Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3

Richard Greeman

The Victor Serge Affair and the French Literary Left

Richard Greeman teaches French at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut, USA. He is well known for his English translations of four of Serge’s novels, Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, Conquered City and Midnight in the Century, as well as a number of shorter studies such as Victor Serge: Writer and Activist, and Victor Serge and the Russian Revolution. Two other important contributions, Did Trotsky Read Serge? and Victor Serge et le roman révolutionnaire (Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no. 47, January 1992, pp. 19–36), are still awaiting publication in English. He also played a prominent part in the Victor Serge Centenary Committee, and is currently completing a full-length biography of Serge for Les Éditions Flammarion. He has generously given his permission for us to publish this account in advance, which will form a chapter in his book.

For some years Greeman took part in political activity as a ‘Marxist humanist’, a supporter of Raya Dunayevskaya’s New and Letters.

THE ‘Victor Serge Affair’ is a remarkable and nearly unique episode in political and literary history. It mobilised – and polarised – the leading literary figures of two great nations, France and the Soviet Union. Prominent writers from Gide, Rolland, Malraux, Barbusse, Giraudoux, Duhamel and Aragon to Gorky, Ehrenburg, Pasternak, Tikhonov and Koltsov ended up taking part. [1] It also involved the personal intervention of at least four heads of state: Laval, Herriot, Vandervelde and, of course, Stalin. [2] Moreover, it raged for more than three years: from March 1933, when Serge was arrested, to April 1936, when he was released. It became a perennial burning issue in trade union and judicial circles, as well as in political and literary milieux. Finally, by its implications, the case became a touchstone. The struggle for the right of conscience of a lone revolutionary dissident writer against the interests of a self-proclaimed revolutionary state forced intellectuals to face the central political question of the era: the nature of Russian Communism and of their relation to it.

The campaign to obtain justice for Victor Serge is unique in other ways. It was acted out on many levels, from discreet high-level private interventions through dignified petitions and public inquiries, to open political warfare involving bitter polemics and physical confrontations. It also held together an unstable and heterodox coalition of personalities and groups ranging from fellow-travelling literary celebrities like Gide and Rolland, to truculent outsiders like the proletarian writers Marcel Martinet and Henry Poulaille; from cautious civil libertarians like Léon Blum and Victor Basch of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (League for the Rights of Man) to revolutionary Syndicalists like Jacques Mesnil and Pierre Monatte [3], and including thousands of rank and file trade unionists from the Fédération unitaire de l’enseignement (United Education Federation) and other labour groups.

It was also fraught with irony and paradoxes. The first of these was that, conspicuous by their absence from the campaign to save Serge – the most prominent Trotskyist writer in Europe – were his natural allies, the Trotskyists and the Surrealists. Nowhere amongst the available records of three years of subscriptions, meetings, delegations and protests did I encounter the names of the two young Surrealists whom Serge had introduced to Trotsky in Russia in 1927, Pierre Naville and Gérard Rosenthal (at the time Trotsky’s French political and legal representatives, respectively), of other French Trotskyist leaders like Frank and Molinier, or of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary Surrealists like Breton and Eluard. [4] Another irony was that the protagonist in the drama, Serge himself, remained largely unaware of its course because he was isolated in exile in Orenburg, and the Russian authorities took care to censor or limit his correspondence.

However, the most paradoxical feature of the affair was its outcome: Serge’s eventual liberation. According to Robert Conquest, it was ‘an almost unique occasion on which foreign opinion was able to influence Stalin’. [5] Serge himself was poignantly aware of this anomaly when he later described his liberation as ‘a miracle of solidarity’. In his first letter to his supporters, written a few days after his release in May 1936, he expressed the paradox of his faith in the power of their solidarity, and his conviction that such an outcome was all but an impossibility:

The regime never lets an objector loose. For the Communist oppositionist, for the free writer, for the embarrassing witness which I am, as for all the Socialist, Anarchist, Syndicalist, left Communist, Trotskyist or other objectors in the USSR there is no amnesty, no liberation, no possibility of any sort of life, ever… But I knew that you existed, that you were active; I even knew it when the censors cut off all my correspondence, and when my isolation became total … I counted on you in order to become a living man again, that is to say, in my own way, a fighter. [6]

Although the devotion of Serge’s defenders was truly admirable, the success of the campaign was partly due to timing and political circumstances. The 1935 Franco-Russian alliance opened up a period when the USSR was eagerly courting French public opinion to such an extent that the scandal surrounding the arrest of a single dissident writer could be considered dangerously divisive. This period closed in 1936 with two events: the advent of the Popular Front and the explosion of the Moscow Trials. On the one hand, with the Socialists and Radicals dependent on Communist support to keep the Front in power, it was the French who were doing the courting rather than the Russians. On the other, the blood purges definitively sealed the doom of all objectors in Russia. After the brutal imposture of the frame-up trials, the idea that Stalin would let a dangerous witness like Serge slip through his fingers became an absurdity. Thus, the ‘window of opportunity’ through which Serge escaped remained open for a bare two years. Indeed, if the Western chancelleries had persisted a few months longer in denying Serge a visa after Stalin had agreed to release him, he would certainly have perished in Russia.

Even so, the success of the ‘Free Victor Serge’ campaign remains unique and paradoxical. Why did the Russians agree to release him, and him alone? Who was really responsible for saving him?

Around the latter question, legends have grown up. Malraux, himself a great forger of legends, apparently claimed to have spoken personally to Stalin, and certainly never denied the credit for saving Serge. [7] It has also been alleged that Serge was saved when Rirette Maîtrejean, Serge’s great love of the days of the 1912 affair of the ‘Tragic Bandits’, threw herself at the feet of Laval on the eve of his departure for Moscow to conclude the Franco-Russian alliance with Stalin. On a less fanciful level, there is no doubt that Magdeleine Paz’s [8] bold eloquence at the Congress for the Defence of Culture that was held in June 1935 in Paris had its effect, or that the subsequent visit to Russia of Romain Rolland, whose attitude toward Serge and his supporters was highly ambivalent, came at the decisive moment. Although somewhat less romantic than legend, the actual story of the Victor Serge affair is dramatic enough, and helps to illuminate the atmosphere and personalities of the time.

Discreet Inquiries and Romain Rolland

Efforts to obtain justice for Serge began within days of his arrest on 8 March 1933, and the first stirrings were discreet but urgent communications amongst writers. On 20 March, having just heard of Serge’s arrest, Rolland wrote to Maxim Gorky urging him to investigate and, if possible, intercede. [9] Rolland told Gorky that he had been pressed by ‘men whom he esteemed’, ‘first-rate intellectuals’ like Martinet, Léon Werth and Charles Vildrac [10] (who had earlier supported Serge’s struggle for permission to travel), as well as by other ‘friends’ and ‘non-friends’, all begging him urgently to intervene. Rolland had told them that he would act only through Gorky’s intermission.

Rolland’s deep ambivalence about Serge’s personality and oppositional politics was tempered by an apparently sincere admiration for the writer and intellectual. ‘I should tell you’, he wrote to Gorky, ‘that I don’t know Serge personally – except as a writer (and his great talent is incontestable).’ Rolland’s ambivalence towards Serge may also have been motivated by the painful and embarrassing memory of having been criticised by Serge a decade earlier for remaining ‘above the social struggle’ during the Russian Civil War. [11]

Rolland conveyed to Gorky both his respect for Serge, and his knowledge that the Serge problem was not likely to go away: ‘Serge is, intellectually, too important a personality to be passed over in silence.’ He naively hoped that Stalin’s government would attempt to co-opt Serge’s talents:

The best solution would be for the USSR to bind to itself his strength and brilliant revolutionary spirit by occupying him in an activity worthy of him. But is this possible with an ex-libertarian? Nothing is impossible when one is dealing with an intelligence like his, which has been ripened by the direct experience of the Russian Revolution. In any case, it would be worth trying.

Rolland was apparently oblivious to the fact that Stalin’s regime would tolerate no loyal opposition. Indeed, veteran activists like Serge were excluded from employment, although they were begging for a chance to serve the Soviets.

However, it is clear that Rolland’s major preoccupation was to prevent a scandal that might prejudice opinion against the USSR, and to calm the emotions provoked by Serge’s arrest amongst intellectuals otherwise sympathetic toward it. As Bernard Duchatelet concludes: ‘He made approaches in 1933 and 1934 in the Serge affair not so much to defend a writer, as to rob the enemies of the USSR of an argument.’ [12]

Thus, although Rolland admitted the efficacy of the ‘agitation’ surrounding Serge’s arrest, he was clearly impatient with Serge’s friends who ‘do him more harm than good by the violence of their complaints’. Behind the apparent solicitude for Serge’s cause, and the implicit argument over tactics – that more would be accomplished by behind-the-scenes diplomacy amongst initiates than by vulgar public agitation – one senses where Rolland’s real attachments lay. The reputation of the USSR was infinitely more precious than either the principle of freedom of conscience or the fate of a talented writer and dedicated revolutionary.

This implicit choice soon became explicit when Rolland turned down an invitation from some of the same ‘first rate intellectuals’ to associate himself with their newly-formed Committee to Repatriate Victor Serge, on the grounds that if Serge returned to France he would become the leader of the Trotskyist opposition. [13] This public refusal was perfectly consistent with Rolland’s private appeal to Gorky, where, ‘in the interest of the USSR’, he urged that Serge be given a speedy trial to calm public opinion, either by ‘bringing out the facts against him’, or, if he is innocent, by ‘binding’ him to the USSR through worthy employment.

Accordingly, Rolland continued his persistent private efforts in favour of Serge, all the while distancing himself from Serge’s public supporters. In an interview in l’Humanité, he blamed Serge’s troubles on the intemperance of Serge’s friend, the Romanian writer Panaït Istrati [14], who had broken openly with Communism. However, Rolland refused to disavow the prejudicial anti-Serge slant that the editors had given to his remarks. Instead, he voiced his regret that the Serge affair had been turned into ‘an anti-Soviet warhorse’, of course, but by ‘all kinds of people whose least concern is Serge’s welfare’, and whose ‘way of twisting it towards their ends undermines our efforts in his favour’. [15]

At the same time, however, Rolland let it be known that he had approached Gorky not once but ‘two or three’ times, and had received the promise that Gorky would look into the affair as soon as he returned to Moscow. [16] (Gorky did, indeed, make a call to Yagoda, the security chief. [17]) Rolland also passed on the reassuring but perfectly mendacious news that Serge was being ‘treated with special respect in his prison’.

