Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Victor Serge

A reader sent me the following review of a novel by Victor Serge, newly translated from the French by Richard Greeman). The novel is entitled Unforgiving Years and the reviewer is Michael Weiss: http://democratiya.org/review.asp?reviews_id=204

Victor Serge was born Victor Kbalchich in Belgium in 1890 of banished Russian-intellectual parents. He established himself as a writer in France and so was able to survive in Russia during the NEP period much longer than Russian writers who had no brave French friends willing to go to Stalin and beg for their lives: “Serge was only saved from execution by the intervention of the French left: Romain Rolland (with whom he had previously quarreled), AndrĂ© Gide, AndrĂ© Malraux, Boris Souvarine and various trade unionists raised enough of a fuss about his persecution that Stalin himself, when confronted by Rolland, signed off on Serge's safe conduct out of the Soviet Union. Tellingly, Serge was one of the few oppositionists not implicated publicly at any point during the Moscow Trials—yet another odd bit of good fortune that allowed Stalin to manumit him without losing too much face.”

I was amused by “Serge was audience to Panait Istrati’s animadversion on the ‘omelets and eggs’ excuse for the mounting pile of corpses in the Soviet Union. ‘Al right,’ Istratis said, ‘I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelet of yours?’”

But perhaps the most interesting comment in the review is the following: “I'm not the first to suggest that the esteem for Serge's literary gifts has overshadowed the recognition of his skills as a real-time political diagnostician. Apart from claiming to have first invented the word 'totalitarian' to describe the Soviet state—he did so in a letter to Maurice and Magdeleine Paz and others in 1932, reaffirming the need to defend 'man,' 'truth' and 'thought' from the forces of reactions that were innate in socialism—Serge later predicted three ways that the U.S.S.R could develop following the Second World War. If it didn't yield to external or internal pressures, it would be consumed by war, probably nuclear and therefore apocalyptic. If it downplayed its brinkmanship due to external pressure but refused to reform within, the chance of war was diminished but not erased completely. Finally, '[i]f under combined pressure of masses at home and of the international conflicts which will arise in various ways, the regime may try and evolve towards a democratisation. Upon the slightest relaxation of terrorist totalitarianism, immense possibilities are opened out, which may cause the emergence in Russia of a Socialist-inclined or Socialist democracy, and permit a peaceful collaboration with the world outside. The nightmare of war is then removed.' The two other thinkers to anticipate this third and actual course were George Orwell and Robert Conquest.”

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