ‘criminals’ in the Moscow Trial. Trotsky published a forthright response attacking Sadoul’s record and defending Serge’s.

5. Serge to Trotsky. 10 August 1936, in M. Dreyfus, the editor and prefacer of Victor Serge and Leon Trotsky, La Lutte Contra le Stalinisme: textes 1936–39, a collection of letters and published exchanges between the two men.

6. V. Serge, Carnets, pp. 21–25; pp. 30–32; interviews with Vlady Kibalchich.

7. The image is not entirely fanciful. Serge himself considered this dark period to be the shipwreck of civilisation. He also admired explorers and devoted two essays to the diaries of Admiral Byrd. See Courage des hommes: Byrd (La Wallonie, 21 November 1939) and Le Courage d’un homme (La Wallonie, 14 February 1940).

8. V. Serge, Note of the Author, manuscript text probably intended as a prospectus for perspective English language publishers. One page, written in English, no date, Kibalchich Archives, Mexico City.

9. Ibid.

10. L. Werth, Preface a l’Affaire Toulaev, unpublished manuscript thanks to Jean Riere. For permission to reproduce, apply to Les Editions du Seuil.

11. V. Serge, La Terre Commencait a Trembler (author’s prospectus, manuscript, no date, Kibalchich Archive, Mexico City).

12. L. Werth, op. cit.

13. V. Serge, La revolutionnaires, p. 663.

14. V. Bukovsky, To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter (New York 1979).

15. Nikolayev, the idealistic Young Communist responsible for the 1934 assassination of Kirov, was obviously the historical prototype for Kostia. But here the analogy ends. Serge suspected (and history has confirmed) that Kirov’s assassination was a GPU provocation designed both to remove a popular rival and to provide Stalin with a legitimising pretext for his blood purge of the Bolshevik Party. Nikolayev conceived the crime on his own, but he could never have penetrated the security surrounding Kirov or carried out his plan unaided. Undercover GPU agents had detected his intentions early on, but instead of arresting him they encouraged him, provided him with the murder weapon, and smoothed his path by removing Kirov’s guards at the critical moment. The assassination was a ‘set up job’. There is a sense in which Kostia is also set up by Romachkin, who furnishes the weapon and the inspirational books about ‘brave men’. But it is only on an unconscious or symbolic level that the old clerk passes on his mission to his youthful alter ego. See The Kirov Affair in Serge’s Destine d’une revolution (RTYA), the accounts by the GPU defector, Walter Krivitsky (In Stalin’s Secret Service, 1939) and the Sovietologist, Robert Conquest (The Great Terror, 1973).

16. V. Serge, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, p. 163.

17. V. Serge, Tulayev, p. l73; Le révolutionnaires, p. 828. With the advent of glasnost, I am convinced that the Soviet archives will yield many such testaments (there is a persistent tradition that Bukharin wrote one), and groups like Memorial are dedicated to bringing them to light. There is even hope that the works Serge himself wrote in captivity, which were seized in 1936, will emerge. There is a sense in which Serge, with his life at risk and no prospect of publication, wrote Tulayev itself ‘for the future’ in almost the same spirit that his creation, Rublev, writes his testament here.

18. D. Craig and M. Egan, The Literature of Revolution, Praxis, vol. 1, no. 2 (Berkeley, Ca.), Winter 1976.

19. W. Marshall, Viewpoints and Voices: Serge and Koestler on the Great Terror, Journal of European Studies, xvi (1986), p. 120.

20. L. Werth, op. cit.

21. V. Serge, La révolutionnaires, p. 794.

22. Ibid., p. 795.

23. Ibid., p. 797.

24. C. Plisnier, Le Staline de Victor Serge (Brussels, April 1940).

25. Ibid.

26. The Earth Was Beginning to Shake [La Terre Commencait a Trembler] was Serge’s original working title for Tulayev.

27. L. Werth, op. cit.

28. It bears noting that the young corpsmen to whom Kondratiev addresses his message would be the contemporaries and comrades at arms of Second World War veteran Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Serge’s intuition that the spark of rebellion would be rekindled by the generation that survived the war has been born out by events.

29. V. Serge, Tulayev, p. 199; La révolutionnaire, p. 540.

30. I. Howe, Politics and the Novel (New York 1957), p. 234.

31. Significantly, Filatov’s trade is mattress making. His innocent calling reminds us of Ryzhik’s dictum: ‘Socialism itself will not improve the modern bed’, and of Paul Lafargue’s proletarian classic. The Right To Be Lazy.

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