The Art of Critique: Victor Serge’s “Midnight in the Century”

By Guy Patrick CunninghamJanuary 24, 2015

Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge

I TREASURE GREAT POLITICAL FICTION, in part because it’s so rare. Literature — fiction in particular — thrives with time, whereas the specifics of political struggles are notoriously transient. That makes it hard to write truly political work, as opposed to more abstract “novels of ideas” that might reflect on political themes only indirectly. Certainly George Orwell managed to write fiction that combined political ideas and literary technique — though even he grounded his most important work in science fiction (1984) or fable (Animal Farm). But the political novelist who makes the biggest impression on me is Victor Serge, the longtime political radical who took up literature after turning away from the Soviet Communist Party.

Serge’s biography often gets in the way of talking about his gifts as a writer. To be fair, he lived one of the most interesting lives of any 20th-century man of letters: stateless, a veteran of seemingly every radical movement of the early 20th century, from the anarchists to the Bolsheviks, he participated in the struggle against Franco in Spain, organized against Hitler in both Germany and later in France (where Serge worked with the French Resistance), and he was an early — and vocal — critic of Stalin in the USSR. Susan Sontag considered him a hero, and plenty of others have agreed with her. The fact that all of his novels deal explicitly with political movements in which he participated or historical events he experienced firsthand makes it even easier to get caught up in the drama of his life — especially since he wrote about it so well in his seminal Memoirs of a Revolutionary. But, for the contemporary reader, Serge’s literary gifts outweigh his value as a witness to a particular moment in history. Perhaps no political writer better combined a strict attention to history with a command of novelistic technique. As a result, looking at his work offers great insight into why some political fiction endures even after it has long passed.

The 1939 novel Midnight in the Century, brought back into print in December 2014 by NYRB Classics, exemplifies what makes Serge so compelling. The book mostly concerns itself with the life of several members of the USSR’s Left Opposition, internally exiled to Chernoe, a remote (fictional) town near the Chernaya (sometimes called the Black River). Rather than focus on one or two main characters, Serge focuses on the group itself, while occasionally looking out on Soviet society as a whole. In his Memoirs, Serge explains his disinterest in solitary heroes. “We never live only by our own efforts, we never live only for ourselves; our most intimate, our most personal thinking is connected by a thousand links with that of the world.” All of his novels reflect this belief — not only do they focus on groups instead of individuals, but the political ideas expressed therein emerge out of conversations between characters, rather than through narration or internal monologue. In that way the form of the work reinforces Serge’s characters’ ideals.

This particular novel starts with a history professor named Mikhail Ivanovich Kostrov, a former supporter of Stalin’s now-marginalized rival Trotsky, who senses he will be arrested, in part because of the machinations of a colleague. The novel’s first section follows Kostrov as the Soviet authorities silently draw closer, proceeding through his arrest, his time in prison, and his interrogation, until finally leaving him in solitary confinement. Serge does a good job laying bare the inhumanity behind Stalin’s purges.[1] Serge uses Kostrov’s experience to introduce the book’s core themes — especially the distinction between group thinking and groupthink. And while this chapter focuses on Kostrov, he is firmly embedded in a wider society.

For example, after Kostrov first realizes his co-worker has betrayed him, Serge immediately cuts to a scene of the professor eating dinner with his family. Kostrov asks his wife, “And what would you say, Ganna, if they arrested me?” As his wife answers, the point of view shifts to their young daughter. From there, the narrator observes, at first seemingly on Kostrov and Ganna’s behalf, “In our times, children have to understand. Let the children know. It’s better to prepare them than lie to them endlessly.” But instead of returning to the scene at the table, the perspective shifts to one of their neighbors, a man named Vanil Vanilich, who had been taken two weeks earlier. The story then turns to Vanil’s daughter, Svetlana, who has been lied to about her father’s disappearance and appears embittered by it, exalting in the news that yet another neighbor has been executed: “He was a nasty man and I’m glad they shot him.” From there, the point of view shifts again to Svetlana’s grandfather, a weary man trying — and failing — to find solace in Pushkin’s poetry. Then, just like that, we are back at the dinner table with Kostrov and Ganna again.

