It is an honor to be here to mark the opening of Centro Vlady (Espacio de Documentación y Experimentación Museográfica). Here you can become acquainted with Vlady's artistic works, his remarkable paintings, lithographs, portraits, his use of color, the way Vlady's art is suffused with his politics (and vice versa). I'd like to tell you a little of my friend Vlady, without whom I would never have been able to undertake the work I have done on his father, Victor Serge. Vlady shared his time, his home, his father's archive with me, his personal reminiscences and so much more. He also provoked my underdeveloped artistic sensibilities. Vlady and Isabel pampered me with their hospitality on numerous occasions, shared their elegant recollections of Serge, but also of Vlady's childhood, adolescence, exiles and adventures.
Vlady Kibalchich was born in Petrograd in June 1920 and died in Mexico in 2005. To say that he had a 'full life' would be an understatement. The 20th Century was his life.
For Vlady, "a subversive creator and critic of power" according to La Jornada, art was resistance and his themes were revolution and liberty. He was called a heretic and a rebel, but one who transformed his rebellion into art. Though he painted with Renaissance formulas and Venetian colors, everything about Vlady was revolutionary. His art, his daily life, his writing: Social revolution, cultural revolution, revolution of material, revolution of colors.
Vlady belonged to the world but he was Mexico's national treasure. With the opening of this center, his contribution to Mexico is recognized.
Vlady lived in Mexico for 64 years, but he dressed in a Russian peasant blouse, had a long pony-tail and always wore a workers' cloth cap. While his father, the anarcho-Bolshevik revolutionary novelist and historian Victor Serge was arguably more Belgian-French than Russian, Vlady was considered Russian, though his real nationality was that of revolution.
Vlady's life mirrored the political development of the Soviet Union: born in the Civil War, child of the opposition, gulag and defeat. Vlady said he understood nationalism and for that reason he detested it. His teacher was the history he lived through and participated in, his friends the generation of revolutionaries surrounding him -- erudite autodidacts of the times. Vlady often said this generation is on the way to extinction. He is one of the last links, and a Mexican newspaper called him "the last Bolshevik."
To understand why Vlady was considered the last Bolshevik, to understand how Vlady came to be the artist of resistance and the artist whose works challenged power, we should know something about his father - Vlady lived in the orbit of Victor Serge's life and struggles, which were the struggles of the 20th Century.
Victor Serge was one of the great working class writer-thinker-activists of the 20th Century. A man of extraordinary commitment and hope, Victor Serge belonged to the vanquished generation of critical revolutionaries who resisted Stalinism, rejected capitalism and were marginalized by history. Just to mention Serge conjures up the poetic, active expression of an era. He was with the revolutionary Marxists who refused to surrender to the Stalinist counter-revolution and who struggled so that their ideas would escape Stalin=s attempt to exterminate them. Serge has been called the poet, the bard, the journalist and the historian of the Left Opposition2, and I would add he was also its indestructible conscience. Vlady was truly his son, the recipient of his father's sensibilities, hopes, ideals, one who perfectly combined his political passion and artistic expression.
Victor Serge was a worker, a militant, an intellectual, an internationalist by experience and conviction, and an inveterate optimist. Serge lived from 1890 to 1947. He took part in three revolutions, spent a decade in captivity, published more than thirty books and left behind thousands of pages of unpublished work. He was born into one political exile [Belgium], died in another [Mexico], and was politically active in seven countries. His life was spent in permanent political opposition. Serge opposed capitalism - first as an anarchist, then as a Bolshevik. He opposed Bolshevism's undemocratic practices and then opposed Stalin as a Left Oppositionist. He argued with Trotsky from within the anti-Stalinist left; and he opposed fascism and capitalism's Cold War as an unrepentant revolutionary Marxist. He was a revolutionary novelist and historian. Though he is still little known in the former Soviet Union, he was one of the most lucid observers of its early political developments, chronicling in his many works its brutal departure from the ideals of the revolution of 1917.
