Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 2
Farewell to a Friend: Vlady Kibalchich
IT was on my return from Kiev, where I had gone to participate in a fascinating seminar entitled The Anti-Totalitarian Left in the Twenty-First Century, organised by the Victor Serge Library of Moscow, that I learned of the death in Mexico of the painter Vlady Kibalchich, Victor Serge’s son and my friend for 40 years. Here are some memories of this vanished older brother.
I met Vlady for the first time in 1963. I had a scholarly grant for a year in Paris, and I used it to begin my research on Victor Serge (né Kibalchich), whose pre-Second World War books were then very difficult to find. By chance, I fell on Teulé, a marvellous second-hand bookseller on the Quai Malaquais, who had heard Serge speak at the workers’ ‘Evening University’ night-school and who had hidden a stock of his books during the Occupation. Teulé told me that ‘Serge’s son’ had just arrived in Paris from Mexico, and he put us into contact. We recognised each other right away as ‘brothers’ (he the elder, to be sure), inheritors of the socialist tradition of the Kibalchiches, but also of that of his Jewish anarchist grandfather Rusakov. From then on it was a friendship that defied time and space. Our conversations – about Serge, the Bolsheviks, literature, history; about political, scientific and artistic revolutions – continued uninterrupted for more than 40 years.
In 1964, with Vlady’s encouragement, I undertook the translating and publishing of Serge’s writings in New York and London. During these years I often stayed at the home of Vlady and Isabel in Mexico, where I worked in Serge’s archives and watched Vlady – perched high on a scaffold – painting his grand frescos on the walls of the Library in Mexico City. My endless biography of Serge is in effect a collaboration, fruit of a thousand conversations. During that wonderful revolutionary year of 1968, when Vlady and Isabel joined me in New York thanks to a Guggenheim grant, Vlady accompanied me to a revolutionary students’ meeting at Columbia University (where I taught and which we had just occupied) in order to speak to them about the massacre of Mexican students. We wrote each other frequently; his letters were profound and tantalising since he wrote French elegantly but spelled the words phonetically, using Spanish orthography, and to boot his artistic scrawl was barely decipherable. These letters – often written on the margins and on the back of engravings which I hung on my walls – began ‘Dear little brother …’
In the 1980s we shared (along with the Trotskyist historian Pierre Broué, who died the same week as Vlady) our enthusiasms for the Sandinistas and later for the Zapatistas. It was also the period of Perestroika, with the rediscovery of Russia in full democratic effervescence – reunions with survivors of the Gulag (including Anita Rusakova, Vlady’s aunt), great debates, opening of secret archives, the search (still in progress) for Serge’s manuscripts seized by the GPU in 1936. Together, we created the Victor Serge Foundation with the profits from the sale of Serge’s archives (which Vlady had preserved in Mexico) to the Yale University Library. This tidy little sum, which Vlady and his sister Jeannine had generously devoted to Serge, has sustained the Victor Serge Public Library in Moscow (open since 1997 with 5,000 books on anti-totalitarian socialism in six languages) as well as the translation and publication in Russian of Serge’s novels and Memoirs of a Revolutionary.
At the end of March 2005, Vlady had to undergo an operation for a massive brain tumour. That went well, and three days later he was home and spoke on the telephone to me of theories of art of Jacques Mesnil and of Elie Faure. He underwent therapy, but he was 84. We knew it was terminal. ‘In any case’, he said in learning of his fate, ‘I already stole 65 years from Stalin’s camps!’ However, his head remained, as always, full of projects: a show of 150 of his engravings in Moscow, the forthcoming publication of Jean-Guy Rens’ book Vlady: From the Revolution to the Renaissance, his hopes for the creation of a museum of his work in Mexico (he had just turned over all his work to the government). Without being either superstitious or mystical (with Bolshevik reticence), Vlady had a certain conception of ‘materialist spirituality’ which he connected with the Russian philosopher Vernadsky’s noosphere. Our friend understood that he was going to leave us, that his Epicurian ‘atoms’ would inevitably disperse to form new configurations, but also that his genius would continue to radiate by his ideas and his paintings as well as in the memory of his friends.
And here is the beautiful paradox. During our last visit in January 2004, Vlady, delighted, had just received the beautiful illustrated catalogue (in which I had collaborated) of an exhibition of his paintings organised by the city of Orenburg in the Urals, where Vlady passed his adolescence in deportation. But in Mexico he had political troubles due to his open support of the Zapatistas (the portrait of the dissident Bishop Samuel Ruiz) and to his rejection of the system of the galleries and of ‘national’ art. Without public commissions, he tried to manage by selling his beautiful engravings which he completed at Cuernavaca (with the help of his nephew Carlos), and he begged me to try to sell some of them. Moreover, he was concerned at every moment of the fate of his last masterwork – four enormous revolutionary canvases were removed mysteriously during the night from the walls of the Minister of the Interior and were apparently hidden in the basement of an old prison.
Alive, this old revolutionary activist represented a threat for all authorities – political and artistic. Dead, Vlady has finally become kosher. This mischievous man – cosmopolitan and always rebellious – would certainly have savoured the irony of being consecrated post mortem as a great Mexican artist – he who contested the nationalist concept and Mexicanism; he who in his life was excluded from them. Above all, he would have laughed in learning in his obituary in the Guardian that his four great canvases of the Ministry of the Interior will now leave their prison to be hung at the Palais des Beaux-Arts during a retrospective exposition that they are organising in Mexico.
It was also in January 2004 that Vlady showed me a copy of Victor Serge’s Portrait of Stalin that Serge had dedicated to him – ‘On the roads of France, July 1940’ – and which came to resurface after 64 years. Moved, he showed me the dedication: ‘To my son Vladimir Kibalchich this truthful history of events at the core of which he was born and grew up, so as to learn resoluteness and never to despair of either man or truth.’
In effect, Vlady, far from ‘despairing of man or truth’, remained idealistic and combative (hence, his ‘optimism of the will’) during all the ‘years without pardon’ of his century of massacres – and that despite the transformation of the Russian socialist ideal into a totalitarian nightmare, despite the exile and the destruction of his family, despite the temptation of existentialist and post-modernist despair which was in vogue. As for resoluteness, Vlady defended Serge’s books both against winds and tides, and for the socialist and humanist values that they incarnated.
At this moment we are preparing the publication in Moscow (in the Russian translation of Julia Guseva of the Victor Serge Library) of two of Serge’s books: Life and Death of Trotsky (written in collaboration with Natalia Sedova Trotsky) and his last novel, which Vlady considered his deepest, Years Without Pardon. To realise these publications, we need the modest sum of Є4500. Friends who want to make a gesture in remembrance of Vlady could send their cheques to the Victor Serge International Foundation, 16 rue de la Teinturerie, Montpellier 34000, France.
Translated by Marvin Mandell
Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011