On Victor Serge and Red Petrograd: Conquered City

Following on from my previous posts, one of the most striking features of Victor Serge’s writings has to be the way he captures spatial arbiters that shape the practices of empowerment and containment within the territorial form of the city. Flowing across his documentary or witness novels, his political writings, his poetry, or his memoirs as a revolutionary is a sense of the political processes shaping urban society, the space of the city, and the possibilities of revolution rising up from the streets. Nowhere is this more evident that in his novel Conquered City [1932] set in the years of the Russian Civil War (1919-1921) in the frontline city of Red Petrograd. Written just prior to his years of captivity in Soviet Russia at the hands of Stalin’s purges­­­­­­­­­­­­ (from imprisonment in the Lubianka to exile in Orenburg on the Ural River) and completed in concise fragments that could be despatched abroad hastily, Conquered City is a masterwork on the conquest of space.

Emergent as a theme in his earlier novels, the presence of the city as protagonist becomes a central motif of this third book in the informal trilogy on the ‘cycle of revolution’. Encircled by the advancing White Army of General Yudenich, Petrograd is the ‘endangered city’ on the perilous brink of military defeat, threatened by starvation and the vast frozen expanse of winter, and torn between revolution and counter-revolution. Yet, ‘. . . this city at the very limit of this encircled land, this city prey to famine, at the very limit of the end, lives on with carelessness of the living!’ Petrograd repels these dangers and survives, but the rise of the Red Terror is soon to purge the metropolis of its utopian traces. For it should be recalled that an additional backdrop to the novel is the emergence of the Special Commission (or Cheka), established in 1917, which would come to be instituted and replaced by a permanent secret police in the form of the State Political Directorate (or GPU) by 1921.

In terms of city urbanisation within the novel, Petrograd transmits collective memory and resistance prior to the torpor of counter-revolution. Long dark nights and frozen snows grip the urban socio-spatial landscape. ‘This white, silent, weightless shroud stretched out to infinity in time and space’. The politics of space is expressed through order and disorder, stability and movement, which arises from the modernising revolution of urban society.

The city, crisscrossed by broad, straight arteries and winding canals, surrounded by islands, cemeteries, and huge empty railroad stations, sprawled over the tip of a narrow gulf on the edge of a white solitude.

The space of habiting the city is conveyed throughout the novel. The reader is immersed in the tactile reception of the former Horse Guards Street that has been renamed Frederick Alder Street and then converted into Barricades Street. There is the evocation of the Smolny Institute (headquarters of the October Revolution and one-time residence of V.I. Lenin) now surrounded in barbed-wire. The Trinity Bridge spanning across the turbulence of the River Neva, as it widens out leading to the local headquarters installed at the Peter-Paul Fortress is represented, as well as the Tsar’s old citadel alongside the digging of trenches at the Field of Mars, the Winter Palace and the old Foreign Ministry building bent sharply toward Cantor’s Bridge, and various factories including the works at Izhorsk, Schlüsselberg, and the Meyer Factory and the Kostrov Factory.

The logic and conception of space is also raised to a more ‘global’ level in two senses. First, the grid of urban space that is projected into the built environment in terms of buildings, monuments, large-scale urbanism, and transportation routes is seen from the air.

Seen from high above, from the red-starred airplane circling overhead every morning, the Neva looked like a thin white snake darting two thin blue tongues into the desert from its open mouth.

This is the city that Leon Trotsky assessed in 1919 as essential to defend, if necessary, through the tactics of street fighting in order to combat the anti-Bolshevik White Army of General Yudenich. With a spatial sense of military organisation, Trotsky outlined how the Red Army would occupy a central position and ‘operate along radial lines running from the centre to the periphery’ of the city. Streets would be stationed with barbed-wire entanglements and barricades, with artillery and machine-gun installations. At the same time, Trotsky notes that ‘street battles do, of course, entail the risk of accidental victims and the destruction of cultural treasures’. Taking this up in an essay entitled ‘Endangered City: Petrograd Year Two of the Revolution’, Serge also notes how ‘Petrograd, with its maze-like streets, its canals, its houses turned into fortresses or concealing ambushes, would be a death-trap for the small White Army’.

