To regard the struggle, the pain of a revolution, is not to deny the magnificence and optimism embodied in it. In order to fully look to the future, we have to reckon with the immensity of creating it. And acknowledge that we may fail.
Victor Serge knew this. He supported the Bolshevik Revolution enthusiastically, but as he saw its direction thrown off by civil war and rising bureaucracy, he had little hesitation in dissenting while remaining in absolute solidarity. “It may be said,” wrote his translator Peter Sedgwick, “that Serge’s principal aim throughout his life was to see social reality clearly, as a preliminary to acting sanely…”
This piece of creative non-fiction, first published in the French communist publication Clarté in 1924 (now available at the Marxist Internet Archive in a translation by David Renton), was written around 1920 or 1921. It was the height of the civil war. The picture painted is bleak, but not hopeless. There is a clear admiration for the people he sketches into the story’s episodes and beats, even as they wonder what will become of their revolution, pulled between their hopes and doubts.
There is worry here. Worry over the encroachment of bureaucratization and conservatism, of the possibility that the portraits of Marx and Lenin will become empty symbols used to justify any number of betrayals. Those worries were, as we know, themselves, justified. What there isn’t in this story is any hint of disloyalty to the communist cause. This, not dissent or criticism, would be the true betrayal, both to the social reality itself and the commitment to a sane future.
With revolution, counter-revolution, and even outright fascism all remaining possibilities in our own time (not to mention the specter of climate disaster and nuclear war), we republish “Flame On the Snow” here. – The Editors
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Snow and night. Burdens weigh. You stumble in the deep and deceitful whiteness of the snow. Around, men walk heavily, carrying rifles. The White Finns show hostility in their faces, closed, hard, heavy. They keep silent. The barrels of their guns seem attracted to the ground. A small bridge, sentry box, in the dark another man presses his two hands on his rifle. A bonnet of astrakhan tops a grey, pale coat and the thin face of a peasant. We greeted him without emphasis, tightened hearts, low voices, in spite of the exaltation: “Hello brother!” I do not see the eyes in the great shadows of the face turned towards me. The man asks gently: “Do you have white bread?” He takes the tendered round loaf. “Golodno?” You are hungry? – “Yes. It is nothing”, he answers only to the gate of immense Russia, our brother, the Red soldier, upright in the cold, the night, the hunger – and alone.
One is hungry, but it is nothing...
The white night with distant bursts of shell, abrupt passages by the empty streets, the roughcast trucks of bayonets. Hands grow numb on the rifle. But this midnight with its infinite pallor, this silence, this waiting become a singular peace. You feel almost liberated. Free, simple, calm, although it arrives.
Crosses of rifles stand in front of closed doors. Our steps sound in the mildness of unknown homes. Faces of anxiety, lamps suddenly lit among the grey half-light. Papers which you decipher badly in front of the window, the frightened eyes that you explore in an acute and sad glance, “Are you lying?”
Return. Tire. The rifle weighs. It is necessary. It is necessary. It is necessary. We will make the new life.
The crowd – this resolute crowd gathered in the vast quadrangular room, with white columns, the Tauride Palace, this drawn-up crowd, tender, vehement, willingly applauding the orator:
The man with his back arched, a high thick mane of greying hair. The energetic face of an intellectual, stressed voice, categorical gesture which proclaims the determination of the crowd to overcome. It proclaims terror.
The song of the crowd.
Young women – no preoccupation with elegance or prettiness, but what valour! – in short hair, their busts clasped by leather clothing or a military blouse; workers, soldiers, peasants, sailors, the crowd singing the Internationale after the Farewell to the Dead.
This crowd wants to live, to make life. But how many of those who are there have already been killed?
This immense white city, all in silence. Because the sledges do not make noise on snow. The steps do not resonate. A great pale light on all things. Broad, between its pink granite quays, the Neva solid under snow. Far away, the gold arrow of Peter-and-Paul.
The poor tattered people, many teenagers, some children all bearing rifles, with the straps often replaced by string. The hands numb with cold of these poor people. Their grey wretched crossing of the Liteyni prospect, in a determined step. At the end of a bayonet a red flag: Workers’ battalion from Narva district.
In a noisy barrack room – the walls showing Marx and Lenin framed with red ribbons – this avid group around us, the firm and defying face of the agitator, the pince-nez with gold mounting, these child-like and serious eyes, the comically round nose of the small comrade in leather jacket, the neat moustache of the Cossack – their hurried questions – “Demobilisation? ... the working-class of France? ... is the revolution growing? ...” Anger, distress, revolt against having to answer these men, this woman: No, you are alone.