Some months later, Serge was released from prison and sentenced to deportation at Orenburg on the Ural river, where he was able to resume writing. Rolland demonstrated the sincerity of his respect for Serge’s ‘great’ and ‘undeniable talent’ as a writer, by agreeing to receive Serge’s manuscripts. Yet, when on two separate occasions the painstakingly typed manuscripts of Serge’s novel Les hommes perdus (The Lost Men), were ‘lost’ (that is, seized) by the Russian authorities, Rolland made no public complaint or protest over the continuing and heartbreaking destruction of the creative work of his protégé. Moreover, as Pierre Monatte pointed out, Rolland had no political excuse, since the subject of Serge’s novel, French Anarchism circa 1912, could in no way have prejudiced the USSR. [18] Privately, Rolland wrote to the Soviet Education Commissar, Andrei Bubnov, asking him to intervene to have the confiscated manuscript delivered to him. [19] In a letter marked ‘confidential’, Rolland confided his feelings to Jean Guéhenno. Although Rolland found it ‘a blatant embarrassment’ that the Russians were blocking Serge’s manuscripts, ‘and particularly so given that they are addressed to me’, he also condemned the persistent protests of Serge’s friends as ‘no less blatantly embarrassing’ – a curious example of even-handedness. [20]

Nonetheless, Rolland never ceased expressing his concern over Serge behind the scenes. At the end of 1934, we find him encouraging Jean-Richard Bloch to take steps in favour of Serge and his manuscripts in Moscow, not out of any attachment to the man (for whom Rolland assures Bloch he had ‘no affection whatever’), but to serve the truth. [21] There was little Bloch could do politically at the time, since the Kirov assassination had created an atmosphere of suspicion and hysteria. [22] However, Serge’s sister-in-law, Anita Russakova, told me that Bloch visited her in Leningrad, and gave her money to forward to Serge in Orenburg. [23]

Six months later, Rolland brought up the subject again with Bloch, reiterating his antipathy for Serge, but maintaining that ‘these secret trials and sentences are untenable’. Back in Moscow in August, Bloch explained to Rolland the efforts he had made to enable Serge to leave Orenburg, perhaps even the USSR, or at least to get permission for him, Bloch, to bring back to Paris the manuscript of the novel which the police had seized, and which Yagoda had allowed him to read. Although nothing came of the efforts to rescue Serge’s manuscript, the three years of behind-the-scenes interventions on the part of Rolland were to come to a head when Rolland actually travelled to the Soviet Union in 1935.

Petitions and Protests in Paris

Meanwhile, back in Paris, Rolland’s public attitude toward Serge’s supporters could only exasperate them. Even the poet Martinet (one of Rolland’s ‘esteemed first-rate intellectuals’) saw Rolland’s position as hypocritical. Reflecting back over a decade, Martinet took Rolland to task for having attacked the embattled, fledgling Soviet Union during the Civil War because it defended itself with an army and put its enemies in jail. He reminded Rolland that he had exhorted the French intellectuals with anti-Bolshevik cries of ‘Freedom! Never give in! Never compromise with injustice and lies!’ when Russia was surrounded by White armies. Yet now, when the Soviet state was all-powerful and secure, Rolland was attacking as dangerous enemies loyal dissenters whose only crime lay in criticising its methods. [24]

Here Martinet had perhaps unwittingly touched on a sore spot, for Rolland’s vanity was still smarting, a decade later, from Serge’s open letters of 1922–23 criticising Rolland’s early hostility to the Soviet government. Rolland’s pique at Serge is evident in these words from a 1934 ‘confidential’ letter to Guéhenno: ‘He pursued us with his sarcasm. He has reaped what he sowed.’ All the while reiterating his praise for Serge’s ‘great talent’ as a writer, Rolland seems to want to blame the victim for his own persecution; he wonders aloud if ‘another government – be it that of France – wouldn’t make Victor Serge suffer a great deal more’. [25]

Personalities aside, Martinet’s pamphlet touched on the most fundamental and most controversial aspect of the Serge case: what it revealed about the counter-revolutionary tendency of the Soviet state under Stalin. That is why he gave the pamphlet from which we have just quoted the provocative title, Where is the Russian Revolution Going? The Victor Serge Affair, and concluded by apostrophising Rolland:

No, we are not doing a disservice to the revolution by demanding that Serge be freed, we are serving it, and if this is harmful to what the Russian state has become, then it is because the Russian state may no longer be serving the revolution. [26]

This was an idea that Rolland was quite simply unwilling even to entertain.

On the other hand, many – but by no means all – of the individuals and groups that campaigned for Serge’s freedom in Paris did share Martinet’s doubts. These circles included old friends and Comintern veterans like Boris Souvarine, Pierre Pascal, Maurice Parijanine and Lucien Laurat grouped around Critique sociale and the Cercle Communiste Démocratique; the editors of Combat marxiste; Maurice Wullens and Les Humbles; Socialists like Magdeleine Paz and her husband, Maurice; revolutionary Syndicalists grouped around La Révolution prolétarienne, including Pierre Monatte and another disillusioned Comintern veteran, Jacques Mesnil; and the radical teachers’ group around L’École émancipée. [27] These diverse yet interconnected political circles that formed the hard core of the struggle had this in common: although they were not Trotskyists, they stood for workers’ rights against the Soviet bureaucracy, and had few if any illusions about the ‘democratic’ or ‘proletarian’ nature of the new Russian state.

Souvarine was the first to break the silence about Serge’s arrest, and not without difficulty. In a letter of 6 May 1933 to Pierre Kaan, he complained that two months had passed and nothing had been done in the way of public protest. [28] On the one hand, Serge’s brother-in-law, Pierre Pascal, who had managed to leave Russia and had arrived in Paris on the very day Serge was arrested, was afraid to sign Souvarine’s protest out of fear for the fate of the rest of the Russakov family in Leningrad. Indeed, it seems almost as if the timing of Serge’s arrest was intended as a warning to guarantee Pascal’s silence. However, the arrest of Anita Russakova a month later and the brutal expulsion of the rest of the family from Leningrad liberated Pascal from his scruples about public activity.

On the other hand, Souvarine was scandalised that Serge’s influential literary friends on the editorial boards of Monde and Europe had done nothing, apparently out of fear of compromising their relations with Henri Barbusse. At the same time, Souvarine’s prickly personality and sectarian scruples prevented him from approaching people like Magdeleine Paz and the flamboyant newspaper publisher Gaston Bergery. [29] As a result, his protests were confined to his ephemeral Critique sociale, although they were picked up by Le Travailleur communiste, syndicaliste et coopératif (The Communist, Syndicalist and Cooperative Worker), published by the Independent Communist Federation of the East of France. [30]

The campaign really began to get organised with the formation of the Comité pour le rapatriement (sic) de Victor Serge – literally, the Committee to bring Victor Serge home to the Fatherland – whose Secretariat was listed at the domicile of Maurice and Magdeleine Paz, and whose founders included the writers Martinet and Georges Duhamel, the Syndicalists Mesnil and Monatte, Pierre Pascal and Rossi (Angelo Tasca). [31] The committee eventually incorporated around 60 writers, artists, journalists and political militants. It is amusing that these ardent internationalists, being French, unwittingly made their goal the ‘rapatriement’ of a man who had no ‘patrie’, and forgot that Serge was a Belgian-born stateless exile, naturalised as a Soviet citizen, banned in France since 1917, and expelled in 1919! Nonetheless, for three solid years this heterodox group gave the most practical and concrete meaning to the word solidarity.

The committee’s supporters kept up a steady campaign on a variety of levels, the most basic of which was providing accurate information on the conditions of Serge’s captivity and the sufferings of his family, and providing material support through letters, food packages, public subscriptions and promoting Serge’s books. They also spurred efforts to mobilise protests amongst writers, jurists and trade unionists, and kept up a steady barrage of propaganda – speeches, articles and pamphlets. Although produced mostly by impoverished, small-circulation revolutionary publications like La Révolution prolétarienne, Les Humbles, L’École émancipée and La Librairie du travail, these writings were persistent and persuasive enough to influence larger circles, and to keep attention focused on Serge.

Amongst the Men of Letters

On the literary front, Rolland’s aloofness and Barbusse’s hostility were major obstacles to an organised campaign. Souvarine had been pessimistic from the start:

What is scandalous is that VS’s so-called ‘friends’ have done nothing for two months, although they have the means, the relations, and the influence… I imagine that they have given up on the idea of doing anything at Monde, where all the editors are in sympathy with Victor, so as not to disturb their relationship with Lord Barbusse, the executioner’s assistant. Not a word in Europe where Victor’s last novel appeared. Nothing can be done to pull together a campaign. [32]

Yet the goodwill was there. In August 1933 we find Guéhenno complaining to his mentor, Rolland, about ‘all the problems the Serge affair had caused’ him. He explained: ‘Writers and friends of Europe asked me to write an article. I refused.’ [33] Meanwhile, over at Monde, a group of regular collaborators, including Duhamel, Charles Vildrac, Georges Pioch [34], Léon Werth, Martinet, Magdeleine Paz and Henry Poulaille, had written to Barbusse protesting at the journal’s silence on the arrest of ‘this admirable writer’ whose ‘praises’ Monde had sung, and ‘whose collaboration had honoured it’. [35] However, they received no reply.

A year later, Barbusse, to whom at least three copies of Martinet’s 27-page documented pamphlet L’Affaire Victor Serge had been delivered, told Mesnil that he hadn’t read it, but that he doubted whether it contained any fact that might alter his own ‘very simple and natural’ version of the case, based on ‘personal investigation’, to wit: ‘that it is rather logical and just that the Soviet government restricts the freedom of action of its internal enemies’, referring, of course, to Serge. [36] Under the heading Henri Barbusse aveugle volontaire … (‘Henri Barbusse’s Deliberate Blindness’), Mesnil quoted a later exchange with Barbusse, who had declared: ‘I couldn’t allow Monde to become the champion of men like Victor Serge, whose obvious goal is to shoot in the back everyone who is responsible for constructing a Socialist state.’

Mesnil aptly remarked that Barbusse’s attitude toward Serge was exactly like that of the French chauvinists who had accused Barbusse and Rolland of being traitors and of ‘shooting in the back’ the defenders of the Fatherland during the First World War. He also pointed out that Barbusse’s hostility was in part motivated by the jealousy ‘of a writer on the downhill path for a young colleague whose talent is greater and more obvious – a hostility which led him to denigrate one of his works without having read it’. [37]

Rolland’s sniping and Barbusse’s heavy-handed obstructionism, although partly successful in marginalising the effect of the Serge campaign in literary circles, also backfired to some extent. For example, some groups of ‘friends of Monde’ broke away over the Serge issue, distanced themselves from official Communism, and formed a new magazine, Masses. [38] In addition, other writers were willing to rise to Serge’s defence as individuals. Even Rolland’s disciple, Guéhenno, chose to accompany Luc Durtain on a visit to the Russian Ambassador, who vexed him by promising an answer in four weeks and giving none. [39] Moreover, Duhamel wrote a strong article in L’Oeuvre, and Jean Giraudoux approached the Soviet Embassy, despite Rolland’s complaint that such actions ‘unfortunately’ gave the Serge affair ‘an importance embarrassing for those who might be working quietly behind the scenes’. [40]

The hollowness of Rolland’s objection is evident, since we know that it was precisely on the grounds of preventing embarrassment to the USSR that he was appealing through Gorky to the authorities to liquidate the Serge affair. Without public protests, his quiet diplomacy would have been ignored. Indeed, this is precisely the major argument of Martinet’s pro-Serge pamphlet, Where is the Russian Revolution Going?. Under the heading ‘Why we think it is in the interests of the USSR itself to liberate Victor Serge’, Martinet argued that whatever harm, real or imaginary, granting freedom to a critic like Serge might have brought to the USSR, the scandal of his captivity and the questions and protests it inspired were infinitely more harmful.

Foreign writers were perhaps less hesitant in speaking out for Serge. As early as May 1933, the Belgians Albert Ayguesparse, Edmond Vandercammen, Charles Plisnier and Pierre Hubermont [41] published a manifesto Pour Victor Serge in Brussels, and in June, Panaït Istrati, believed dead in Romania, made an appearance at a ‘Free Serge’ meeting in Paris, and went on to give a radio address in Holland on the ‘Serge Affair’. [42] On the other hand, although writers of many nations attended the First Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in August-September 1934, none dared raise the Serge case. In October, Malraux, one of the French delegates, gave a public report on the congress at the Palais de la Mutualité in Paris without once alluding to the massive suppression of writers in Russia. Pierre Monatte was beside himself: ‘And you, Malraux’, he wrote in La Révolution prolétarienne, ‘do you really think you can discuss the writer’s rights whilst remaining silent about the Serge affair …? Surely, Malraux, you have the talents of a sleight-of-hand artist.’ [43] Less subtle than Malraux, Aragon, speaking for the Association révolutionnaire culturelle (the Revolutionary Cultural Association), referred to Serge as ‘that man to whom the Soviet government showed far too much indulgence by not shooting him on the spot’. [44] Thus the men of letters.

