Saturday, October 10, 2009

Serge, Koestler, and Bukharin

J. Hoberman’s article in the 22 October 2009 issue of New York Review of Books, Orphan of History, is a reminder of the importance of forgotten Bolshevik party member, author, exile, anarchist, prisoner, historian, critic of Stalinism, sometime Trotskyite, and Fourth International supporter, Victor Serge. Although his fame hasn’t survived in America, Serge—who also wrote under the French nom de plume the Unbroken One-- produced a series of novels, including Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, Conquered City, The Case of Comrade Tulayev (loosely based on the real-life murder of Kirov), Midnight in the Century, the Long Dusk, and the Unforgiving Years, an autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, and history such as Year One of the Russian Revolution and Russia after Twenty Years.

Hoberman’s review doesn’t really help readers to understand the literary or artistic merits of any of the specific works or of the oeuvre in general. However, Hoberman makes it clear that Serge’s personal life was fascinating and inextricably linked with the drama and tragedy of the Bolshevik revolution and its legacy. Serge is very well placed to be one of its best chroniclers, as one of the few early participants (he aided the Bolsheviks as early as 1919-and maintained contact with all shades of socialism even when it was dangerous to do so) who managed to escape Russia and critique the Soviet Union from exile.

And while Serge was overshadowed in life and death by Trotsky as a critic of Stalin, Trotsky made no attempt whatsoever to wrestle artistically with Stalinism. So Serge deserves to be read even today. It’s interesting that Hoberman mentions that Koestler’s Darkness at Noon received a much friendlier reception that Serge’s books in post-war America. Certainly Koestler’s book is darkly insightful, unsentimental, morally compelling, and perfect in its simplicity. Yet while admitting up front that I have not yet read Serge’s books, I suspect that an insider such as Serge (who also lived in the West and died in Mexico shortly after Trotsky died there) has more to teach us about the complexity of the communist experiment than any Westerner. If Serge has a rival, perhaps it is Bukharin, who somehow managed to complete his own novel even as he awaited execution by Stalin.

Nikolai Bukharin, Editor of Pravda


  1. One of the most fascinating facets of Victor Serge is the tremendous amount of unrest that shrouded his quest to liberation. I am not overly familiar with this prominent figure, however I am aware of his tribulations as an anarchist and libertarian. The aspects of his life that captivate me are the governmental and social hurtles that were constantly stifling his ultimate objective. He was involved in a time and place that was ravaged by the bullets of opposing nations and roaring with the voices of civil unrest. Through all of this, he carried on and ignited a revolutionary fire through out Europe.

    Very cool stuff!!!
    I really liked your blog on Hyde Park books stores too!! I am a book store junkie and I am always in search of a new book store to spend my Saturdays. I will be heading that way very soon!

    Lastly, I located the National Geographic issues I was searching for. I will bring them to you this week. The first is a 20 year anniversary issue on Chernobyl. Very good stuff! The second is a issue that contains a piece on the Trans-Siberia Railroad. I am attempting to sweet talk my wife into taking a tour of it this summer, but she can think of a million other places to spend our vacation.

    Brian Blackburn

  2. Have your wife read Dr. Zhivago to underscore the romance of Siberia... Your own bookstore recommendations under that post would be welcomed too!

  3. I have actually heard wonderful things about that book. I will have to place it on my winter break reading list. Maybe I will read it to her in my softest voice as I seductively convince her to "get on board" (pun most definitely intended) with the idea of embarking on a tour of Siberia.

    Thanks for the suggestion!