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Authors: Victor Serge

Unforgiving Years

VICTOR SERGE (1890–1947) was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian anti-Czarist exiles, impoverished intellectuals living “by chance” in Brussels. A precocious anarchist firebrand, young Victor was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled to Spain in 1917, he participated in an anarchosyndicalist uprising before leaving for Russia to join the Revolution. Arriving in 1919, after a year in a French concentration camp, Serge joined the Bolsheviks and worked in the press services of the Communist International in Petrograd, Moscow, Berlin, and Vienna. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and jailed in 1928. Released, he managed to publish three novels (
Men in Prison
,
Birth of Our Power
, and
Conquered City
) and a history (
Year One of the Russian Revolution
) in Paris. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Using his insider’s knowledge, Serge published a stream of impassioned, documented exposés of Stalin’s Moscow show trials and machinations in Spain which went largely unheeded. Stateless, penniless, hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947. His classic
Memoirs of a Revolutionary
and his great last novels,
Unforgiving Years
and
The Case of Comrade Tulayev
(the latter also published by NYRB Classics), were written “for the desk drawer” and published posthumously.

RICHARD GREEMAN, the translator of four of Victor Serge’s novels, has written a doctoral dissertation about Serge along with numerous other studies of his work and life. A collection of Greeman’s political essays,
Dangerous Shortcuts and Vegetarian Sharks
, appeared in 2007. More of his work can be found at
www.richardgreeman.org
.

By the Same Author

NONFICTION

Memoirs of a Revolutionary

The Year One of the Russian Revolution

FICTION

Birth of Our Power

The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Conquered City

The Long Dusk

Men In Prison

Midnight in the Century

UNFORGIVING YEARS

VICTOR SERGE

Translated and with an introduction by

RICHARD GREEMAN

NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS

New York

Contents

Biographical Notes

By the Same Author

Title Page

Translator’s Introduction

Unforgiving Years

I. The Secret Agent

II. The Flame Beneath the Snow

III. Brigitte, Lightning, Lilacs

IV. Journey’s End

Copyright and More Information

Translator's Introduction

U
NFORGIVING
Years
is at once the most bitter, the most cerebral, and the most poetic of Victor Serge’s seven novels. It was first published in France in 1971 — twenty-five years after the author’s death — and has never appeared before in English. The setting is World War II, and Serge pushes realism to the modernist limits of hallucination, presenting extravagant, terrifying, poetic visions of men and women prowling the debris of a self-destructing mechanical civilization. In
Unforgiving Years
Serge captured the surreal “twenty-fifth hour” atmosphere of World War II in a way that, according to the critic of
Le Monde
, “prefigured and preceded post-war German literature.”[
1
] The novel poses — without answering — the questions of political action, art, and human consciousness; or rather “answers” them through mysterious metaphors like “the central fire,” “funeral masks [that] lie preserved in the earth,” and the impudent, irresistible phallic power of a banana…

Unforgiving Years
is divided into four sections, four symphonic “movements,” each of which evokes its distinctive time and place through its tone and atmosphere. The first movement, entitled “The Secret Agent,” expresses the sinister unreality of a Paris indifferent to the approach of war in a chill minor key. The second, “The Flame Beneath the Snow,” is discordant, heroic, and secret like one of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies. It portrays a frozen, starving Leningrad during the “thousand days” of the Nazi siege. The third movement, “Brigitte, Lightning, Lilacs,” imagines the final days of Berlin under Allied bombardment in mode of Wagnerian Götterdämmerung, while the final movement, “Journey’s End,” is a tragic requiem set in the stark, volcanic Mexican selva where death and life repeat their endless cycle.

Against this panorama of planetary catastrophe, Serge poses his collective protagonist: a quartet of loyal, idealistic Soviet secret agents, veteran revolutionary fighters from the Russian Civil War period (1918–1921), now disillusioned. Operating in Europe where Hitler is triumphing and war looming, their faith in the Party is shaken by the Moscow Trials and the Stalinist totalitarian nightmare developing back in Russia. Caught in this “labyrinth of madness,”[
2
] torn between a heroic sense of duty and the recognition of a historical impasse, doomed to be eliminated by the GPU apparatus if the gestapo doesn’t get them first, they search for an escape from a “world without possible escape” while trying to make sense of history and of their individual lives.

