This novel is based on the three years that Serge spent in “internal exile” in Orenburg Russia (“Chernoe” in the novel), near the border with Kazakhstan. The town is essentially a penal colony for political dissidents, designed to make life as difficult as possible, while offering maximum scope for surveillance and pressure to be applied.
This was the period of Stalinist ascendancy. The “left opposition”, led by Trotsky, Radek, and others, had been purged from the party and were in exile, in prison, internal exile, or executed. Centralized planning of the economy was in full swing, with disastrous results. Decisions were made at the top, based on information that the top wanted to hear, rather than on actual data. Economic and policy decisions were justified at the top by supposed theoretical considerations; and if the policy this year is the opposite of the policy last year, then the old theoretical position must have been a left- or right-deviation and therefore heads must roll. And roll they did.
In the novel, spring is coming to Chernoe, and with spring the exiles know that a new set of policies will be imposed, in reaction to the disasters of last year’s policies and so, therefore, there will be a great influx of new exiles: those that dutifully carried out last year’s orders. And last year’s policies were truly disastrous: livestock and agriculture output are dwindling; the peasantry has been decimated, with the most skilled and successful having their land confiscated - pity that their know-how could not be confiscated as well! Massive industrial projects are underway, to no visible purpose, based on tooling and components that are shoddy to the point of uselessness. Everywhere there are auditors, each afraid to report the truth, and so they report only the truth that the hierarchy wants to hear, which is no truth at all. Until, of course, reality intervenes: starvation stalks the land, as does the secret police.
Against this backdrop we are told the story of a small band of left oppositionists who meet in secret and have devised a way of secretly communicating with other such groups in other remote towns.
The novel begins with the arrest of a recanted left oppositionist named Kostrov, whom I presume to be modeled on Serge. He is arrested, interrogated, put in solitary confinement, and eventually shipped off to Chernoe. His arrival causes the local group some unease, because they believe him to be an informer. But the story soon shifts away from Kostrov (who doesn’t appear again in the story until much later) to the other members of the group. One in particular, Rodion, is a bundle of contradictions. He tries desperately to understand the underpinnings of Marxism-Leninism, and to develop a sound theoretical line, but is stymied by his lack of education and by his undisciplined mind - defects which he is painfully aware of. But his revolutionary zeal is unquestioned, and his instincts are generally sound. In the course of the story both he and another member of the group are framed for crimes that they didn’t commit, and Rodion is eventually imprisoned in a stable, from which he escapes almost immediately. But in the vast steppes of Russia there really is no escape, and the novel ends on pessimistic note.
But - not really. Serge himself was a solid Marxist and seems to have been reassured in the belief that the dialectic is always in play. So the rise of Stalinism, though a great blow, was a setback, but not a final defeat.
Despite the bleak setting and the terrible circumstances, Serge managed to make this a beautiful book. His descriptions of the vastness of the steppes and forests; the bright beauty of snow in springtime; the joy and excitement at the breaking of the ice on the Chernaya river; and the simple kindnesses of the people exiled in Chernoe: all these things break through the general darkness of the story and offer a kind of hope that I, at least, did not expect.