This face without apparent beauty, the vast face, these unpleasant white metal glasses behind which there was always the same serious glance, inattentive, a little distant, very attractive, something understanding and soft... Our labour until dawn. At dawn, seated on the edge of a window, above the deserted place (the formidable granite mass of St. Isaac’s, the enormous gold dome: cold rectangular palaces, and worked on its base this thin bronze rider from another time...) our search, our thought, our cold reasoning. (“...impossible that we would hold out for more than six months, unless...”) which made us smile us all the same, full of an unlimited confidence.
This crowd in snow, under the midday sun, following coffins covered with branches of fir trees. Red ribbons, flags. A gold ray is posed on the arrow of the Admiralty. Songs – the song which soars. There are prayers and sobs in this farewell from a living crowd to a crowd of the dead. Here they sleep, behind a granite rampart, those hung, shot, whose throats were cut, those that died of typhus, who all, gave freely and with their souls. Died for the revolution. So often these funerals on the Field of Mars...
Four thousand soldiers, peasants from Viazma, Ryazan, Tver, Orel, Viatka, Perm – Russians, Tartars, Kirghises, Tcherkesses – four thousand soldiers nourished on dry herrings – hard like stone, that made the gums bleed – fed on four hundred grams of black bread per day, dressed in this icy winter with the old coats of the great war, beating their hands like children and laughing and shouting and humming. The room, made from the velvet blue-gold of the imperial theatre vibrates suddenly with this clear human joy, because a sovereign artist sang.
Six hours of voyage by a frozen north wind, along Neva. Stiff, we heat ourselves in turns in the boiler room. And here in the Scandinavian cold landscape the dead carcass of an old castle: the Schüsselburg. And here, in its cottage, the coffin holding the large lengthened body of the anarchist Justin Jouk, the great face of Justin Jouk.
How they have great faces, those of us that are dead!
The Silver Wood, one June morning; the river caressing and murmuring between the meadows and the wood. A dome of a church – in blue or silver, I no longer know – emerging with the sun. Light in all things, fair light of Russia; and the houses of children, peaceful in the tepid warmth of June, in the greenery, in the murmur of water, in waiting for the future. Thin, long camp beds. Along the walls running with tar, the coloured drawings of the young girls; all this clear country of children so close to our town caught up in civil war.
A young girl – seven years old – with very large black eyes, encased in a fine, small Kalmuk face, a small refined spirit, precocious, sensitive, encased in a thin body, slowly debilitated by the hunger: Tatiane, the daughter of an aristocrat, whom you fondly call Tania, Tanioucha, Taniouchetchka. She says:
“Since you are a Bolshevik, answer me! Why was Lavr Andreievitch shot?”
I am a Bolshevik, little Tania, and I do not know why Lavr Andreievitch was shot.
A street corner, the blackening mud of the thaw, a child who sells matches: stolen matches, the prize of speculation. A well-dressed passer-by, in military clothing, booted. The child follows with anger in its eyes: Bourgeois!
And the immense dead factory, scrap in the walkways, rusted benches, formidable squatted machines, oiled, inactive, the halls with windows whose panes have been broken. There will remain soon only the metal casings drawn up on the ruins of a city... The immense dead factory, thirty thousand workers in 1914, four and a half thousand present today. Others: dead, returned to the ground, they died the best, or soldiers.
But near the home of the porter, this negligible small garden cultivated with such an amount of care; and in the immense dead factory, a buzzing hall where seventy men tortured by hunger get on with rebuilding an engine.
The city. The streets narrow, dark. The streets in a state of siege which ended at eight, before nightfall. Far and wide, men with rifles, standing.
City, night, snow. In the homes, twinkling gleams of light. At the bottom of the cold rooms, an old man shriveled in his fur-lined coat, his hands frozen, reads by the gleam of a candle:
The Mysticism of Vladimir Soloviev, and in the dark of the room, a teenager rolled in a soldier’s coat who shivers and thinks of great things, the electrification of the Urals.
The countryside. You can walk there for hours through fields or woods without hearing a voice of man, without seeing a cottage; but you cannot be there for a long time on the road without seeing, surrounded by birches a green chapel with a small triangular pediment, and a pinnacle of blue Byzantine – or of another colour, always bright, clear, radiant colour.