Second, Petrograd is also significant at the ‘global’ level in terms of the Marxist struggle for revolutionary internationalism stretching across the city-scapes of Europe and beyond, from London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna that are name-checked in the novel. These are all described as, ‘phantom capitals belonging to the past and to another world, which could only be glimpsed through the new prisms of this city: expected uprisings, outcomes always in suspense, dispatches, stunning as blows, from the Rosta wire services proclaiming endless crises, the collapse of old nations, thrilling upheavals’. Petrograd is therefore the city of urban revolution, with transformation and upheaval written on its buildings and on the pavements of its streets. But it is also the city where the death of counter-revolution is circling not just from without but also in terms of the danger from within.

In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary [1942-43], Serge articulated his clear-sighted distrust of the role of the Party as the repository of the truth within which lay the source of intolerance. ‘Totalitarianism is within us’, he wrote, not only as a result of the errors in sustaining the Special Commission in 1917, which used the Hotel Astoria as a site for its administration, but also as a consequence of the events to come, with the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion (1921) just around the historical corner. The conquest of power established within the conquered city of Petrograd is therefore also a meditation on the psychosis of absolute power. In Conquered City, the Special Commission emerges as an emblem of the future degeneracy of the revolution. On the Cheka it is stated ‘We have conquered everything and everything has slipped out of our grasp. We have conquered bread, and there is famine. We have declared peace to a war-weary world, and war has moved into every house’.

The work of the character Bobrov, one-time decipherer of codes within the Ministry of the Interior and now employed by the Special Commission is described thus: ‘Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, as under the ancien régime, secret directives kept him free of all cares. The furnishings and arrangement of his office, in a building next to the Commission, had remained nearly identical for twenty-five years; he had personally seen to it that nothing changed when they were moved from the quarters of the Political Police’.

Equally, a certain sense of fatalism is at the centre of two historians’ reflections within the novel. Professor Vadem Mikhailovich Lytaev relays in conversation with a fellow scholar: ‘. . . Peter’s Mount has got back into his stride. Russia is beginning her revolution again. After Peter, she drifts slowly back into her past again. The Czars only borrow two things from the West: uniforms and money. Behind their false front the old Russia subsists: superstitious, bent under the yoke, floating her huge rafts down the Volga with the same songs as in the sixteenth century, still dragging the wooden swing plough through the fields, building the same houses as a thousand years ago, getting drunk the same way . . . This old country is still there, deep down, under a thin layer of burning lava’.

As Lytaev continues, ‘We are darkest Asia. We can only be pulled out of ourselves by an iron fist. Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution’. The riposte from his fellow scholar, Platon Nikolaevich is, ‘No, Vadim Mikhailovich; Peter, like the people in the Kremlin, is only an accident—perhaps a necessary one in the accomplishment of certain developments—in the history of Russia’. As articulated in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, between historical and human factors, Serge is grappling with the ‘fatal stamp’ of despotism that undermined the Russian Revolution. In Conquered City, Comrades Xenia and Ryzhik characterise this tension between revolution and counter-revolution. Both work for the Special Commission, the former receives ‘two bullets in the belly’, the latter rises to become the new Commissar of the House of Detention.

In All That is Solid Melts Into Air [1982], Marshall Berman details how the traditions of St. Petersburg are distinctively modern ‘growing out of the city’s existence as a symbol of modernity in the midst of backward society’. Emerging out of a brutal but abortive modernisation from above was revolutionary Petrograd, one of an array of experiments resulting from processes of modernisation from below. For Berman, between the clash of these experiments of modernisation may lie clues to some of the mysteries of urban space in alternative contexts of uneven development in Lagos, Brasilia, New Delhi or Mexico City today.

Yet what Conquered City is most successful in conveying is the process of this urban revolution in Red Petrograd. As Serge pens in his poem ‘City’ [1920] written as a paean to Petrograd:

City, city, vast city,
vast, immobile city,
I know there are flames
devouring you beneath the snow

The form and content of new structures, functions, and organisations are therefore expressed through the politics of space in these reflections on the conquered city of Petrograd. The strongest illustration of this in Conquered City is the articulation of what Henri Lefebvre would recognise as differential space: those contrasts, oppositions, or juxtapositions over space that are in conflict with the attempt to enforce and impose an homogenous space. It is within the urban fabric that these conflicts over space are expressed and where the struggle for spaces of revolution and counter-revolution becomes enacted in Conquered City and beyond.