Victor Serge

Pages from the Diary of Victor Serge

Portraits and Scenes of the Revolutionary Movement


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 7, September 1949, pp. 214–218.
Translated & annotated by James M. Fenwick.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is with great pleasure that we begin the first publication in English of the journals of Victor Serge (Kibalchich), with the permission of his family. His recent death deprived the revolutionary movement of one of its oldest militants. The sections of his journals which we are reprinting cover some of the most dramatic moments in the struggle of the Trotskyist Opposition against the Stalinist reaction, not only disclosing hitherto unpublicized details but bringing to life again personages of the times and the times themselves. The translation from the French original is the work of James Fenwick. – Ed.

* * *

End of November, 1936, Paris. Battle for Madrid, suicide of Salengro, Jean Guéhenno at Vigilance [1] (what a demagogue!). Professor Maublanc, at the same meeting, worse than a demagogue, clever, with a bit of trickery in him. Feeling of hopelessness. Under discussion: how to save Spain. Henri Bouché, the main speaker, could not reveal that airplanes were being sent – and intellectuals who know that they are being sent but that the information cannot be revealed, are reproaching Léon Blum for his inaction, etc. On the way out I exchanged a few words with Guéhenno on the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev: he does not want to take a position and does not want to seem not to have taken a position.

Magdaleine Paz told me that my open letter to Gide impressed her greatly, but she believes I was wrong in publishing it, it seems like an ultimatum. I said that I didn’t see anything wrong in it. Big intellectuals are too prone to avoid the real problems under the cover of noble phrases. I have too high a regard for Gide; I do not have the right to coddle him, he must understand that. “But that letter could have hindered his trip to Russia!” “Well?” “Right now he completely shares your point of view; you must see him, but very secretly – he does not want to give anybody the opportunity of thinking that you influenced him in working out his book.” (AG, it seems, also has some distrust of me, coupled with a more general fear of Trotskyism, which he knows only through Pierre Naville: and his feelings for PN – who irritates him – are mutually shared.)

MP arranged a confidential meeting for us. (“Try not to be followed ...”)

Rue Vaneau, an untidy apartment, filled with books containing dedicatory inscriptions, objets d’art scattered all over. Drapes and everything else – all has aged, a person could live there without noticing very clearly what he possesses, but with a feeling for memories and ideas for which visible things have become only the tarnished tokens. He would live there under the attrition of life and of detachment. On the mantlepiece my pamphlet Seize fusillés turned over open in the midst being read. A soft step in the narrow hall of a man wearing slippers. Gide entered. Appearance still young, discreet and unobtrusive, with a sort of cape around his shoulders. A tanned complexion, it seemed to me, his skin old but soft and cared for, broad shoulders, his carriage masculine and supple, with youth in his movements. Remarkable hollows and planes of his face. A modeled face, large mouth, eyes deep-sunk behind horn-rimmed glasses, broad forehead. A sort of lingering sadness and occasionally, raillery upon his slightly parted lips. In expressing disgust he grimaces like a nauseated woman, very expressively, simian (when he speaks of Aragon and Ehrenburg).

Greeted me.

He: “Well, I imagined you otherwise, then, bonier, I don’t know, emaciated ...”

His trip to Russia:

“I thought a great deal about doing something to save your manuscripts. I was unable to do anything either in regard to you or in regard to other matters close to my heart. I saw immediately that absolutely nothing could be done.”

Tone, expression of a limitless sadness. From the time of his arrival, discovered so much hardness, inhumanity that he felt there was nothing could be done.

“Stupid cruelty of the laws against homosexuals. I said that I would speak to Stalin about it in the course of the contemplated interview. I had a presentiment at that moment that I would be wasting that interview.

“Banquets ... We were stuffed with food and speeches. In Georgia, at Leningrad. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I reached the point of refusing everything after the hors d’oeuvres.”

He spoke of a Georgian poet, big drinker, big eater, very patriotic, shrewd, knowing French well: Soviet and Montparnasse.

