State Space and Victor Serge: Midnight in the Century

Continuing my series of posts on the novels of Victor Serge at my personal blog site For the Desk Drawer, I focus now on what Richard Greeman has recognized as the “cycle of resistance” in the second informal trilogy comprising Midnight in the Century [1939], The Case of Comrade Tulayev [1942], and The Long Dusk [1946]. If earlier novels in the “cycle of revolution” capture the conquest of space, notably Conquered City, then the later novels in the “cycle of resistance” convey the statification of space. This refers to the production of political space through meaningful architectural forms; symbolic representations of state power; the organisation of territory and geography; and state strategies to shape, reproduce, and control production through industrial development, land use, transportation, and communication. The novel Midnight in the Century reflects the defeat of revolution and how the Soviet state bound itself to space: how state control is extended, shaped and reshaped by the production of space. The spatial dimension is therefore intrinsic to understanding the contradictions of state action and struggles for survival within this rendering of life at the hands of the Soviet machine.

From the start it is worth noting that Midnight in the Century is a portrayal of state security in 1934, prior to the Great Terror and the purges from 1936-39. The State Political Directorate (GPU) was created in 1921 and this novel contains a depiction of a series of detention centres and labour camps fanning out in the form of a wide constellation from the shacks of the White Sea to the Ural region. Hence Richard Greeman’s view that this is “probably the first fictional portrayal of life in the land of the Gulag,” or the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies, which anticipates the depiction of the “gulag archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by some years. This fictional backdrop draws on Serge’s own arrest and detention in the Lubyanka in Moscow and deportation to Orenburg on the Ural River in 1933. As the “metropolis of the steppes,” Orenburg was regarded by Serge as a “privileged spot” for deportation. Only leading figures or convicts with years of imprisonment or exile were sent there but this “privilege” was scarred by famine, destruction, and decay. “Among the ruins of the churches,” Serge recounts in his memoirs, “in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying together, dying of hunger.”

The novel itself is about the zero hour of “midnight in the century” when Europe is confronted with the congruencies between the two dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler.

In Germany, one is burying an aborted democracy, the child of an aborted revolution. In Russia, the other is burying a victorious revolution born of a weak proletariat and left on its own by the rest of the world. Both of them are leading those they serve – the bourgeoisie in Germany, the bureaucracy here at home – toward a catastrophe.

The character, Dimitri Elkin, questions “What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?” He works at the State Fish Trust and is one of a series of exiled Left Oppositionists that include the political deportees Rodion (a truck driver at the Penza bicycle factory), Tarassova Varvara (ex-editor of the Leninist Voice, organ of the Workers’ Federation), Tabidze Avelii (who is her lover), and Comrade Ryzhik, now sixty-one years old and held for counter-revolutionary activities since his days in the Cheka in Petrograd, as portrayed in Conquered City. These deportees are all held in the fictional town of Chernoe (Black-Town), sitting on the river Chernaya (Black-Waters) on the steppe. They all meet clandestinely to discuss, theorize, and organize despite the air of repression. The town itself has already experienced the reorganisation of its own urban planning: the former Karnaoukhov Street is now called Comrade Lebedkin Street, location of the Social Nourishment Restaurant Number 1; Kazatzkaya Street (or Cossack Street) has become Red Army Street; the former Traktirnaya (The Footpath of the Inn) is called The Boulevard of the Soviets; Saint Nicholas Square is now Lenin Square; and Ivanovskaya Street is Clara-Zetkin Street.

Reflected in these biographies and occupations is what Henri Lefebvre recognized as the expansion of the state mode of production: how in the Soviet Union and elsewhere there was a worldwide expansion of statism “where the state becomes more clearly the agent, even the guiding hand, of this production” of space. This is the space of state control – the statification of space – engaged in the regressive mapping of space that is quantified, homogenized, controlled, hierarchized but also fragmented, broken, fractured, and countered through counter-spaces of revolt.

