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Victor Serge’s Last Chance

In response to:

Orphan of History from the October 22, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

Richard Greeman, Victor Serge’s eloquent translator and erudite defender, has written to correct several factual errors in my review of Serge’s last novel, Unforgiving Years [NYR, October 22, 2009]. I muddied the associations of Serge’s father—although a Russian anti-tsarist exile, Leonid (not, as I wrote, “Lvov”) Kibalchich had no connection to the People’s Will cell that carried out the assassination of Alexander II, but rather belonged to a “revolutionary military group in the south of Russia.” Also, regarding the particulars of Serge’s internal exile, in 1933 Stalin had Serge deported to Orenburg, not, as I wrote, to a prison camp in Orenburg.

Mr. Greeman considers these errors “relatively benign.” Not so the footnote that refers to the speculation surrounding Serge’s political thinking at the end of his life and in which, among other things, I quote from an ambiguous letter Serge wrote, six days before he died, to his onetime political enemy André Malraux. As described by Greeman:

In 1947, Serge was desperate to leave Mexico, where he had no outlet for his writing and where the doctors had given him only a few months to live because of the altitude and his heart condition. As recounted to me by Serge’s son, the artist Vlady Kibalchich, it was at Vlady’s urging that Victor wrote a rather fawning personal letter to his old colleague and rival Malraux, now de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, in the hope of getting the Minister’s help to return to France, where Serge, a stateless exile, had no legal status and many enemies among the Stalinists. According to Vlady, Serge was perfectly cynical about approaching Malraux…. Malraux, of course, never answered Serge’s letter or lifted a finger to get Serge a visa. But as soon as Serge died, Malraux leaked the compromising parts of Serge’s private letter to the French press as well as to C.L. Sulzberger of The New York Times in order to create the erroneous impression of Serge’s death-bed conversion to Gaullism.

My footnote mentioning Serge’s letter to de Gaulle also quotes Serge’s last published essay, which is a defense of the Russian Revolution. While I believe it unlikely that Serge would have repudiated the politics of a lifetime, it requires a leap of faith to fully anticipate his analysis of the postwar situation.

J. Hoberman
New York City

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