I’ve long been a fan of Russian literature – since I first studied the Russian Revolution in my teens and following on from that dragged my friends to see “Dr. Zhivago” at the cinema. Since then I’ve read a *lot* of Russian books, both classic and modern literature, but this is my first experience with Victor Serge. Which is odd, really, as I’ve been aware of his name for years – maybe it just took NYRB to reprint and bring him back to prominence.

Wikipedia says:

Victor Serge, born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich (December 30, 1890 – November 17, 1947), was a Russian revolutionary and writer. Originally an anarchist, he joined the Bolsheviks five months after arriving in Petrograd in January 1919 and later worked for the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He was critical of the Stalinist regime and remained a revolutionary Marxist until his death.

That really just scratches the surface as the excellent introduction to this volume makes clear. Serge had an exciting and active life, moving from country to country, and although he hated what Communist Russia came to stand for, he never lost faith in the force of revolution. “Conquered City” is an intriguing book, about a year in the life of occupied St. Petersburg during the civil war which followed the Bolshevik revolution and it’s certainly unforgettable.

The first thing that hits you is the power of Serge’s prose. The book opens with a description of a wintry, frozen city where you can walk on the ice of the river and there are hardly any hours of daylight. There is instant contrast in the beauty of the language and the city, which is suddenly juxtaposed with filth, waste and dead bodies. The book follows the fates of several characters who are gradually introduced, often a chapter at a time, and whose destinies turn out to be intimately entwined. We meet hardened Reds committed to Marxism, romantic Whites determined to return Russia to its past, Greens living in the forest and trying to stay neutral, various other factions fighting for whatever aspect of the cause they deem fit, plus the ordinary people of the city who are simply trying desperately to survive.

This is not an easy read, understandably. Any war is brutal; any civil war perhaps more so because the people fighting are countrymen. The Russian people had suffered years of deprivation in the First World War and entered revolution and civil war already exhausted and starving. The chaos that followed meant famine and disease ravaged the country and it must have been hard for the ordinary folk to understand why they were fighting and for what cause.

But despite the horrors, this is a compulsive book. Each character is well-defined, clinging onto life in their own way, determined that their ideals will not be the ones which fail. There is Danil, the White soldier, who returns to the city on a mission and by his presence implicates and destroys his sister Olga; the scholar Professor Lytaev, who despite being imprisoned on very little evidence is content with his lot and can still believe in a better future; Zvevera, an unhappy and unpleasant woman who has found a niche in the new set-up and wields far too much power while reaping many benefits; the Communists Arkadi and Ryzhik who are colleagues in the struggle but are torn apart by the betrayal of another character; Xenia, who represents the young modern woman, in conflict with her mother over her beliefs, and sacrificing all for the cause. I don’t want to reveal too much of the intricate narrative as much of the pleasure in reading this book is watching events and connections unfold.

The book is skilfully constructed so that each character is gradually introduced and their links with the others are revealed as the tale progresses. There are groups of women queuing outside shops who act as a kind of chorus, summarising what is happening in the city, as do the newspaper headlines and quotes, and the titles of proclamations displayed around the city. We watch human beings behave like monsters and many of them find this almost impossible to deal with; the emotional strain on them is enormous.

“Conquered City” ends almost literally as it started. The cyclical nature of a year has taken us back to winter again, and Serge repeats much of his initial description of the city. St. Petersburg has held out against the Whites, the revolution is continuing and there have been losses along the way. But human beings are portrayed as sacrifices made to keep the cause alive – an unpalatable situation and one with which many would disagree. Nevertheless the book is surprisingly optimistic in places with many of the characters accepting the hand that life deals them. Lytaev perhaps sums up best the overall attitude of the characters:

“After us, the stars will shine for other eyes, which will be better able to see them. Men are on the march, Marie. Whether it is by an absurd chance or by necessity that they must pass over our bodies, they are on the march.”

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the book is no blatant act of propaganda: we are shown the fact that there is corruption in high places and that certain types of people will always manage to find their way into privilege, whatever the regime. The common folk will still suffer and the devious clever ones will manage to manipulate things to their own advantage. The violence and the tragedy and the suffering inflicted on the innocent is never denied or hidden from the reader. Serge is a wise enough Marxist to recognise the flaws in the new dictatorship which has replaced the old one, and he continued to rail against this all his life. This a powerful, sad, stark, beautiful and moving work; I look forward to reading more of Victor Serge.