The commune at Chernoe is marked by a number of representations of space. Elkin contemplates the emptiness of space, the heaviness of the steppe. “Draw a straight line from here, in front of you,” he says, “nothing for a thousand kilometres, nothing for two thousand, for three thousand, for four thousand, nothing at the Pole.” Rodion defines state capitalism as “a sort of enormous tank . . . covering the whole horizon, which is going to crush everything.” Avelii’s encounter with space is at the riverside of the Chernaya, “ahead to the north lay the far-off line of the woods, with a gap in the middle opening out to limitless space.” There was “nothing left for him but the reality of earth and space, tinged with gladness.” Within the commune there is darkness, silence, solitude with Avelii feeling alone between earth and sky. “Avelii emerged for a moment from the void at the break of dawn . . . Heavy clouds covered a slumbering earth, valleys, precipices, rushing streams, villages with square towers, haystacks on hills, the ruins of one of Tamara’s castles, the murmurs of a forest through which does followed velvety trails.” On the opposite side of the Black-Waters there stretched into darkness the vastness of the plains. This is what Roy Johnson has called Serge’s “supra-continental viewpoint” from which to depict events shaping the bleakest moment in Europe’s history.

Beyond these characters, there is a circle of official state representatives (men of the state) that experience varied fortunes. Mikhail Ivanovich Kostrov, the Committee Secretary and lecturer in historical materialism at the Communist University appears at the start of the novel in Moscow, motioning down Tverskoy Boulevard on the corner with Malaya Nikitskaya contemplating a statue to Kliment Timiryazev (Russian botanist and physiologist) as well as the nearby house of Maxim Gorky, who produced “sugary, revolting, almost soul-less” writings. Kostrov speeds through Moscow, passed Trinity Gate, the battlements of the Kremlin, the white colonnade of the Grand Theatre, a department store under construction, before arriving in Dzherzhinsky Square (1926-1990), now Lubyanka Square, and location of the headquarters of the former KGB, now Federal Security Service (FSB). Kostrov, under investigation, finds himself in an office adorned with a picture of the Chief (Stalin) hanging opposite a map of Moscow and is eventually detained in solitary confinement looking up at the white ceiling of his cell before deportation to Chernoe. “You can see very well, from up in an aeroplane, that cities are anthills…”: Tiflis, the Kazbek, the Elbrus, Rostov, Moscow, the foam-flecked Kura are all seen from high in the air. “The glaciers are stars smashed across the earth . . . How beautiful the earth was! Steppes, then forests: a living, moving map, rich colours, oceans of foliage stretched to infinity.”

Then there is engineer Vitalii Vitalievich Botkin who worked at the site of the Stalin Tractor Works in Stalingrad as chief technician until his prestigious three-month official mission to London, Paris, and Berlin by the order of the Central Administration for the Construction of Agricultural Machinery to gather information on new models.

Botkin visits factories in London suburbs where poverty is a wasting disease, on the islands of the Seine under a sad smiling sky, on the outskirts of Berlin, clean, grey and bare. On the Thames, on the Seine, on the Spree, little black tugboats belched soot: mostly old tubs – clear evidence of capitalism’s decrepitude. The London buses were comfortable, the Paris ones smelly and bumpy; similarly the Metro had no elevators, but the London Underground . . . From these signs, as well as from the dirt on the streets and the old facades of Paris, Botkin recognised that a profound disease was eating away at the French bourgeoisie. Because of the upholstered seats of the London buses, the British Empire seemed more solid to him than people said. All his misfortunes – if indeed they were misfortunes – came from these incidental reflections.

His mission raises his profile and esteem but he succumbs while in Paris to the purchase of a copy of the Bulletin of the Opposition, edited by Leon Trotsky and illegal in Soviet Russia. The temporary possession of this illicit publication is enough to see him demoted and exiled and his privileged insight into life in the west ceases. Botkin is sent to the Special Purpose Concentration Camp, Kola Peninsula, in the Murmansk Oblast, that is marked by empty spaces under the clouds, deserted heaths, with ideas the only thing capable of crossing its borders.

