Serge, Victor, 1890-1947
- Existence: 1890-12-30 - 1947-11-17
Victor Serge was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich on 30 December 1890 in Brussels. He first took the pen name "Victor Serge" in March 1917 in an article written for the journal, Tierra y libertad. Serge's mother, Vera Mikhailovna Poderevskaya, was of Polish origin and had arrived in Belgium after leaving her first husband in Russia; Serge's father, Leon Ivanovich Kibalchich, was Russian and had fled Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 (Kibalchich had been involved in the plot against the Tsar and was distantly related to Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich, the chemist who had made the bombs that killed the Tsar).
Serge's childhood was one of poverty. His brother, Raoul, died of malnutrition, and Serge, himself, was often hungry. He never went to school, but learned to read from his parents' library. As a teenager, he joined an anarchist commune in Belgium, where he wrote articles (the first one in April 1908) for its papers, Le communiste and Le révolté, under the pseudonym "Le Rétif."
As a young man, Serge moved to France, where he wrote for L'anarchie in Paris, which he took over with Rirette Maîtrejean (née Anna Estorges) in 1911. In January 1912, he and Rirette were arrested and imprisoned for their part in defending the actions of the Bonnot Gang (Serge had written a supportive article in L'anarchie, and the police had found two revolvers at the journal's office). Rirette was subsequently acquitted in 1913, but Serge was sentenced to four years in prison. His novel, Les hommes dans la prison, was based on this experience.
Serge married Rirette while in prison to ensure her visiting rights. When he was released in January 1917 and expelled from France, he and Rirette went to Barcelona, but she returned to Paris shortly thereafter. In Barcelona, Serge became affiliated with the Syndicalists and with the Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores. The setting for portions of his novel, Naissance de notre force, is taken from his experiences in Barcelona at the time of the uprising.
News of the Russian Revolution impelled Serge to return to France in an attempt to join the Russian army from Paris. He was arrested in October 1917 as a suspected Bolshevik and interned. Finally, in January 1919, Serge, along with other prisoners, was exchanged by France for some French officers interned by the Russian revolutionary government. One of the other prisoners was a Jewish revolutionary, Alexander Roussakov, who was accompanied by his daughters. Serge later married one of Roussakov's daughters, Liouba.
When Serge arrived in Petrograd, he began working for the Communist International (Comintern) under Grigory Zinovyev, the Communist Party's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, the archives of the tsarist secret police, and communist publications in the West. He also joined the Communist Party. Serge and Liouba's son, Vlady, was born in Petrograd on 15 August 1920.
From 1922 until 1926, Serge (with his family) was sent by the Comintern to Berlin and then to Vienna for the purpose of forming a revolutionary working-class movement in the West. His responsibilities included editing Inprekorr. They returned to Russia in 1926, to work with Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition. When Trotsky was arrested and exiled from Leningrad by Stalin in 1928, Serge was also arrested, imprisoned for six weeks, and subsequently expelled from the Communist Party.
Serge spent the next five years, from 1928 until 1933, in Leningrad. Forbidden to leave the country, he was isolated from his colleagues, and G. P. U. agents were stationed in his communal apartment to monitor him. During this time, Serge's wife suffered severely from mental illness. In spite of these conditions, Serge managed to write his first three novels, Les hommes dans la prison, Naissance de notre force, and Ville conquise, and an historical work, L'an I de la révolution russe. He wrote each work in small portions, sending each section abroad as soon as it was finished to ensure that it would be published.
In 1933, Serge was arrested again and sent to Orenburg. Vlady joined him there soon after, and Liouba visited intermittently. A daughter, Jeannine, was born in February 1935. In the meantime, Serge's friends and colleagues in Paris began campaigning for his release. Among those involved were Georges Duhamel, Luc Durtain, André Gide, Victor Margueritte, Marcel Martinet, Magdeleine Marx (Paz), Charles Plisnier, Henry Poulaille, Charles Vidrac, Leon Werth, and Maurice Wullens. In June 1935, at the International Writers' Congress for the Defence of Culture, held in Paris, a debate took place regarding Serge's situation.
As pressure increased on the Soviet government, Serge and his family were finally expelled in 1936, and their Soviet citizenships were revoked. At the same time, Serge's manuscripts were confiscated, including Les hommes perdus (a memoir of French anarchism before World War I) and La tourmente (a sequel to Ville conquise). Serge and his family arrived in Brussels in April 1936; he had narrowly missed the purges that began that year in Russia.
While working as a typesetter and writing against the purges and the Moscow trials that followed, Serge also found time to write De Lénine à Staline and Destin d'une révolution in 1937. He joined the P. O. U. M. under the leadership of his friend and colleague, Andrés Nin, who was arrested and murdered in June 1937 by the Spanish Communists.
In April 1937, Serge moved to Paris, where Liouba's mental condition deteriorated, and she was institutionalized. It was in Paris that Serge met the archaeologist, Laurette Séjourné, with whom he began a relationship. A rift had begun to emerge in 1937 between Serge and Trotsky, partly because of their differences of opinion about the P. O. U. M., and in 1939, they broke off contact. (Serge later co-wrote a biography of Trotsky, Vie et mort de Trotsky, with Trotsky's wife, Nataliia Ivanovna Trotskaia, in 1946). Serge became increasingly isolated from his colleagues, but he continued to write. In 1939, he finished the novel, S'il est minuit dans le siècle, and a biographical work, Portrait de Staline.
In August 1940, as the German army approached Paris, Serge, Vlady, and Séjourné fled to Marseilles, where they lived outside the city with André Breton and his family (Jeannine had been assigned a temporary wartime placement in February). Serge described this period of his life in the novel, Les derniers temps.
While struggling to obtain a visa out of France, Serge learned of Trotsky's murder in Mexico City. After many countries refused entrance to Serge (including the United States), Mexico finally accepted him and his family. On 25 March 1941, Serge and Vlady left Marseilles on a converted cargo-ship, the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, with the Bretons and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among others. Serge and Vlady arrived in Mexico City in August 1941, after a circuitous trip through Martinique, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Laurette and Jeannine joined them there a year later, in March 1942.
Serge lived in Mexico for more than six years after his arrival. Isolated from his colleagues, and having trouble publishing his writing, he also feared attempts on his life. Nevertheless, he wrote voluminously, finishing two novels, L'affaire Toulaév and Les années sans pardon, and an autobiographical work, Mémoires d'un révolutionnaire.
Serge had heart trouble in Mexico City (his doctor attributed it to the high altitude), and he died from an embolism on 17 November 1947. He was buried in a pauper's grave in the Spanish Republican section of the Mexico City cemetery as someone without a nationality. In Mémoires d'un révolutionnaire, he had described himself thus: "A political exile since my birth, I have known both the real benefits and the oppressive hardships of the uprooted man...For my own part, I have no regrets at carrying this leaden burden, since I can feel myself to be at one and the same time Russian, French, European and Eurasian, a stranger to no land, despite the law, and recognizing everywhere, in all the diversity of place and person, the unity of the world and of mankind."