Mexico City, Mexico
Victor Lvovich Kibalchich (.. š»ñññ) (December 30 1890 - November 17, 1947) better known as Victor Serge, was a Russian revolutionary and Francophone writer. Originally an anarchist, he joined the Bolsheviks five months after arriving in Petrograd in January 1919, and later worked for the newly founded Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He was openly critical of the Soviet regime, but remained loyal to the ideals of socialism until his death.
Serge was born in Brussels, Belgium, to a couple of impoverished Russian anti-Czarist exiles. His father, Leonid Kibalchich, a former infantry trooper from Kiev, was distantly related to Nikolai Kibalchich of the People's Will, who was executed as a result of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Leonid, himself a Peoples' Will sympathiser, had fled Russia around 1887 and gone to Switzerland, where he met Serge's mother, Vera Frolova, ne Podorovskaya. She was the daughter of an impoverished petty nobleman of Polish extraction from the Nizhni-Novgorod province. Vera had married a Saint Petersburg official and, after giving birth to two daughters, had received permission to go to Switzerland to study and heal her consumptive lungs, but also to escape the reactionary environment of Saint Petersburg. She fell in love with the handsome, feckless Kibalchich, and the couple wandered Europe, according to their son, "in search of cheap lodgings and good libraries". Victor was born "by chance" in Brussels, where the couple were so poor that Victor's younger brother died of malnutrition before Leonid eventually found work as a teacher at the Institute of Anatomy. The 'Kibalchich myth' of revolutionary idealism and sacrifice dominated Victor's impoverished childhood. He read a great deal, and became interested in socialism and anarchism along with his friends, including Raymond Callemin.
Serge's parents broke up in 1905, when he was 15. Living on his own from then on, he soon joined the Belgian Socialist Party, but soon came to feel that it was not radical enough. He became increasingly involved in anarchism and was expelled from Belgium in 1909. He moved to Paris and learned the printing trade.
Serge's first published article was written in September 1908. Under the pen name "Le Rtif" ("The Restless One" or "The Stubborn One"), Serge wrote many articles for Le Rvolt and, starting in 1909, L'Anarchie, a journal founded by Albert Libertad, whom Serge and his friends considered to be a hero. Serge at this stage was an outspoken supporter of individualist anarchism and illegalism, frequently clashing with the editor of L'Anarchie, Andr Roulot (aka "Lorulot"), who favoured less inflammatory rhetoric. In 1910, following a schism in L'Anarchie, Lorulot departed and Serge was named as the new editor of the paper. During this time Serge was in a relationship with Rirette Matrejean, another anarchist activist.
In 1912 Serge was judged to have been involved in acts of terrorism and was sentenced to five years in solitary confinement for his involvement with the Bonnot Gang. Several of his comrades were executed. He was thus in prison on the outbreak of the First World War. He immediately forecast that the war would lead to a Russian Revolution: "Revolutionaries knew quite well that the autocratic Empire, with its hangmen, its pogroms, its finery, its famines, its Siberian jails and ancient iniquity, could never survive the war."
In September 1914, Serge was in a prison on an island in the Seine, twenty-five miles or so from the Battle of the Marne. The local population, suspecting a French defeat, began to flee, and for a while Serge and the other inmates expected to become German prisoners.
On his release in 1917 he went to live in Spain, which was neutral in World War I but was the scene of an attempted syndicalist revolution. It was around this time that he first used the name Victor Serge, as a pen name for an article in the newspaper Tierra y Libertad.
Nicholas II was overthrown in February, 1917, and in July Serge decided to travel to Russia, for the first time in his life, to participate in the revolutionary activities there. In order to get there he returned to France. He studied art history for two months, but was then arrested because he had promised to stay out of France. He was imprisoned without trial for more than a year and engaged in political discussions with fellow prisoners.
Soon after Serge arrived in Russia, in January 1919, he joined the Bolsheviks, having grown disillusioned with anarchism, and believing that anarchism was a good ideal for life but Bolshevism offered the best theory of political change. He continued to support the involvement of anarchists and non-Bolshevik socialists in the revolution, and joined social groups largely containing non-Bolsheviks, such as the circle around the novelist Andrei Bely. While Serge was a staunch internationalist, believing that revolutions in other countries were desirable and even necessary for the survival of the Soviet Union, and wishing for socialism to succeed across the planet, he was concerned about the Bolsheviks– desire to force world revolution, particularly believing that France was far from revolutionary conditions. He also believed that while revolutionary conditions were ripe in Germany, the necessary revolutionary consciousness was lacking.
