Panaït Istrati’s Russia Unveiled: A Forgotten Classic Of Opposition To Stalinism

The Romanian writer Panaït Istrati (1884-1935) seems to be virtually unknown in the U.S., although the recent republication of his first novel, Kyra Kyralina by Talisman House may serve to remedy this situation somewhat. Biographical information about him is not in abundance in English and, sadly, I have had to rely on the Wikipedia entry about him to learn much of his life.

What brought him to my attention was his critique of the conditions of life in the U.S.S.R., originally published in France in 1929 and translated into English and published in the U.K. in 1931 as Russia Unveiled. Istrati was an acquaintance of Christian Rakovsky and spent time in Russia as a sympathizer of socialism in the period of the first Five Year Plan. What he saw there, compounded by the distortions of western Communists and sympathizers about the reality of socialism in Russia, moved him to harshly criticize the rapidly consolidating Stalinist totalitarian system, with evidence gathered firsthand and supported by documentation in the official Communist press.

The political position of the analysis is broadly in sympathy with Trotsky’s Left Opposition, but to my knowledge he did not actively cooperate with the Trotskyists. He did know Victor Serge and wrote the preface for the original edition of Serge’s Men in Prison (published in France in 1930), which is unfortunately not included in the English translation by Richard Greeman.

Aside from being a devastating expose of the practice of Stalinism in Russia, Russia Unveiled is significant for its position in the early wave of socialist criticism of the U.S.S.R. in France, alongside that of  Boris Souvarine.

I highly recommend the book. There are other writings by Istrati on Russia that are not in English (Towards Another Flame among them), and it is high time they are translated and made available. This is a small contribution towards bringing attention to this need.

Below are three brief excerpts from Chapter VI “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” of Russia Unveiled by Panaït Istrati , translated from the French by R.J.S. Curtis.

•••

Apart from the militia entrusted with the maintenance of public order, the Soviet State keeps up a political and criminal police (the Opgu), and a permanent army. The  Ogpu has the right of life and death over all citizens; it has the power to prosecute, arrest, and imprison any individual of whom the Secretariat of the Party wishes to be rid; it may judge him without witnesses, condemn him without proof, sentence him to lifelong exile, and banish him for ever from the face of the earth. There is no other example in bourgeois society of a police system with such extensive and complete authority; it might be termed the most “perfect” inquisitorial organization in the world’s history. At its command there is a close network of public and secret agents, paid officials, and willing informers, together with certain military forces which are directly under its orders and tactfully termed “special duty” or “vone” detachments. Its actual budget is unknown as it is maintained to a great extent with grants from secret funds, but in 1926 these were admitted to amount to 27,122,778 rubles (£904,000), besides 36,825,000 rubles (£1,227,500), which was the cost of the special military detachments (The “Finansovaya Gazette“, May 9th 1926). The Ogpu may, in the majority of cases, utilize as auxiliary agents all Communists and Comsomols, Soviet officials, the militia, and non-Communist members, as well as thousands and tens of thousands of factory, Trades Union, co-operative, and housing committees: they are all subdued by its all-powerful hand. In he towns, half the population spies on and informs against the other half. The Ogpu gives no account of its actions to anyone. In principle, it is only responsible to the the Council of People’s Commissaries, one of whom holds the office of Commissary of Justice. But as this Council, together with the executive body of the Ogpu, is nominated by the Secretariat, the latter serves as a cover for all the operation of the police by automatically giving them its approval through the Political Bureau. In other words, the Ogpu is not responsible to any authority but its own. By its orders, prisons, detention camps, and deportation centers are filled to overflowing with workmen, Communists, Socialists, Trades Union members, free-thinkers, Zionists, and even Tolstoyans—thousands of them all sentenced without any semblance of a trial.

•••

The only legal party in the U.S.S.R. is the Communist Party; the only legal opinion is that expressed by the Secretariat. No Communist political program ever prescribed the suppress of rival workers’ and peasants’ parties, nor did it forbid divergencies of opinion in the Party. On the contrary, seven weeks before the October Revolution, Lenin made the following statement, which here is quoted word for word: “Alone the power of the Soviets could ensure a widespread, constant development of revolutionary influence, a peaceful rivalry of parties within the Soviets” (September 14, 1917: One of the fundamental questions of the Revolution). A little later, he repeated this: “The parties’ struggle for power may be peacefully carried on in the heart of the Soviets, provided that the latter desist from distorting democratic principles: (September 16 1927: The bugbear of civil war). The ideas of Lenin, the theorist of Bolshevism and the founder of the Soviet Republic, are limpid clear. Moreover, when the country was in the grip of war and the Soviet regime was passing through a most critical period, political parties like the Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries of the Left, Ukranian Borotbists, the Bund, and various anarchist groups, which did not oppose the system with force of arms, all enjoyed a legal existence. Their disappearance was the logical result of the war and of civil strife, which culminated in a paroxysm of fury and a reign of terror; but their suppression should have been but of a temporary nature, like terror and warfare themselves. The danger of war once over, the Revolution moved forward along the paths of peace and Lenin’s program once more became an actuality and should have recovered strength and meaning: peaceful rivalry of parties within the Soviets. But Tomsky, a member of the Political Bureau and President of the Party Secretariat and of the Central Council of Trades Unions, made the following pronouncement on the matter: “The main difference between the Party systems in Western Europe and in Russia, is that, with us, only one thing is possible: one party is in power and all the rest are in prison” (“Trud“, November 13 1927). Such was the progress made between 1917 and 1927. Lenin had spoken of a peaceful rivalry of parties within the Soviets, but Tomsky declared that one party was in power and the rest were in prison. The inevitable perpetuation of this method of government had led to the imprisonment and deportation of all those who actively opposed the Secretariat of the Party; amongst them were Lenin’s most faithful comrades in arms, headed by Trotsky.

•••

History has already known republics without republicans; the world now sees a Communist Party without Communists, Soviets without electors or elected, Trades Unions without members, co-operatives without customers.

4 thoughts on “Panaït Istrati’s Russia Unveiled: A Forgotten Classic Of Opposition To Stalinism

  1. Just to say you seem a bit confused, perhaps understandably, about which of Istrati’s writings on the Soviet Union are available in English. First, I haven’t seen it, but *Russia Unveiled* is the English translation of Istrati’s _Vers l’autre flamme_ (*Toward the Other Flame*). The book was written by Istrati, Victor Serge, and Boris Souvarine, but signed Istrati alone, as his two co-authors were unknown at the time and wouldn’t have been able to get their work published. The book contains most of Istrati’s writings on the Soviet Union, although he also wrote several shorter pieces–magazine articles, forewords to his later novels–that deal with the reception of the book in Communist circles in Western Europe. Interesting–and for the most part not translated into English–are the attacks on Istrati by prominent French Stalinists such as Henri Barbusse. For an excellent account in English of Istrati’s falling out with the Soviet, see (I’m not sure I’m spelling everything right) Stelian Tanase’s *Auntie Varvara’s Clients*. The chapter on Istrati was published in the online magazine *Archiplego*.

  2. Pingback: Blogging Victor Serge « Poumista

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