Space – the fields where the train goes during the so-long hours, the fields with their sparse villages: some grey thatched roofs, the fields with their remote churches whose gold cross always light up as the sun sets, and the woods of birch, white slenderness, the silver plated slenderness of the birch trees,
(that our ancient storytellers compared to virgins ... )
Again the city, the old Fabergé store, goods from Paris, objets d’art (the sign is faded). Three balls divide the large window, scraps of paper (leaves torn from an accounts book, numbered 124), “3rd Office of Supply. This 24 February, one dry herring pound at cart B.” – From the windows of the old hotel Regina, poor, sickly soldiers look out. – Here: Aline Fashions, in large scripted gold letters. Below: Headquarters of the special battalion of Kazan sector – Cafe Empire. No, “Club of the 14th State Print works”. In the entrance, Karl Marx, framed with red ribbons. The ribbons are bleached; the portrait loses its colour.
By the street bordered with churches, palaces – where our clubs stand – ransacked stores, theatres, libraries, public buildings, the book centre, the military academy (a bank previously) by the street which goes from the Admiralty, built by Peter the Great, to the statue of Tsar Alexander, so heavy on his heavy bronze horse that he must be contemplating already with his overwhelming weight the fall of his empire.
By this street, the Mongolian riders pass singing. Red ribbons on the handle of their sabres, at the front the red star with five branches.
(You spoke, o poet, so much love for the things of Europe: “Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, Asians ...”)
On the handle of their sabres, red ribbons.
Morning, spring, the desire to smile. People, in the square, read the paper which has just been posted. Why this word The Truth, this word of few syllable, is it so hard, sharp, curt, in all languages: Pravda, Wahrheit, Truth, Verdad? – a scrap of paper flapping in the wind.
“33: Nikitor Arkadievitch Ijine, 33 years old, speculator. 34: Denskaya Elena Dmitrievna, 24 years old, dressmaker, spy. 35: Vassili Vassilievitch Onéguine, 42 years old, officer, aristocrat, proven counter-revolutionary... 58: Abram Abramovitch, 30 years old, civil servant, member of the Communist Party, convicted of corruption ...” shot.
Sixty! says a young voice. They read abstractly, without ceasing to smile. He is twenty years old, an aspiring Red; she, nineteen, militant in charge with of Dynamo factory. Which one will be killed beneath Kronstadt?
“Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars No XXX. Suppression of rent...”
“Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars No XXX. Suppression of private property in furniture...”
“Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars No XXX. Suppression of illiteracy ...”
“Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars No XXX. Creation of the autonomous Tartar Republic.”
One reads standing, in the street, in the snow. The cold grips, you hear gun-fire.
She came often about midnight, after a telephone call (“do you have tea?”). She shook her fair ashy hair. Her eyes had a good serious smile. She said:
“You understand, the regional devolution of the metal industry ... Because the Higher Council of the Economy and the Trade Union...”, or:
“Bogdanov’s theses, from a rigorously Marxist a point of view...”, or
“The sub-section of the organisation of the Committee of the 2nd Sector decided ...”
She lit a cigarette. Her lips had the pink colour of a ripe fruit.
Contempt for words – for the old words. Contempt for the ideas which mislead. Contempt for the hypocritical and cruel West which invented Parliaments, the public press, the asphyxiating gases, the prison system, after-dinner literature. Contempt for all that vegetates in satisfaction with these things.
Hatred for the formidable machine used to crush the weak – all disarmed humanity – for the vice of Law, Police, Clergy, Schools, Armies, Factories, Penal Colonies. Hatred for those who need that system, the rich, class hatred.
The will to undergo everything, to suffer everything, achieve everything in order to finish. Inexorable will. The will to live finally according to the new law, equal work, or to die showing the way. The willingness to plough up the ground and its souls so well that the earth shall be new tomorrow.
Consciousness that the present hardly exists; and that it is necessary to give everything, at this hour, to the future so that there may be a present. Consciousness that all of us are nothing if we are not with our class, its humanity rising. Consciousness that work ahead does not have limits, that it requires a million arm and brains, that it is the only justification of our lives. Consciousness that a world collapses and that you can live only while giving yourself to the world which waits to be born.
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Victor Serge (1890 - 1947) was a Russian revolutionary, journalist and writer. Born in Belgium and originally an anarchist, he joined the Bolsheviks after arriving in Russia in 1919. He opposed the rise of Stalin, he left the country in 1936 and died in Mexico. His works include Year One of the Russian Revolution, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, the novels Birth of Our Power, Conquered City, Men In Prison, and the poetry collection Resistance.