Serge lived in Petrograd, the former Saint Petersburg, which was going through a difficult period. At one time he lived in a mansion that had belonged to a noble family. With no other way to keep warm, Serge and his companions began burning books, and he was particularly happy to burn a book of the laws of the Russian empire.
Serge met Maxim Gorky and was offered a position at the publishing house that Gorky was running, Universal Literature. Though Serge deeply admired Gorky, he declined the position. At first he made his living as an inspector of schools and as a lecturer for the Petrograd Soviet. In March 1919 he began working for Grigory Zinoviev, who had been appointed as President of the Executive of the Third International. Serge's knowledge of languages enabled him to help in the publishing of foreign-language editions of the organization's publications, but he was already criticizing what he saw as Zinoviev's bureaucratic tendencies. Serge was a very capable worker in the Comintern and was particularly known for meeting people who visited the Soviet Union from various nations, including Pierre Naville, Gerard Rosenthal, Nikos Kazantsakis and Panait Istrati. He also worked to help those who, he believed, were being unjustly persecuted by the secret police.
Serge married Liuba Russakova, and they had their first child, Vlady in 1920. The Russakovs were a Russian Jewish family who had been expelled from France and had travelled to Petrograd on the same boat as Serge. Liuba's father, Alexander Russakov, was also a revolutionary, who had moved to France following the 1905 revolution, while always continuing to be a worker and returning to factory work after his return to Russia. Liuba herself briefly served as Lenin's stenographer in 1921. Her health problems became a major concern for Serge.
Serge had arrived in Russia during the civil war and the era of war communism. At first he believed that the Soviets could not afford to be merciful to their enemies, and he once criticized officers who let White Army prisoners go without shooting them. This was a reaction to the persecution of communists and other revolutionaries in the rest of the world. However, his positions on such issues soon changed as the government continued to be just as harsh against dissenters after the end of the civil war as it had been during it. Serge soon became disillusioned, and joined with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to complain about the way the Red Army treated the sailors involved in the Kronstadt Uprising. He believed that, with more competent officials in charge of the negotiations, there could have been a settlement between the government and the sailors. However, Serge reluctantly sided with the Bolshevik Party on the Kronstadt rebellion, because, in his view, it better represented the interests of the workers, and the alternative was counter-revolution.
As a libertarian socialist, Serge protested against the Red Terror organized by Felix Dzerzhinsky and the Cheka. Serge also criticized the New Economic Policy, believing that it was counter-revolutionary, though in 1923 he admitted that it had resulted in improved conditions compared to war communism.
In the spring of 1921 Serge briefly withdrew from the government and began a commune on an abandoned estate near Petrograd. However, after three months the commune was abandoned because of hostility from anti-Semitic peasants, who thought that all the residents of the commune were Jews.
Serge then went on a Comintern assignment to Germany, where there was an active Communist Party. Living mainly in Berlin, he witnessed the effects of economic crisis throughout Germany. Though he was still worried about repression in the Soviet Union, his stay in Germany restored his pride in the accomplishments of the Russian Revolution. Though he returned to Moscow to attend meetings several times, he lived in Germany until November 1923, when he was forced to leave after the failed Communist insurrection in October and the fascist coup attempt in November .
Serge harshly criticized the bureaucratic nature of the Comintern and its attempts to determine when revolutions "should" occur on the basis of inaccurate information and dogmatic preconceptions. He criticized the increasing control of the Comintern by the Soviet government, and particularly the factions of Zinoviev and Stalin. He cited the situation in Germany in 1923 as a major example of their mistakes. Along with German communist leaders such as Heinrich Brandler, Serge had worked in Germany to promote a workers– revolution, which was eventually cancelled and occurred only in Hamburg because the party there had not heard of the cancellation. Serge believed that the working class in Germany was not ready for revolution because it was too moderate. Serge criticized the Social Democrats in Germany, felt that the Communists had poor organization, and predicted the danger of fascism there.
In 1923 Serge became associated with the Left Opposition group that included Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek, Yevgeni Preobrazhensky and Adolf Joffe. Serge was an outspoken critic of the authoritarian way in which Joseph Stalin and his allies were now governing the country. He is believed to have been the first writer to describe the Soviet government as "totalitarian".
Serge moved to Vienna, Austria, later in 1923. Austria was then ruled by the Social Democrats and the Communist Party was so small that there was no possibility of revolution there. However, many Communists were working or in exile in Vienna, and Serge befriended some of them, including Georg Luk¡cs, Adolf Joffe and Antonio Gramsci. Serge watched political events in Russia, Germany and elsewhere, but could participate little, and worked on other pursuits, such as literary analysis.