“Bukharin tried to join me twice – in vain. ‘I'll see you again in an hour!’ ‘You’ll see,’ Herbart said to me, ‘that he won’t come back.’ Obviously.”

The new aristocracy. Escaping from the train and him and the interpreters, he went to see how the people lived. Contrasts, misery.

He showed me his manuscript, read a letter from Jef Last at the Spanish front. “Last [2] is very unhappy; he feels and thinks as I do, is distrusted by the party, perhaps is in danger.” We corrected an expression which I found too pessimistic, a “there will never be.” He spoke of the pressure which has been put on him to defer publication of his notes on the USSR, in the name of the salvation of the Spanish revolution. Militiamen have telegraphed him from the front. (“What could they have known about what I was writing?”) Told me that the manuscript was sent confidentially to Gallimard and was set up by selected compositors in a safe shop: “Well! Ehrenburg read it just the same. That scum!”

I replied that E. has for a long time been a man who can adapt himself to anything, a secret agent or absolutely in the confidence of secret agents. A.G. fears the reactions which will follow publication of the book. Expects to be overwhelmed with insults. The author of Corydon feels that he offers a good target for the worst sort of defamation. His courage, his great courage, is that of a timid person. We spoke of Pierre Naville, whom he finds harsh and cold, but whom he is fond of. We talked about Leon Blum, whom he had just seen again. A bias in him against the sectarian spirit and the prestige of Blum. He seemed adrift, afraid of isolation. I tried to orient him toward socialist relationships.

“At Leningrad a young naval officer, very likable, came up to me during a reception and quietly, in French, spoke of you with emotion.”

I do not know for what reason, but upon leaving his voice suddenly took on a vulgar accent, rather careless, rather “emancipated,” revealing the man who knows Paris in all its dirty nooks and crannies.

He is uneasy. As if he were afraid of himself. Ravaged. The disaster of Communism. Spoke of the Moscow trial. Has no illusions on that vileness and that cruelty. I took away the impression of an extremely scrupulous man, troubled to the bottom of his soul, who wishes to serve a great cause – and no longer knows how.

André Gide. Arrests at Leningrad (Véra, Esther)

Brussels, January 11, 1937, morning. I saw him again at the Hotel Albert I, near the Gare du Nord. “You see, I have come to visit you.” Something very friendly in his tone, as if since our discussion in Paris the fogs separating us had dissipated. His face has sunken, is sculptured in hollows. Asceticism – but accustomed to luxury. Asceticism at the bottom of his soul and luxury enveloping his body. Indolent walk, lively gesture. A tic-sniffling. Noticeable firmness.

I had seen him almost anxious, full of scruples and doubts, feeling that he had to cross a frontier and hardly dared to do it. Adrift. The fear of wronging the Spanish cause tormented him. And further, the sorrow of feeling so much young affection alienated from him, a warm and friendly popularity, arrived belatedly ... But to keep it on the basis of deception and lies, and of complicity in immense crimes ... It’s over.

I found him strengthened, calm, readily smiling. Obviously willing to fight. The book has made a good start. Hundreds of odious, slandering, filthy clippings have come in. He spoke of them with detachment.

We talked about Malraux, whose attitude preoccupies him a little. He said something like this:

“M. has an advantage over me: to be able to pick up the popularity which I have set aside. Extraordinarily intelligent. Clever. He knows perfectly well that I am right, but it doesn’t concern him.”

Of Jef Last, who is on the Madrid front: an excellent alibi.

He believes my collaboration on the NRF [3] is quite impossible because of the material influence of Malraux and J.R. Bloch.

My Crapouillot [4], From Lenin to Stalin, was on the table. He had found it good, but with a break in continuity at the end which confuses the reader. Hadn’t I been dominated by party spirit in speaking of Stalin?

I replied that it was written in one fifteen-day stretch, and that I believe it to be objective.

He: “Your explanation of the Moscow trial is the only intelligible one.”

