Victor Serge (1890–1947) was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian anti-Tsarist exiles, impoverished intellectuals living “by chance” in Brussels. A precocious anarchist firebrand, young Victor was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled to Spain in 1917, he participated in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising before leaving to join the Revolution in Russia. Detained for more than a year in a French concentration camp, Serge arrived in St. Petersburg early in 1919 and joined the Bolsheviks, serving in the press services of the Communist International. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and arrested in 1929. Nonetheless, he managed to complete three novels (Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history (Year One of the Russian Revolution), published in Paris. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Using his insider’s knowledge, Serge published a stream of impassioned, documented exposés of Stalin’s Moscow show trials and of machinations in Spain, which went largely unheeded. Stateless, penniless, hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947. His classic Memoirs of a Revolutionary and his great last novels, Unforgiving Years and The Case of Comrade Tulayev (both available as NYRB Classics), were written “for the desk drawer” and published posthumously.
Perpetually fighting injustice, and seemingly always at odds with those in power, Victor Serge lived a life dedicated to revolution. Here the novelist tells his own story. Born to Russian exiles in Belgium, Serge took an active role in the Russian Revolution, though he was soon disenchanted with it and was expelled to France. From there Serge narrowly escaped the Nazis, ending up in the country that was to be his final refuge, Mexico.
Set in post-Russian-Revolutionary St. Petersburg, Conquered City is structured like a detective story in which the new regime, looking toward “the birth of a new kind of justice,” seeks out the spies, speculators, and traitors hidden among the exhausted mass of common people. “[Serge is] one of the most compelling of twentieth-century ethical and literary heroes.” —Susan Sontag
An unforgettable depiction of worlds in collapse, this first English translation of Victor Serge’s last novel is a monumental mural of World War II, taking readers from a paranoid pre-war Paris, to Leningrad under German siege, to a Berlin that is collapsing, and finally, with the war over, to the mountains of Mexico.
The best novel ever written about the Stalinist purges is also a classic tale of risk and adventure that stands beside Malraux’s Man’s Fate and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.