Serge returned to the Soviet Union in 1925. Shortly after his arrival Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, members of the ruling troika alongside Stalin, reconciled with Trotsky, and the United Opposition was formed. Serge was generally supportive of the United Opposition, despite continued disagreements on economic and other matters between its Trotskyist and "Zinovievist" members. Meanwhile, Serge moved to Leningrad (the former Petrograd), where he was actively involved in Opposition groups. Despite the support of Kamenev and Zinoviev, Stalin's allies were gaining more and more power, and the opposition often had to meet in secret. Serge soon realized that the defeat of the opposition was inevitable, and by 1927, the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, he concluded that the reaction had been completed. He often compared the defeat of the Left Opposition to the Thermidorian reaction that followed the French Revolution.
Serge was not one of the political or theoretical leaders of the Left Opposition, but he worked tirelessly to promote it through both writing and activism. At that time he agreed with Trotsky that their fight should remain within the party, but he later wrote that "party patriotism" had helped to defeat them, while admitting that there were no other organizations with mass support that could have challenged the party. Serge was one of the few members of the opposition who could speak at Communist Party meetings without being shouted down by hecklers, though he was given only five minutes to speak at each meeting.
In late 1927 most of the Opposition, including Trotsky and Zinoviev, was expelled from the party, and some, led by Zinoviev, capitulated in order to return to the party. Serge believed that the expulsion of the opposition meant that the party was completely broken, and refused to support the capitulation. He believed from this point onwards that the ban on additional political parties was wrong.
In 1928 Serge was expelled from the Communist Party, largely because of his protests against the Soviet Union's policy on China, and officially because of his protests over the party congress's expulsion of the Opposition. He was now unable to work for the government. Over the next few years he spent much of his time writing Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930), completing two novels, Men in Prison (1930) and Birth of Our Power (1931), and translating Vera Figner's Memoires d'un rvolutionnaire into French. These books were banned in the Soviet Union, but were published in France and Spain. He also commented on and attempted to investigate the murders of political dissenters. Amid the growing poverty and peasant resistance, which was brutally crushed, he also wrote commentaries on these aspects of Soviet life.
Serge was arrested in March 1928 and spent two months in jail without charge. While some of the French intellectuals who had been among his close comrades, such as Henri Barbusse, harshly criticized his continued opposition to Stalin, others continued to help him and soon won his release. Shortly after his release, Serge suffered serious health problems, particularly an intestinal occlusion of which he almost died, and this drove him to devote himself to writing. During the next five years of "precarious liberty" he worked at the Lenin Institute, translating the works of Lenin into foreign languages, though his translations were closely monitored by the censors and he was unable to receive any credit. He lived in a communal apartment in Leningrad with at least three people who openly monitored him as they worked for the GPU. Serge's family was targeted for harassment, particularly his father-in-law Alexander Russakov, who was denied work, arrested for a time and denied a bread card. He died in 1932. Serge's wife Liuba Russakova was driven insane. Serge could not meet friends and relatives openly, because they could get into trouble for contacting him, so when he visited Moscow he often slept in empty houses. However, he occasionally met the remaining free opposition members secretly, and had some contacts with former friends who worked for Stalin. He also worked as hard as possible to smuggle anti-government material out of the Soviet Union. Trotsky received his last communication from the Soviet opposition from Serge in 1929.
Serge was arrested and imprisoned again in March 1933. This time he did not receive a quick release. The arrest occurred while Serge was in the street attempting to buy medicine for his wife. He was held and interrogated at the Lubyanka prison, where he spent 85 days in solitary confinement. The GPU claimed to have obtained a confession from his sister-in-law and former secretary, Anita Russakova, that she and Serge had been involved in a conspiracy led by Trotsky. Serge knew from his contacts in the Communist Party that if he signed the confession he would be executed. The GPU's claim was later proven to be entirely false (though Anita Russakova herself was arrested in 1936). Eventually the GPU dropped this part of the case, stating that the "evidence from Anita" was not necessary, though Serge never knew that she had not made any confession. Serge never signed a confession of his own, though he did eventually sign a statement agreeing to his sentence of three years in a gulag in Orenburg.
As he travelled to Orenburg Serge was finally able to meet and have discussions with Left Oppositionists who were also being deported. Orenburg was an impoverished town and he had to struggle for food. He could not work because he refused to declare his support for the general line of the party. He depended on parcels of food from his wife and money from the sale of his books in France. However, the GPU could confiscate his mail at any time, and after his first year in Orenburg they largely cut off mail delivery. Serge was able to address manuscripts to the French writer Romain Rolland, who was sympathetic to Stalin but was against Serge's repression, but many manuscripts that Serge tried to send were lost.