What’s remarkable about the passage is how deftly Serge moves from one character to the next, locating them all in the same situation — the early days of Stalin’s purges — while allowing each character to have his or her own individual response. In his Memoirs, Serge declares, “I do not think of myself as at all an individualist: rather as a ‘personalist,’ in that I view human personality as a supreme value, only integrated in society and in history. The experience and thought of one man have no significance that deserves to last, except in this sense.” In the scene wrapped around the Kostrov family table, Serge shows us exactly what that means: multiple characters are given at least a moment of true individuality, but they are presented together, as a society.

This becomes even more important when Kostrov is imprisoned. Again, Serge leaves his apparent protagonist for long stretches, introducing us to the men jailed with him, showing each as individual, but doing so in the context of prison society. Often Serge doesn’t clearly attribute the dialogue of Kostrov’s fellow inmates, so they seem to speak as a group — not with a single voice, but still as a collective entity: “Here, after all, I feel at home,” one says, “like part of the family.” Another prisoner, called the Elder, serves as a kind of arbiter — one prisoner asks him for “permission” to cry, parodying the constraints imposed on them by their jailers. The Elder labels the community of their cell “Chaos No. 16,” a sly nod both to their own predicament and the tumult engulfing the outside world. Eventually, though, Kostrov loses even his prison “family,” as he is moved into a private cell. His isolation registers all the more profoundly precisely because Serge has so consistently embedded him inside different communities — his family, his neighbors, his fellow prisoners. He doesn’t need to spell out what it means to view human personality integrated into society and history — the book’s very structure makes it apparent. This becomes incredibly important during the book’s main section, set amid the internal exile community in Chernoe.

The main action of the novel picks up there, where a group of dissidents has been relocated as part of an earlier purge. They gather together and attempt to communicate with other oppositionists throughout the USSR, hiding messages in the mail and discussing events in both the Soviet Union and Germany, where Hitler is just coming to power. Even Kostrov eventually ends up in Chernoe. He never truly joins the others, remaining a ghostly background presence through most of the tale, but his affinities for their politics and the similarity of everyone’s experiences with the secret police tie him to his fellow exiles all the same. Eventually, the central government in Moscow decides to further purge former revolutionaries who are — or could be portrayed as — sympathetic to Trotsky. At that point, the narrative coils into its inevitable final shape, as the Soviet bureaucracy ensnares the oppositionists one by one. By the novel’s close, only one of the Chernoe exiles has managed to slip Stalin’s grasp, leaving the rest to face death or prolonged imprisonment. But unlike some of Serge’s later work, Midnight in the Century isn’t so interested in the mechanics of the purge itself. Instead, it uses it as a platform to contrast the consensus-driven politics of the dissidents with the totalitarian bureaucracy of Stalin’s USSR.

Like the prisoners in Chaos No. 16, these exiles form a kind of society — living, making love, surviving brutal poverty, and, most importantly, talking. The two most influential members of the group are ex-Bolsheviks, who played important roles during the Russian Revolution itself: Elkin and Ryzhik. (One of them, Ryzhik, also appears in Serge’s earlier novel Conquered City, where he is shown playing a key part in defending St. Petersburg from the reactionary Whites during the Russian Civil War.) By focusing on these two committed revolutionaries, both outspoken opponents of Stalin and his repression, Serge offers a glimpse of just whom Stalin betrayed. Serge never stopped admiring the Russian Revolution itself, and Elkin and Ryzhik embody all the ideals that drew Serge to the Bolsheviks during that era. They are not only trying to resist Stalin but are still engaged in politics as an extension of life. Their compatriots, especially the daring woman named Varvara and a naïve but idealistic young man named Rodion, are just as engaged. As a result, the exiles communicate through political discussion — it’s what they know, and it’s how they express their inner lives.