Serge’s authentic depictions of character and place are based on his own experiences as a European Communist in the Russian Civil War and an agent of the Comintern in Central Europe. The locales of the novel — Paris, Leningrad, Berlin, Mexico — were the places where he had lived and struggled. Which leads us to the double question: Who was Victor Serge, and why do we still have to have to ask that question in 2007?[
3
]

A WRITER’S FATE

During his lifetime, Victor Serge (pseudonym for Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, 1890–1947) was admired (or persecuted) both as a French novelist and as a Russian revolutionary.[
4
] As distinct from many Western writers and intellectuals — for example Koestler, Malraux, Orwell, or Silone — who flirted at one time or another with revolution, Serge-Kibalchich was a revolutionary and an internationalist more or less from birth, and remained one to his death. The stateless son of exiled anti-Czarist Russian parents wandering Europe “in search of good libraries and cheap lodgings,” Serge was born “by chance” in Brussels, Belgium. Home-schooled by these penniless, idealistic exiled scholars, young Victor imbibed the heady traditions of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia while growing up poor on the streets of Brussels. So poor that at age eleven he watched horrified as his younger brother died of malnutrition, while he survived on the pilfered sugar soaked in coffee that little Raoul refused to eat. “Throughout the rest of my life,” he recalled, “it has been my fate always to find, in the under-nourished urchins of the squares of Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, the same condemned faces of my tribe.”

At age fourteen Victor is a militant Socialist Young Guard; at fifteen a member of a rebel gang of Brussels apprentices writing and printing their own radical anarchist sheet,
The Rebel
(pseudonym
Le Rétif
: “The Maverick”). At eighteen he is starving in Paris, devouring the contents of the Sainte-Geneviève library while editing
L’anarchie
, lecturing on anarcho-individualism, giving Russian lessons, and translating Russian novels to survive. At twenty-one Kibalchich is sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary for refusing to rat on his anarchist brothers from Brussels who, unwilling to be master or slaves, became bandits — the first ever to use automobiles to attack banks (the police had bikes). Known as “the tragic bandits,” most of them die in shoot-outs with the Paris police or on the guillotine. Released from prison in 1917, Victor is expelled from France and comes back to life in Barcelona, where he works as a printer, participates in a revolutionary workers’ uprising, and publishes his first article signed “Victor Serge.” The title: “The Fall of a Czar.”

Soon Serge is attempting to reach revolutionary Russia via Paris, where he is arrested as a “Bolshevik suspect” and held for more than a year in a typhus-infested camp. There he meets his first Bolshevik. Exchanged for a French officer held by the Soviets, he arrives in St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd, later Leningrad) in January 1919. While crossing the frozen Baltic Sea in a prisoner’s convoy he falls in love with Liuba Russakova, the daughter of a Russian anarchist. Victor joins in the defense of the frozen, starving Red capital, besieged by Western-backed White armies. Twenty-odd years later, he will draw on this experience of Petrograd under siege to portray the Germans’ World War II siege of Leningrad in
Unforgiving Years.
Serge is drawn to the Bolsheviks’ heroic energy and participates in the creation of the Communist International (or Comintern). Despite misgivings about Communist authoritarianism, he joins the Party in May 1919 and writes favorable impressions of the Bolsheviks for the anarchist press back in France.[
5
]

However, by the spring of 1921 Serge’s loyalties were severely torn when anarchist and dissident Communist sailors rebel and seize the island fortress of Cronstadt. Serge joins in the thwarted attempt by the American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to mediate the conflict and then looks on in horror as the rebels and Communist volunteers massacre each other in a fratricidal combat across the melting ice floes.[
6
] After withdrawing briefly from politics, Serge accepts a Comintern assignment in Germany where the promise of a new revolution poses a last hope for saving the isolated Russian Soviets from smothering under increasing bureaucratic dictatorship. In Berlin Serge serves the Comintern both as a journalist and under various identities, as a militant or “agent” (in those days there was little distinction). Under the signature “R. Albert,” he sends reports to the world Communist press on galloping inflation, mass unemployment, mutilated veterans begging, strikes, and abortive putsches
.
[
7
] Serge’s familiarity with the world of secret agents and with the desperation of the German people living through the post–World War I crisis helped him re-create the atmosphere of Berlin at the end of World War II in the third movement of
Unforgiving Years.