Then there is Comrade Fedossenko of the GPU, who on his arrival inhales the air of pure spaces at the commune of Chernoe, full of enthusiasm for the policies of Heinrich Grigorievich Yagoda (director of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs [NKVD] from 1934-36) and projects such as the digging of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal. The latter was constructed on the back of Gulag labour at a Special Purpose Concentration Camp between 1931 and 1933 and is hailed in Fedossenko’s mind as “more memorable than the digging of the Suez Canal, than the digging of the Panama Canal, than the digging of the Saint-Gothard Tunnel, than the draining of the Zuyderzee.” This despite the fact that 227 kilometre waterway of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal was inadequate for most sea-going vessels because it was too shallow. Following directives from within the Politburo, led by Stalin himself, there is to be a crackdown on anybody linked to the “Chernoe Trotskyist Centre,” organized among the deportees at Chernoe. The aim is to enforce this crackdown ahead of the coming Party Conference and the directive, of course, lands on the desk of zealot Fedossenko. Due to a prison break out, incompetence and administrative irregularities, though, Fedossenko is demolished and humiliated by Comrade Knapp, the District Chief, who sends him to his own fate of prison confinement.

Toward the end of the novel the revolutionary faith and political intelligence of the Oppositionist deportees is highlighted in the resistance of Rodion and Ryzhik. For Ryzhik, his aim is to drag into the mire a series of apparatchiks (men of state) by secretly planning a hunger-strike following his deportation back to Moscow. This becomes a pivotal act of revolt, rather than passivity and silence, at the climax of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. As Ryzhik announces:

There’s no group more practical, more cycnial, more inclined to resolve everything by murder than the privileged plebeians who float to the surface at the end of revolutions, when the lava has hardened over the fire, when everybody’s revolution turns into the counter-revolution of a few against everybody.

Later, in the centre of Chernoe, Rodion contemplates life and fate while resting on some stones that have fallen from the cornice of Saint Nicholas’ Church in Lenin Square. There is the little bust of Vladimir Illich that has long been forgotten in the very centre of that abandoned space. There are the three stone houses that were confiscated from the rich, an age ago, in the name of justice that now house Security, the Party Committee, and the Soviet. And then there are the three goats grazing in the dark grass around the Lenin monument. Alone in the empty square, Rodion contemplates his future: “And what if the time is snatched away from him? What if he himself is extinguished before the dawn, like a tiny candle flickering in the great winds of space?”

After his imprisonment, Rodion manages to escape and at the moment of exodus heads for the woods at the bend of the Chernaya and fills his lungs with the unbelievable freshness of the countryside, at the beginning of everything. Yet he ends up working as a mason-tender on a building that ironically will be the GPU District Headquarters for State Security. At the end of the novel, though, Rodion looks over the shoulder of a female co-worker while taking some brandy as refreshment “and behind her there was nothing but airy space, plains, and Russian earth, the tortured earth of the Revolution, its black waters, its clouded waters, its clear waters, its frozen waters, its deadly waters, its invigorating waters, its countless living prisoners, its countless executed ones in graves, its construction sites, its masses, its solitudes and all the seeds germinating in its womb.” Despite the asphyxiation of state space, then, there is the seed of something new that can grow, perhaps an alternative way of organizing social space.

In Memoirs of a Revolutionary [1942-43], Serge states that “the ebb tide of events carries men away just as surely as the flood tide brings them in.” In Midnight in the Century we are granted insight into state violence as a continual making and remaking of political space. Yet the spatial planning at the heart of state power is not carried forward by nameless agents, or inexorable laws of nature, but by people making history (men of state and critics of state power). What is revealed in Midnight in the Century as a consequence is a conception of space – or a socio-spatial theory – through which the state form itself comes to play an essential role in the production, partitioning, and ordering of space along with all its contradictions.