(My review on goodreads)
I was both inspired and saddened by this book. Inspired by Serge’s dedication to a democratic socialism, and by his ability to stay true to his principles despite the best efforts of several regimes to break him down. Depressed by the rapidity with which the Russian revolution descended into brutality and complete suppression of thought and criticism: a process that began within 2 years of Red October, and that was begun without any help from Stalin.
Serge was imprisoned for 10 of his 50 years for his revolutionary activities, including in the USSR for being a “left oppositionist”. And he had to flee seven countries, leaving behind his possessions and his manuscripts every time. Yet at the end, in Mexico, he managed to retain his optimism for the long term victory of a truly democratic socialism - this in the midst of the second world war, with totalitarian regimes battling for control of Europe and Asia.
At the end of the book he sums up his experience, noting that nearly every one of his comrades of the past 20 years had been killed or had disappeared into the prisons of the GPU. He himself was saved more than once only because he was a writer well known in the West, and his death or disappearance would have created a great scandal.
He had a difficult time getting published during his lifetime: the leftwing press wouldn’t publish because of his opposition to Soviet totalitarianism, and the bourgeois press saw him as a revolutionary subversive who ought to be arrested. But his worth as a writer was generally acknowledged and he managed to get some of his work published (for example, Midnight in the Century and Year One of the Revolution). And now, thanks to New York Review Books, some of his works are once again available in English, in excellent translations.
The book is worth reading for its ground-level view of the turbulence following the first world war, and for the clear-eyed view of the rapid growth of the totalitarian state from 1920 to 1937: the complete betrayal of the spirit of the revolution, and (in hindsight) a terrible blow to the hopes for a socialist future.