Driven by this feeling, Serge wrote a stream of articles and pamphlets, an autobiography, and several novels. Conquered City, one of the least known of his novels, was written shortly before his arrest by Soviet authorities in 1933. With a wealth of sensual detail, Conquered City takes us into the world of Petrograd 1919-20, during the height of the civil war and foreign intervention, with its harsh, regimented system now known as "war communism." Awed by the harsh winter weather and ghostly images of a dying city under siege, we are swept into a maelstrom where, despite a frequent loss of footing and individual perspective we discern the swirl of images settling into a collage pattern with its own peculiar logic. The narrator is sometimes the "we" of the revolution, sometimes an anonymous Serge. We see vivid (though unnamed) sketches of Lenin, Zinoviev, and Trotsky, as well as observing and listening to housewives, bandits, academics, hookers, factory workers, and artists in Petrograd. We also meet a score of opposed insurgents locked in mortal conflict: Bolshevks, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and White restorationists. It should be noted though that the most important female characters are somewhat flat--either naive and ineffectual of like Zvereva, a Nurse Ratchet in Party uniform.
While this is not yet the Russia of Solzhenitzyn's Gulag, neither is it the Russia of 1917-18, when the heady joy of power and change gripped the millions who overthrew Tsarism and the bourgeois regime. It is the Russia of besieged revolution--cold, hungry, driven to the limits of desperation, peopled not with White Guard fiends and steel-like Bolsheviks, but with individual characters who are quite tangible and understandable, despite the strange world they live in. There are harried Bolsheviks who pause in their weariness and frustration, close to madness, breathe deeply and repeat to themselves, "it is necessary ... the future ... the proletariat of Europe...." When trying to understand such times through his historical or analytical works, one often halts in incomprehension. It seems so bitter, confusing, fantastic. Certainly Conquered City's ability to bring the fantastic down to earth is one of its great merits.
The first six chapters are occupied with taking the reader into the author's Petrograd. It opens in a guardroom of the Special Commission for the Suppression of Counterrevolution and Sabotage (Cheka), and proceeds to give a kaleidoscopic view of a city shrouded in the arctic winds and darkness of the long winter. As the images race by, it seems impossible to discern a plot or any central character. While the obscurity of some passages could be attributed to the conditions of surveillance Serge wrote under in the 1930s (he had to smuggle out sections, unedited, to a French publisher), it is quite possible that he was also working under the influence of literary genres that flourished shortly after the period of war communism. Serge's writing resembles Zamyatin's "microscopic realism," with a "grotesque vision akin to surrealism," revolving around "a complex of interconnected metaphorical images." He also seems to share Pilnyak's predilection for "historico-philosophical digressions ... broken, unfinished sentences full of hints and illusions," and writing "fragmentary and disjointed" stories. It is properly part of a literary school whose "form, its matter and its style were in harmony with the quick staccato tempo of life."
It is only by chapter seven that a plot begins to form. Arkadi, a scrupulously honest Cheka officer, discusses with his committee till the early morning whether or not to execute an aristocractic family of four based on circumstantial evidence (this is the time of the Red and White Terror), and finally votes for a death sentence.
Later that day he visits his young naive girlfriend, Olga. Soon enough Olga's long-lost brother Danil will show up on her doorstep, in town on a mission for the Whites. As the spring thaw arrives, so does the danger of conquest before the White armies, aided from within by a White conspiracy and a dispirited citizenry. As the final battle approaches, a White plot is uncovered and house-to-house searches and widespread arrests are made. A general outcry against corruption in the Cheka, circumstantial evidence, and bureaucratic backstabbing combine to cause the arrest of Olga and Arkadi himself. Against this scenery of war and intrigue, Reds and Whites, workers and soldiers, intellectuals and bandits all argue passionately amongst themselves about the Revolution, the future, about what is important in life.
Party stalwarts Kirk and Osipov talk through the night in a forest near the battle lines, discussing the frightening growth of a privileged bureaucratic caste in the ruling party. Kirk, an American Big Bill Haywood-type and ex-syndicalist, is enraged by the corruption growing in the ranks of the revolutionaries. Isipov argues for prgmatism: that the now indispensable bureaucrats can one day be swept away, when the revolution spreads and gains strength. He asks, "is it by disdaining its best weapon that it wil be saved from a Bonaparte? And then, old friend, the Bonapartes did their job well for the bourgeoisie. Who knows if the proletariat won't need them?" Kirk responds, "we haven't come to start the same old story all over again. Or it wouldn't be worth it, no.... It would be better, for the Revolution, to perish and leave a clear memory...." Osipov nearly shouts back: "No,no,no,no! Get rid of those ideas, comrade.... A philosophy of the whipped. No more of that! We're here to stay, by God!... To live, that's what the flesh-and-blood working class wants." Here an argument of whole generation of Russian revolutionaries is capsulized.
Against all odds, Petrograd rallies and the White assault is turned back. In this moment of heady triumph, scores of suspects are shot, some of whom we know to be innocent. The winter again is approaching. The city has been saved, but at what cost?
This novel is part of a trilogy and is subtitled Part Three of Victory-in-Defeat, Defeat-in-Victory. Threatened with conquest from without, facing a demoralized populace and a bureaucratized Soviet apparatus, the revolution is in danger of consuming itself in a fit of furious exhaustion. The Bolsheviks have conquered the palaces of the old regime, and the scruffy workers and peasants still seem out of place in these grand edifices. Yet the Bolsheviks are blockaded and starving, dragged down by a new bureaucracy; these places, these structures threaten to conquer them from within. Having picked up the sword of terror to save the revolution, they find it is a two-edged sword that they begin to turn against themselves.
Conquered City is about an era of which Stephen Cohen has said, "All Bolsheviks, even those who later repudiated the measures of war communism, took pride in this era.... Henceforth 1918-21 would be the 'heroic period,' establishing a tradition of martial defiance in the face of the allegedly impossible and of mobilized 'mass upsurge and revolutionary enthusiasm.' A decade later, Stalin would call upon this tradition to storm other fortresses."
I rather doubt Serge's book is ranked among the great works of Russian Literature. But it is an honest rendering of the early revolution by a participant; and to say that it tells "what the Bolsheviks were really like"--perhaps that is enough.