Serge's political experience led him not to renounce socialism once Stalin had triumphed, but to bring to it a declaration of human rights, enriching socialist goals. He opposed the one party system, declaring as early as 1918 and again in 1923 that a coalition government, although fraught with dangers, would have been less dangerous than what was to transpire under Stalin's dictatorship of the secretariat and the secret police. His proposals for economic reform included 'workers democracy' and a 'communism of associations' instead of rigid, top-down, anti-democratic 'plans'. Reading Serge's body of work on the USSR is indispensable for anyone who wants to get a feel for the atmosphere of the 1920's and 30s inside the Soviet Union and the Communist movement, and he spelled out the dilemmas of the 1940s with a sense of immediacy and clarity.
Serge's political recollections are very important because they reflect so well the mood of this lost generation. Serge is attractive because he came through the experience of Stalinism and demanded a rethinking and renewal of socialist thought - one that included an emphasis on freedom and humanism. He never gave up hope, despite betrayal and defeat, prison and exile, and was one of the "unsung heroes of a corrupt century," and the "Revolution's most ardent lover and indestructible conscience"3.
His optimism, which he retained despite the defeats he witnessed and lived through, is remarkable and it is hard not to be impressed, "by the difference that may be made by an intransigent individual."4 Even though Serge nearly disappeared from view, his voice lurks as a persistent reminder of the political decay of the century's great revolution. He believed the revolution's death was self-inflicted by the reactionary tyranny it let loose on itself, a process Serge relentlessly strove to understand. The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote that Serge "permitted himself a very dangerous luxury - to be ashamed by the inhuman face of his beloved revolution, and he was punished for it." Serge's shame and punishment were for his insistent hope and attention to the irrepressible vitality of individual human nature. Yevtushenko wrote,
"In 1968 when I was preparing for a poetry reading in Mexico, my Mexican friends loaned me Victor Serge's typewriter. My fingers almost froze as each touch of the keyboard woke up so many ghosts of the past..."5
It was Vlady who loaned Yevtushenko Serge's typewriter. Vlady was at that time the living embodiment of the ghosts of the past Yevtushenko felt with each stroke as he typed.
Trotsky once accused Serge of having the temperament of the poet or artist. It was even more true of Vlady. Like his father, Vlady was largely self-taught. Serge's teachers were the Russian anarcho-populists in exile after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II; his parents were part of the group, Narodnaya Volya6, and his uncle was executed for his role in the assassination itself. Vlady's teachers were the exiled Left Oppositionist Bolsheviks, sent to internal deportation in Orenburg, near the border between Russia and Asia. Vlady did attend high school for a while, but was expelled for insisting that free trade unions existed in France.
Vlady's mother Liuba Russokova was Lenin's stenographer. Lenin was a frequent guest in the apartment at the famous Astoria Hotel in Petrograd. Vlady liked to tell the story of the time Lenin visited, to find the baby Vlady crawling naked. Lenin affectionately picked up baby Vlady, only to find himself bathed in the warm jet of Vlady's urine. Depending on the audience, Vlady would adjust the story, saying instead, "I shat on Lenin."
The Astoria was just a few blocks from the Hermitage, or Winter Palace, where Vlady spent many of his days while skipping school, which he found boring. The Hermitage changed his life - it was his refuge, and he spent countless hours in the rooms featuring the artists of the Renaissance.
Vlady said his house was filled with the fire of revolution, tales of sacrifice, repression, death, and pogroms, told in many languages and cultures. Vlady grew up in Leningrad, Berlin, Vienna, Orenburg, Brussels, Paris and Marseilles. In 1921 Serge went on Comintern assignment to Germany and participated in the German Revolution of 1923; then to Austria until 1925. Vlady's first language was German, but he was most at home in Russian, French and later Spanish.
Vlady's first Trotskyist act came at the age of seven when he rescued a portrait of Trotsky from under the heels of the GPU agents ransacking the apartment. As they arrested his father, Vlady wept: not in fear but anger.
He was a teenager when he accompanied his father into the gulag of internal exile. Liuba, Vlady's mother, was driven insane by the Stalinist persecution and remained behind, hospitalized in Leningrad. In Orenburg Vlady and his father nearly starved and froze to death. They survived thanks to food packets and money from the sale of Serge's novels in France. Magdeleine Paz sent one with flour, sugar, rice and olives, and Serge gave Vlady a single olive, which he divided among a group of schoolmates - none of them had ever seen one.
Art was Vlady's escape from the tightening noose of Stalinism, the detention of his father and his mother's growing insanity. Art was also his resistance.