He: “I’m labeled a Trotskyist – so what?”

His admiration for L.T.

His coldness toward the French Trotskyists. Pierre Naville brought up by his family for something great. To be Rubens or Beethoven – or Lenin! He does not like this deforming ambition – but Naville is honest.

The long, rambling conversation turns upon the relation between master and disciple. I cited the epigram of Zarathustra-Nietzsche: “If you wish to follow me, deny me!”

He: “Buddha says: ‘If you meet me, kill me!’”

I: “You shouldn’t repeat it too often. They might do it. They wouldn’t miss up on it.”

Relaxation and laughter.

Spoke of Spain, of the POUM which is being slandered (and which I defend). Munitions are lacking for Madrid.

Spoke of the death of Eugène Dabit, who was so talented. Very affected by his trip to Russia.

He: “At Lille, workers whom I knew, angry because of what had been said to them about my book, invited me to see their misery. We went through the narrow streets together, visited the rooms of an unemployed worker. ‘Why,’ I said to them, ‘my friends! If Russian workers only had such homes!’ ”

He mentioned with disgust the name of E. I said: “A stoolpigeon.”

He: “He came to me to ask if I believed that and spoke to me for a half hour without my replying ... Then he didn’t insist any more.”

Once more on Russia: the magnificent Russian youth – and the stifling atmosphere.

I remarked that I learned just two days ago of the arrest at Leningrad of my sister Véra Vladimirovna Frolova, of my sister-in-law Esther Russakova, of one of my brothers-in-law, the musician Paul-Marcel or the seaman Joseph. They are apolitical, accustomed to living in fear. I believe that it is my writings, especially the open letters, which brought about their persecution. The arrests took place September 6, the day after the execution of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Ivan Smirnov; they are part of the wave of terror which is breaking. I explained that having killed some of them they can no longer look the others in the eye or endure their silence. All the old party understands, it must disappear, it will disappear.

Impotence of intellectuals. A person can free himself, however, from moral complicity.

Pierre Herbart came in during the conversation. Good-looking boy, well-dressed, a frank appearance. He worked at Moscow on Littérature Internationale; of it he retains a memory of hypocrisy and suffocation.

I am leaving shortly for Holland.

André Gide

May 8 and 18, 1937, Paris. Two walks with A.G.: one of the themes – what can be expected from Russia and from socialism. His confidence in the Russian youth is based on intuition, but a reasoned intuition. Mine is otherwise motivated. The Popular Front appears imposing to him, but less vigorous than it seems, and less healthy. (The rush for jobs, patronage, etc.)

All his work has basically been that of a moralist engaged in a struggle against oppressive conventional morality. Hence the Immoraliste. His real masters, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. The physiological conflict (homosexuality) which almost put him under the ban of society and whose extent he measured at the time of the tragedy of Oscar Wilde, made him both timorous and exaggeratedly scrupulous, with a tendency to escape toward the esthetic (which produced great satisfaction in him and confirmed his feeling of superiority; the preciosity of his style was the desired means to an indisputable superiority – which was, however disputed ...; he won them over because he flattered the taste of the literary). A pure style and delicate psychological problems treated with a reserved audacity, and sometimes violent flashes like the conception of the pure spontaneous [5] act – what more was needed to guarantee his success with a “select public”? But the sincerity of A.G. was to suffer precisely from the flattering welcome of this effete public. And the moral problem once posed, the social problem followed. The moral is the social. (The constant interest of A.G. in Zola the writer who apparently is the farthest from him, and whose public is the most different from his.) It was after the Russian Revolution that he decided upon his first great act of courage – in no way spontaneous – exacted by his conscience and suggested by the intellectual currents of the epoch: the justification of homosexuality in Corydon. The very scandal that he braved turned into a success. Nevertheless he did not support the Russian Revolution as long as it was unpopular among the literary. It troubled him, its cruelties offended his humanism. He did not really come to its publicly until ’34, at a very bad period, well after the Soviet Thermidor; but that lag is general enough in France. G. followed the current of literary youth who embraced Marxism.