Juridical and Diplomatic Initiatives

The committee’s campaign on the juridical and diplomatic fronts also encountered both sympathy and hostility. As early as 25 May 1933 the League for the Rights of Man published a strong protest:

At a time when the universal conscience is aroused against the methods of violence and constraint raging in Germany, the revolutionary government of the USSR cannot make itself responsible for the same arbitrary persecutions as Hitler’s Fascism. [45]

The next issue of the League’s Cahiers contained a long and impassioned exposé of the Serge affaire by Magdeleine Paz. [46] But the League’s annual congress a month later was far from unanimous in supporting a victim of Stalin’s terror rather than Hitler’s. Nonetheless, the majority voted to address to the Russian Embassy a demand for Serge’s liberation. [47] Another legal organisation, the Groupe des Avocats socialistes (Socialist Lawyers’ Group) was even more forthright. Invited to join the Association Juridique Internationale (International Juridical Association), a pro-Soviet group, the Socialist Lawyers, spurred on by Magdeleine Paz, declined the invitation after the AJI refused even to consider the Serge case. [48]

Where the Russians and their allies could not simply avoid the issue, they attempted to obfuscate it. For example, when President Victor Basch of the League for the Rights of Man telephoned the Soviet Embassy to follow up his organisation’s petition, he was put off with a reassuring lie: Victor Serge was allegedly free, and working for a Soviet organisation. The same tactic of the reassuring false report was used when the Serge affair was brought up during President Herriot’s visit to the USSR in September 1933. Paul Roussenq of the Secours Rouge International was told that Herriot had asked for Victor Serge’s pardon, and that Serge had already returned to France! On another occasion, a delegation of teachers from the Yonne Department visited Moscow and brought up the Serge affair with Lozovsky and Rakovsky (a former oppositionist who had capitulated to Stalin). [49] The delegates returned to France with the fairy tale that Serge had a job in Orenburg doing translations for the Communist International, when in fact he was banned from all employment, and had not even been paid for the translations he had completed before his arrest! [50] Similarly, Jean-Richard Bloch was put off with accounts of alleged ‘improvements’ in Serge’s situation designed to filter back to France, and thus defuse the campaign.

A variant on the reassurance gambit was the resort to mysterious veiled allegations. For example when the Belgian Socialist Jeunes Gardes enquired about Serge’s case to the government of the USSR, they got this reply: ‘It is impossible to give out information about the reasons leading to Victor Serge’s conviction without placing the regime in danger.’ [51] – which was ironically true! Similarly, Rolland either believed or professed to believe that Serge had been ‘intimately involved with certain secret government action, which would explain the particularly tight surveillance to which he is subjected’. [52] Serge’s role in the Bonnot affair in 1912 of Anarchist bank robbers was of course revived, along with intimations that Serge had absconded with state funds in Russia. Barbusse somehow dragged in Japanese aggression. Most dangerous of all, Serge was linked with the assassination of Kirov (although it took place a year after Serge’s arrest).

Agitation in the Unions

Despite these red herrings, the most consistent, militant and effective support for Serge came from the union of French teachers, whose traditions of independence and free thought went back to the struggles against clerical domination and the Dreyfus Affair. Within weeks of Serge’s arrest, the near-unanimous Conseil fédéral unitaire de l’Enseignment (United Federal Council of Education) voted for a militant resolution. It praised Serge’s fidelity and talent – ‘it is to Serge that the proletariat owes the finest book on the birth of the revolution: Year One of the Russian Revolution’ – and concluded:

French educators were, like Serge, amongst the first to align themselves with the Russian Revolution. They are thus in a position to demand, in the name of the revolution, in the absence of any definite accusation against him, the immediate liberation of that respected revolutionary, admired and beloved writer, Victor Serge. [53]

Five months later, a Soviet delegation invited to participate in the Federation’s annual convention was greeted by ‘repeated, redoubled, intensified shouting’ demanding freedom for Serge and Rakovsky. Although brought in to back up the Communist faction in the Federation, the Russians couldn’t answer a single question about Serge, and resorted to singing the Internationale, whose strains were submerged by indignant repeated cries of ‘Victor Serge’ amongst the teachers. [54] A year later, at the Federation’s twenty-ninth convention, the same Russian delegates received the same treatment. A ‘Free Serge’ resolution was carried by 242 votes to 170, and more than twice as much money was collected to aid Serge than for the German Communist Thälmann. [55] Meanwhile, at an anti-Fascist unification conference at Saint-Etienne involving a variety of unions (federated, unitary, independent and Anarcho-Syndicalist) and the local anti-Fascist Vigilance Committee, the Serge affair and its implications about Soviet reality kept surfacing. This was particularly significant because, since the panic generated by the Fascist riots of 6 February 1934 in France, anti-Fascists were falling all over themselves trying to please the Communists and preserve unity at all costs.

These pro-Serge demonstrations were sustained by the constant flow of information about Serge and his situation provided by his supporters, particularly Mesnil writing in La Révolution prolétarienne. Beginning with the publication of Serge’s Credo (Profession de Foi) in May 1933, readers were kept informed of the deteriorating mental condition of his wife, Liuba, the deportation of his in-laws, the Russakovs, the seizure of Serge’s personal papers, the curtailment of his incoming and outgoing correspondence, the blocking of his money at the bank, the denial of work and of payment for past work, the seizure of the manuscripts sent to Rolland, the illnesses of Serge and his son Vladimir, Vladimir’s expulsion from school, and all the ruses on the part of the Russian authorities and their French sympathisers to avoid the issue or distort the facts in the case. Martinet’s L’Affaire Victor Serge gathered all this information, along with the most eloquent arguments, between the covers of a single Librairie du travail pamphlet.

To be sure, these protests emanated from a few vociferous but numerically weak unions and union-oriented publications. Yet, despite the meagre resources at its disposal, the ‘Free Serge’ campaign remained effective because it was persistent over time, mobilised efforts on the literary, juridical and trade union fronts, and operated simultaneously on the levels of inside diplomacy and public protest. Although too weak to force the hand of the Russian authorities, it was nonetheless strong enough to remain an uncomfortable thorn in their side. All the above-mentioned factors united for success in a most dramatic fashion during the Congress for the Defence of Culture of June 1935 and its immediate aftermath.

The Congress for the Defence of Culture

No encounter had more symbolic importance to the engaged writers of the 1930s than the International Writers Congress for the Defence of Culture. In a sense, the congress was a microcosm of the political wars raging outside the Palais de la Mutualité [where the sessions were held] as far away as Berlin and Moscow.

Thus writes my compatriot Herbert Lottman in The Left Bank, his brilliant history of French literary and political life from the Popular Front to the Cold War. [56] As he remarks: ‘It was a congress of stars.’ Amongst those who shone there were Gide, Malraux, Aragon, Barbusse, Eluard, Julien Benda, J.R. Bloch, Paul Nizan, Guéhenno and André Chamson amongst the French, and Mikhail Koltsov, Ilya Ehrenburg, Boris Pasternak, Isaac Babel and Nikolai Tikhonov amongst the Russians (only Gorky, whose presence was widely advertised, failed to appear). [57] International celebrities like E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Charles Plisnier and Mike Gold, and refugees from Fascist countries like Robert Musil, Bertold Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Gaëtano Salvemini, Anna Seghers and Gustav Regler also spoke. [58] Despite a torrid heatwave, the Mutualité’s great hall was kept overflowing for five nights running. The newspapers were full of it. Yet ironically, if the congress is remembered at all today, it is on account of a writer who was neither a star, nor even physically present: Victor Serge.

As Guéhenno belatedly admitted, the congress was ‘organised in Paris on orders from Moscow by the Communist Party’. [59] Following in the wake of the Franco-Russian military alliance and the USSR’s entry into the bourgeois League of Nations, the goal of the congress was to line up pro-Russian sentiment by uniting intellectuals under the aegis of anti-Fascist unity in the ‘Defence of Culture’. French patriotism, conjoined with Soviet patriotism, was back in vogue, and the pacifism of the earlier Communist-organised Amsterdam-Pleyel meetings was conveniently forgotten. Opponents of this tactic, be they Trotskyists, Surrealists or conservatives, were tacitly excluded, and the suppression of creative freedom in the USSR was a taboo topic.

There was one fly in this ointment: how was the Defence of Culture to be discussed or five days in Paris without mentioning the Serge case? Thus Lottman: ‘Unknown to rank and file congress participants, the Serge case had been an underlying issue from the first. The organisers were aware that it would be brought up, but thought that they could deal with it discreetly.’ [60] Unfortunately for the organisers, three staunch friends of Serge, the Belgian delegate, Charles Plisnier, the left-wing Socialist Magdeleine Paz, and the proletarian writer Henry Poulaille, were on the official speakers’ list. So Ehrenburg, Malraux and their behind-the-scenes advisors concocted a series of gambits to deal with protests ‘discreetly’. In the event, these included juggling the agenda to avoid allowing Serge’s friends to be heard, the use of strong-arm orderlies to suppress any intervention from the floor, organised catcalls to drown out pro-Serge speeches, and the usual litany of slanders, lies, insinuations, false promises and bullying appeals to unity to obfuscate the issue if it managed to get raised. (The ugliness of these methods may have done as much to win the sympathies of André Gide toward Serge as the facts in his case.)

Everything went smoothly until the fourth evening, when the organisers were caught by surprise from an unlikely and utterly unimpeachable source. Gaëtano Salvemini was a refugee from Mussolini who had served in parliament, edited a Liberal Party newspaper, written books on revolutionary France and the Florentine Republic, and managed to flee Italy after being arrested by the Fascists. After attacking Fascism, the Italian refugee turned toward André Gide and ‘humbly’ begged him to consider that the ‘individualist Communist society’ idealistically envisioned in the latter’s speech might not actually exist in the USSR:

I wouldn’t feel I had the right to protest against the Gestapo and the Fascist Ovra if I forced myself to forget that there exists a Soviet political police. In Germany there are concentration camps, in Italy penitentiary islands, and in Soviet Russia there is Siberia. There are German and Italian proscripts and there are Russian proscripts … It is in Russia that Victor Serge is a prisoner … I am sorry to have to upset many peoples’ beliefs. Perhaps it is necessary to have gone through the experience of a totalitarian state, not as one of the dominators, but amongst those who have been crushed … to realise what hate and scorn any totalitarian state, any dictatorship, brings up in my spirit. I wish that you, friends from countries still relatively free, will never have to go through that experience. [61]

Salvemini’s forthright declaration brought the latent scandal into the open: after four nights and days of endless orthodox speechifying, the name of Serge had finally been pronounced. Moreover, Poulaille, Plisnier and Paz were all on the speakers’ list for that session. According to one witness, the acerbic drama critic Henri-René Lenormand:

Immediately, the audience was divided between Trotskyists and Stalinists. Adversaries insulted each other in the jargon and with the arguments of the two political positions that had also divided Russian opinion … There were angry cries, a hubbub, almost fisticuffs, and Malraux, in a feverish and dramatic intervention, declared that anyone who mentioned Victor Serge would be expelled from the hall, thus showing the submission of the organisers to the orthodox Stalinist line. [62]

According to another participant, the self-taught proletarian writer Henry Poulaille, more boring speeches succeeded, and he and his friends were ready to walk out in disgust when Magdeleine Paz cornered him, and begged him to return the next day. ‘Never’, cried the truculent Poulaille, but he did agree to remain a little longer to demand that the Serge question be raised, whilst Paz insisted at the Praesidium that she or Plisnier be given their turn to speak. By this time, it was one o’clock in the morning:

At last Monsieur Malraux was seen to look at his watch. Magdeleine Paz had probably just approached him again … The author of The Time of Scorn put his watch back in his pocket, and must have ruled that there wasn’t enough time … Yet the meeting kept going on, Poulaille reported, with a sarcastic allusion to the title of Malraux’ latest book. [63]

Ignoring the agenda, the organisers next called the surrealist Paul Eluard to the podium. This move was designed as a concession to the ‘dissident’ faction, since Eluard was to read a speech prepared by André Breton, who had been officially banned from the Congress after slapping Ilya Ehrenburg in the face. Poulaille frantically tried to signal him to step aside, but he was too far back to be understood. Serge’s supporters then protested to the Praesidium that the speakers’ order had been switched, by accident or design. There were cries of ‘We want to hear about Serge!’, and ‘Magdeleine Paz or Plisnier!’. The organisers’ answer was to send the entire security staff into the hall to suppress Poulaille and his friends with threats of expulsion. ‘Not another word! Not another word!’, shouted these volunteer Cossacks, who were obviously looking for a fight.