In April 1936 Serge and his family were expelled from the Soviet Union, just a few short months before Stalin began the trials that ushered in the great terror. They were saved, their comrades were not. Serge, his wife Liuba, baby daughter Jeannine and Vlady went first to Belgium, then to Paris, just as the thunderclouds of fascism were darkening Europe.
In Paris, Vlady came into contact with the surrealist painters and poets. Along with his father, Vlady joined the POUM (the anti-Stalinist Spanish Marxist Workers Party who were largely massacred by the Stalinists and fascists during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39).
As Paris was falling, Vlady and Serge were making their way to Marseilles, teeming with refugees in search of a visa out of the nightmare. Liuba retreated from sanity and lived out her life in a mental institution in Aix-en-Provence. Jeannine was temporarily with friends in the Dordogne. In Marseilles Serge hooked up with Varian Fry, Mary-Jayne Gold, Andre Bretón and others in a lovely villa Serge dubbed "château espere-visa." The surrealists around Bretón shifted their presence from the cafés of Paris to the beauty of the château. Vlady, considered the passionate young Marxist of the crew, developed his entrepreneurial talent, collecting dried fruits and nuts and making them into croque-fruit, or fruit rolls to sell, so there would be food to eat. While Serge wrote The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and Andre Bretón was writing Fata Morgana, Vlady sketched relentlessly.
Serge and Vlady finally sailed for Mexico (the US refused a visa to the Bolshevik Serge), first being detained in Martinique, Santo Domingo and then Cuba. On the boat Vlady read Bukharin and Preobrazhensky's The ABCs of Marxism which prompted Serge to angrily toss it into the sea, telling Vlady now was the time to study a Spanish primer.
In Mexico Vlady was part of a political group of exiles, mostly from the Spanish Civil War. He met Isabel Diaz Fabela, and they married in 1947, the year his father (Victor Serge) died. In 1949 Vlady became a naturalized Mexican citizen. For the next two decades, Vlady traveled and painted. He spent 1966 in Paris, and 1968 in New York, thanks to a Guggenheim grant. Vlady is celebrated as part of the school of 'nuevo muralismo mexicano' along with Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros. Yet Vlady reacted against the nationalistic works of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, and came to lead Mexico's 'rupture movement.'
In 1986 Vlady took me to an exhibition of his work at Bellas Artes. His gigantic portrayal that he painted and repainted for years of the Persian emperor Xerxes hung in the museum as a testament to the absurdity of autocratic absolute power. All around the grotesque Xerxes (a Cyclops in Vlady's painting) were tiny soldiers, trying to follow his command to whip the sea for swallowing his fleet.
Unfortunately the next day the workers at the museum went on strike, making entry impossible without crossing a picket line. Vlady said to me sardonically -- if only the workers understood the content and message of the work they were now making it impossible to see. For Vlady, it was incomprehensible that the workers struck when he - Mexico's uncompromising revolutionary artist -- finally got an exhibition and he saw it as a comment on the condition of working class consciousness in Mexico.
In 1989 Vlady and I traveled to Russia. It was his first time back in 53 years, and we were there to press for the rehabilitation of Trotsky and Serge in the glory days of glasnost and perestroika. Having Vlady as my Russian tour guide was like a stroll through the thirties7. His Russian was beautiful and we walked the familiar streets of his youth, stopping at the art museums as well as the infamous Lubyanka. When he saw the Kremlin he noted that it was yellow, the color of cowardice. In the Manezh (art museum) across the street, Vlady imagined the exhibition of his work, a life long dream finally realized in July 2005, the month of his death.
I'd like to tell you a little of what it was like to be in the Russia with Vlady. I was invited to go to the then Soviet Union as part of a delegation of Trotskyists who were going to press for the rehabilitation of Trotsky. I insisted that Serge be part of the project and that Vlady be part of the delegation. I began raising money for Vlady to go. I wrote to anyone I could think of who was sympathetic to Serge, including Irving Howe who had written favorable articles and reviews. People had warned me that Howe was not generous and that I was wasting my time. But I told him that it was Vlady's first trip back, and he coughed up a donation.
