In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge describes a 1927 visit to Grigory Zinoviev, a high-ranking Soviet official who had just been expelled from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. With his novelist’s eye for detail, Serge writes:
Zinoviev, in his small apartment in the Kremlin, feigned a supreme tranquility. At his side, covered by glass, lay a death mask: Lenin’s head lying abandoned on a cushion. Why, I asked, had not copies of so poignant a mask been widely distributed? Because its expression held too much in the way of grief and mortality; considerations of propaganda compelled a preference for bronzes with uplifted hands.
Stalin’s Soviet Union had no room for sadness or ambiguity. It chose bronze: hard, unyielding and triumphant, public rather than private.
A novelist, poet and journalist, Victor Serge was born in Belgium in 1890, the child of impoverished Russian revolutionaries. He began his political life as an anarchist, but in 1919 he joined the Bolsheviks in Russia, where his international connections and knowledge of French, Spanish, German and English made him an important asset for the Comintern, the organization meant to facilitate a worldwide revolution. An outspoken member of the Communist Party’s left opposition to Stalin, Serge was expelled from the party in 1928, jailed briefly, then arrested and deported to the Kazakh border in 1933. Thanks to energetic protests from French intellectuals, his life was spared, and he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936. In France, he started corresponding with the exiled Trotsky, even though he believed that the Trotskyist movement offered no hope for a “renewal of the ideology, morals, and institutions of Socialism.”
With his literary gifts, psychological insight and proximity to key players, Serge is one of the greatest chroniclers of Europe’s socialist revolutions, and he offers a unique perspective. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he combined political conviction with a willingness to face the contradictions and failures of the Russian Revolution. Of the mid-1920s, he writes, “None of us had, in the bourgeois sense of the word, any personal existence: we changed our names, our postings, and our work at the Party’s need…we were not interested in making money, or following a career, or producing a literary heritage, or leaving a name behind us; we were interested solely in the difficult business of reaching Socialism.” But he also writes of his horror when, having escaped to Belgium in 1936 and seen the shop windows full of ham, chocolate and fresh fruit, he understood that socialism had failed to provide for the most basic material needs of the people. When his hopes were disappointed, he didn’t deny reality; he described it.
Though Serge believed that individual existences were of interest only as part of the “great ensemble of life,” he placed considerable importance on personality, observing that “the character, and even in certain cases the direction, of historical facts depends to a very large extent on the caliber of individual human beings.” His memoirs are full of incisive sketches of important figures. Of Trotsky in the early 1920s, for instance, Serge wrote, “No one ever wore a great destiny with more style.” The people Serge describes are not bronze icons, but flesh and blood.