The Museum of the Revolution

The Museum of the Revolution

The life and work of Victor Serge represents the Russian democratic revolution that never was.


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.

At the end of his life, with political views that were palatable to almost no one, Serge faded into obscurity. He died in Mexico in 1947, a true believer to the end. In his memoirs he writes, “Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to make you dizzy.” But he follows this gloomy summation with the pronouncement: “I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before.”

* * *

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as discussions of Soviet history have opened and deepened, Serge’s work has enjoyed a steadily increasing visibility in the United States, Western Europe and Russia. His books have been reissued in English, French, Russian and other languages, some with new introductions, including one by Susan Sontag. Serge’s work has even been adapted as practical advice for today’s American radicals: in 2005, an ACLU organizer wrote an introduction to a collection of Serge’s writings, What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression: A Guide for Activists, promising “resonance with political activists today who face a new wave of repression under the Patriot Act and racial profiling in the name of the ‘war on terror.’” The Victor Serge Public Library opened in Moscow in 1997, and Serge’s work has helped inspire a new generation of Russian radical leftists. 

Serge wrote that in the early twentieth century, “with scientific discoveries that added prodigiously to man’s technological power (without proportionately improving his level of consciousness), we entered into a cycle of world transformation. We entered it as captives of social systems outworn to the point of being unlivable.” In the early years of the twenty-first century, as the world teeters on the brink of disaster—economic, ecological and otherwise—some people are increasingly willing to revisit old utopian ideas. Though many have dismissed it as a failed experiment or misguided fantasy, socialism remains the best-developed theoretical alternative to capitalism. But how can socialist revolution be reconciled with democracy, with the individual rights that seem nonnegotiable after the catastrophes of the twentieth century?

From a socialist perspective, Serge represents the path not taken, the democratic revolution that never was. He argued that the failure to defend freedom of thought and dissent was Bolshevism’s central mistake, and a primary cause of its degeneration into totalitarianism. While he was always critical of Stalin, whom he described early on as “frightening and banal, like a Caucasian dagger,” he was also critical of Trotsky, with whom he broke after publishing an article on the party’s failure to establish the “Rights of Man.” (Trotsky deemed the essay “an exhibition of petty bourgeois demoralization.”) Once the leader of an opposition that was, in Serge’s words, “anchored in the defense of freedom to think, freedom to criticize, and workers’ rights,” Trotsky had become the glorious leader of the tiny, exiled Fourth International, in which dissent was rarely tolerated. Trotsky is still a hero for some socialists who abhor what Stalin made of the revolution, but he wasn’t exactly a model democrat. Serge appeals to socialists who want nothing to do with Stalin but aren’t entirely at ease with Trotsky either—who want to fight capitalist injustice, but also believe in democracy and the rights of the individual. 

Susan Weissman views Serge as a hero, perhaps even a redeemer, of the socialist cause; she hopes his example can remind the world that revolutionary socialism and democracy are not incompatible. Her 2001 biography, updated and reissued this year, offers detailed summaries of political events, with Serge inserted as the saintly protagonist. The book is heavy on facts and short on insight. Much of it consists of awkward paraphrases of Serge’s own, more eloquent writing. Weissman rightly observes that in his work, “a sense of intimacy is rendered with little detail, and the effect is to portray personal characteristics which form a part of political motivation. The portrait thus evoked rounds out our knowledge of the political figure described.” Her biography would have been more engaging if she had made a greater effort to depict Serge as a person, in keeping with his own belief that personality is integral to political action. 

Weissman is eager to show the best face of revolutionary socialism. At times this leads her into generalizations, as when she characterizes Bolshevik debates as “lively and creative,” or into absurdity, as when she opines that “the tragedy of the Chinese revolution was that in the world communist movement it took a back seat to the internal struggle in the Russian Party.” (I can think of some other tragedies of the Chinese revolution.) Weissman also has a tendency to portray actions as inevitable, as when she states that the brutal suppression of Finnish revolutionaries “demonstrated the high social cost for failed revolutions, forcing the Bolsheviks to abandon clemency and use terror to meet terror.” Were they forced to use terror? Or did they choose it? Weissman’s political agenda blurs her vision, leading her to ignore some of the most interesting ethical questions raised in Serge’s work. Her Serge is cast in bronze—a poor likeness.