In March 1923, the German Communists are outlawed after the fiasco of their aborted Hamburg putsch, and Serge flees with his family to Vienna, where he works with Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci. In 1925, despairing of a renewal of revolution in the West, Serge makes the insanely idealistic decision to return to Russia and join in the last-ditch fight against Stalin as a member of the doomed Left Opposition led by Trotsky. Expelled from the Party in 1928, Serge turns to writing. In quick succession he produces three novels and a well-documented history (
Year One of the Russian Revolution
) and publishes them in Paris — before being arrested and deported to the Ural in 1933.

In a letter smuggled out of Russia for publication in case of his arrest, Serge defends democratic freedom as essential to workers’ socialism and describes Stalinist Communism as “totalitarian.” After months of interrogation in the notorious Lubianka prison, Serge is deported to the Ural, where he is joined by his teenage son, the future artist Vlady.[
8
] Serge’s wife, Liuba, driven insane by the Stalinist terror, is confined to an asylum. Protests by French trade unionists and writers (including André Gide and Romain Rolland) lead to the release of Serge and his family from Russia in 1936, but the two novels he completed in captivity (“the only ones I had time to polish”) are seized by the GPU at the Polish border.[
9
]

From precarious exile in Brussels and Paris, Serge struggles to support his insane wife and their two children while turning out books and articles furiously to unmask the “big lie” of the Moscow show trials and Stalin’s murderous intrigues in Republican Spain. His scrupulously documented, eyewitness books and articles are greeted with silence by complacent intellectuals hypnotized by the “anti-fascism” of Communist-manipulated popular fronts. Serge is obliged to fall back on his old prison trade of proof reader and find work in the print shops of socialist papers that boycott his articles. Meanwhile, Serge and his comrades are living in a “labyrinth of pure madness” as Stalin’s agents kidnap and murder Trotsky’s supporters in the middle of opulent, indifferent Paris. The first section of
Unforgiving Years
, “The Secret Agent,” is Serge’s eerie evocation of a doomed world capital paralyzed before the looming threat of war.

The character of Serge’s secret agent, known as D or Sacha, reflects Serge’s Comintern experiences and his personal acquaintance with three important agents who defected during the 1930s. Serge was distantly related to the Soviet diplomat Alexander Barmin, whose
One Who Survived
Serge ghostwrote in Paris. Serge thought of Barmin, who died in 1988 in Darien, Conneticut, as “a perfect Soviet young American.” A more likely model for Sacha/D was Ignace Reiss, a secret agent whose break with Stalin’s Communist Party was motivated by sincere revolutionary internationalism and Trotskyist sympathies. Reiss was murdered in Switzerland on his way to a clandestine meeting with Serge, having made two fatal mistakes which Serge will attribute to D: Reiss mailed his letter of resignation
before
making his break, and he confided his intentions to a trusted colleague.[
10
] However, Sacha/D’s character owes more to Walter Krivitsky, the former head of Stalin’s Secret Service,[
11
] whom Serge had known in Russia and with whom he had several rather tense meetings in Paris after his defection. Krivitsky could never quite believe that Serge had been released from the Gulag as a result of a protest campaign, and suspected him of being a double agent. During one walk down a dark street, each time Krivitsky put his hand in his breast pocket, Serge did likewise. Yet according to a note in Serge’s FBI file, Serge was “deeply affected” by Krivitsky’s mysterious death in a Washington, D.C., hotel room in 1941 about which Serge wrote:

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