Realising that more disorder would only interrupt Eluard’s speech, whose presentation was already a victory, Poulaille and his friends left the hall. They did well. After a half-century, the Surrealist manifesto stands out as ‘one of the rare examples of cool analysis’ praised at the congress [64], exposing it as an example of French cultural imperialism allying with Soviet patriotism in order to suppress critical thought in the name of ‘the Defence of Culture’. Why Breton and the Surrealists ‘elegantly eluded’ (in Serge’s words) the Serge affair, a perfect case in point, especially at that critical moment, remains puzzling. [65]

Meanwhile, the ‘Cossacks’ continued to surround Poulaille and his friends on their way out through the lobby, where the congress’ token proletarian writer removed his own photograph from the publicity display, explaining that it was false advertising to post his picture if he were not allowed to speak. Later, at the Mabillon Métro station, there was an altercation between Poulaille’s group and Aragon’s crowd from the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes révolutionnaires over the refusal to allow Paz, Plisnier and Poulaille to speak. When Aragon hypocritically complained that he himself had not yet had his chance to speak either, he was told: ‘No problem. A dozen guys like you have already said everything you would have said.’ Enraged, Aragon came back with: ‘Well, if that’s the way it is, I’ll tell you what I really feel: There’s already been too much talk about that counter-revolutionary Serge.’ Whereupon the poet of Il nous faut un Guépéou (We Need a GPU) was driven off with cries of ‘Fuck off out of our way!’, and ‘Moscow shit-head!’. [66]

Having succeeded in preventing a discussion of the Serge affair during the packed evening session in the huge Festival Hall, Malraux, on Ehrenburg’s advice, attempted to smother the affair by giving Paz and Plisnier a hearing during the afternoon of the final day before a restrained audience in a smaller room upstairs. [67] Magdeleine Paz told me that she felt that this was mainly a concession to Gide, who seemed genuinely concerned. [68] Serge had been careful to establish epistolary relations with Gide, with whom he shared a common conception of the writer’s role within the revolutionary movement, and the essential need for sincerity and individuality. On 15 January 1935 Serge had written to Gide from Orenburg to say that he had been ‘struck’ by Gide’s message to the Soviet Writers’ Congress because he ‘had always defended the ideas that Gide expressed’ there. Serge also promised to have Gide sent a copy of his Littérature et Révolution of 1932, adding: ‘I think you may find a number of pages of interest to you.’ [69]

Yet such was the influence of Malraux and his Communist friends over Gide that on the morning of the final session he told his confidente, Maria Van Rysselberghe, that he had reluctantly agreed to take the floor again basically to smooth over the Serge affair with words of appeasement:

They want me to take the floor again … Why? I have nothing more to say, unless I take on this Serge affair, except that I provoke it in order to show that we are not trying systematically to avoid it, but that it is a bad thing to use it in order to divide the party. [70]

At four o’clock that afternoon, Van Rysselberghe received an urgent phone call from Gide: ‘Hop quickly into a car, this might become interesting.’ By the time Gide’s confidente arrived, Magdeleine Paz was already speaking. In her eloquent brief for Serge, Paz confined her remarks to illustrating Point Five of the congress’ official programme: ‘The Dignity of Thought, Freedom of Expression, Direct and Indirect Forms of Censorship, The Writer in Exile.’ Paz rapidly summarised Serge’s contributions as a revolutionary and a writer who from the earliest days had sacrificed all for the Soviet cause, and then detailed the arbitrary persecutions he had suffered for the sole crime of thinking for himself – arrest, exile, theft of his manuscripts. She then quoted Serge’s classic Credo (‘Defence of Man… Defence of Truth… Defence of Thought…’), and concluded: ‘Congress of writers and defenders of thought, here is something for you to work on …! There are voices that cannot be killed! There are spirits that cannot be broken!’ [71]

Gide’s confidente reports that she heard practically none of Paz’s report, despite Malraux’s vigorous efforts to impose silence, because of ‘attempts to whistle, to drown out her voice, [and] to keep her from speaking’. After the small arms volleys of catcalls came the heavy artillery: the Russian delegation. This included Ehrenburg, the dramatist Kirshon [72], the journalist Mikhail Koltsov (who knew Serge from Moscow), and two of Serge’s friends: Boris Pasternak (whom Serge considered to be ‘at once the Mallarmé and the Apollinaire of Russian poetry’) and Nikolai Tikhonov (whose Hymn to Courage and epic ballads Serge had translated into French). [73] Only Pasternak maintained a dignified silence. The others all fell into line, claiming not to have heard of ‘the writer Victor Serge’, but only the ‘counter-revolutionary Victor Kibalchich’, who, amongst various other offences, was directly involved in the plot to assassinate Kirov – a capital offence. (Despite their proven conformity, both Koltsov and Kirshon were later executed as ‘counter-revolutionary plotters’.)

Charles Plisnier (who was to win the Prix Goncourt two years later) had been mandated by the Belgian delegation to raise the Serge question at the congress. His rebuttal demolished the Russians’ accusations, the most serious of which had never been formulated before, and for which no proofs were offered. He also infuriated Ehrenburg by reminding him that in 1919, when Serge was fighting to save embattled Petrograd, he was frequenting Parisian cafés, and writing attacks on Bolshevism. Edouard Peisson, a friend of Poulaille’s, also attempted to defend Serge. This resulted in more catcalls, whistles and the security squad dragging somebody out of the hall. Gide, true to his agreement, ended the meeting with words of appeasement: ‘The security of the Soviet Union must be the most important thing for all of us. Our confidence in the Soviet Union is the greatest proof of love that we can give it.’ (‘Did he say “love”?’, asked the young writer, Claude Roy, of a neighbour. ‘Yes, love.’ [74])

Despite his doubtless sincere closing remarks, the odious behaviour of the Communists must have shocked Gide’s scrupulous nature. Even Malraux, who helped plan the manoeuvre, was visibly upset. ‘He is having trouble swallowing the afternoon session’, noted Van Rysselberghe, who was sitting next to him at a café that evening. ‘The fact is that it left a disturbing impression.’ [75] To no one’s surprise, unlike all the other sessions of the congress, no stenographic record was kept of this controversial one. L’Humanité and Barbusse’s Monde reported the Russians’ accusations and Gide’s appeasing words, but not the speeches of Paz and Plisnier.

Reflecting on his disruptive behaviour of the previous night, Poulaille concluded:

At first I was sorry to have given one more example of my ‘bad temper’. Hadn’t I been in the wrong? The next day, Paz and Plisnier spoke of the Serge case during the afternoon, in front of a small audience, it’s true. But the press wasn’t there, whilst it was there the night before when the security guards came to throw us out for having shouted Serge’s name. I’m not sorry any more, because it got into the papers. And in the silence in which the Serge affair is being buried, this was hardly useless. [76]

The next day Poulaille sent a telegram to Gide, reminding him of his promise to write to the Soviet Ambassador about Serge, but without really expecting any result. The author of Les Damnés de la terre felt he had merely succeeded in embarrassing ‘the Master’ by writing: ‘Messieurs Gide, Barbusse, Rolland and Stalin’s other standard-bearers didn’t give a shit about the Serge case…’ In this, the truculent Poulaille sorely underestimated the scrupulous Gide, whose confidente reported on 27 June:

Gide was very upset when he got up. Already yesterday he had attempted – but in vain – to have a conversation with the Ambassador of the USSR; today, he wants to ask for an audience and hand him a letter of which he has just made a first draft – much too humble for my taste …! I made him remove a really annoying ‘despite my slight importance’ … [77]

Various other friends of Gide read and corrected the draft, whose tone still dissatisfied Van Rysselberghe. ‘Basically, this letter is being written mainly to be read by Victor Serge’s defenders’, she remarked, which indicates that the cynical Poulaille was not completely off the mark. The revised text that Gide carried the few steps from his apartment to the Soviet Embassy on the Rue de Grenelle could not, at least on the surface, have appeared more humble. Gide began by explicitly refusing to take up Serge’s defence as a French writer, or even to petition in his favour. It was only the ‘painful impression’ created by the ‘weakness of the Soviet delegation’s declarations’ which had made the debate disturbing, and which he had tried to ‘appease’ by his closing remarks about ‘love’ and ‘confidence’. In the same vein, Gide continued:

For many French revolutionaries and revolutionaries of all countries, the USSR has become, as you know, an ideal fatherland; we belong to it; and we are ready to fight for it … It is important that it should understand that this love, if it entails duties, also implies exigencies. It is important that its most ardent and devoted defenders do not feel themselves morally disarmed and distressed when they have to defend it … [78]

It is characteristic of Gide’s style that he came close to expressing the Sergean concept of the revolutionary’s ‘double duty’ through the image of the mutual obligations of lovers. He next developed the familiar argument that it is in Russia’s self-interest to give out ‘some details about the reasons for Serge’s conviction [sic] … in order to rally people around and tranquillise their minds’. It was only in the last sentence that the boldness of Gide’s warning pierced through the unction of his diplomacy: ‘Personally, I lived too long through the Dreyfus affair not to know the great danger which lies in refusing to allow certain questions to be asked, or in attempting to smother them rather than to answer them.’ Gide’s comparison between the Soviet government’s role in the Serge case and that of the French Army during the Dreyfus affair is heavy with unstated implications.

Nor did Gide let the matter drop there. At breakfast on 30 June he told Maria Van Rysselberghe: ‘Today, I have a terribly busy day: I’m going to the Soviet Embassy this morning to see why I haven’t received an answer, I’m having lunch with Ehrenburg and Pasternak …’ Later that afternoon she reported:

He had tea with me and tells me that Potemkin, the Ambassador, had been ill and that this is the reason he hadn’t received him sooner. They spoke at length and quite freely. Potemkin considers Gide’s letter important, and is going to arrange to have it passed on to Stalin himself. He is wondering what can be done to calm down this Serge affair. [79]

Gide also asked the ambassador to see that Serge be allowed to send his new writings to his publishers. Indeed, he assured Magdeleine Paz that this was ‘precisely the object’ of his visit, gratuitously adding: ‘But aren’t these [writings] fire-brands thrown at the Soviet regime?’ [80] Gide’s letter also thanks Paz for passing on a communication from Serge’s son, ‘the young Vladimir Kibalchich’, who had recently been expelled from school in Orenburg for expressing his ideas, and Gide seems to have written to the school authorities to request that he be reinstated. [81]

Thanks to a document recently discovered in Moscow, we now have a new insight into the state of mind of the Russian delegates at the congress, and of the authority they represented. [82] At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Soviet army captured the archives of Polish military intelligence, including an analysis from 1935 of the concessions that Stalin was willing to make to Western (particularly Socialist) opinion in order to solidify the ‘united front’. Would he go so far as to release imprisoned Russian and foreign Social Democrats, many of whom had been under arrest in the Soviet Union for years? The Poles obviously had an agent close to the Paris delegation, who reported the following information: the Russian writers privately admitted that they ‘knew Stalin’s mind’, but were not at liberty to make any public commitments. Stalin felt that the threat of Fascism in Europe merited an alliance with the European Social Democrats, but as there was no threat of Fascism in Russia, he saw no need to release any imprisoned Social Democrats there. There might, however, be exceptions, and it is in this context that the Polish report discussed the case of Serge.