Vlady arrived several days after I did and the hotel messed up the reservation so that when he arrived after a long, tiring flight, he was told there was no possibility of getting a room. Vlady was exhausted, running on adrenalin and no food, but very excited to be there. We argued with the hotel management to try to get Vlady the room we had reserved. The famed bureaucracy was in high gear and refused. I told them this was the son of Victor Serge, back in Moscow after so many years. Nothing - they hadn't heard of Victor Serge. Then two things happened: Vlady called the Mexican Embassy to get them involved, and hotel management realized his surname was Kibalchich. "Ahh, of course, we have a room for the relative of Nikolai Kibalchich, why didn't you say so?" And they provided a nice meal! (Nikolai Kibalchich was Vlady's great uncle who was executed for his role in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.)
Vlady was a man of grand gestures and enthusiasm, and he gesticulated as he spoke. Knowing Vlady, Isabel feared that he might lose his money for the trip if left in his pocket, so she sewed the money into the lining of his coat and sleeves. True enough, when Vlady got excited, money flew out his sleeves!
We met Vlady's cousin, Irina Gogua, who had survived 21 years in Stalin's worst labor camps in the frozen north, accused of being a Trotskyist, and associated with Mensheviks. She was transferred from Vorkuta, the camp reserved for Trotskyists to Ukhta - a strict regime camp, for 'goners', which meant no one was expected to survive. At 84 she was still strikingly beautiful, elegant, cultured and energetic. She was thrilled to be reunited with Vlady. They hadn't seen each other in 57 years. At first Vlady was reticent, even stand-offish, but she greeted him so warmly that they both melted. She told us her story which was quite dramatic, showed family photos, and cleared up some mysteries for Vlady about family relations and what happened to members of the family during the purges. She died just months after we left.
At a public meeting at the House of Writers discussing the rehabilitation of Trotsky (this was March 1989, at the time of the then Soviet Union's first semi-free elections), several relatives of Left Oppositionists came to Vlady to introduce themselves. It was both moving and strange, this collection of the children of the revolution's heroes, converted into enemies and undesirables.
When Vlady took the podium to speak - in beautiful Russian-the hall of more than 500 people fell silent. Vlady informed and entertained the audience and they fell in love with him. He talked about his father, about what Trotsky meant to him, about perestroika and the workers movement, and about socialism. He criticized Lenin, still a taboo subject: everyone talked about the barbarities of the Civil War, but pretended Lenin was absent. Vlady said, "Where was Lenin? Reading French novels?" Vlady was at his best at an historical moment made for him.
In 1990, at the official inauguration of the Trotsky Museum here in DF, Vlady spoke of what it meant to be in Mexico with his father in the place where Trotsky had been assassinated. Vlady said:
"We felt like it was the center of a labyrinth in centrifugal expansion. And it's not by chance that it is in Mexico. Mexico welcomed those defeated in transient historical battles, and now it is recognized that they were only the tragic moments of ebb and flow, which were well understood at that time by our classics of libertarian socialism..."Vlady continued, saying,
"the truth does not exist, there are only interpretations, whose diversities ofer a measure of the creative liberty of mankind. In the innocence of the times to come many crimes are committed, but the blood also exudes a spirit that makes human beings better."Finally, Vlady finished with an assessment of the present political situation in characteristically poetic terms:
"I tell you with deep conviction and carefully weighing my words: the anti-capitalist, libertarian, socialist revolutionary spirituality, emerges from its catacombs to make amends for the errors and horrors that have obstructed and led astray the destiny of humanity so many times. The improvement of the human race follows from the actions carried out among the indigent and as long as they are the majority, they will stain their own cause with their shortcomings."He then quoted his father, Victor Serge, from his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev:
We have not lived on the brink of a dark abyss...; we are on the eve of a new cycle of storms and that is what darkens our consciences. The compass needle goes wild at the approach of magnetic storms....And, Vlady continued, "There is no other spirituality that gives meaning to human life. The rest is poetry!"
In 1987 Vlady commented8 that he and his father lived "in the tail of Trotsky's comet." He belonged to a unique generation who saw clearly, fought tenaciously, but were defeated. Vlady was generous of spirit and intellect, an artist and a revolutionary to his core; he refused compromise yet socialized in wide circles of poets, politicians, writers, artists and dignitaries. He had the kind of energy that makes him seem immortal.