Conquered City – Victor Serge

Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution. Remember this: “Constraint makes all things happen.” He founded industries, ministries, an army, a fleet, a capital, customs, by means of edicts and executions. He gave the order to cut off the beards, to dress European-style, to open this window on Europe in the Ingrian swamps. The earth was bare, but he said, “Here will rise a city.” He caned his courtiers, drank like a trooper, and ended his life full of suspicion, doubt, and anguish, smelling treason everywhere (and it was everywhere, like today), trusting no one but his grand inquisitor, thinking even of striking the Empress. And he was right. he left a country depopulated in places, bleeding and moaning under the effort, but St. Petersburg was built! And he is still the Great, the greatest, because he hounded the old Russian, even his own son, because he wrenched this ignorant, passive, bloated old country around toward the future the way you pull up a restive horse with bit and spurs. I hear an echo of his edicts in today’s decrees. All this can even be expressed in Marxist terms: the rise of the new classes.

Zvereva took this blow without batting an eye. She knew you had to swallow many affronts before being able to inflict them in turn.

I know that the gallows has a way of making quite suitable heroes out of rather insipid spawn.

When spring comes to a shattered and starving city full of sullen, terrified, and defeated people, young lovers still walk along the river, holding hands and kissing beneath green trees. Amid Conquered City‘s grueling narrative about the defense of St. Petersburg 1919-1920 that unfolds over the course of a year, this is a placid moment. These handful of pages are reminiscent of Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which is a reflection on the resilience of nature in London, 1940, but unlike Orwell’s exhortation to enjoy the turning of the seasons, Serge plunges his city back into war. Even in this rare moment of human tenderness, bitterness and jealousy infect the scene. Winter comes again.

Victor Serge lived an interesting life–born in Belgium to Russian revolutionary exiles, he participated in revolutionary movements across Europe, including in St. Petersburg in 1919, and was frequently imprisoned for his activities. He also opposed the rise of Stalin and went again into exiles for that stance, eventually dying in Mexico where he received asylum. Originally published in French, Conquered City is a novelization of his time in St. Petersburg, defending the conquered city of the Czars against the counter-revolutionary White army.

Each chapter of Conquered City is a vignette of the siege, each one moving forward in time, sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes a few months. To the extent that there is an overarching plot to the novel, it is an ongoing effort on the part of the authorities on the one hand to encourage unfed and unrewarded workers to keep working and fighting and, on the other, their repeated sweeps of the city to uncover subversive or treasonous plots. Unlike accounts of the revolutionary movements in, for instance, Spain, where the despair is underpinned by determination, Serge shows the workers despondent and the exhortations of the leaders successful, but hollow. However, while this persistent concern is important in the depiction of the siege, the other arm of the narrative, the tracking down and eliminating opponents is the plot that actually keeps the story pushing forward.

At the outset of the story, there are individuals who do not necessarily support the revolution, including the Professor Lytaev, but there is no evidence of plots everywhere. Nevertheless the leadership is convinced that they exist; the lower-ranked comrades are less certain that there are outside conspirators, but they are going to scrutinize their colleagues for weaknesses. Perhaps they are traitors, but perhaps they have just left themselves vulnerable to be torn down for the gain of others. The narrative is relentless and the characters opportunistic and petty, and Serge demonstrates the stratification of resources—who gets to have clean undergarments, for instance—in a city where the palaces of the Czars have been divided up into ministerial offices.

I am light on both plot and characters because Conquered City, while offering some specifics, is more impressionistic, rather like The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which follows the unfolding of a Stalinist era purge. While Richard Greeman, the translator of this edition, describes Conquered City as part of a “cycle of revolution” and places Tulayev with a later “cycle of resistance,” the characterization is influenced by the topic rather than the message. Serge may be accurately portraying the vicious infighting in St. Petersburg in 1919, but the portrayal of a bittersweet victory seems tinged by the Stalinist era, perhaps because it was written while Serge wrote it while imprisoned in the Soviet Union in 1930/1.

In sum, Conquered City was an intellectually interesting novel that had its moments, but I did not find it as moving as The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is certainly part of an extensive collection of revolutionary and oppressionistic literature that features prominently in twentieth century European literature. I have a number of these novels still on my reading list, including Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, Gunter Gräss’ Tin Drum, and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, and, having been pleasantly surprised by Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, I am not willing to entirely write these off. Yet, I am once again starting to glance about for other types of narratives.

Next up, I am currently reading a biography of the Ethiopian king Haile Selassie titled King of Kings and a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann.

Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler

At the end of my review of Water for Elephants I wrote that, perhaps, I might need to take a break from reading books that are studies of evil or the brutality of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. My reason was that they are unrelenting and depressing and there reaches a point at which yet another book on the subject doesn’t add anything new to my understanding of the subject. With Darkness at Noon, a novel about the show trials of high-ranking party members in Moscow, I was pleased to be wrong.