Serge's wife and their son Vlady joined him in Orenburg in 1934, but he sent his wife back to Moscow so that she could seek treatment for her mental illness. In Moscow she gave birth to their second child, a daughter named Jeannine. Vlady stayed with Serge. After their mail was cut off they subsisted on a soup of cabbage, water and salt. Serge became gravely ill at the end of 1934 and spent time in a hospital under terrible conditions. Despite these difficulties, he was able to make friends with many of the deportees who were also political prisoners. His novel Midnight in the Century is based on his time in Orenburg.
Noting that the Soviet Union was in economic recovery by 1935, Serge predicted that Stalin would choose normalization, but by 1936 the terror was expanding, using the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934 as a pretext. (Serge believed that Kirov had been killed by an assassin acting alone, with no involvement by either the opposition or Stalinists, though more recent research has indicated that the assassination was almost certainly arranged by the regime.)
Protests against Serge's imprisonment took place at several international conferences, most notably the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in 1935 in Paris. Protests came from intellectuals of various political ideologies, including Georges Duhamel, Charles Vildrac, Boris Souvarine, Andr Gide and Romain Rolland. Serge was able to correspond with Gide, and had a strong influence on him, later telling Gide to "keep [his] eyes wide open" while visiting the Soviet Union in 1936. Rolland corresponded with Genrikh Yagoda about Serge's manuscripts, eventually visited the Soviet Union and had meetings with Stalin during which Serge was mentioned. The Serge case caused the Soviet government considerable embarrassment and in 1936 Joseph Stalin announced that he was considering releasing Serge from prison. Pierre Laval, the French prime minister, refused to grant Serge an entry permit, but Emile Vandervelde, a veteran socialist who by then was a member of the Belgian government, managed to obtain Serge a visa to live in Belgium.
Serge was ordered to return to Moscow and arrived there on April 12, 1936. As he prepared for departure from the Soviet Union, he attempted to get permission to take his manuscripts with him, but they were taken from him. He left the country safely, along with his wife and children, but their relatives were not so fortunate: Anita Russakova spent 25 years in a gulag (and was eventually able to give her version of events after 1989), while Serge's sister, his mother-in-law and two of his brothers-in-law all died in prison.
Soon after Serge's arrival in Belgium he was able to move to France. He immediately began corresponding with anti-Stalinist socialists, including Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov. His mail was still frequently intercepted, both by Stalinist agents and spies for western countries. Trotsky was having many disagreements with other non-Stalinist leftists, and was unhappy that Serge continued to associate with his critics. Some revolutionaries also distrusted Serge because they felt that he could not have been released unless Stalin thought that he would be useful. These allegations were untrue, but would soon cause Serge serious difficulties.
Serge resumed work on two books about Soviet Communism, From Lenin to Stalin (1937) and Destiny of a Revolution (1937). During this time, coinciding with the Spanish Civil War, Serge was the POUM correspondent in Paris. He also published several novels and a volume of poems, Resistance (1938). Many of these poems were actually written in Russia, but the manuscripts were among those confiscated from him and he reconstructed them from memory.
Around the time of Serge's arrival in France Mark Zborowski was becoming a powerful person in the French Trotskyist movement, as a confidante of Leon Sedov. Zborowski, who turned out later to be a GPU agent, successfully used Serge's minor disagreements with other Trotskyists to spread distrust of Serge within the Trotskyist movement, a distrust that eventually led Trotsky himself to break off relations with Serge.
After France was invaded by Germany in 1940, Serge, together with his son, Vlady Kibalchich, managed to escape. Serge's wife Liuba was left behind in a mental institution as she was too ill to travel, and their daughter stayed with her. (Liuba remained in France until her death in 1985.) Serge and Vlady had trouble finding a country that would take them in, but in 1941 they obtained visas to live in Mexico. They arrived several months after Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico City.
As Serge was most comfortable writing in French, and had little knowledge of Spanish, he found it difficult to adjust to living in Mexico, and often had little money for food. He soon remarried, to Laurette Sjourn, and developed friendships with some other European exiles, most notably Trotsky's widow Natalia Sedova. He continued to receive support from some American intellectuals, such as Dwight Macdonald, and his writings were published in certain American left-wing periodicals. He was also the Mexican correspondent for the New Leader. The Communist establishment publicly denounced him as a Trotskyist, and he was subjected to strong criticism by the Mexican press and by the veteran Communist propagandists Otto Katz (writing under the nom de plume Andr Simone) and Paul Merker. Serge was charged with being a fascist secret agent, just as Trotsky had been. However, he found support from the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre, and wrote Los problemas del socialismo en nuestro tiempo with Marceau Pivert and Juli¡n Gorkin.
