Pictures From An Inquisition

The work of the writer Victor Serge faultlessly captures the labrynth of bureaucratic incrimination into which the Soviet Union descended

In Middlemarch the desiccated pedant Casaubon wastes his life, and the life of another, in a futile search for "the Key to all Mythologies." In Bleak House the wearisome and convoluted case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce eventually exhausts all the resources of the contending parties in the sheer costs of the suit. In The Case of Comrade Tulayev a random political murder becomes the excuse for a gigantic, hysterical, all-enveloping bureaucratic investigation, and also the talisman for an ideological witch-hunt that intends to lay bare the most imposing of all conspiracies and convinces the last doubter of the existence of a grand design.

After Dostoyevsky and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge. His novels and poems and memoirs, most of them directed at the exposure of Stalinism, were mainly composed in jail or on the run. Some of the manuscripts were confiscated or destroyed by the Soviet secret police; in the matter of poetry Serge was able to outwit them by rewriting from memory the verses he had composed in the Orenburg camp, deep in the Ural Mountain section of the Gulag Archipelago.

For many years Serge was almost lost to view. He was one of those intellectual misfits (I intend no disrespect by the term) who were ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Stalin and Hitler. One of his novels was aptly titled Midnight in the Century (1939)—the phrase used by old "Left" oppositionists to sum up the nightmare years that culminated in the Hitler-Stalin Pact. He died in penurious exile in Mexico, in 1947. His scattered works were later reassembled and translated and kept alive by a small group of radical devotees, most notably Peter Sedgwick and Richard Greeman, whose work is both summarized and exceeded in Victor Serge: The Course Is Set on Hope, a tough-minded and well-written biography produced by Susan Weissman in 2001. Otherwise, Serge studies have been confined somewhere on the margins delineated by Dissent magazine and the now defunct Partisan Review. Not even Trotskyist sects were always willing to give this veteran revolutionary the respect that was his due: Serge had quarreled with "The Old Man," on matters of principle, several times.

So hunted and so cosmopolitan and so factional was Serge's life that it comes almost as a surprise that he was not Jewish. (When asked if he was—and he was asked fairly frequently—he would respond politely, "It happens that I am not." Among his many noms de guerre was Victor Klein.) He was born Victor Kibalchich in Belgium in 1890 to a family of commingled Russian, Polish, and Montenegrin ancestry, and a relative on his father's side had been hanged after the murder of Czar Alexander II, in 1881. Young Victor soon gravitated to the world of proletarian rebellion, qualifying as a printer and a proofreader and living in the sort of mining village that might have been described by Zola. He took a leading part in denouncing the atrocious rule of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo. Impatient with gradualism, and obviously drawn in some way to the depths of society, he removed to Paris, became an anarchist militant with a vagabond streak, and was sentenced to a five-year stretch in solitary confinement in a French jail for his connection to the then celebrated Bonnot gang. Interestingly, he drew this harsh penalty for refusing to testify against his former comrades. Released in 1917, he went to Barcelona to take part in a brief but intense anarchist revolt, was interned in a gruesome French camp after recrossing the Spanish border, and was exchanged for some French prisoners taken by the Bolsheviks as World War I ground to its appalling conclusion. He thus involuntarily but not reluctantly made his way to Saint Petersburg, or Petrograd, where it looked as if the genuine article of revolution was at last on offer. By the time of his arrival, in 1919, he had begun to use the name Serge. So before he was thirty he had served some hard time behind bars and behind wire, had been on the losing side a good deal, had gotten to know insurgent Catalonia, and had made a good number of friends on the French intellectual left. All of this hard-won experience was to be pressed into service repeatedly in the even more testing years that lay ahead.

Serge had a gift for transferring experience to the page with graphic immediacy, and for doing so by rapid alternation between journalism and fiction. His jail time produced a novel titled Men in Prison (1930), and his presence in Barcelona another named Birth of Our Power (1931). His years in Saint Petersburg generated a freshet of on-the-spot reportage that is much superior to the more widely known work of John Reed. Serge was as convinced as Reed of the need for revolution, but he had fewer illusions. It can be claimed for him that he was the first person to recognize and comprehend the roots of the emerging Stalinist regime, or at least to do so from the inside.

It was perhaps a happy chance, if the phrase can be allowed, that the Bolsheviks put Serge in charge of the captured files of the Okhrana—the czarist secret police. He gave minute attention to these papers, and published a pamphlet detailing the web of repression and surveillance and provocation that he thus uncovered. (It is to the Okhrana that we owe the creation and propagation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, sometimes mistakenly described as a "forgery"—a forgery, after all, must be of something original or authentic—but perhaps better defined as a cynical yet paranoid concoction: the key of keys to the greatest conspiracy theory of them all.) To have such a redaction supervised by a former prisoner, internee, and deportee was an intelligent move by the Party, but Serge, unlike others, did not thereby become a heresy hunter or an interrogator manqué. Where some might sniff for the presence of subversive or treasonous dissent, his nostrils were attuned to the stench of the secret policeman—a stench he regarded as far more indicative of decay.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest book, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, has just been published. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In