Darkness at Noon, originally written in Hungarian and published in 1940, is the story of Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a high-ranking member of the Soviet Communist Party and a veteran of the revolution. He has been arrested in multiple countries and never betrayed the cause, serving as a diplomat and executor of the party’s will. Now he is arrested as an oppositional thinker and placed in solitary confinement. One by one the old bolsheviks have been sacrificed to Number One (Stalin), and it is Rubashov’s time. Darkness at Noon is one of those stories where you know the end even before it starts, but the question is how does one get there.

The novel is broken into three hearings, each of which corresponds with an interaction with one of his two interrogators, his old friend Ivanov and the junior administrator Gletkin, who is described as a member of the party born without an umbilical cord to the revolution. Rubashov is given the time to think because the state wants his confession to be genuine and voluntary. Along with the two official interlocutors, the imprisoned is also able to talk with the other prisoners, including his neighbor, an unnamed Czarist officer who pines to touch women. However, other than flashbacks and brief scenes with the porter in his building, the reader stays in prison with Rubashov.

The point of view of Darkness at Noon is its greatest strength. Unlike, for instance, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which gives a panorama of a Soviet purge (including of old revolutionaries not unlike Rubashov), Darkness at Noon keeps the focus on the suffering of a single person who is reaching out for human contact. Nevertheless, Gletkin weaves his narratives, correct in their essential points, around Rubashov, making him into a different person. President Clinton used this example to describe the modern media circus during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Orwell, in his essay on Koestler, said that the author saw “totalitarianism from the inside,” as someone who knew what it was like to be the victim. On Darkness at Noon in particular, he wrote:

The implication of Koestler’s book, however, is that Rubashov in power would be no better than Gletkin: or rather, only better in that his outlook is still partly pre-revolutionary. Revolution, Koestler seems to say, is a corrupting process. Really enter into the Revolution and you must end up as either Rubashov or Gletkin.

Rubashov has been in this position and does no differently. Orwell also speculates on the reasons behind Rubashov’s confession, which Koestler posits as the logical conclusion of the events. Despite the ambiguities in the story (as Orwell notes) and the pervasive issues of someone breaking under intense interrogation, Koestler falls back on an older narrative–he builds Darkness at Noon into a religious allegory wherein Rubashov is sacrificed to take on the sins of the communist party, that the revolution may continue. He is promised that his sacrifice will be made known in time. As Orwell puts it, “justice and objective truth have long ceased to have any meaning for him”—what is left is his blind faith in the revolution. The cause has replaced religion.

Koestler presents Rubashov’s sacrifice as reasonable. He is psychologically coerced, but comes to the decision on his own for his own reasons, with just enough description of how the narratives are twisted to demonstrate what an abhorrent action this confession is. Rubashov is sacrificing himself for the good of the collective, and Darkness at Noon is a moving, sometimes funny, portrait of this individual for whom the first person singular pronoun is an anathema.

I haven’t decided what I am going to read next, but despite my protestations of exhaustion with this type of novel, the one I have my eye on most is Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, an indictment of evil in Nazi Germany.

June Reading: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

For a variety of reasons, including co-teaching a Greek History course, working on my dissertation, and watching (too much) Justified I only finished one book this month, Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Serge himself was born in Brussels to Russian parents and moved to Russia to join the Bolshevik revolution. He was expelled from the party in 1928 and arrested multiple times before being allowed to leave Russia in 1936 and lived in multiple foreign countries (always on the run from Soviet agents) before his death in Mexico City in 1947. The Case of Comrade Tulayev was published posthumously.

Comrade Tulayev is a high official in the Soviet government, but on a cold night in Moscow he is shot down in the street. Serge does not hide who committed the murder, which takes place on the page in the very first chapter, but the killer escapes into the night and the hunt begins. The story unfolds in a panoramic look at investigation into the murder, the fundamental mistrust and uncertainty bred in the Stalinist state, and the purges that rippled outward from the case. The murder investigation provides the fulcrum on which the story rests, but Serge delves into the Soviet policies of scarcity, the deception of economic productivity, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, accusations and false-confessions, and the tension between the veterans of the revolution–those people who knew Lenin–and the younger generations that aspire to positions of influence.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev was an excellent novel, grimly funny at times, and for all the terror and failures of the Soviet system, Serge displays an unshakeable faith in humanity. To give just one example, Stalin makes several appearances throughout the story and he is neither a heartless monster nor a cuddly caricature. Instead, Joseph Stalin comes across as detached and isolated, subject to the mistrust that filled the atmosphere. It would have been simple for Serge to attribute the mistrust to Stalin’s own personal paranoia, showing it to be something that radiated outward from the dictator and into the subordinates, but he does not. The mistrust is part and parcel of the system and acts upon each individual equally.

I firmly believe that not every book is for everyone and while I like Russian literature, I also sometimes find it difficult to read. To be fair, this is in part an issue of translation because Russian is more difficult to render well into English than many other languages, including Spanish, Italian, and based on the luck I’ve had thus far, Turkish. That said, I recommend that anyone who has read Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita or Orwell’s 1984 give The Case of Comrade Tulayev a chance for different look at life under the Soviet State.

Currently, I am about 70% of the way through Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which is an enchanting tale of murder and marriage in 16th century Istanbul that also serves as a meditation on the nature of art, east and west.