The Polish informant reported that Russian delegates to the congress were hinting that Stalin had already made up his mind to appease Western opinion by letting Serge go. However, they had received formal instructions from the GPU to say publicly that Serge was charged with the serious offence of being ‘in relations and personal sympathy with an executed member of the circle of conspirators responsible for the murder of Kirov’. The name of the alleged conspirator? Mandelstam!

If the Mandelstam in question was the great poet Osip Mandelstam, then this would indeed be a great irony. Mandelstam had indeed been arrested in 1934, and eventually died in captivity. Moreover, one of the principal charges made against him was his association with the notorious Trotskyite, Victor Kibalchich. [83] But in June 1935 Mandelstam was enjoying a sort of semi-captivity, exiled to the provinces thanks to the intercession of none other than Pasternak, who was present in Paris, and must have been perfectly informed. Was the Polish informant simply misinformed about Mandelstam’s fate? Hundreds of people were shot out of hand in the weeks following the assassination of Kirov, and their names were not published. In any case, it is unlikely that Serge would have been associated with another Mandelstam who was not a writer.

Whatever the confusion over detail, Polish intelligence was probably correct in assuming that Stalin had already made up his mind to let Serge go, and was now playing a cat and mouse game to squeeze the maximum amount of credit out of this rather minimal concession to Western opinion. The next phase of the case bears out this analysis.

Romain Rolland in Moscow

The affair reached a climax later that summer, when Rolland took a three-week trip to the Soviet Union and met Stalin. However, 50 years passed before the world learned exactly what transpired. In 1967 Maria Povlovna, Rolland’s Russian widow and the jealous guardian of his archives, gave Tamara Motylyova, a Soviet scholar, special permission to look at Rolland’s ‘Moscow Diary’ of 1935. In 1988 Motylyova revealed to Moscow News her conclusion that ‘the only concession he [Rolland] managed to get as a result of that conversation was Stalin’s consent to allow the exiled French Anarchist Victor Serge to leave the country. Rolland didn’t sympathise with Serge at all, incidentally.’ [84] Finally, in 1992, the Cahiers Romain Rolland brought out the complete text of Rolland’s diary, including an official transcript of his interview of 28 June 1935 with Stalin.

In the presence of Stalin, Rolland did not actually criticise the Soviet Union. However, he tried to impress upon Stalin that ‘misunderstandings’ were hurting its image abroad, and the prime example he raised was the Serge affair, which he summarised, concluding shrewdly:

I am convinced that you didn’t act [against Serge] without serious reasons, but why did you not make them clear from the beginning in the eyes of a French public protesting his innocence? It is always dangerous, in the land of the Calas and Dreyfus affairs, to allow a convicted individual to become the centre of a generalised protest movement. [85]

Stalin quietly took notes whilst Rolland went on talking. Then he replied, point by point. Stalin had obviously been briefed about the Serge affair, probably by his security chief Yagoda, and he had evidently made up his mind to eliminate this bone of contention. The following dialogue reveals his total mastery of the situation:

Stalin: ‘As far as Victor Serge is concerned, I don’t know him, and I’m not in a position to inform you at the moment.’

Rolland: ‘They told me he was charged with Trotskyism.’

Stalin: ‘Yes, now I remember … He’s not simply a Trotskyist; he’s a double-dealer, he’s a dishonest man. He tried to undermine Soviet power, but didn’t succeed. The Trotskyists have just raised a debate about him at the Congress for the Defence of Culture in Paris. Victor Serge is at present free, but confined to Orenburg, and I believe he is working there. Naturally, he has not been the victim of any torture, any beating, etc. All that is stupid errors! We have no need for him, and we can let him leave for Europe at any time.’

Rolland: ‘I’ve heard that Orenburg is a kind of desert.’

Stalin: ‘It’s not a desert, but a fine town. I myself lived for four years exiled in a desert, in the Turukhansk region. Out there the temperature drops to 50 or 60 degrees … Well, I bore it!’ [86]

Stalin’s bluff familiarity and his knowledgeable allusions to Serge’s ‘dishonesty’ and ‘favourable treatment’ shrewdly minimise both the importance of the affair and his surprising concession to ‘Trotskyite’ agitation at the Paris Congress.

Rolland then took up the Serge affair with Yagoda, who two weeks after Stalin had dropped his hint, conceded to the Frenchman his willingness to ‘consult with’ the Council of People’s Commissars on the expedience of expelling Serge. He also spoke frankly to Rolland about the calculation behind this concession:

It’s obvious that once freed, in Paris, he will make himself the centre of anti-Soviet agitation, he is a thoroughly hostile and vicious man. But we think that after three months they will be tired of him in Paris; he will succeed in quarrelling with one and all; and his prestige in France will be a thing of the past. If Trotsky himself was unable to acquire any influence abroad, how would a Serge, whose literary and intellectual value has been excessively exaggerated? [87]

Yagoda’s calculation was to prove successful: Serge, once freed, soon found himself marginalised, albeit largely due to the boycott and calumny campaigns organised by Moscow. In any case, there had been complete agreement between Stalin, Yagoda and Rolland on one point: as a prisoner Serge was more dangerous to Russia as a potential Calas or Dreyfus than at large as a writer. Thus, although Rolland’s personal intervention precipitated Serge’s liberation, it was the agitation of Magdeleine Paz and her friends which effected it, as Stalin’s direct allusion to the Paris Congress indicates.

Indeed, Stalin’s decision must have been made before Rolland’s meeting with Stalin, although the Russians played a delaying game to give Rolland the satisfaction of wringing a concession. And in coming to that decision, Yagoda had obviously reviewed Serge’s interrogation file. In his Memoirs, Serge asserts that ‘if he [Yagoda] had found the slightest accommodating confession signed by myself, I would have been lost’. [88] If this be so, Serge’s own attitude during his months of interrogation in the Lubianka may have been yet another unique factor contributing to his near-unique escape from the machinery of the Stalinist police state.

Today, Yagoda’s files are slowly opening, and in 1992 we obtained a copy of Serge’s signed ‘statement’ written in his own hand at the end of his first interrogation in March 1933. [89] The document reveals that Serge’s defensive strategy consisted of openly maintaining his oppositionist ideas on various points of Soviet policy, whilst consistently denying any oppositionist contacts and activities since 1927, when the Opposition was outlawed. Moreover, he himself shrewdly laid the groundwork for the ultimately successful Paris campaign by portraying himself as a writer and intellectual whose main connections were with other pro-Soviet writers and intellectuals in France, and who had withdrawn from Soviet political life.

Yet at the same time, Serge dared to defend his ‘personal’ ideas (which were those of a Left Oppositionist) even to the point of demonstrating to his interrogators that since 1927 history had vindicated the criticisms of Soviet policy which he had openly published abroad. Thus Serge’s initial attitude avoided the inconsistencies that interrogators successfully exploited, and which often led prisoners, after months of pressure and isolation, to prove their loyalty by confessing something.

When in Moscow, Rolland also pestered Yagoda about Serge’s ‘lost’ manuscript, which they discussed at least five times. Firstly, the manuscript was not in Moscow, and Yagoda would contact the authorities in Orenburg to see if they had confiscated it. Next, it was located at the Moscow censor (which Commissar for the Department of the Interior Yagoda claimed did not fall under his authority). In any case, it was apparently more of a tract than a novel, and so on, until just before Rolland’s departure.

During these meetings, Yagoda referred to Serge as ‘an adventurer, an hooligan, a faithless liar’, and informed Rolland that Serge had been caught red-handed by the police conspiring with the Trotskyites, that at Orenburg he had deliberately refused jobs as a teacher and at the Planning Commission, that neither he nor his son had been persecuted, and that he possessed a fortune of 700 gold francs! However, the Russian security chief took such pains to ingratiate himself with the French writer that neither Yagoda’s inconsistencies nor the sceptical remarks of Gorky’s ex-wife Peshkova, who was well-informed of the whole affair and secretly sympathised with the Opposition, could convince Rolland to disbelieve him:

Whom can one believe? Good old Jacques Mesnil and Magdeleine Marx, who make a holy martyr out of Serge? The ‘terrible’ Yagoda’s face is fine-featured, distinguished, weary, and still youthful despite his thinning grey hair (he makes me think of Maurois, only cleverer) … he speaks with sweetness; he is impregnated with sweetness … [90]

Rolland was convinced that Yagoda liked him. Was it vanity that persuaded him that his new Russian friend, arguably one of history’s bloodiest villains, was perhaps a ‘lay saint’? To Rolland’s credit, such considerations did not stop him from persistently cross-questioning Yagoda about the manuscript, and eventually, on the eve of his departure, he got to see it. His diary for 20 July reports:

Yagoda has secretly passed me Victor Serge’s manuscript, which was intercepted by Goslit (the literary censor). He requested that I return it to him before leaving. I spent part of the night reading it. It is the authentic story of Western libertarians between 1909 and 1914, and particularly of the Bonnot affair. It is rather tragic; and far from celebrating the libertarians … it recognises, at the end, their deadly error, which was not to have foreseen the revolution, which was coming, and not to have sacrificed themselves for it. There is no reason to withhold the manuscript; and so I told Yagoda. [91]

This tantalising description of Serge’s Les Hommes perdus is all we know of it, for, despite the continuing efforts of Rolland and others, neither it nor La Tourmente, the other novel Serge completed at Orenburg, ever left Russia. However, it is difficult to believe that none of the eight copies confiscated by the GPU has survived in the archives of that formidable bureaucracy, and a search has been initiated in Moscow at the behest of Serge’s son Vladimir Kibalchich, today a well-known artist in Mexico. [92]

Why did Yagoda, after various promises and subterfuges, break his promise to release the manuscript, when he kept his promise to liberate its author? Perhaps Yagoda did not, after all, consider Serge’s ‘intellectual and literary value’ to have been ‘excessively exaggerated’. Literary glory, or even success, would have made Serge a name to be conjured with in Europe. Confiscating Serge’s manuscript was an effective way both to neutralise and perhaps demoralise its author without risking a major scandal.

