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The Atlantic Monthly | December 2003
Books & Critics

Pictures From An Inquisition

The work of the writer Victor Serge faultlessly captures the labrynth of bureaucratic incrimination into which the Soviet Union descended
by Christopher Hitchens
The Case of Comrade Tulayev
by Victor Serge
New York Review Books

Memoirs of a Revolutionary

by Victor Serge
University of Iowa Press
n 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.

One of the earliest actions of Leninism in power was the establishment of the Cheka—first of the many, many police acronyms that would include GPU, NKVD, and KGB. Serge was a militant opponent of the Jew-baiting and homicidal White reactionaries, and fought against them with some physical bravery, but he saw at once that the permanence of such a secret apparatus on the Red side was a lethal menace of a different kind. His campaign against it, and against the death penalty (briefly abolished in the early years and then reinstated), marked the beginning of his losing battle against a more ruthless form of tyranny. Of the human type attracted to "Chekist" work he wrote in his memoirs, "Long-standing social inferiority-complexes and memories of humiliations and suffering in the Tsar's jails rendered them intractable, and since professional degeneration has rapid effects, the Chekas inevitably consisted of perverted men tending to see conspiracy everywhere and to live in the midst of perpetual conspiracy themselves."

For example, on the night of January 17, 1920, as the decree abolishing the death penalty was being printed, the Cheka seized the opportunity to execute as many as 500 suspects—or, as Susan Weissman phrases it so caustically, to liquidate their stock. Serge had an instant intuitive understanding of what this portended. The death of the revolution, he was later to write, was a self-inflicted one.

Nonetheless, and fortunately for us if not for him, he resolved to stay on within the Party and to do what he could. Dispatched to Berlin to help with the Communist International, he discovered that Bolshevism was becoming as bureaucratic and intolerant beyond the borders of the USSR as it was within them. But he also learned about the mounting threat of the madness of fascism, and this produced in him a sort of dual consciousness: first, this new enemy needed to be defeated; second, it needed to be understood. The apparatchiks of communism, however, both underestimated the danger and helped to provoke it. Indeed, it could be said of fascism, as Serge was to write with an acuity that makes one almost dizzy, that "[this] new variety of counter-revolution had taken the Russian revolution as its schoolmaster in matters of repression and mass-manipulation through propaganda ... [and] had succeeded in recruiting a host of disillusioned, power-hungry ex-revolutionaries; consequently, its rule would last for years."

Attempting to synthesize these apparent opposites but latent collaborators, Serge came up with the word "totalitarian." He believed that he had originated it himself; there are some rival claimants from the period of what was then called "war communism," but it is of interest that the term has its origins within the Marxist left, just as the term "Cold War" was first used by George Orwell in analyzing a then looming collision of superpowers in 1945. Incidentally, when Serge was later seeking to have his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951) published in English, it was to Orwell that he wrote asking for help.

Indeed (not that it did him much good), Serge had a knack for nosing out the right acquaintances. He met Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs during his years outside Russia, and received a warning from Lukacs not to go back. He later not only escorted Nikos Kazantzakis and Panaït Istrati around the USSR but also was present when Istrati let fall the remark that made him famous: to the old saw "One can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," Istrati mordantly retorted, "All right, I can see the broken eggs. Where's this omelet of yours?" When the honest old Bolshevik diplomat Adolf Joffe committed suicide in 1927, to call attention to the "Thermidor" that was engulfing the revolution, Serge assisted in organizing a mass turnout for Joffe's funeral; he later realized that he had helped to lead the last legal anti-government protest to be held in Moscow. Within a short time he himself was in one of Stalin's prisons.

Released after some grueling experiences, he remained—despite his misgivings about the personality of Leon Trotsky—a partisan of the left opposition. Had he not been re-arrested in 1933 and deported to internal exile in Orenburg, he might well have been swept up and discarded forever in the period of even more hysterical persecution that followed the assassination of Sergei Kirov, on December 1, 1934. Kirov had been a popular leader of the Party in Leningrad; most historians now agree that his murder was the signal for the true frenzy of the purges to begin. It was the Soviet equivalent of the Reichstag fire.