At this time there were actually only two schools of thought: Action Francaise, the doctrinaire banalities of Maurras, and Marxism. (One should consider the influence of Malraux on G.M. is composed of a mixture of would-be Marxist radicalism – very slightly Marxist esthetics and adventurism, which very well suited the young for whom the revolution was an enticing adventure because they felt themselves blocked in a senile society. The same tendencies in the Révolution Surréaliste.)

For sentimental reasons they did not want to see that the Russian Revolution had changed; it was viewed as if it had remained faithful to itself. The CP propaganda nourishes these comfortable illusions and gives them a material consistency: money, publication of one’s books, invitations to Moscow, Congresses ... A rather rich revolution which exercises power, distributes honors and advantages, easily seduces intellectuals because of the facility with which they can at the same time be revolutionists and conformists, quasi-heroic without danger, and heaped with privileges. Moreover, the CP assures them good publicity and puts them in contact with a popular public.

All that was to seduce G. a little and trouble him internally. He followed affairs in Russia fairly closely (through P.N.) but perhaps he did not wish to yield to the influence of this young man. The fear of being influenced is very strong in him: an influence is an attack against his personality. It was the Congress for the Defense of Culture in 1935 which initiated his change of course, when it became evident, à propos of “l’affaire Victor Serge,” demonstratively brought on to the floor by Salvemini, Magdaleine Paz, Poulaille, Plisnier (and so elegantly skirted by André Breton), that the Congress was entirely controlled, with perfect dishonesty, by the agents of the CP. He felt maneuvered with, saw the moral ugliness of it. He had a conversation in regard to me with the Russian ambassador – and left full of doubts. The shootings at Leningrad, after the Kirov assassination, had already occurred and they had in practise divided the French intellectuals into two categories: those who consented to everything, like Aragon and J.R. Bloch, and those who weakly expressed moral reservations afterward, like R. Rolland. A.G. had passed the age of moral reservations, but he did not wish to pronounce judgment categorically before seeing things with his own eyes – before going to Russia himself.

He was instinctively rather against the Opposition in Russia, attracted by the prestige of power, a transforming power fundamentally – even if harshly – equitable and humane. I think that he would readily accept the epigram of Goethe: “Injustice rather than disorder” (Goethe, exactly the contrary of Bakunin). In this sense, that order constitutes a justice superior to lesser injustices – and a harmony. (There is also the other simply conservative meaning of this word, but A.G. would probably not accept it. Goethe, I believe, employed it in both senses at the same time ... fullness.)

The second great act of courage of his life was his startling break with the official USSR upon his return from Russia. I know what it cost him. But he felt his dignity, all his profound personality, called in question. What remained in him of the pure spontaneous act became an act of courage: not to sacrifice – lucidity. It was painful because of the necessity of implicitly recognizing that he had deceived himself in lending his support to Communism, because of the friendships he had to break off, because of the vast sympathetic audience he had to lose.

G. had never known any popularity other than that of literary circles and the salons – which isn’t much. But there is a popular side to him which he has never expressed in his books: he loves the underworld, the streets, the public squares of Paris for a host of profound reasons, one of which I see as a need for communion with the crowd. The radiance he suddenly acquired thanks to the CP, the atmosphere of public meetings, the friendship he picked up in the working-class neighborhoods, the influences he acquired over young proletarian writers – at sixty – immersed him in humanity.

That coincided with the rise of the Popular Front, which represented a renascence of collective enthusiasm in France. I had looked forward to the moment when France would emerge from the debility induced by the loss of 1,700,000 men during the war, to the advent of the new generation twenty years after the battles, between 1934 and 1938; my elementary calculation turned out to be correct. The admirable thing here is the vitality of the old intellectual, open to such a renovation, and capable of such a difficult break at that moment of his life. Therein lies his greatness.