Planet Without a Visa

According to Magdeleine Paz, it was Gorky who, on 12 September 1935, ‘announced to Romain Rolland that Victor Serge was authorised to leave Soviet territory’. She adds: ‘The difficult thing was to inform the interested party, since for long months, thanks to systematic measures, all communications had been cut off.’ [93]

By October 1935 the news of Serge’s ‘liberation’ was common knowledge in Paris (though not, of course, in Orenburg). On the 16th, Maria Van Rysselberghe noted: ‘Gide tells us that he has been assured in a number of quarters that it was thanks to his letter to the Ambassador that Serge has just been freed [sic].’ The ‘sic’ after ‘freed’ is no mere biographer’s quibble, for only half the battle to liberate Serge had been won: not only was he still in deportation in Orenburg, it now appeared that no Western country was willing to receive him. Thus Gide’s confidente’s diary continues, somewhat complacently: ‘They are apparently refusing to let him enter France; he is, it seems, of Belgian origin.’ [94]

Serge’s ‘Belgian origin’ was not the problem, but rather his revolutionary politics. Like the exiled Trotsky, who wandered this ‘planet without a visa’ for a decade before finding refuge (and assassination) in Mexico, Serge was considered an undesirable subversive by all the chancelleries of Europe. His friends appealed to the Laval government for a visa, to no avail (which indicates that the story of Laval’s Moscow intervention for Serge was a myth). In November 1935 the League for the Rights of Man announced that ‘under the pressure of public opinion, the Soviet authorities have authorised V. Serge to leave the USSR’, along with its desire to help Serge return to France. When the French Foreign Office refused, the League declared: ‘We can only deplore that the French government has shown itself to be less liberal [than the Russian].’ [95]

Months passed, Serge’s friends were getting more and more desperate as the terror in Russia became more severe, and no visas appeared. If the French at least had the pretext of the outstanding expulsion order of 1917 against Serge to motivate their refusal, applications to the British and the Dutch also resulted in refusals, whilst the Danes temporised. Finally, early in 1936, the Belgian Socialist Minister, Emile Vandervelde (whom Victor and his young Anarchist friends had attacked over the annexation of the Congo in 1907) agreed to grant Serge and his family a three-year residence permit. ‘If these negotiations had dragged on a few weeks longer, I would never have left the country; I would have become a dead man on leave’, Serge recalled. [96] Within months of Serge’s release, Stalin unleashed his great terror with the first Moscow Trial. Obviously, Stalin would never have released such a well-informed and articulate witness, who had been an intimate friend of several of the defendants, once he had decided to impose that spectacle of bloody frame-ups and false confessions on the world.

So it was that on 9 April 1936 that Serge received a travel order giving him three days to leave for the GPU headquarters in Moscow, and thence to an unknown destination. Freedom? Or a new exile further out in Siberia? Many of his deported companions thought that it would be the latter. As a rule, the repressive system never let an objector leave. Undaunted, Serge distributed his household effects amongst them, but on the condition that they would be sent on to him in Siberia if necessary. Despite the fact that his correspondence with the outside world had been cut off for more than a year, Serge had serious reasons for optimism. The previous year, in late June or early July 1935, Serge had opened a copy of Pravda to see a photograph of Stalin shaking hands with Rolland, who was in Russia at the invitation of Gorky. Serge had shown the newspaper to Vlady, and remarked: ‘Look at this. Perhaps we are saved.’ [97]

At about the same time, Serge’s old comrade, the Italian Syndicalist Francesco Ghezzi, made a clandestine trip halfway across Russia from Moscow to tell him about the ‘Free Victor Serge’ campaign in Paris. Serge had first met Ghezzi in Moscow in 1921 as one of the European Syndicalists who had rallied to the Russian Revolution, and had campaigned for his freedom in the early 1920s. The Italian had been living in Russia earning his living as a factory worker, and maintaining his political independence. Arrested in 1929, then freed as the result of an international campaign, he ultimately disappeared in 1937. Ghezzi spent only 72 hours with Serge in Orenburg, sleeping by day to avoid detection, and then returning the way he had come. It was an heroic, indeed nearly incredible, gesture of solidarity.

Nonetheless, of all the letters sent to Serge from Paris by Magdeleine Paz and others (including postcards, regular mail, airmail, registered letters and telegrams) only one got through, in January 1936. The GPU authorities in Orenburg imperturbably kept him in the dark, but the Political Red Cross in Moscow had sent him Belgian visa forms to sign, another indication that liberation might be near. (Amongst other forms Serge had to sign was a paper renouncing his military rank as a General in the Red Army reserves. Serge found this formality rather amusing.) [98]

It was thus that at dawn on 12 April 1936, with the frozen steppe stretching out in the background, Serge and Vlady bid farewell to their Oppositionist comrades at the Orenburg railway station. Serge knew they were doomed to endless persecution, but neither he nor anyone else could imagine what fate held in store for them only months later. Stalin’s Blood Purge was still on the horizon. Throughout the remainder of his life he was to remain faithful to their ideas and their image, which was always present in his mind during the years of lonely struggle in the West. They would join that ‘Constellation of Dead Brothers’ evoked in Serge’s 1935 poem.

No writer was ever so conscious of the many destinies he carried within him, of the ties that bound him to others, living and dead, or of the fact that ‘he who speaks, he who writes, speaks for those who have no voice’. Serge’s first task on arriving in the West was to bear witness to the courage and fidelity of the deported Opposition. His From Lenin to Stalin (December 1936) and Destiny of a Revolution (January 1937) are a vindication of their ideas, and a protest against their persecution. His political task accomplished, he recreated and immortalised the atmosphere of deportation and resistance in the only novel he was able to complete in Europe, Midnight in the Century, published in 1939.

The three-day train ride to Moscow was punctuated by accidents caused by the poor state of the equipment. [99] On 14 April Serge and Vlady arrived at the Moscow station, and bid ironic goodbyes to the two GPU ‘guardian angels’ who had occupied the next compartment, and whom they had studiously ignored throughout the voyage. At the office of the Political Red Cross on Kuznetski Bridge, they were greeted by Serge’s older half-sister, Julie, and by the Directress, Yekaterina Pavlovna Peshkova, Gorky’s first wife, a remarkable woman who had managed to carry on her mission of aid to Russia’s political prisoners through years of terror, and still retained the confidence of both the government and the dissidents. Julie had brought Liuba and the new baby, Jeannine (born 18 months earlier) down from Leningrad, but before the family could be reunited a serious problem had to be resolved. [100]

Peshkova had the passports and visas ready, but Serge had still not carried out the travel order requiring him to report to the GPU headquarters, just up the street. If he failed to report, there might be trouble. But they all knew that if the GPU started asking him embarrassing questions, Serge would spoil everything by speaking his mind. After an anxious council of war, Peshkova came up with a solution. She picked up the phone and asked to speak directly to Yagoda, the chief of state security. With Serge and Vlady listening nervously on the extension earpiece, and Julie’s ear next to Peshkova’s, she spoke: ‘I have Victor Lvovich here. His wife has just returned from Leningrad, and she is ill. He wants to spend another day in Moscow to wait for her attack to subside.’ Yagoda’s voice thundered: ‘Tell Victor Lvovich to leave immediately! Im-med-iate-ly!

Everyone jumped for joy. Peshkova’s ruse had worked: Serge had ‘reported’ to the head of the GPU himself and had his personal order to leave. Serge then entrusted two trunks containing his personal papers – manuscripts, photographs, drawings, notebooks, correspondence, works in progress, documents and souvenirs going back to 1907 – to the care of Peshkova for the purpose of procuring an exit permit. He was never to see them again.

Around lunchtime, Serge and Vlady went down to the bookshops on Kuznetski Street to try to sell some valuable books Serge had brought with him (he was broke). He failed to find a buyer, but ran into Dr Nikolayenko, with whom he and the Russakovs had sailed to Russia in 1918. The old Anarchist had kept out of trouble by devoting himself to geographical exploration. From time to time, he would appear at 19 Zheliabov Street and regale the Russakovs with furs from Siberia and tales of his adventures. He and Serge had entered Russia together; now they were both leaving, Nikolayenko for the polar regions, Serge for Europe. Serge presented him with a volume he had always admired; they embraced and parted.

Serge also visited the censor of the Peoples Commissariat for Public Education, where he deposited manuscript copies of the three works he had completed during his years of captivity. These were Les Hommes Perdus, an autobiographical account of the French Anarchist movement around 1910–13 (including a reconstruction of the Bonnot Affair) [101], La Tourmente, a novel, the sequel to Conquered City, painting an epic picture of the revolution in 1920, and Resistance, a collection of poems. Serge was given a receipt, and the Assistant Director of the Foreign Literature Section promised him that the necessary authorisations would be ready at noon on the following day. [102] As a further precaution, Serge entrusted copies of all three works to Ghezzi, who accompanied him to the station, and took more copies with him on the train (in addition to the copies he left with Peshkova).

Liuba, Jeannine, and Grandmother Russakova were waiting in the apartment formerly occupied by Pierre Pascal and Serge’s sister-in-law, Eugénie (Mme Pascal), next door to Anita Russakova. But Anita’s flat was empty. She had just been arrested again and deported for five years, apparently to prevent Serge from talking to her and clearing up the mystery of her confession of 1933 which had implicated him. [103] Liuba’s condition was, if anything, worse. She was in the middle of an attack, provoked, no doubt, by Anita’s arrest and the uncertainty of her own circumstances. Serge’s joy at seeing his child for the first time must have been muted by these misfortunes.

The family left Russia that evening in a near-empty train used mainly by diplomats and foreigners. At the last Soviet station, Niegoreloe, they were ordered out of the car and subjected to a minute search. Liuba was led off raving to be undressed with the baby in her arms. After a while, a whistle blew. The train was about to leave. Vlady had still not removed his boots. ‘What are you hiding in there?’ ‘A submarine’, quipped the adolescent. Father and son ran half dressed onto the platform. ‘Where’s Mama? I won’t leave without her!’, cried Victor. Vlady ran alongside of the train until he finally saw her, but Serge wouldn’t believe him. ‘Get on! See for yourself!’, cried Vlady, pushing him toward the train. At the last moment, Serge clambered aboard. Liuba was there, but all of Serge’s notes and manuscripts, his personal papers, including family photographs and his last letter from his father, had remained in the hands of the customs men. [104] Shaken, Serge took his seat.

Shaken by his experience at the station, Victor heaved a deep sigh as the train carrying him and his family passed the concrete hammer and sickle which marked the Soviet-Polish border. It was part relief, and part sadness:

Behind us we were leaving the boundless grey fields of the collective farms; now we were crossing a sort of desert laid out for war. We had the feeling that we were the only travellers in these solitudes. Our great tortured Russia, how hard it is to tear ourselves away from you!

Serge left Russia exactly as he had entered it, as a political prisoner. In his pocket were 10 dollars supplied by Peshkova, and a handful of roubles; in his heart was the experience of 17 years of revolution and the memory of hundreds of comrades, some fallen, and some still resisting. Alone, he escaped to tell the tale.

So, by a combination of good timing, militant, sustained public agitation and the discrete private intervention of pro-Soviet literati anxious to calm it, Serge escaped the fate of his Oppositionist comrades (and most of his Soviet literary colleagues). One more paradox: although it was as a Russian Left Communist that he was arrested and deported, it was as a French writer that he was liberated. Even so, why was the cynical Stalin so sensitive to French literary opinion that he let a declared enemy slip through his fingers? Time and place. Panicked by the rise of Hitler, Stalin was desperate to solidify his one Western alliance, and France – the land of Calas and Dreyfus – was arguably the one country in the world in which the opinion of men of letters played a significant political role. At that moment, the invisible Republic of Letters had far more ‘divisions than the Pope’ in his eyes.

Serge himself, whose first thought on arriving in Europe was to bring the same solidarity that had saved him to bear in favour of the comrades he had left behind, was painfully aware of his own privileged situation: ‘It is humiliating to think that a certain literary solidarity worked in my favour which won’t work for the others, simple and great revolutionaries without inkwells … No writers’ congresses are likely to want to hear about them.’ [105] Serge was soon to discover to his frustration that even for Soviet writers little could be organised in the way of protests once the Popular Front and the Moscow Trials had hardened the political lines among the intellectuals.

On the other hand, Serge was to find the methods of organised solidarity, involving both working-class militants and intellectual celebrities, that had saved him from the Gulag were to prove crucial in future campaigns. For the independent revolutionary militant caught between two totalitarianisms, the existence of an active defence committee and international solidarity can spell the difference between life and death. This was literally the case in 1937 for Serge’s Spanish comrades in the POUM, marked for death in Stalinist prisons in Republican Spain, and liberated thanks to a committee inspired by Serge. It was true for Serge himself, both during the Fall of France and later, under Stalinist attack in Mexican exile. It is no less so for the many writers, journalists, trade unionists, peasant organisers, liberation Catholics and human rights workers persecuted by authoritarian regimes today.


