Victor Serge (Victor Lvovich Kibalchich) (1890–1947) was born in Brussels of parents who were Russian revolutionary emigrés. His father had been an officer and later a physician, and was a sympathizer of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) Party. One of his relatives, a chemist belonging to this party, was hanged in 1881...
Victor Serge (Victor Lvovich Kibalchich) (1890–1947) was born in Brussels of parents who were Russian revolutionary emigrés. His father had been an officer and later a physician, and was a sympathizer of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) Party. One of his relatives, a chemist belonging to this party, was hanged in 1881 after the assassination of Czar Alexander II.
Serge’s childhood was spent in Belgium and England. One of his younger brothers died of want. At fifteen he was apprenticed to a photographer in Brussels. Later he became successively a photographer, a draftsman, an office worker, a linotype operator—after he had learned the trade in anarchist print shops—a journalist, and a translator.
At fifteen, he became a member of the socialist Jeune Garde in Ixelles; then a militant member of the Groupe Revolutionnaire in Brussels. He contributed to the Temps Nouveaux, Libertaire, and Guerre Sociale. He took part in demonstrations and trials. He spent some time in company villages in the north of France and took part in militant activity in Paris. Editor of l’Anarchie in 1910, during the period of illegality, he was arrested but refused to denounce the members of the underground group, of whom several killed themselves and others died on the guillotine. He was convicted under the infamous laws then in force and condemned to five years imprisonment.
After being freed in 1917, he became a linotypist in Barcelona, a member of the CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo), a contributor to Tierra y Libertad, and took part in the first revolutionary attempt of July 1917. He then left for Russia, but was arrested in Paris and interned by the Clemenceau government in a concentration camp. He was exchanged in January 1919, as a Bolshevik hostage, for an officer in the French Military Mission, who was being held in Russia, and finally arrived in Petrograd.
He became a member of the Russian Communist Party and a colleague of Zinoviev on the Executive Committee of the Communist International during the civil war. He then became a gunner in a special battalion, a member of the military defense staff, and commissar of archives in the secret police under Krassin in 1919. He participated in the first congresses of the Communist International and became editor of the Communist International. He spent considerable time in Germany (during the preparation of the 1923 uprising) and in Austria.
Serge returned to the Soviet Union in 1926 and publicly embraced the position of the Left Opposition. The smashing of the Opposition brought Serge’s expulsion from the Communist Party, a brief period of imprisonment as a warning, and permanent blacklisting as far as employment was concerned. Already possessed of a literary reputation in France as a translator of Lenin and Trotsky and for his novels, pamphlets, and articles about revolutionary Russia, he now depended on his pen and the sale of his writings to French publishers and periodicals to support himself and his family. This was a very sparse and precarious livelihood, frustrating because of the Soviet censorship and postal authorities who delayed interminably or frequently “lost” his manuscripts even though they did not deal with contemporaneous political matters.
In 1933 he was again arrested and deported to Orenburg, a remote town on the Ural River. There he was soon joined by his young son Vlady. In France a campaign on Serge’s behalf had been started in intellectual circles. It enlisted the support of a number of prominent literary figures, several of whom are reputed to have raised the question in audiences granted them by Stalin. Agitation about Serge became an embarrassment to Soviet diplomats and French Communist Party leaders, who with the change in line towards a popular front were assiduously wooing liberal and democratic support. In April 1936, Serge was allowed to leave the USSR for Belgium. He had got out by the skin of his teeth, the last person identified with opposition to Stalin to do so, for in July began the mass arrests, opening the great purges, and the first Moscow trial was staged in August.
In the initial period of his return to Western Europe, Serge collaborated with Leon Trotsky and his supporters, particularly in exposing the falseness of the Moscow Trials and making known the true situation in the Soviet Union. But he soon developed political differences with Trotsky, some of them on theoretical matters but most importantly on the policy of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista—Workers Party of Marxist Unification) in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. Serge ardently defended the POUM policy which Trotsky bitterly condemned as centrist. Thereafter Serge continued his political activity and writing, principally in the circles and press of the social democratic left.
Forced to flee France after the Nazi victory, Serge and his family found asylum in Mexico, arriving there after Trotsky’s assassination. Though he had plans to return to Europe, Serge died in Mexico on November 17, 1947.
Many of Serge’s writings have been translated into English. The historical, political, and cultural works among these are Witness to the German Revolution, From Lenin to Stalin, Russia Twenty Years After (title of British edition: Destiny of a Revolution), Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Year One of the Russian Revolution, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings on Literature and Revolution, and excerpts from Carnets (published as Mexican Notebooks) covering the years 1940–47.
His translated novels are Men in Prison, based on his five years in French jails; Birth of Our Power, drawing on his experiences in the Barcelona uprising of 1917, French internment camps, and Russia in the throes of civil war; Conquered City, set in St Petersburg, 1920–21; Midnight in the Century, based on two years in exile in Orenburg, Russia, in the 1930s; The Case of Comrade Tulayev, based on Stalin’s purge and the Moscow trials; The Long Dusk, picturing the fate of the refugees after the fall of France to the Nazi army; and Unforgiving Years, a novel in four sections that deals with prewar France, the Nazi siege of Leningrad, the fall of Hitler’s Germany, and political refugees in Mexico.
Serge's Portrait de Staline (Portrait of Stalin) is available in French. A volume of his poetry has been issued under the title Pour un brasier dans un desert (For a Fire in a Wilderness). One book, Hitler contra Stalin (Hitler against Stalin), printed in Mexico City, exists only in Spanish.