* * *

In 2008, in Moscow, a group of young leftist Russians and Ukrainians—including the sculptor Zhanna Kadyrova, who has won major art prizes in Russia and Ukraine and represented the latter at the Venice Biennale, and Misha Most, a well-known graffiti artist—took part in an exhibit called “Conquered City.” The title comes from Victor Serge’s harrowing novel about St. Petersburg in the aftermath of 1917, as revolutionaries hunted down and eliminated their enemies, struggling to maintain control. 

Ilya Budraitskis, a young historian, critic and activist in the Russian Socialist Movement, was one of the organizers of the exhibit. He told me that it explored “today’s conquered city, which is occupied by the forces of capital, of an elite that is building a new anti-humanist world on the ruins of the past.” He admires Serge, and loves Conquered City for showing that the clash between past and future is not heroic and abstract, but dirty and violent; that between the past and the future lies the present, which is full of pain and contradiction. 

Budraitskis co-edited Post-Post-Soviet? Art, Politics, & Society in Russia at the Turn of the Decade, a new collection of essays and dialogues written between 2007 and 2013. Many of its contributors are part of a generation too young to remember Soviet life and angry at the broken promises of capitalism. They express cautious optimism over the recent waves of pro-democracy protests in Russia but criticize the opposition’s liberal mainstream, which they consider capitalist, consumerist and unconcerned about social equality, preoccupied with “technology”—such as fair election procedures—while ignoring actual politics. They are also critical of the position of contemporary art, arguing that in today’s Russia, it has become a consumer good for a capitalist elite, a “liberal façade” for a profoundly undemocratic political establishment. 

Some of the writers in Post-Post-Soviet? seem to share Serge’s dauntless optimism, though theirs is tinged with a certain grim irony. According to Boris Kagarlitsky, a well-known sociologist and leftist activist:

European institutions are steadily growing more authoritarian and less democratic. Democracy is being emptied of its meaning. The procedures and institutions are still there, but there is little left of the democratic decision-making process. In this regard, Russia is ahead of its neighbors, not behind…. If it all begins to collapse we can be the first to start coming out of the crisis. Our misfortune is our fantastic luck.

The collection is characterized by a dogged belief in the possibility of another, better revolution, one that has learned from the mistakes of the past. In one interview, a founding member of the art collective Chto Delat? (What Is to Be Done?), whose stated goal had been to “reach a communist revolution by 2005,” states defiantly: “Unfortunately, in 2005 we didn’t reach it. But we are not departing.” 

One of the most powerful parts of Post-Post-Soviet? is a simple timeline that provides side-by-side chronologies of politics and art, conveying the momentum of the escalating conflict between Russian artists, protesters and the state. The timeline shows how the appropriation of contemporary art by the Russian elite, especially the ultra-rich, has run in parallel with increasing discontent among the less affluent, and with a rising protest scene among Russian artists. A Moscow art gallery shows a socialite’s exhibit of her shoe collection, arranged by color; an oligarch-funded gallery is established in an architectural monument of the Soviet avant-garde; the Kandinsky Prize ceremony is held in a suburban shopping mall called Luxury Village; the independent ARTStrelka center becomes the glamorous Strelka Institute, where you can drink a $16 Long Island iced tea. Meanwhile, young people in Novosibirsk start organizing Monstrations, “annual May Day neo-dadaist flash mob[s]”; Pussy Riot and other groups stage a series of provocative actions; factory workers strike; politically oriented art exhibits and gallery spaces emerge; the economic crisis hits; the May 1st Congress of Creative Workers forms; sixty-six people die and more than 100 are injured after a gas blast in a Siberian mine; a guerrilla group attacks policemen in the Russian Far East; and so on. 

* * *

Last summer, I met Budraitskis at Moscow’s Presnya Historical Museum, where he worked, until recently, as a curator. The Presnya museum was founded in 1924 and is now one of Moscow’s many reminders of the socialist past. (In his memoirs, Serge describes how he helped to found the first Russian Museum of the Revolution, in Leningrad’s Winter Palace.) Presnya was a revolutionary hot spot throughout the twentieth century. During the 1905 revolution, the industrial, working-class neighborhood was taken over by revolutionary militias that were suppressed by government artillery; in 1917, revolutionaries seized it again. In 1991, Presnya was the site of the hardline Communists’ August coup attempt, and in 1993, Yeltsin’s storming of the Russian White House. The museum isn’t much of a tourist attraction; when I visited, it was empty. But Budraitskis tried to change this by organizing events that would draw Moscow’s leftist activists and intellectuals. 