After the United States and the Soviet Union became temporary allies in 1942, criticism of Serge spread to the American press, and though he had staunch defenders there, his ability to defend himself was limited by the fact that he was still distrusted by many Trotskyists. Serge and his allies in Mexico were also victims of several assassination attempts by the GPU and Mexican Stalinists.
As Serge became increasingly unable to publish articles, he continued to write novels, including The Long Dusk, concerning the fall of France to the Nazis, and The Case of Comrade Tulayev, about the Stalinist purges (starting with the killing of Sergei Kirov). His autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, was first published in the United States in 1945.
Serge's health had been badly damaged by his periods of imprisonment in France and Russia, but he continued to write until he died of a heart attack, just after entering a taxi in Mexico City, on 17 November, 1947. He was buried in an unmarked grave that finally received a headstone in 1992.
Several controversies have surrounded the end of Serge's life. It has been widely rumoured that Serge had abandoned socialism, because of a letter written six days before his death to Andr Malraux saying that he would support the Gaullist government. Serge's defenders point out that Serge was writing to Malraux, who worked for De Gaulle, as a friend attempting to reestablish a relationship, and that the comment has been taken out of context. Some have also been suspicious that Serge was poisoned by the GPU. However, there is no evidence to prove this.
Year One of the Russian Revolution presents Serge's interpretation of the events that happened in Russia during his second imprisonment in France. He acknowledged that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was necessary, and that Lenin and Trotsky were right to negotiate it despite the humiliation it caused. He also emphasized the role of the failed Finnish revolution and the White Terror that followed in foreshadowing the Russian Civil War and the Bolshevik government's feeling that it was necessary to conduct its own terrors. Serge was one of the few historians of this period to give prominent attention to the role of Finland in early Soviet history.
Serge became a major historian of the struggles of the Left Opposition. He stated that around 1926 some oppositionists felt that Trotsky could have organized a coup, as he was still supported by the Red Army. However, Trotsky feared (and Serge agreed) that such a military revolution would only create a dictatorship similar to that of Napoleon Bonaparte after the French Revolution. Serge saw the party as developing a kind of religious feeling among many of those who were expelled, so that expulsion seemed to them like excommunication from a church.
During the late 1920s, around the time of the decline of the Left Opposition and Serge's expulsion from the party, Serge spent a great deal of time and energy writing about China. China had an attempted revolution around that time but it was stopped by the Comintern, which ordered the Chinese Communists into a disastrous alliance with the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang soon betrayed the Communists and massacred them. Though Serge was never able to visit China, he drew from the reports of those who had visited China for his analysis. Serge noted that the Kuomintang had developed a bureaucratic authoritarian structure similar to that of the Soviet Communist party and the Comintern under Stalin. He argued that the proletariat needed to make an alliance with the peasants in a way that would depart from liberalism and nationalism. He also praised the early works attributed to Mao Tse Tung, who was not well-known at the time. Serge's works on China influenced the French intellectual debate on China and also the later writings of Trotsky on China.
Beginning in the late 1920s, Serge helped to lead the anti-Stalinist Left's criticism of wasteful resource management in the Soviet economy, along with many other writers including Christian Rakovsky and Leon Trotsky. Serge's writing includes many examples of inefficient factories, homes and other buildings being built, as well as inefficient machines. He also drew attention to the fact that, while the Moscow subway stations were architecturally grand, they had no benches for tired workers. He criticized the bureaucrats who approved these projects out of political loyalty, and stated that these bureaucrats, though they claimed to be Communists, did not really care about the workers. Like many other Left Oppositionists, he pointed out that Stalin had no authentic plan, but instead shifted policies erratically.
Serge always maintained that writers and artists needed free expression, no matter what their political views were. In this opinion he was supported by the prominent Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, with whom he disagreed on economic issues and many other matters. Even after committing himself to Communism, Serge maintained friendships with anarchist, Christian and non-political artists, often considering them to be superior to the artists fostered by the state. When unable to participate in politics, during his time in Vienna and when imprisoned, Serge wrote essays about Soviet art and culture, and analyzed the contributions of many early Soviet writers and artists. He was also influenced by Trotsky's ideas on proletarian culture.
Sources: British Library Catalogue and Catalog of the Library of Congress.
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