“I am not a theorist, but I understand socialism quite differently” – in remembrance of Panaït Istrati

by Moritz Nestor

The first big rift in my youthful rose-tinted image of socialism in the then Soviet Union was created in the early 1970s by reading Panaït Istrati’s Russia book “Auf falscher Bahn” (Vers l’autre flamme. Confessions pour vaincus. Paris: Rieder, 1929), which my esteemed psychological teacher Friedrich Liebling recommended to me at the time. Now Birgit Schmidt reminded me again of the life, work and revolt of that Romanian writer with her amiable little volume “Ich bin kein Theoretiker, aber ich verstehe den Sozialismus ganz anders” (I am not a theorist, but I understand socialism quite differently), published in 2019.

Panaït Istrati was born on 22 August 1884 in Braila, Romania, and died on 16 April 1935 in Bucharest. One of the great Romanian writers. And the first foreign European leftist who, excited by the young Soviet Union, even plans to move to the paradise of the “new man”; but who is then shaken when he travels on his own through this beautiful country and, with an alert mind, looks behind the facades of the Potemkin villages presented by the party and suddenly sees what misery and hard-core dictatorship really prevail, hidden behind fine phrases.
  Istrati is the first renowned foreign left-wing writer to return from the Soviet Union and not to publish jubilant stories in the West, but to dare to write the truth about the “red terror” of the Bolsheviks. He paid dearly for it. As a leftist true to the line, he was not allowed to criticise the Soviet Union. But with his courageous breaking of the silence imposed on the Western left, began the laborious, long and slow development that led to overcoming the mistakes of the Russian Revolution and Stalinism after the Second World War, above all with Mikhail Gorbachev and finally Vladimir Putin. In view of the current demonisation of Vladimir Putin and Russia in the Western media, which can hardly be surpassed in terms of primitiveness, it should be noted here: Putin is Russian, he loves his country and, visible to everyone, he is not a Bolshevik. On the contrary. But he and with him the vast majority of Russians will not submit to the dictatorship of finance capital once again.

First trip to the Soviet Union

In 1927, Panaït Istrati travels to the Soviet Union together with his Bulgarian friend Christian Rakowski, where they are invited to the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. Rakowski had just been recalled as USSR ambassador in Paris because he belonged to the Trotskyist Left Opposition. In the same year he is expelled from the CPSU and exiled, shot by the NKVD in 1941. In 1927, the Communist Party shows Istrati and Rakowski what they want them to see: the paradise of the “new man”.
  Soon after arriving in the Soviet Union, Istrati meets Nikos Kazantzakis, the most famous Greek writer of the 20th century, author of “Alexis Zorbas” (1946). The two plan to move to the USSR together. Like all other European left-wing intellectuals who visit the Bolshevik “workers’ paradise” after the First World War, Istrati is initially uncritically enthusiastic and concludes his trip with a stay in Greece, where he praises the progressive achievements of the Bolsheviks and the Communist International in ardent propaganda speeches.

Completely disillusioned

A second journey, however, lasting over a year, begins in the winter of 1928, when Panaït Istrati, together with his partner, the Swiss singer Marie Louise Baud-Bovy and his friend Nikos Kazantzakis and his later wife Eleni Samios, again travel to and through the USSR on their own initiative and at their own expense in order to be independent. Istrati still glows for the USSR at the beginning. They get as far as the Arctic Ocean, from there to the Vltava, the Urals and south to the Caucasus. On this journey, Istrati becomes completely disillusioned.
  Kazantzakis, too, is no longer enthusiastic about the Bolsheviks, but nevertheless remains favourable towards the country. Istrati, however, is deeply disappointed and devastated by what he has experienced. Unlike his friend Kazantzakis, he writes an indignant reckoning of the Bolshevik dictatorship, which appears in 1929 under the title “Vers l’autre flamme”. In it he now condemns the “ruthless exploitation of the workers by a bureaucracy willing to do anything to defend its privileges”

Criticism of Stalin from a socialist point of view

Panaït Istrati is the first world-class writer “to publicly attack the Soviet Union and the CPSU, which had been under the influence of its general secretary Josef Stalin since 1922, from the point of view of a socialist”. Before Istrati’s book, there had been “only favourable or even enthusiastic travel reports from Western intellectuals, which by no means came exclusively from organised communists or communist women”, but also, for example, from humanists such as the famous Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland and other well-known writers, as Birgit Schmidt reports.

Many turn away from Istrati

Immediately after the publication, all previous friends publicly distance themselves from Istrati, especially his previous mentor Romain Rolland, who had helped Panaït Istrati in deep human need. It must have been a particularly bitter experience that the very friend who saved one’s life and who meticulously described such social-psychological processes under the psychological microscope in his “Clerambault” is nevertheless capable of these very same reactions. Likewise, Istrati’s former communist friends, in particular the stalwart Stalinist intellectuals of the French Communist Party, turn away from him – above all Henri Barbusse, the author of “Under Fire”. A smear campaign begins. Istrati is publicly slandered as a “fascist”. On the other hand, he is appropriated by the Trotskyists to whom he stands otherwise aloof.
  Istrati’s Russia book appears as the first of three volumes, all published under his name. Two volumes are not written by him, but protect their true authors through his name: Volume 2 “Soviets”, is by Victor Serge (in German: „So geht es nicht. Die Sowjets von heute”), Volume 3, entitled “La Russie nue” (Russia naked, in German: Russland nackt, Zahlen beweisen) was written by Boris Souvarine, the author of that seminal 1935 biography of Stalin, who analyses the myths and reality of the Soviet coercive system as a “negation of socialism and communism”. The shadows of annihilation by the Bolsheviks’ “red terror” already hang over both Serge and Souvarine in 1928. Istrati protects them through his authorship.

Remembering him today

“I remember him with emotion,” writes Victor Serge, with whom Istrati was a long-time friend, in his memoirs: “He was still young, skinny like the mountain people of the Balkans […], immensely enthusiastic about living! […] He wrote without having the slightest idea of grammar and style, but as a born poet who was seized with all his soul by a few simple things, adventure, friendship, revolt, flesh and blood. He was incapable of theoretical discussion and consequently immune to sophistically pitfalls. One said to him in my presence: ‘Panaït, you can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. Our revolution … etc.’ He shouted: ‘Good, I see the broken eggs. Where is your omelette?’” (Victor Serge. Beruf: Revolutionär. 1901–1917–1941. Frankfurt/Main 1967, p. 13) (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1901–1941. New York, New York Review of Books Classics 2012).
  Finally, Panaït Istrati returns to Romania, sick and broken, where he died in 1935 as a result of tuberculosis. Russia may remember him today as that wonderful writer who, as one of the first abroad, did not remain silent but began to overcome the tragic errors of the Russian Revolution. He did not live to see the late successes.
  The metaphor “The eye does not see itself” comes from Alfred Adler, because seeing needs a trusted you who “opens one’s eyes”. Friedrich Liebling and Panaït Istrati were the two eyes that made me wonder about my limited image of Russian socialism. To what extent does the own image of Russia that many of us have of gained in our life history, in honest and difficult conflicts, today still lag somewhat behind the current state of the Russian Federation? – Are we burdened by a few wafts of mist that have become dear to us from earlier Western anti-communist, “liberal” or other cherished theories?  •

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