Serge’s novels are political in a very broad sense — they present not a program, not a protest, but a way of looking at the world, a conception of how human beings relate to each other. In that way, Serge’s fiction serves as an introduction not only into his political ideas but into how they operate in the world at large. The conversations among the exiles not only further the story — they show how the oppositionists feel society should operate. They listen to each other’s views and sincerely try to find a consensus, acting as a miniature direct democracy. For example, at one point they debate Stalin’s decision to undermine the anti-Nazi opposition in Germany (where Hitler still has not consolidated absolute control of the government) in the — mistaken — hope it will forestall war. Ryzhik expresses his displeasure, saying, “It reeks of defeat. The apparatchiks have become so spineless that they probably believe a third of a quarter of what they say.” But he still “hesitates to draw conclusions.” Elkin, a committed supporter of Stalin’s rival Trotsky, insists that Trotsky’s push for a “united front” between communists and other anti-Nazi activists is necessary, saying, “The time to fight to the death is before he takes over. Once Hitler has power, he will keep it.” Varvara then pushes the group to draw up theses they can share with other dissidents around the country, implying that Elkin’s position has carried the day. Finally, Rodion rejoices at the decision, bringing the meeting to its endpoint. Certainly, the fact that history has proved the group correct — about both Stalin and Hitler — gives the scene a certain luster. But what’s more impressive is the way their arguments build on each other: Ryzhik recoils from Stalin’s policy but is indecisive; Elkin builds on Ryzhik’s discomfort and makes a definitive political stand; Varvara takes Elkin’s individual stand and transforms it into a political call to action; Rodion ratifies it by voicing his assent. They listen and react — thinking as a group without ever losing their distinct personalities or perspectives. While nearly all of Serge’s novels utilize this technique in one way or another, none of his creations embody it as thoroughly as the exiles of Chernoe. This is why Midnight in the Century is such an interesting text — it is where Serge’s use of conversation and collective thinking is most on display. The exiles, therefore, are key figures in Serge’s literary canon.

They certainly stand in stark contrast to the Soviet bureaucracy that surrounds and eventually crushes them. The persecution of the exiles begins with Stalin himself — in the novel called only by his first name and patronymic, Josif Vissarionovich. He speaks little, but his words reverberate through all subsequent events, as he decides to begin a new round of repression in anticipation of a major political conference: “The Right and the Left will be stirring in little corners. Lock ’em up, eh, lock ’em up! And keep me informed of everything.” We see this order cascade through the bureaucracy until it finally reaches the authorities in Chernoe. Pointedly, the most important part of the exchange between the Chernoe authorities appears not as dialogue but as a narrative aside — as if it emerges from outside, instead of through discussion:

Arrests should not be made too quickly. Keep watch, let the sickness spread a little. Repression, like war according to Clausewitz, is a form of politics. We are here to furnish the argument, the proof, at the useful time: proof that the disease exists, that it is being contained, conquered for the moment. Proof that we exist too.

The ideas and the structure of the scene compliment each other — the two men are not interested in learning the truth but in furnishing a “proof” that will be politically useful to the Party, and not incidentally their own careers. The order arrives, and it is accepted. Their ideas don’t build on it — or on each other — the way the group of exiles’ do. They are bureaucrats, and their individuality has been subsumed into the bureaucracy.

The contrast brings to mind a particular passage from Serge’s Memoirs, where he explained his efforts during the Civil War era to present an alternate vision of political organization to his fellow Bolsheviks:

I was arguing for a “Communism of associations” — in contrast to the Communism of the State […] I thought of the total plan not as something to be dictated by the State from on high, but rather as resulting from the harmonizing, by congresses and special assemblies, of initiatives from below. However, since the Bolshevik mind had already ordained other solutions, it was a vision confined to the realms of pure theory.

In Midnight in the Century, fiction allows Serge to take this “theory” and show how it plays out in a real world environment. What’s interesting about his theory is how much it owes to Serge’s roots in the anarchist movement — which emphasizes change from below and consensus, while shunning bureaucracy and the state. This gives the novel a salience beyond a particular political moment — because the contrast between a more institutional, bureaucratic Left and a more anarchist-inflected, anti-state Left is a debate that has remained, even if Soviet-style communism has disappeared. In addition, the theory’s dissemination offers a model of how political writing can achieve literary complexity without sacrificing its engagement with history or ideas.