1. André Gide (1869–1951) was a novelist and writer, and won the Nobel Prize in 1947. He sympathised with and then broke from Stalinism in the 1930s. Romain Rolland (1868–1944) was a novelist. He won the Nobel Prize in 1916, and wrote the influential pacifist pamphlet Au-dessus de la melée (1915). André Malraux (1901–1976) was a novelist and critic. He was a fellow traveller of Stalinism in the 1930s, became a Gaullist in the 1940s, and served as a Gaullist minister after 1958. Henri Barbusse (1874-1935) wrote the influential anti-war novel Le Feu (1916), joined the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1923, and wrote biographies of Jesus Christ and Stalin. Jean Giradoux (1884–1944) was a career diplomat, prominent novelist and dramatist. Georges Duhamel (1884–1966) was a well-known novelist, the author of the Pasquier Chronicles, and was associated in his youth with the unanimist school. Louis Aragon (1897–1982) was a poet and novelist, a founder member of a Surrealist group, and a leading Stalinist literary hatchet-man from the early 1930s. Maxim Gorky (1868–1936) was a Russian novelist and a friend of Lenin. He was critical of the October Revolution, went abroad, but made his peace with Stalin in 1931. Ilya Ehrenburg (1891–1967) was a Russian novelist, writing Julio Jurenito (1919). He was critical of the Bolsheviks, but became a loyal Stalinist in the 1930s and 1940s, and a liberaliser in the Khrushchev era. Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) was a Russian poet and novelist of Christian inspiration. He wrote Doctor Zhivago (1957), and refused the Nobel Prize in 1958. Nikolai Tikhonov (1896–1979) was a Russian lyric poet, and was purged as President of the Writers Union by Zhdanov in 1946. Mikhail Koltsov (1889–1942) was a Russian writer and journalist. He reported the Spanish Civil War, and was a victim of the purges, being arrested in 1938.

2. Pierre Laval (1883–1945) was the Prime Minister of the French Third Republic on several occasions in the mid-1930s, and the Vice-President of the puppet Vichy regime during the Second World War. He fled to Spain in 1944, and was extradited, tried and executed. Edouard Herriot (1872–1957) was a leading French Radical politician. Emile Vandervelde (1866–1938) was a Belgian Socialist who held leading positions in the Second International, supported the First World War in 1914, and was thereafter frequently a minister in Catholic-Socialist coalitions.

3. Marcel Martinet (1887–1944) was a French revolutionary poet, novelist and dramatist, and the literary editor of the PCF’s daily l’Humanité from 1921. He was close to the Syndicalist paper La Révolution prolétarienne in the 1930s. Henry Poullaille (1896–1980) was a French novelist, and a leading advocate and exponent of proletarian literature. Léon Blum (1872–1950) was the leader of the French Socialist Party in the 1930s, and Premier of the Popular Front government. Victor Basch (1863–1944) was an academic, a leading figure in the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, a leading supporter of the Popular Front, and was murdered by the Vichy militia. Jacques Mesnil (1872–1960) was a French writer. He supported Rolland’s opposition to the First World War, and worked with Serge in the Communist International in the Soviet Union. Pierre Monatte (1881–1960) was a revolutionary Syndicalist. He joined the PCF in 1923, was expelled in 1924, returned to work on the factory floor, and was a founder of La Révolution prolétarienne.

4. Pierre Naville told me that he was certain that the Trotskyists had protested at Serge’s arrest in their own Bulletin (telephone interview, Paris, 3 August 1991). In 1993 the KGB in Moscow released part of its file on Serge containing a press release issued by the Trotskyist LCI (BL) in Paris dated 22 March 1935 demanding freedom for Serge – two years after his arrest. It begins ‘Nos camarades espagnols viennent d’attirer notre attention sur le cas de Victor Serge, déporté en Sibérie. Il se plaignent, à juste titre, que notre presse internationale a peu fait pour Victor Serge.’ The reasons the Parisian Trotskyists needed to be reminded of the Serge affair by comrades in Spain (where Serge had good friends like Andrés Nin and Joaquín Maurín) when it was exploding all around them are too complex to discuss here. See my Trotski, a-t-il lu Serge?, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no. 48, 1993. According to Suzi Weissman, the Trotskyists were actually contemptuous of the ‘Free Victor Serge’ campaign. Trotskyists and escaping NKVD operatives were later to doubt that the campaign actually succeeded, with the hint that Serge was a double agent. [Author’s note] Pierre Naville (1904–1993) was a Surrealist. He became a Communist, and then a leading Trotskyist. He broke from the Fourth International at start of the Second World War, and subsequently wrote copiously on philosophy, psychology, etc. Gérard Rosenthal (1903–1992) was a lawyer and a former Surrealist. He became a Trotskyist, but broke from Trotsky just before the Second World War, and was later associated with Jean-Paul Sartre in the RDR. Raymond Molinier (1904–1994) was a Trotskyist from 1929, and was favoured by Trotsky, but split from him in 1935. Pierre Frank (1905–1984) was a pioneer French Trotskyist, and sided with Molinier in 1935. André Breton (1896–1966) was a central figure in the Surrealist movement, and remained a anti-Stalinist revolutionary until his death. Paul Eluard (1895–1952) was a leading Surrealist poet, broke from Breton in 1938, and joined the PCF in 1942.

5. R. Conquest, The Great Terror, London 1990, p. 464. [Author’s note]

6. V. Serge, Lettre à ses amis, La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 224, 10 June 1936. [Author’s note]

7. Cf. the letter from Vladimir Kibalchich’s (Serge’s son), La Révolution prolétarienne, March 1948. In conversations with this author, Vladimir recalled a meeting between Serge and Malraux in Marseilles during the winter of 1940–41 in which Malraux implied to Serge that he had saved him. [Author’s note]

8. Magdeleine Paz (1889–1973) was an early member of the PCF and the first Left Opposition in France. She was an anti-Stalinist in 1930s, but abandoned politics at outbreak of the Second World War.

9. Letter from Romain Rolland to Maxim Gorky, 20 March 1933, Gorky Archive, Moscow (thanks to Bernard Duchatelet). Now published in Jean Pérus (ed.), Corréspondance Romain Rolland-Maxime Gorky, Cahiers Romain Rolland, no. 28, Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 1991, p. 303. [Author’s note]

10. Léon Werth (1878–1955) was a writer and journalist. He was close to the PCF in the 1920s, edited Monde in 1931-33, and then became an anti-Stalinist, but withdrew from politics after 1939. Charles Vildrac (1882–1971) was a poet and dramatist, and a follower of Rolland. He was a fellow traveller of the PCF from 1930s to 1950s, was active in the Resistance, and was critical of Stalinism at certain points.

11. Cf. V. Serge, Vieilles Ornières, La Correspondance international, no. 53, 19 July 1922; L’homme libre et notre Parti, La Correspondance international, no. 52, 15 July 1922; Au-dessus de la Mêlée sociale (lettres de Victor Serge, Romain Rolland, Henri Barbusse), Bulletin Communiste, no. 39, 27 September 1923. [Author’s note]

12. B. Duchatelet, Introduction to Romain Rolland, Voyage à Moscou, Cahiers Romain Rolland, no. 29, Albin Michel, Paris, 1992, p. 70. [Author’s note]

13. Cf. Jean-Louis Panné, untitled manuscript on the Victor Serge Affair, submitted for the as yet unpublished anthology of articles on Serge prepared by Attilio Chitarin in Italy (hereafter referred to as Panné). Courtesy of the author. [Author’s note]

14. Panaït Istrati (1884–1935) was a Romanian worker writer who wrote in French, and was known as the ‘Balkan Gorky’. Serge anonymously wrote part of his critical study of Russia, Vers l’autre flamme (1929). He was viciously slandered by the PCF.

15. Romain Rolland, letter to Jacques Mesnil, quoted in La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 154, 25 June 1933, cited by Panné. [Author’s note]

16. Romain Rolland, letter to Huron, 30 May 1933, quoted by Mesnil in La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 154, 25 June 1933, cited by Panné. [Author’s note]

17. Genrikh Yagoda (1891–1938) was the head of the Soviet secret police. He played a major role in organising the first Moscow Trial in 1936, but was a defendant in the third Moscow Trial in 1938.

18. Cf. Pierre Monatte, Liberté pour Victor Serge, La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 188, 10 December 1934. [Author’s note]

19. R. Rolland to A. Bubnov, 27 August 1934, cited by Duchatelet, p124. [Author’s note]

20. Romain Rolland to Jean Guéhenno, 24 October 1934, in L’Indépendance de l’Esprit, Cahiers Romain Rolland, no. 23, Paris, 1975, p. 314. [Author’s note] Jean Guéhenno (1890–1978) was a writer and journalist, and a member of the French Academy.

21. My thanks to Madeleine Rebérioux of the CNRS for permission to quote from her letter to me of 4 April 1990, in which she was kind enough to summarise the Serge-related sections of the Romain Rolland-J.R. Bloch correspondance, of which she is preparing an edition. [Author’s note] Jean-Richard Bloch (1884–1947) was a novelist and dramatist, and a leading figure in the review Europe. He was a fellow traveller of the PCF from the 1920s until his death, and stayed in Russia during the Second World War.

22. Sergei Kirov (1896–1934), second only to Stalin in the Soviet hierarchy, was assassinated in strange circumstances on 1 December 1934, and the findings of post-1953 investigations strongly suggested that Stalin was responsible. His death served as the trigger for the great purges of the late 1930s.

23. Interview with Anita Russakova, Leningrad, August 1990. [Author’s note]

24. M. Martinet, Où va la révolution russe: L’Affaire Victor Serge, Librairie du Travail, Paris, 1933, p. 23. [Author’s note]

25. Romain Rolland to Jean Guéhenno, 24 October 1934, in L’Indépendance de l’Esprit, Cahiers Romain Rolland, no. 23, p. 314. [Author’s note]

26. M. Martinet: Où va la Révolution russe? L’Affaire Victor Serge, p. 23. [Author’s note]

27. According to Suzi Weissman, Trotsky considered that Magdeleine Paz’s work on behalf of the Serge campaign was the only worthy thing she had done in her life. [Author’s note] Boris Souvarine (Lifschitz) (1893–1984) was a founder member of the PCF in 1920. He was expelled in 1924, became an anti-Communist, and wrote a biography of Stalin. For Pierre Pascal, cf. p. 52, n123. Maurice Parijanine (Donzel) (1895–1937) was a writer and translator, and worked on translations for the Communist International shortly after the Russian Revolution. He replaced Martinet as the literary editor of l’Humanité, and broke totally with Stalinism by 1930s. For a sketch of his life and character see Victor Serge, Twice Met, International Socialism, 1:20 (1965). Lucien Laurat (1898–1973) was a founder member of Austrian Communist Party. He broke from it in 1927, moved to Paris, and in the 1930s argued that the Russian bureaucracy was a new exploiting class. Maurice Wullens (1894–1945) was a PCF member in the 1920s, became an anti-Stalinist in the 1930s, was the director of the magazine Les Humbles, and wrote for the collaborationist press during the German Occupation. Maurice Paz (1896–1985) was an early member of the Left Opposition in France, but broke from Trotsky in 1929.

28. B. Souvarine, letter to Pierre Kaan, 6 May 1933, reproduced in the documents sections of Marie Tourrès’ University of Besançon mémoire de maîtrise of 1982, entitled La Critique Sociale (pp. 249–51), cited by Panné. [Author’s note]

29. Gaston Bergery (1892–1958) was a Radical deputy and editor of La Flèche. A supporter of the Popular Front, he later served the Vichy regime as an ambassador.