Most historians also now agree on another important point: that the murder was organized by Stalin himself, either to remove a well-liked man who could have become a rival, or simply to help justify the political pogrom that he had long had in mind. (See in particular Robert Conquest's Stalin and the Kirov Murder, 1989, and Amy Knight's Who Killed Kirov?, 1999.) Some time before the assassination Serge had been overheard to say that what he most feared was the killing of some high Party satrap and the consequent licensing of a more comprehensive terror. Thus what is most interesting about his novel on the subject is that it begins by apparently exculpating Stalin from the main charge.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1948), which opens with the murder of a high Communist official by that name, makes an enormous sacrifice as a work of suspense by giving away the ostensible "plot" almost at once. We see a righteous and somewhat disturbed young man as he acquires a weapon by chance, takes to carrying it with him everywhere, and to his immense surprise runs into a senior "target of opportunity" on a darkened street. Pulling the trigger on impulse, to relieve his general feelings of alienation, he makes an easy escape, because there is absolutely nothing to connect him to the crime and he did nothing to prepare for it. But this apparently naive device actually imparts a considerable tensile strength to the ensuing chapters, as we see from the reaction of the Party and its leader that nothing in the Soviet Union can be admitted to happen by accident.
The papers briefly announced "the premature death of Comrade Tulayev." The first secret investigation produced sixty-seven arrests in three days. Suspicion at first fell on Tulayev's secretary, who was also the mistress of a student who was not a Party member. Then it shifted to the chauffeur who had brought Tulayev to his door—a Security man with a good record, not a drinker, no questionable relations, a former soldier in the special troops, and a member of the Bureau of his garage cell. Why had he not waited until Tulayev had entered the house, before driving off? Why, instead of going in immediately, had Tulayev walked a few paces down the sidewalk?
(The subsequent fate of the chauffeur is more than you want to contemplate.) We all now understand that dictatorship depends to an unusual degree on sheer caprice rather than predictable or systematic enforcement, but it was Serge's early insight that those Marxists who had prided themselves above all on their cold and objective lucidity had become "fuddled with a theoretical intoxication bordering on delusion ... enclosed within all the tricks and tomfooleries of servility." (This remark is from his Memoirs.)

The best novel of the postwar Stalinist purges—the ones that spread to Eastern Europe—is Eric Ambler's Judgment on Deltchev (1951). Here, the purge takes the form of isolating an inconvenient dissident (or potential dissident) and destroying his reputation before framing him. There's nothing of this glacial cynicism in Serge's novel. The post-1934 spy fever may have had a core of rationality when it began, or was inaugurated, but its special feature was the sheer mania and panic in which it engulfed society, becoming an exhausting, unstoppable thing in itself. At one point (Doris Lessing describes it somewhere in her account of abandoning communism) medieval instruments of torture were taken from Russian museums and deployed in the cellars and interrogation pits of Stalin's police. The image is perfect for evoking the choking medieval nightmare of plague-dread, xenophobia, and persecution that enveloped the Soviet Union and destroyed the last remnants of its internationalism. If the characters and automatons of The Case of Comrade Tulayev understand any one thing, it is the idea that the enemy is everywhere, and everyone. Poor old Makeyev, one of Serge's better-drawn minor characters, is a plebeian mediocrity with some physical courage who becomes a regional commissar by dint of brute force and sterling loyalty. He is the negation of the Bolshevik cosmopolitan—a figure from Chekhov. He at first feels himself "integrated into the dictatorship of the proletariat like a good steel screw set into its proper place in some admirable, supple, and complex machine." But Stalin—"the man of steel"—was at the helm of a locomotive determined to go off the rails, and who can redeem a Makeyev from a catastrophe like that?