As the novel moves to its conclusion, Serge continues to contrast the communal decision-making of the exiles with the top-down methods of their tormentors. Even the most momentous decisions continue to grow out of dialogue. One of the most powerful exchanges comes near the end, when Elkin and Ryzhik are arrested and find themselves briefly detained in the same cell. Both are defiant, but Ryzhik warns his friend not to give into despair: “You must cling stubbornly to life, in prison or anywhere else, whatever the cost, do you understand? Don’t get carried away in stupid hunger strikes. Their job is to suppress us noiselessly; ours is to survive.” Interestingly, as the conversation goes on, each takes on the role the other would prefer. All along Ryzhik has stressed the importance of survival, while Elkin has felt the lure of hunger strikes — but in the end, Ryzhik decides to embark on a hunger strike (though it will certainly be fatal), and Elkin decides to cling to life in prison. In talking to each other throughout the novel, they have come to see that they are each better suited for the other’s role — as a decorated war hero, Ryzhik’s hunger strike may catch the attention of the older Bolsheviks still trying to work with Stalin, while the charismatic Elkin stands a better chance of organizing dissidents in jail. Through their community, each comes to understand the task for which he is best suited.

We never see Ryzhik’s strike or Elkin’s time in prison, so we never know if their “trade” works. And the odds are still firmly against the pair, and all of the anti-Stalinists, both in Chernoe and elsewhere. While a note of hope runs through Midnight in the Century, it is a very tough hope, without any reassurances. The story even closes on an ambiguous note. Rodion, the youngest and least intellectually sophisticated of the exiles, escapes from his own arrest — he had been detained in a badly guarded shack — picks up false identity papers, and eventually blends in with a group of manual workers. These “proletarians” accept him right away. Eventually, one offers him a drink, and Rodion asks her an ambiguously political question: “Do you know what we are? Have you ever thought about it?” She is fascinated but afraid: “She considered him with astonishment. And her direct iron-blue gaze was tinged with fear.” And the novel ends. Rodion is free. Like Elkin, Ryzhik, and the others, he is still fighting, in his own way. But the society around him has already become so brutalized that it fears his defiance. Maybe he can overcome it; more likely he can’t. The point is that he keeps trying — he retains his individuality, yet keeps engaging the wider community. Again, it’s a kind of hope, but one devoid of any reassurances.

The ambiguousness — and the subtle hopefulness — of the novel’s ending points to exactly how Serge differs from writers like Orwell. Animal Farm ends on an incredibly bleak note: the animals of the revolution watch their pig leaders talking to the human farmers who used to exploit them; the pigs have grown so much like the old masters that, as the other animals look back and forth between the pigs and the humans, they can’t tell the difference between them. And 1984 leaves its protagonist, Winston Smith, so broken by torture that he “loves” his oppressors. Orwell’s books, particularly Animal Farm, an intentionally simple fable, are acts of protest. The point is to explore the darkness of a particular strain of totalitarianism and say, No, this is not acceptable. Protest is valuable. But it is far more powerful when it is backed by a critique. The reason is simple: protest itself can be a very limited, even conservative impulse. After all, when William F. Buckley, Jr., founded National Review, the flagship publication of the American conservative movement, he declared that his style of conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” A writer like Serge, committed to a radically democratic politics that would upend both business and bureaucratic elites, needs to go further.

His command of literary technique allows Serge to say no while also creating a world where a potential yes is in evidence, albeit a yes that demands a great deal of commitment and effort to achieve. This is why both the exiles’ “group thinking” and the thread of hope running through Rodion’s escape are both so important to Midnight in the Century: they say that not only must Stalin’s terror be stopped, but that there is a better, more humane alternative waiting to take its place. Serge doesn’t just reject Stalinism — he critiques it. And this makes his rejection of totalitarianism all the more powerful. In that way, his books remain relevant — and show exactly why political fiction, when it’s done right, can be as intellectually fulfilling as any work of political philosophy.


[1] Serge explores these purges even more fully and more effectively in his late novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev.


Guy Patrick Cunningham is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York.

LARB Contributor

Guy Patrick Cunningham is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in The Millions, Bookslut, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @GuysLibrary.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!