30. Cf. Panné, p. 6. [Author’s note]

31. Angelo Tasca (alias A. Rossi) (1892–1960) was an early leader of the Italian Communist Party. He was expelled in 1929, moved to France, and published critical material on the Communist movement.

32. B .Souvarine, letter to Pierre Kaan, 6 May 1933. [Author’s note]

33. Jean Guéhenno to Romain Rolland, 24 August 1934, in L’Indépendance de l’Ésprit, Cahiers Romain Rolland, no. 23, p. 277. [Author’s note]

34. Georges Pioch (1873–1953) was a poet, and a founder member of the PCF. He was denounced by Trotsky for pacifism, and was expelled in 1923. He was a pacifist in the 1930s, and wrote for the collaborationist press under the German Occupation.

35. Cf. La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 157, 10 August 1933, for the complete text. [Author’s note]

36. La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 178, 10 July 1934, original emphasis. [Author’s note]

37. Ibid.

38. Panné, p. 11; Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 1, Autumn 1993, p. 33. [Author’s note]

39. Jean Guéhenno to Romain Rolland, 24 August 1934, in L’Indépendance de l’Ésprit, Cahiers Romain Rolland, no. 23, p. 277. [Author’s note] Luc Durtain (1881–1959) was a doctor, poet and novelist, and was associated with unanimism.

40. Cf La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 154, 23 June 1933. [Author’s note]

41. Albert Ayguesparse (Albert-Jean Clerck) (1900–1996) was a Belgian poet and novelist. Edmond Vandercammen (1901–1980) was a Belgian poet and painter, and a member of the Belgian Royal Academy. Charles Plisnier (1896–1952) was a Belgian poet and novelist, and wrote Faux Passports (1935). He was a founder member of the Belgian Communist Party, and was expelled in 1928. Pierre Hubermont (Joseph Jumeau) (1903–1989) was a Belgian novelist.

42. Jutrin, p. 100, n14. [Author’s note]

43. La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 188, 10 December 1934. [Author’s note]

44. Cf. Le Rouge et le Noir, no. 241, 14 April 1935. [Author’s note]

45. Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, Cahier, no. 15, cited in Panné. [Author’s note]

46. Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, Cahier, no. 16, 10 June 1933. [Author’s note]

47. Cf. Panné. [Author’s note]

48. Cf. Paz’s Open Letter to Maurice Willard of the AJI, La Révolution prolétarienne, 10 January 1935. [Author’s note]

49. Solomon Lozovsky (1878–1952) worked with Trotsky during the First World War, but did not join the Bolsheviks until after the October Revolution. He played a leading role in the Red International of Labour Unions. A loyal Stalinist, he survived the Terror of the 1930s, but was killed in Stalin’s anti-Semitic purge of the early 1950s. Christian Rakovsky (1873–1941) was a leading left-wing Romanian Socialist. He joined the Bolsheviks in 1918, was expelled as a Left Oppositionist in 1927, capitulated to Stalin in 1934, and was a defendant in the 1938 Moscow Trial.

50. Jacques Mesnil, Les Menteurs officiels contre Victor Serge, La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 184, 10 October 1934. [Author’s note]

51. J. Mesnil, VS et ses Tortionnaires, La Révolution prolétarienne, 25 July 1934. [Author’s note]

52. Romain Rolland to Jean Guéhenno, 24 October 1934, in L’Indépendance de l’Esprit, Cahiers Romain Rolland, no. 23, p. 314. [Author’s note]

53. Cf. La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 150, 15 April 1933. [Author’s note]

54. La Révolution prolétarienne, 25 August 1933. [Author’s note]

55. Cf. Panné, p. 12. [Author’s note] Ernst Thälmann (1886–1944) stood as the German Communist Party’s Presidential candidate in 1925 and 1932, and as a loyal Stalinist headed the KPD from 1925 until its collapse in 1933. Arrested that year, he was imprisoned until his execution in 1944.

56. Cf. H.R. Lottman, The Left Bank: Writers, Artists and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War, Boston 1982, p. 83). [Author’s note]

57. Julien Benda (1897–1956) was an essayist and a rationalist critic, and wrote La Trahison des Clercs (1927). Paul Nizan (1905–1940) was a Stalinist novelist and journalist, and a friend of Sartre. He broke from the PCF over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and was denounced by the PCF after his death as a police informer. André Chamson (1900–1983) was a French novelist who wrote of life in the Cévennes. Isaak Babel (1894–1941) was a Russian novelist and dramatist, whose works depicted the Russian Civil War.

58. Michael Gold (Irving Granich) (1894–1967) was an American ‘proletarian realist’, and a leading Stalinist literary figure of the 1930s. Robert Musil (1880–1942) was an Austrian novelist and author of The Man Without Qualities. Heinrich Mann (1871–1950), the brother of Thomas Mann, was a German novelist and the author of The Blue Angel. Gaëtano Salvemini (1873–1957) was an Italian historian exiled by Mussolini. Anna Seghers (Netty Radványi) (1900–1983) was a German writer, and became a leading literary figure in the GDR after 1945. Gustav Regler (1898–1963) was a German novelist. A political commissar with the International Brigades in Spain, he broke from Stalinism in 1939, and became a pacifist.

59. Cited in Lottman, p. 131. [Author’s note]

60. Ibid., p. 93.

61. Au Congrès des Écrivains pour la Défense de la Culture, Cahiers Les Humbles, no. 7, July 1935, p. 6. [Author’s note]

62. Cited in Lottman, p. 93. [Author’s note]

63. Au Congrès des Écrivains pour la Défense de la Culture, Cahiers Les Humbles, no. 7, July 1935, p. 38. [Author’s note]

64. Lottman, p. 131. [Author’s note]

65. Cf. V. Serge, Carnets, p. 31. [Author’s note]

66. Ibid.

67. According to Clara Malraux, cf. Lottman, p. 94. [Author’s note]

68. Magdeleine Paz, interview with the author, Passy, April 1963. [Author’s note]

69. Victor Serge to André Gide, 15 January 1935, Bibliothèque Ducet, Paris. Quoted by permission of the Gide Estate. [Author’s note]

70. Les Cahiers de la Petite Dame, 1929–1937, Cahiers André Gide, no. 5, Paris, 1974, p. 466. [Author’s note]

71. Au Congrès des Écrivains pour la Défense de la Culture, Cahiers Les Humbles, no. 7, July 1935, p. 19. [Author’s note]

72. Vladimir Kirshon (1902–1938) was a Russian dramatist and proletarian writer of the 1920s. He was executed in 1938 as an alleged Trotskyist.

73. Cf. Serge, Mémoires, p. 336. [Author’s note]

74. Cited in Lottman, p. 95. [Author’s note] Claude Roy (1915–1997) was a journalist, novelist and critic. He joined the PCF in 1944, and was expelled in 1956.

75. Cahiers André Gide, Volume 5, p. 467. [Author’s note]

76. Au Congrès des Écrivains pour la Défense de la Culture, Cahiers Les Humbles, no. 7, July 1935, p. 40. [Author’s note]

77. Cahiers André Gide, Volume 5, p. 468. [Author’s note]

78. A. Gide, Letter to Soviet Ambassador, 29 June 1935, Littérature engagée, p. 98. [Author’s note]

79. Cahiers André Gide, Volume 5, p. 471. [Author’s note]

80. A. Gide to M. Paz, 6 July 1935, Littérature engagée, pp. 99-100. The identical letter, in Gide’s hand, is in the Serge archive in Mexico City with the date of 7 July. Did Gide later send a copy to Serge (hence the changed date), or did he get the original from Paz? [Author’s note]

81. This was confirmed to me by Vladimir Kibalchich. [Author’s note]

82. My thanks to Lubov Kudravtsheva of the Centre for Historical Records in Moscow for bringing this document to my attention, and to Mikhail Tsovma for his translation. [Author’s note]

83. Cf. the record of Mandelstam’s interrogation, recently published by Vitaly Chentalinsky in his La Parole réssucitée, Paris 1994, p. 283. [Author’s note] Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938) was a Russian poet who was arrested in 1934 after being denounced for writing an anti-Stalin poem. Released in 1937, he was rearrested in 1938, and died in the Gulag.

84. Moscow News, no. 13, 22 March 1988, p. 16. [Author’s note]

85. R. Rolland, Voyage à Moscou, Paris 1992, p. 239. [Author’s note] Jean Calas (1698–1762) was a French Protestant who was broken on the wheel in 1762. Voltaire’s successful campaign for his rehabilitation made him a symbolic victim of intolerance.

86. R. Rolland, Voyage à Moscou, Paris, 1992, p. 245. [Author’s note]

87. Ibid., pp. 180, 196.

88. Serge, Memoirs, p. 319. [Author’s note]

89. Thanks to John Eden for supplying a copy, and to Vladimir Kibalchich for permission to quote. [Author’s note]

90. Rolland, Voyage à Moscou, pp. 173–4. [Author’s note] Yekaterina Pavlovna Peshkova (1876–1965) was a writer and social worker, worked in the Political Red Cross after the October Revolution, and helped to found the Gorky Museum.

91. Ibid., p. 196. [Author’s note]

92. Cf. Murray Armstrong, The Searchers: Literary Detectives on the Trail, Guardian Weekend, 22 September 1990. [Author’s note]

93. M. Paz, Nous avons retrouvé Victor Serge, La Révolution prolétarienne, 10–25 May 1936. [Author’s note]

94. Cahiers André Gide, Volume 5, p. 480. [Author’s note]

95. Quoted in Panné, p. 7. [Author’s note]

96. Serge, Memoirs, p. 319. [Author’s note]

97. Information supplied by Vladimir Kibalchich, interview on 27 December 1978. The following account is based on this interview and on Serge’s Memoirs, pp. 316–25. [Author’s note]

98. Cf. Magdeleine Paz, Nous avons retrouvé Victor Serge, La Révolution prolétarienne, 10–25 May 1936. [Author’s note]

99. It is curious to note that in 1941, when Russia entered the Second World War, Serge declared that internal rail transport problems would seriously weaken its capacity for self defence. [Author’s note]

100. This is according to Vlady’s recollection. Serge’s Memoirs provide a slightly different account, according to which he had asked Peshkova to request a delay of 24 hours to wait for an exit permit for his manuscripts, which the censor had promised for the next day, and for visas for his baggage from the head customs office. Peshkova returned and told him: ‘Go this very evening. Don’t press for anything. The head of the secret service just told me that you hadn’t left yet and that he was sending in a new report on you to Yagoda.’ (Memoirs, p. 322). Serge’s version does not mention the problem posed by the travel order, but Vlady’s neglects the question of the manuscripts and baggage. [Author’s note]

101. Serge had already received official permission to send this manuscript abroad (to Rolland, who had agreed to act as an intermediary) in a letter dated 29 September 1934 (registered no. 949) signed by Bogrov, head of the Foreign Literature Section of the Soviet Censor (Glavlit). Nonetheless, three separate copies of the manuscript mailed by Serge to Rolland were seized or ‘lost’ in the post, and Serge was never given the least explanation. See Serge’s statement of 9 June 1936, a copy of which is in the file marked ‘Identité’ in the Mexico City archive. [Author’s note]

102. The receipt is still in the possession of Serge’s family. [Author’s note]

103. Anita Russakova survived 25 years in the Gulag, and is still alive. [Author’s note]

104. Magdeleine Paz reported that the pretext was to send them to the censor. [Author’s note]

105. V. Serge, Lettre à ses amis, La Révolution prolétarienne, no. 224, 10 June 1936. [Author’s note]

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011