Disappearance of Andres Nin

End of May, 1937. I knew immediately that Andres Nin, once arrested, was hopelessly lost (the psychosis of the Russians). The same day Colette Audry and I begged Magdaleine Paz to take a plane to Barcelona in an attempt to save him. She was unable to because of her work on Populaire.

But Magdaleine, Félicien Challaye, Georges Pioch, the cute Limbour girl, went as a delegation to the Spanish embassy. They were received by a friendly secretary who endeavored to reassure them, promised guarantees of justice, said that he would forward the demands of our committee. When Magdaleine insisted upon the danger which Nin was running, he betrayed himself:

“Oh! that fellow ...”

Which meant that it was already too late for Nin.

“What do you mean?”

He took hold of himself again, became silent, evasive.

I had learned months ago in Brussels that a decisive provocation was being prepared against the POUM, I had warned the national committee of the POUM and Gorkin and Nin, everything is developing according to the plan which chance had made me acquainted with.

Meeting of the defense committee. Edouard Serre of Air-France told us that he had taken it upon himself to speak to the Russian ambassador about Nin, emphasizing that a crime committed against Nin would have serious repercussions.

“I have rendered enough services to the USSR to be listened to. The ambassador received me very well and got the point; he is uneasy. He advised me to address a secret memorandum to Stalin, and that he would forward it.”

We approved.

Nin was kidnapped from a Russian villa-prison near an airfield used by Russian planes at Alcala de Hénarès.

A Russian officer known as “Orlov” must be in the know and perhaps Antonov-Ovsayenko also.


November 20, 1937. Made an appointment with Walter at Colette Audry’s place, on the Square Port-Royal. We met in front of the entrance. Colette was not home. We strolled along obscure streets and finally along the wall of La Sante, Boulevard Arago. His remarks :

“There is a French family whom I like and who like me. When they learned of my ‘betrayal’ they refused to believe it. When I told them my motives they got pale and I understood that if they were not driving me out of the house immediately it was because they were resolved not to let me go, in order to act against me. They are admirably devoted people.

“I just had a meeting in a cafe with my agent, the man of the family. I saw that I was being watched, I was afraid of being killed on the spot. He had taken all the necessary steps. He actually liked me, as a teacher who had taught him devotion and developed his political consciousness.

“Your stand as an Oppositionist is morally correct, but politically untenable. You are condemned by history. I used to read your articles and your books with pleasure and I deplored your being misled.

“It is not the custom to execute political figures. Look at the Mensheviks we could have liquidated long ago. With the military it is something else again. [He thinks that General Wrangel has been liquidated.] And the agents of the service can expect no mercy. They will get me.”

“I once decided to go back to Moscow; I don’t know yet if it might not have been the best thing. It’s not death which frightens me, it’s the waiting, it’s the preliminaries, a useless and revolting torture. My profoundest feeling is regret over the fine comrades, the flower of the revolution, who have been unjustly shot.

“No, Stalin isn’t crazy. He has something big in mind and he is loving his head a little. It’s frightful.

“I’ll not make revelations. I’ll do nothing which can harm the USSR. There is, in spite of all, only the cause of the USSR.”

He noticed that when he put his hand in his pocket for his cigarettes I watched him carefully.

“It’s natural you’re afraid of me. And yet we would both be happy to die for the same cause.”

I: “Not quite the same.”

I talked about socialism. He replied that the power of the Soviet state is a point through which all the roads to socialism must pass.

“I’m exhausted. I can be killed anywhere and I will be, finally. All that is a nameless absurdity.

“Yagoda was stable. Yezhov is unstable. Trilisser was a great Bolshevik, honest and fine.”



1. Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Anti-fasciste, formed after the February 6, 1934, events.

2. A Dutch writer, currently an editor of De Vlam.

3. Nouvelle Revue Française.

4. Serge refers to the issue of the magazine Crapouillot in which From Lenin to Stalin was originally published.

5. A concept developed by Gide – an act based upon pure impulse, without a reasoned end in view.

Last updated on 29 September 2018