Budraitskis gave me a personal tour, speaking for a solid hour and a half. His detailed chronological account gave the same sense of momentum, of inevitability, that I felt in Post-Post-Soviet?’s timeline. Victor Serge rejected “desk-bound men for whom history is a scholarly autopsy rather than the study of a living continuity,” and Budraitskis appears to share this view. As he led me through the exhibits, he seemed to exist in the history he described, as if it was as real to him as his own life. 

Our last stop was a room devoted to artifacts of the 1990s: cases of food coupons, canned goods sent from Austria to feed hungry Russian children, watches adorned with Yeltsin’s laughing face. Born in 1981, Budraitskis experienced the upheaval of the 1990s firsthand, but he spoke of it in nearly the same tone he used for the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. He added just a few personal recollections: for instance, how he sat on a rooftop with his friends in 1993, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and watching the explosions over the White House. Parliament had voted to impeach Yeltsin, opposing his management of privatization and his attempts to increase his own authority; Yeltsin’s victory over Parliament led to the adoption of a new constitution that concentrated power in the executive branch. The twentieth anniversary of the 1993 crisis, in which hundreds of protesters and spectators were killed, prompted much discussion in Russia; while many supported Yeltsin’s crushing of dissent at the time, when a relapse into communism seemed the most frightening possibility, today it seems clear that Yeltsin’s reaction set Russia on the course toward Putinism. 

In October, about 100 people attended the opening of an art exhibit that Budraitskis organized to mark the anniversary. The show juxtaposed historical documents with work by young artists. Just a week later, the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, of which the Presnya museum is a branch, announced that the exhibit would close after only one more week—forty days ahead of schedule. Budraitskis said that this was self-censorship by museum authorities; he and the Presnya museum’s director resigned in protest. 

The Presnya museum’s main attraction is a historical panorama, built in 1982, that depicts the 1905 insurrection. Fighters perch on the barricades, aiming rifles at the czar’s horsemen as buildings burn. During our tour, Budraitskis stressed the panorama’s extreme historical accuracy and attention to detail and perspective. He explained the geography, showing me which buildings in the painted backdrop were still standing and which ones had been demolished, which rivers had been paved over, which useless bridges destroyed. Without adequate support from the government, the panorama has fallen into disrepair. There is no more dramatic music, no more flashing lights to simulate gunfire. Budraitskis seemed truly to regret its decay.

* * *

Since perestroika, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has enjoyed continued support—in recent years, up to 20 percent of the electorate—by playing on nostalgia for the old order and its utopian dreams. In a recent campaign ad for Ivan Melnikov, Moscow’s Communist mayoral candidate, an elderly man explained: “Moscow is my city. My whole life has been spent here. Now that Moscow’s future is being decided…I don’t want my work and my dreams to be forgotten. I am voting for my future.” In this case, the future is the past.

As the ad suggests, the CPRF is not a party of revolutionaries, and it does not have a large base of activists or volunteers. All it has is voters, and voters are not enough to foment a revolution. Many members of Russia’s radical left denounce the CPRF as a bit player in Putin’s managed democracy, marking off a space for the communist past while posing no threat to the status quo. Others are more open to collaboration, perhaps because they hope to inherit the CPRF’s support base; in the 2012 presidential election, the Left Front, a loose coalition of radical leftist groups, supported Gennady Zyuganov, the CPRF candidate.

The support base of the Russian radical left is smaller than that of the CPRF, but it is younger and more energetic, with more potential for real political activism. Some have argued that because it addresses the basic economic and social issues that concern the majority of Russian citizens, the far left could appeal to a much wider swath of the Russian electorate than the neoliberal opposition does. A recent poll by Russia’s independent Levada Center presented respondents with Lenin’s conditions for revolution: “the upper classes cannot carry on in the old way, and the lower classes do not want to live in the old way.” Sixteen percent of respondents agreed that the statement was applicable to current conditions in Russia, and 41 percent said that it probably was.

This may explain why the radical left has been subject to suppression disproportionate to its size, with its activists arrested, driven to flee Russia and even, in one case, kidnapped and tortured. Sergei Udaltsov, the Left Front leader who has been under house arrest since February as a result of his participation in the protests of 2011–12, was once considered a possible successor to Zyuganov as leader of the CPRF. His long confinement has left Russia without any high-profile socialist alternative to the hidebound Communist Party. The Left Front, which was never large or well funded, has fallen apart without the 36-year-old Udaltsov’s charismatic leadership.

