Trans. Richard Greeman
New York Review of Books
Victor Serge was a Bolshevik leader in Russia during the darkest days of the Civil War and the Terror. In his novel Conquered City he left us a record of a terrible, formative year in the life of St. Petersburg. The city’s most terrible months were still a decade away when he wrote his novel in 1930-31 and dispatched it to France, chapter by chapter, for publication. Nonetheless Serge brings us on a tour of hell itself in his description of the year 1919-20.
Serge shows us a packed and stinking train station with a shanty town in the lobby; a squalid prison seen through the eyes of a wrongly-accused man; frontline troops without boots; workers whose shipment of bread has been once more hijacked, whose patience is wearing thin. He shows us executions and murders, and looters being shot without a second thought.
There would be plenty of material in Serge’s work for any of the capitalist triumphalist writers of the last twenty years to shout about. Service, if he was bothered to open a book by those he writes about, would love Conquered City. Serge, however, was a revolutionary, and this work is not a reactionary horror show but a clear-eyed, level-headed debate about the Revolution and the Terror. It is a decisive justification of both because, unlike Service, Read and the rest of them, Serge presents the threat of the White armies in an accurate- and terrifying- light. Nor does he ignore the “Greens” or try to romanticize them- a contrast to the Kronstadt-mania of his later years.
The Russian Civil War was a fight to the death. It was unimaginably cruel and bitter. In passages like the one I quote below, Serge takes it on head-first and retrieves irony, humour and a bizarre sense of life-going-on amid the horror.
(If you like, imagine it happening in the NAMA’d buildings of Dublin’s quays, many years from now)
The noisy clatter of typewriters filled rooms designed for princely comfort; a coarse conqueror, Comrade Rhyzik, was sleeping in his boots [...]
Every once in a while the bored sentry sitting, elbows propped on a dirty table, at the door to the cellar stairs would get up, reluctantly shoulder the strap of his rifle, and go to open the padlock of his prison.
“All right!” he would say, not unkindly. “Financiers to the crapper, three at a time!”
Though it is mired in the everyday horror of the Civil War, Conquered City maintains an attitude of hope. This hope is all the more stirring because Serge doesn’t flinch from showing us just how bad things got during the civil war, or to what horrific lengths the revolutionaries went to defeat the Whites and the Allies. He’s not trying to lie to us but to show us exactly what happened and explore why. For the most part he is utterly convincing; however, I have my reservations about a scene where a professor wrongly condemned to death philosphically sides with his Bolshevik persecutors.
The translator, Richard Greeman, tells us in the introduction that the hope expressed by some characters is just irony. Serge was writing from the dog-house of those revolutionaries who still dared to oppose Stalin, and the novel foreshadows the growth of the dictatorship. On relating the story of a skirmish in a copse, Serge goes through the many different versions of events that are current: “..according the the fourth [version], invented ten years later, the copse didn’t exist and nothing of the kind had ever happened.”
I would disagree with Greeman, however. The depths Serge goes to in his description of the horror of the time, and the lengths to which he goes to provide some hope that the future will be better (at one point two characters debate this point for about nine pages), signal to me that he is writing about 1930-31 as well as about 1919-20. If the revolution can overcome the Whites, the famine, the blockade and twenty-one foreign armies, it can overcome Stalinism. Serge, a dedicated Oppositionist, would hardly have peddled writings that would undermine his own lifelong struggle.
Tragically, the worst of Stalinism was yet to come as Serge wrote Conquered City. He wrote it in distress but also in hope, however, and Greeman is wrong to assume that because Serge tells the truth, he must be a jaded cynic. Conquered City is the work of a revolutionary and this fact is visible in every line. Following an ensemble cast of diverse characters around the city between 1919 and 1920, it is a meditation on the Red Terror and the Civil War that explores every dark crevice, pulls no punches and tells no lies.