I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.
Conquered City – Victor Serge
This novel is set in Petrograd in 1919, the first year of the Russian Civil War. Serge, whose real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, was a professional revolutionary with a specialties in the skill of journalism and the craft of printing. He returned to Russia in 1919 in order to work in the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He wrote this book in the early 1930s in the shadow of Stalin’s early purges because Serge was a member of the Left Opposition to Stalin’s policies. So this book has the feeling of novelized memoir, with a text written in different times in various places.
Serge organizes the novel in 20 episodes spread out over course of about one year. Like more traditional Russian novels I don’t need to name, Serge creates scores of characters, whose hard names need to be remembered, which is a challenge. Transitions between episodes seem jerky, which also requires attention. He wrote this book under the threat of imminent arrest by the secret police and sent the novel to France in fragments so one can understand the lack of smoothness. However, on the other hand, this bumpiness gives a feeling of beleaguered and muddled life in Petrograd at this time.
There are too many ideas in this novel to deal with in a short review. The one that burned brightest for me was Serge’s ambivalence about the use of the organs of repression. On one hand, as a democratic socialist, he saw the Russian Revolution as a great hope. Fearing counterrevolution, he was for using Czarist-type repression against spies, speculators, wreckers and traitors. He felt, then, there was a place for secret police, truncheons, jails, torture, internal exile, and treachery. On the other hand, he felt for workers and peasants that stole in order to eat, for soldiers who deserted because they’d been fighting one battle or another since 1914. Serge’s disenchantment is palpable – the typical disappointment of socialists in the wake of communist terror.
For me, the two topics of the American Civil War and Russia between the wars hold endless fascination. But I can’t say it’s for everybody. Basically, this is an unrelenting novelized memoir that I can recommend only to the most unwavering student of topics such as state terror, St. Petersburg, and failed revolutions.