Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge
Translated by Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis
Glossary and Notes by Richard Greeman
Foreword by Adam Hochschild
My final read for the #1951club is very different from the others; instead of fiction (mainly crime!), it’s an autobiographical work by the author and revolutionary Victor Serge. I’ve written about him on the Ramblings before, covering several of his fictions which I’ve absolutely loved. This book, however, is Serge’s account of his own life, one spent fighting for a cause, and it’s absolutely fascinating. The book is a long one, only completed last night, and it’s left me with much food for thought.
Serge was what you might call a professional revolutionary; born in Belgium to a family of émigré dissidents, it was inevitable that he would grow up following their example, and after his parents split up when he was 15 he was pretty much on his own, joining a socialist group but later being drawn to anarchism. He led a peripatetic life with spells in prison and exile, living in countries from France, Belgium, Spain, Mexico, Austria and of course Russia – his spiritual home and the place he eagerly travelled to when the 1917 Revolution took place. He joined the Bolsheviks, having become a little disillusioned with anarchism, and somehow survived the awful conditions of the civil war.
However, Serge’s initial enthusiasm for the new regime was tempered with concern about the turn it was taking. He disagreed with the harshness of those now in power, recognising early that things were moving away from the purity of the initial beliefs and becoming mired in bureaucracy. He was also quick to realise that the Secret Police were corrupt and uncontrolled and that an atmosphere of mistrust and toeing the party line was developing. Bravely, he continued to speak his mind and disagree with those in power, and frankly I found myself often wondering how it was he made it through these times alive.
Serge spent time overseas on foreign missions, trying to help the Communist organisations in other countries bring about revolution. However, his outspoken views and the fact that he aligned himself with Trotsky meant that inevitably his life in Russia was coming to an end. He was constantly monitored, his family harassed and he was exiled to Orenburg for some time in the early 1930s. As the terror in Russia expanded, overseas contacts agitated for his release and he managed to escape with his wife and child to Belgium and then France. Serge then fled Occupied France and the final chapter has him in Mexico pondering on the future; however, I know enough about his life to be aware that he would spend the final few years of his life there, and there is a short coda about his death from his son Vladimir.
Serge never hesitated to speak his mind, and he could see the flaws of Soviet Russia while other left-wing groups and organisations were in denial. A communist who criticised the communist regime, he was welcome in neither the east nor the west, viewed with suspicion by both sides. And as Trotsky became more and more of an outcast, Serge was tarred with the same brush and became a marginalised figure.
“Memoirs of a Revolutionary” is a long and involving book, and makes fascinating reading. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War and the mistrust that was felt between east and west, but the portrayal of the differences earlier in the 20th century is stark. Communism really was seen as a threat to the western world and like Trotsky, Serge became a stateless exile, hounded from country to country but unable to find a place to live and work.
Parts of the book are by necessity a tragic litany of imprisonment, interrogation, torture and death as, one after another, friends, colleagues and fellow fighters of Serge meet their end from the Party hierarchy. It’s quite chilling to see inside the network of betrayal and mistrust, the constant need to be alert because you’re being followed by enemies and agents, and the defences needed against friendship and intimacy as anyone you meet is a potential assassin.
The book is full of vivid pen portraits of all the historical figures Serge knew and encountered, and it often seems if he is trying to record them for posterity. A constant presence running through the book is The Old Man, Trotsky, to whom Serge’s loyalty never falters even when he disagrees with the elder’s current beliefs.
We were entering a world frozen to death. The Finland station, glittering with snow, was deserted. The square where Lenin had addressed a crowd from the top o f an armored car was no more than a white desert surrounded by dead houses. The broad, straight thoroughfares, the bridges astride the Neva, now a river of snowy ice, seemed to belong to an abandoned city; first a gaunt soldier in a gray greatcoat, then after a long time a woman freezing under her shawls, went past like phantoms in an oblivious silence.
There is some beautiful, evocative writing – Serge can capture place or person deftly in a few lines – and although he keeps bringing himself back to the point, i.e. writing about his life within the revolutionary conflict, the author in him can’t help creeping out. As the introduction points out, Serge was not a writer who could spend hours crafting his prose, returning to it and honing it; he was composing on the run, always pursued by enemies, and this does give his work an immediacy and a vibrancy – I do feel he was a born writer.
Be warned though that this *is* a book with plenty of politics. Although Serge writes wonderfully, and can capture up a place and its atmosphere in a paragraph, at the heart of his narrative is the Russian Revolution, the Communist Party and its betrayal by the post-Revolutionary events. This is a book from 1951 (published posthumously) with depth and historical perspective and it makes fascinating reading; I’m glad I was spurred on to pick it up – it’s a real glimpse into a totalitarian past that has echoes in our modern world.