Unlike the Left Front, the Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) operates according to principles of collective leadership, with autonomous local branches and a focus on grassroots organizing; it is more about democracy than about cults of personality. It was founded in 2011 as a fusion of the Russian branch of the Fourth International and another socialist organization, in an effort to create a broadly based leftist party that could play an active part in the political opposition. It vigorously opposes the CPRF, and its efforts to collaborate with the Left Front fizzled due to profound ideological differences. The RSM has artistic and intellectual inclinations, in addition to its efforts to organize independent unions, and its members have published work in some of the most respected international journals of leftist thought; a recent issue of New Left Review featured RSM activist Kirill Medvedev’s essay on political poetry alongside translated excerpts from Victor Serge’s Mexico notebooks, published last year in France as Carnets (1936–1947). The RSM is tiny, with only 200 to 300 members and low visibility, but in recent years its writer-activists have provided some of the more insightful commentary on the Russian predicament.

Last June, it was announced that the next election for Moscow’s mayor would be held  two years early, in September; this seems to have been an attempt to silence the protest movement with something resembling a fair election. In July, Alexei Navalny, anti-corruption crusader and charismatic leader of the neoliberal opposition, was sentenced to five years on trumped-up embezzlement charges. But he was released the very next day and allowed to run for mayor. (In October, his sentence was suspended on appeal; later that month, he was charged with a new crime.) Navalny built a large, passionate base and succeeded in winning 27 percent of the vote—far more than analysts had predicted. Udaltsov wanted to run, but no one set him free. Unlike Navalny, who has the support of businessmen fed up with Russia’s rampant corruption, Udaltsov does not have friends in high places; he is a capitalist’s nightmare. 

The mayoral election caused intense conflict within the Russian radical left, which felt excluded and marginalized by the process. On one side were those who wanted to boycott the elections on the grounds that, with Udaltsov out of the picture, there were no viable candidates running on a leftist platform. On the other side were those who believed that even if they disagreed strongly with Navalny’s neoliberal, nationalist and anti-migrant stance, it was important to take part in the election. Budraitskis’ position is that, though Navalny’s politics are not progressive, he occupies a progressive place in the Russian political system, and he deserves a measure of support for this alone. But Budraitskis also argues that Navalny’s focus on a relatively small sector of society makes it easy for the authorities to drive a wedge between the liberal urban elite and the rest of the country. Navalny represents “the generation of success”: the young, the healthy, the well educated. This alienates the less successful majority, who feel that they have been cheated and betrayed by existing social and economic systems. When Navalny does try to appeal to the masses, he does so in ways that are less than admirable. After an anti-migrant riot exploded in a poor neighborhood of Moscow in October, he started a petition in support of a visa regime for Central Asia and the Caucasus, the sources of many of Russia’s labor migrants. This was a political calculation, without any acknowledgment of the social and economic instability that feeds bigotry.

Budraitskis believes that socialist participation is necessary to broaden the opposition into a movement big enough to become a democratic revolution. Rejecting political debates about an imagined future, he argues that Marxism is not about utopia, and that socialism can destroy the current order of things. “We can say what we’re against and what needs to be changed. What will replace it will be clear only if there is a huge movement from below,” he told me. Victor Serge’s work is brilliant because it shows, he said, how people are transformed by experience—by the present, rather than by dreams of the future or memories of the past.

In exile in Mexico, forbidden to engage in political work and rarely able to publish his writing, Serge spent his last years reading about the deaths of friends and acquaintances, one after another: assassinations, suicides, executions. He knew that he could be next, writing: “All I’ve got left is a brain, which no one needs at the moment and many would rather pierce with one final little bullet.” Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico in 1940, a year before Serge arrived. Stalin’s agent did not pierce his head with a little bullet; he hacked at it with an ice axe.

On Days of the Dead following his murder, vendors in Mexico sold little cardboard coffins holding Trotskys made of sugar. In his Mexican notebooks, Serge records his daughter’s horror at seeing other children nibbling on the hero of the revolution. But her outrage soon fades when she discovers that it is “good sugar all the same.” Serge didn’t keep death masks under glass or worship bronze statues, and he wasn’t squeamish. He knew it was good for children to have something to eat.

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