Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge
Translated by Richard Greeman

Victor Serge is fast becoming an author I turn to when I want a book that I know will be enthralling and beautifully written. After discovering him via his “Conquered City” in 2014, I was recently bowled over by “The Case of Comrade Tulayev”. And after spending some time in the rarefied world of (fictional) history (I’m reviewing a little out of order here), I felt that I needed to read something that dealt with the human side of the past and how it affected people on a smaller scale – so Serge seemed the ideal choice.

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“Midnight in the Century” was first published in 1939, and whilst looking through the introduction I realised that I was slightly reading Serge’s books out of order; events in this one, though not directly leading onto “Comrade Tulayev”, do feature at least one character who will turn up in that book. However, that didn’t faze me too much…. 🙂

“Midnight” is a story about exile; most of the action takes place in the Siberian town of Black Waters, where a number of political deportees have been sent. There is the old Bolshevik Rhyzik (who will play a crucial part in “Tulayev”); Varvara, determined yet vulnerable; Avelii, drawn to Varvara despite the risks involved in becoming emotionally attached; Kostrov, a late arrival, whose presence will have a destructive effect; Elkin, ex-president of the Kiev CHEKA; and young Rodion, a somewhat naive comrade who struggles to understand the dialectic behind the revolution.

The little town is a strange outpost of the Soviet Union; built on a history of dissent, it still houses Russian Orthodox Old Believers whose faith is an anathema to the Communist authorities. A mixture of old ways and modern attempts at technology exist side by side, and the locals struggle to meet the quotas imposed on them for fishing and the like. The people here are still rooted in the land, and regardless of the political system imposed on them, their lives still go on much as they always have.

The Trust occupied a long, narrow suite of rooms inundated by the ceaseless crackle of typewriters and adding-machines, on the corner of Prison Street over a co-operative full of useless neckties and tooth-powder which people used to whitewash the insides of their houses in the spring.

Against this background, the political exiles struggle to maintain their belief in the revolution despite their betrayal and imprisonment. Items of news are smuggled in from outside; rumours of a Trotskyist organisation are whispered about; and they all try to make sense of what has happened to them and to anticipate the ultimate fate of the revolution (which they still regard as going on). But with spring comes another purge of sorts from the nerve centre of Moscow, and the exiles are arrested and imprisoned. Only Rodion is able to make a bid for freedom – but will he succeed?

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Once again, Serge serves up a fascinating novel, peopled with an engaging set of characters, all dealing with their own personal moral crisis. His portrayal of the insidious nature of Soviet rule, and the twists and turns of suspicion, is once again presented convincingly, but that’s less to the forefront in this novel than it was in “Tulayev”. Instead, we see how the revolutionaries are tied to the party despite their resistance to its methods and the way it has developed. The tragedy of the exiles is that they’re unable to free themselves from the revolution they helped bring about despite their criticisms of it; unlike Rodion, they cannot conceive of breaking away and setting up an alternative. But Rodion, younger and less hide-bound by theories and dialectics (which he struggles to understand), can envisage a different revolution and a different party, and this vision enables him to attempt his escape. In the hands of a lesser novelist, these characters could become merely cyphers; but Serge is such a skilful writer that each takes on a distinct and believable life of their own

There is nothing left but our defeat, firmly accepted since it must be. For we can neither separate ourselves from the proletariat, nor disobey the truth, nor ignore the course of history. And for the moment the dialectic of history has placed us under the wheel. Life goes on, thanks to us. The victories will begin again when we are no more.

Serge based the novel on his period of exile in Orenburg on the Ural river, and it’s an eminently readable and beautifully written book that really captures what it must have felt like living in exile. His descriptions of the landscape and the responses of the exiles to the land are evocative, and despite the darkness reaching out from Moscow into the Russian country, the book does end on a small note of hope. However, the power of the written word really cannot be under-estimated; many of Serge’s books which were critical of Stalin and his regime were published while he was in exile and associating with Trotsky. The latter was murdered in Mexico in 1940 by one of Stalin’s agents; Serge’s death in a taxi in Mexico in 1947, apparently from a heart attack, has sometimes been attributed to Stalin as well.

Leon Davidovich Trotsky’s portrait looked right back at them; intelligence and energy were stamped across the forehead; pince-nez glasses; a definitive flash in the eyes… Rhyzik frowned. “The main thing, you see, is that they don’t kill him!”

“Midnight” was translated by Richard Greeman, who provides an excellent introduction and useful notes; and very sweetly, has illustrations by Serge’s son, who was an artist known as Vlady. To be honest, you do need a certain amount of knowledge about and interest in Soviet history to get the most out of Serge’s books, and it may be this that has stopped him being more widely read. That’s a shame, because his novels are shaping up to be some of my favourites and I’m really looking forward to my next read of Victor Serge.

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