Victor Serge

Measuring Kravchenko’s Testimony

Concluding the Diary of Victor Serge – VII


From The New International, Vol. XVI No. 6, November–December 1950, pp. 368–371.
Translated & annotated by James M. Fenwick.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Koka, Kravchenko

July 6, 1946. Visited Natalia this morning. The big, empty garden. A young American girl with rather fixed, staring eyes opened the iron door. Natalia was lying down in her room, which has metal doors and a large metal shutter covering the window, and which is white, bare, dark, sad as a convent cell.

N. was stretched out on the low bed, quite thin, her head covered with a light gray shawl, also seemed like a sick, exhausted woman, but one whose determined chin and alert glance would not give in at all. Her complexion is sickly, her skin shriveled. She had aged a great deal in a few weeks.

Suddenly, while speaking to her, I felt myself worried for her life. Within reach of her hand, on the dresser, a little black Browning. Jeannine [4] was interested in it. “Is it real?” “Oh, yes, my dear,” said N. with her weak laugh and her touching smile, on the edge of tears. “She will be a very pretty girl,” she said and she insisted that she go get a banana in the dining room. It was very somber, very sad.

N. does not suffer from anything serious. Becker [5] takes care of her; a harmless operation, about which she spoke to me, may be necessary. What is in reality gnawing at her is an immense mourning, infinitely more vast than that for L.D., whose death only consummated it, a mourning for an epoch and an innumerable multitude. And since I am doubtless the only one who really shares it with her, our conversations are precious to us, and I moreover avoid touching on the numberless dead. They appear in spite of us, the tomb of a generation is always there.

This time it was because I had spoken of the magnificent love poem Tvoya Pobeida [Your Victory] by Margarita Aliguer and because we recalled Ossip Emilievitch Mandelstam [6], who disappeared in prison ... Then Olga Davidovno Kameneva, Trotsky’s sister, who was Kamenev’s wife. (I happened to meet her in the old days; tall and with a mannish face, she strikingly resembled L.T. Directed VOKS [7] for a while ...) N. said, “At the beginning of the war she could still be found in that inferno of a concentration camp for the wives and children of those who had been shot located 25 miles from Moscow, where the material and moral misery reached an infernal degree ... Did you know Koka, Rakovsky’s daughter? She was also sent into that hell – she, she, a child!”

I had met Koka two or three times with Panait Istrati in ’27. She was probably around 17 (the daughter of Rakovsky’s wife by a first marriage, I believe). Extraordinarily refined and good-looking, a statuette of a young girl with a face of porcelain so white that it seemed transparent, a broad forehead and light gray eyes. She was not very interested in political matters. Her early marriage to the excellent poet Josef Utkin was a real love match. It didn’t last. Utkin, in giving in to the official directives, lost his talent and became a second-rater. He died at the front of disease, I believe. The punishment of Koka was a gratuitous crime, the most absurd of the state crimes, committed because she was the step-child of the great R., whose honesty and whose years of suffering she was acquainted with ... “Purity is treason!” I left: before my eyes the image of the tortured Koka.

We discussed the book by Victor Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom, a success in New York, and were in full agreement on it. K. tells of the persecution of the technicians, his colleagues which he was witness of, and against which – he says – he protested. He is lying; protests were impossible, even inconceivable. If he escaped proscription it was because he was actually an accomplice of the political police ... The proof of it is that years later he was sent on a mission to America ... The fellow appears to have been only a frightened and self-interested conformist who “chose freedom” only very late, when the choice was without danger, probably when he had been invited to go back.

The only voices that tell the truth about the USSR, that are able to speak today, are those of men of this stripe. Naturally in his book there is not the slightest defense of socialism. He passes over to the other side, that’s all, and doctors up his biography ...

Mexico, November 15, ’46

My dear Herbert,

I have just finished Kravchenko’s book – with a sort of nausea. Everything is true in startling fashion, but we knew all that before, and several have written about it, described it, before this gentleman. Whatever the fabricated character of the book may be, the portrait of himself which the author signed – in facsimile! – is that of the young Stalinist careerist of an unfortunate period.

He was 21 in 1926, when the Thermidor began; he was a member of the Soviet Youth but he was not interested in being aware of or of understanding the political crisis which was shaking the entire country. The foregoing is hardly believable; it appears that he was one of those komsomols who howled for the death of the Opposition, a conformist worried solely about his own career. Then, until his escape in the United States, he remained a careerist even while he was persecuted, while all his colleagues and comrades disappeared, many of them worth infinitely more than he, a persevering careerist who ended by inspiring confidence even in his persecutors.

I know the atmosphere which he describes, and I cannot doubt that this gentleman conceals a great many things. He constantly strikes poses, takes pity upon this person and that, ascribes courageous interventions to himself, but he does not say anything about his long, devoted complicity with the regime which he hated.

It was impossible to have the career which he did, to inspire the confidence which he inspired, without having had a hand in a mess of abominable jobs, of denouncing, inventing sabotage, of voting for all the requested death sentences.

On all that, silence – which is to say, not a single bitter cry of conscience. And his attitude toward the women whom he loved and whom he left with a sweet resignation whenever his career demanded it – as if he had not been able to do anything else! Russia is full of couples who struggle to rejoin each other after having been separated, consciously sacrificing a little more advantageous post for another one in order to do it. Similarly Russia is full of people who resist totalitarianism in numerous ways, more or less concealing it from each other and, willy-nilly, sacrificing; in any case sacrificing a career.

K. justifies his escape in the U.S. – abandoning his wife and his old parents to the worst sort of persecution – by a vow to say the truth. I cannot help believing that this fine explanation is an afterthought, or that it is only partially true. For he has not reflected upon a single problem, he has not studied a single instant of the history of which he was a frightened witness, he does not reveal the slightest critical vision. It is simply the testimony of a fugitive who during his whole life has thought only of himself. And his fundamental objective, after a short period of uncertainty, was to live better in the U.S.

It is another sign of the times that the floor has been given over to such characters with neither ethics nor faith, with neither intellectual vigor nor courage. Nevertheless, the information which he gives upon forced labor is important.

In regard to this, I maintain, in some theoretical articles which I am sending to Paris, that the existence of penal manpower of around 20 million adults is the essential trait which we have to take into account in defining this anti-socialist regime. I reason as follows: Privileged population, enjoying conditions of existence analogous to the civilized average, 15 per cent (in ’36; actually, appreciably less, as a consequence of the war) or 7–8 per cent of the adult population. (This estimate was that of L.T., myself and several others after careful crosschecking.) Penal manpower, 15 to 20 million, which is around 15 per cent of the adult population, double the number of the privileged population. The fluctuations of these percentages are secondary, they define a social structure.

The penal manpower constitutes a sub-proletariat “in rags” which has literally “nothing to lose but its chains ...” and its condition is below that of the slave or the serf. This is the new sociological fact. The owner of slaves or of serfs was interested in the preservation of his property. In Russia, particularly, traditional patriarchal habits softened the conditions of serfdom. Law and custom always assigned limits to slavery and often set conditions for possible emancipation. The immense agglomeration of Stalinist concentration camps is, on the contrary, outside the law, beyond the ban of society, benefiting from neither a single tradition nor a single known law. They are slave-pariahs and, naturally, it is proper to give a new name to this social category ...

My best to you both, my dear Herbert.

Victor Serge



4. Serge’s young daughter.

5. Austrian émigré doctor.

6. Poet, author of The Stone (1913) and Tristla (1922). His essays in Egyptian Stamp (1928) are also very highly regarded.

7. Bureau for the maintaining of cultural relations abroad.

Last updated on 19 October 2018