'Midnight in the Century' vividly evokes a slice of Soviet history

How a writer’s true-life tussle with Stalin’s police became a rich novel of exile and resistance.

Midnight in the Century By Victor Serge, Richard Greeman (translator) New York Review Books 240 pp.

Some writers are passwords. When strangers chance upon their names in conversation, each recognizes in the other something vital shared. This is particularly true for those writers who inspire their readers to live more consciously and courageously. Victor Serge (1890–1947), the nom de plume of Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, is one of those names that can transform a casual conversation about books into such a moment of mutual recognition. In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, he laid out his demanding artistic creed:

"I had, and still have an immense respect for literary activity – and an equally great contempt for “Literature.” Many authors write for pleasure (especially the rich ones).... Those who have a message within them express it ... and their contribution has human value. The others are simply suppliers to the book trade. My conception of writing was and still is that it needs a mightier justification: as a means of expressing to men what most of them live inwardly without being able to express ... a testimony to the vast flow of life through us, whose essential aspects we must try to fix for the benefit of those who will come after us."

Serge lived for others and for an idealistic future in which exploitation would be a relic of the past. He was born in Brussels to wandering émigrés – intellectuals who’d turned their backs on life in tsarist Russia. Before he began fending for himself at the age of13 , he sheltered with his parents in impoverished households heated by political conversations and philosophical debates, places where “the portraits of men who had been hanged” lined the walls. Due to his father’s chronic penury and distrust of public education, Serge received no formal schooling. Like his father, he was an autodidact – an intimate of libraries and museums; Shakespeare was his childhood primer.

After reading an anarchist tract, at the age of 15, he committed himself to a life of long working hours (much of them spent in the print trade) and radical left-wing politics – first as an anarchist, then as a Bolshevik, then as an anti-Stalinist. To borrow a phrase from Jules Michelet, the scholar of the French Revolution, Serge lived the life of a cannonball.

His political ties led to his arrest and imprisonment in France (1913–17), where it was only halfheartedly suspected that he’d conspired with anarchist robbers. After his release, Serge traveled to Russia, where he supported key players in the Bolshevik Revolution. No matter how earnestly engagé he proved to be in the years between the civil war and the rise of fascism in Europe, a cloak of suspicion fell on him that would remain for the rest of his life. His opposition to increasing Stalinism landed him in prison for two months in 1928; five years later, he was arrested when authorities tried to frame him as the leader of a Trotskyist cell. Although the charge withered under his denial, he still served a three-year sentence.

The writer had reason to fear for his life. In his memoirs, he quotes his friend novelist Boris Pilnyak’s saying, “There isn’t a single thinking adult in this country who has not thought that he might be shot.” (Pilnyak was executed in 1937.) Serge attributed his escape from Stalin’s murderous repression to his reputation as both a writer and a seasoned fellow traveler in Paris. Protests on his behalf in France, by figures such as André Gide, contributed to his eventual release and deportation to Belgium.

Mining his incarceration experience in the ’30s, Serge wrote Midnight in the Century, a stylishly detailed novel about political prisoners, which has recently been published by NYRB Classics. There is a tonal pressure in the book’s opening lines that could square with a hard-boiled detective novel. “Mikhail Ivanovich Kostov, who was not at all superstitious, had a feeling that things were about to happen in his life. They were heralded by almost imperceptible signs. So it was for his arrest.”

Like Serge, Kostov falls out of favor with the Communist Party because of his support for the Left Opposition – Party members who rallied around Trotsky and opposed Stalin’s economic plans for the country. Unlike his creator, Kostov recants his position so as to try to get along unmolested by the encircling police state. But Instead of reconciling him with the establishment, his profession of support for the orthodox party line exposes him to the state-sanctioned paranoia that’s cultivated in the hearts of governmental functionaries, who are tasked with identifying backsliders and so-called double dealers.

Kostov’s sojourn through “Chaos,” his nickname for the Moscow detention center that houses the “rectangular room containing six bunks and thirty prisoners,” is lit with tension, wit, and despair. Serge balances the grim details of prison life with flights of prose that arc past the material drabness of the setting. After Kostov listens to an old convict hold forth about how his silence in the face of authorial questioning carries with it the possibility that he might know nothing or everything, Serge dilates on the word everything: “The word everything contained a threat, a confession, terror, night, irony – everything.”

Just as Serge was eventually transferred to a remote town near the Urals called Orenburg, where he finished out the last two years of his sentence, Kostov is deported to Chernoe – a place of log houses and bread shortages. Before Kostov’s arrival, Serge introduces us to four supporters of the Left Opposition who are doing their best to keep their heads low. By contrast with the hurdling tempo of the novel’s first section, I fear that anyone who is not a Russophile may be put off by some of the characters’ immersion in the politics of their time. (Am I wrong to think that few will relate to a sentence like, “The Old Man’s theses [i.e., Trotsky's] are correct – the only chance for salvation is a common front with Social Democracy and the Reformist trade unions”?) If that level of detail seems rather dry, note that this section is filled with other registers of observation that vividly bring the era to life – like the description of a man using an old transmission belt to fashion soles for his shoes.

The last three sections of the novel recapture the comprehensive urgency of the first. In these, Serge expands his cast of characters to include a bien-pensant engineer who runs into trouble after purchasing an anti-Stalinist paper on a business trip in Paris and a self-serving bureaucrat who makes the precarious lives of the dissidents in Chernoe even more so. You don’t need to be a Russophile to share the engineer’s rush at coming into contact with illicit data that reveals the true condition of his country or to be disgustedly transfixed at the bureaucrat’s narrow-minded, narcissism. Sadly, some things never go out of fashion.

As I get older, I’ve come to increasingly spot the inadequacies in my formal education with regard to the tutelage I received in politics and history. While many of my teachers did a fine job at providing a macro overview of historical events, you cannot compare what it’s like to glean the history of the Soviet Union from a textbook with the experience of reading "Midnight in the Century." This is history at its most immediate and enduring – filtered through the nerve endings of the men and women who lived it.

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