As in the most intricate and sadistic courts of antique Oriental despotism, the thing to be feared almost as much as being "out of favor" was the special terror of sudden advancement. (Many later personal reminiscences of Stalin were to record that it was in genial mood that he was most to be feared.) I shall have to be forgiven for quoting at length here, since Serge captured this mental and moral atmosphere so faultlessly.
Erchov, recalled from the Far East, where he had thought himself happily forgotten by the Personnel Service, had been offered an unparalleled promotion: High Commissar for Security in conjunction with Commissar of the People for Internal Affairs, which practically carried with it the rank of marshal—the sixth marshal—or was it the third, since three of the five had disappeared? "Comrade Erchov, the Party puts its confidence in you! I congratulate you!" The words were spoken, his hand shaken, the office (it was one of the Central Committee offices, on the same floor as the General Secretariat) was full of smiles. Unannounced, the Chief entered quickly, looked him up and down for a split second—a superior studying an inferior; then, so simply, so cordially, smiling like the others and perfectly at ease, the Chief shook Maxim Andreyevich Erchov's hand and looked into his eyes with perfect friendliness. "A heavy responsibility, Comrade Erchov. Bear it well." The press photographer flashed his magnesium lightning over all the smiles ... Erchov had reached the pinnacle of his life, and he was afraid.
In the ensuing sentences, Serge transcends Gogol and anticipates Nineteen Eighty-four:
Three thousand dossiers, of capital importance because they called for capital punishment, three thousand nests of hissing vipers, suddenly descended like an avalanche upon his life, to remain with him every instant. For a moment the greatness of the Chief reassured him. The Chief, addressing him as "Maxim Andreyevich" in a cordial tone, paternally advised him "to go easy with personnel, keeping the past in mind yet never failing in vigilance, to put a stop to abuses."—"Men have been executed whom I loved, whom I trusted, men precious to the Party and the State!" he exclaimed bitterly. "Yet the Political Bureau cannot possibly review every sentence! It is up to you," he concluded. "You have my entire confidence." The power that emanated from him was spontaneous, human, and perfectly simple; the kindly smile, in which the russet eyes and the bushy mustache joined, attested it; it made you love him.
Erchov, as you will have intuited from the above passage, doesn't last long in the job and is soon humiliated and purged in his turn. But by then he has helped to set in motion a machinery of inquisition, supported by a Borgesian labyrinth of bureaucratic incrimination, that assumes a horrific autonomy. Men who were miles away at the time, or who had already been exiled or jailed, are put through the mill again and compelled to answer impossible questions. In faraway Spain, in the death throes of the republic and the last gasp of the Catalan revolution, with Franco's and Hitler's forces at the very gates, random Trotskyists are kidnapped and forced to confess their part in the murder of Comrade Tulayev.

Or not to confess it. Serge was a friend to Andrés Nin, the leader of Catalonia's left-opposition POUM (and the translator of Dostoyevsky into Catalan), and he always had a special regard for the old revolutionaries who never "broke." In many ways, placed next to Midnight in the Century, this novel is their memorial. There's inevitable speculation about the influence exerted, by means of both title and subject matter, on Koestler's Darkness at Noon. It is certainly true that in Tulayev we meet the figure of Kiril Rublev, an old Bolshevik who is strenuously (and eloquently) pressed to admit to inconceivable offenses because he can perform a last service to the Party by abasing himself in this way. But unlike Koestler's Rubashov, many of Serge's characters stubbornly decline the logic of the grand inquisitor.

Serge himself was one of the few to refuse it, and this probably saved his life. There came a time when the agitation abroad in his behalf became too much to overlook, and when a campaign for his release—led by Romain Rolland—had embarrassed even the intellectual prostitutes of the French fellow-traveling classes. Stalin decided to examine the case in person, but before doing so he asked his police chiefs what crimes Serge had confessed to while in the Orenburg camp. He must have been somewhat startled to be told that the prisoner had confessed to nothing at all (a distinct rarity in those times), and this made it easier to release and deport Serge without too much loss of face.

Given this standard of fortitude, and given the contempt Serge always felt for Stalin's collaborators, a remarkable feature of The Case of Comrade Tulayev is its chiaroscuro. In one passage the monstrous figure of "The Chief" is represented as a prisoner of fate, only pretending to arbitrate the destiny of a sixth of the earth's surface and of every one of its inhabitants. That Serge intended no lenience here we may be sure, but we may likewise be sure that he would never have swallowed the later euphemisms and half-truths of Khrushchev, putting blame for all the enormities of an epoch on the evil of a single individual. One of the most despicable engineers of the Tulayev witch-hunt, a creepy old time-server named Popov who trades on a reputation for staunch service, is limned not like a Iago but like a modern Polonius, full of pathetic advice and mumbling rhetoric. And this old wreck has his Ophelia—a daughter in Paris whose spontaneity and generosity will not allow her to take part in the lie. The freshness and honesty of Xenia Popov are eventually suicidal, but deadly also to her father's sordid compromise with the usurper's court. In its remorseless emphasis on the ineluctable along with its insistence on the vitality of individual human nature, The Case of Comrade Tulayev is one of the most Marxist novels ever written—as it is also one of the least.

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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.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2003; Pictures From An Inquisition; Volume 292, No. 5; 119-125.