Monday 6 August 2012

Mean City

Conquered City by Victor Serge is the second novel that I’ve read set in the Civil War that followed the 1917 Bolshevik coup in Russia.  The first was The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov which I admired for its clarity, its biting satire and its sheer brilliance.  It’s set in and around Kiev in the Ukraine at a particularly troubled and uncertain time in history, just as Serge's book is set in and around Saint Petersburg - then called Petrograd – during the same troubled months. 

Conquered City is a slightly different order of literary experience.  It has flashes of brilliance, though the overall effect is uneven.  At some points it’s clear, at others opaque; at some points satirical, at others laudatory. I do admire Serge, but in a different way; I admire him above all for his honesty and for his integrity which carries this work – the first book of his I’ve ever read – from the mundane realms of propaganda into a far higher aesthetic level. 

The thing is Serge was a true believer, a professional revolutionary who identified with the Revolution.  To that extent he believed that the suffering he describes which such lucidity in Conquered City could be overcome; that a floor was being constructed on which the future would dance. 

But he was also an idealist, not a quality particularly prized among hard-nosed Bolshevik cadres, the sort of man uncomfortable with self-serving cynicism and the betrayals of expediency.  He was the sort of man, in other words, who was incapable of settling down to the rigours of Stalinism. 

But there is more here.  Serge, it seems to me, was not the type of individual who could ever have made a home in any kind of Russia, least of all the one forged by the Bolshevik Revolution, no matter if the flavour was Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin.  Indeed I begin to wonder if the author really understood the true character of the history he lived through and the ideology he embraced, a dangerous step, I know, on the basis of a single reading of a single novel. 

Perhaps I’m not being quite fair; there is startling prescience along with the idealism.  I recall having an argument over the precise point in Animal Farm where the degeneracy started.  Most see Orwell’s novel as a parable against Stalinism. My interpretation is different.  The moral rot clearly sets in before the rise of Napoleon/Stalin; the moral rot sets in when the pigs take the windfall apples for themselves.  In Serge’s beleaguered city the goods that are available are not evenly distributed, something he is acutely aware of.  The workers starve; or rather they are fed on the fine words of Bolshevik apparatchiks, who claim the sausage and bread for themselves.

And then there is this passage on page 47, a parable of bureaucracy, the rope that was to strangle all hopes that the events of 1917 may have raised;

These were not the same outrages, but they had just cost the lives of forty soldiers who had frozen to death near Dno while the overcoats being sent to them were held up in a railroad station because the shipping order hadn’t been filled out according to regulations. 

Overall Serge has an admiral precision with words.  He manages to convey so much with great economy of expression.  I thought this passage close to the beginning particularly impressive:

…Comrade Ryzhik, was sleeping in his boots on the same divan where, eighteen months earlier, an old epicurean of the race of the Ruriks amused himself by staring full of enchantment and despair at naked girls in this elegant Louis XV room.  Now this epicurean was lying somewhere else, who knew where, naked, with a bristly beard, and a hole clean through his head, on an artillery range under two feet of trampled earth, four feet of snow, and the nameless weight of eternity. 

It’s history in an instant; it’s about time, near and distant; it’s about personal loss and decay; it’s about change and it’s about irrelevance, not just the irrelevance of the past but the irrelevance of a possible future.  What does fate have waiting for Comrade Ryzhik? 

As a novel Conquered City is a bit like a painting, impressionist and expressionist at one and the same time.  There is no central focus.  Rather we move from episode to episode, looking at developments from within and without, caught in the currents and cross-currents of events, dipping in and out of the lives of others, lives within lives, marionettes on the stage of history.  “The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it”, some lines I remember from Doctor Zhivago.  There is no personal life in Serge’s Petrograd; history, and the CHEKA, the first manifestation of the Soviet secret police, are killing it in starvation and terror.  Perfection cannot be shaped by ugliness and squalor. 

This is an honest novel.  Serge’s virtue would almost certainly have led to his death in Stalin’s Great Terror, the sum of all of the little terrors that had gone before, but for his international reputation.  Already a persona non grata, he was allowed to leave Russia before the real horror began.  As it was he was pursued to the end of his days by the agents of a Revolution that had corrupted beyond recall.  There are other novels of Serge’s I’ve still to read, better perhaps, so Conquered City may not stand as his final testament.  It’s a commendable one, notwithstanding. 

We conquered everything and everything slipped out of our grasp.  We have conquered bread and there is famine.  We have declared peace to a war-weary world, and war has moved into every house.  We have proclaimed the liberation of men, and we need prisons, an iron discipline – yes, to pour our human weakness into brazen moulds in order to accomplish what is perhaps beyond our strength – and we are the bringers of dictatorship.  We have proclaimed fraternity, but it is “fraternity and death” in reality.  We have founded the Republic of Labour, and the factories are dying, grass is growing in their yards.  We wanted each to give according to his needs; and here we are, privileged in the middle of generalised misery, since we are less hungry than others!  


  1. The final paragraph you quote recounts the eternal truth of statism. It is extremely disturbing how far this trend has infected Western society.

    1. Indeed it is, Calvin. Oh, incidentally, Brave is on general release here. I went to see it this afternoon on your recommendation. I loved it. I shall be writing about it soon, possibly tonight before I go to bed. :-)

  2. It is sad to learn that a paperwork glitch had cost life of 40 soldiers!

    1. Ah, Zunnar, the crimes of bureaucracy are far greater than that.