h i s t o r i c a l i n v e s t i g a t i o n s t e l i a n t a n a s e
In 1927, the Russian ambassador to Paris is Cristian Racovski. In the summer of that year, Moscow finds itself confronted with a vehement campaign against Racovski led by the French press. After much hesitation, the Russian foreign Minister, Chicherin, makes a declaration in which he thanks the ambassador for his services, but bows to the pressure. He announces Racovski’s recall. On 15 October, Racovski leaves the embassy in a luggage-laden automobile, surprised that there is not a single policeman to be seen. He was accompanied by Panait Istrati. The paths of the two had crossed as early as 1905, in socialist and trade union circles. They met again in Paris, once Racovski was installed at Rue de Grenelle. They had many shared memories and acquaintances. Istrati frequented the embassy and was, for example, on familiar terms with Racovski’s adoptive daughter, who recalls him thus: “PANAIT ISTRATI often used to visit us for dinner and would sit for hours on end chatting in Cristian’s office.”Elena Codreanu Racovski, De-a lungul si de-a latul secolului (1908-1999) [The Length and Breadth of the Century]. Univers Enciclopedic, 2002, p. 53. He was “a nervous man, as scrawny as could be, who used to say very interesting, cutting things, things often embarrassing to Cristian, who was nevertheless fond of him and valued him a great deal.”Idem, p. 77. Racovski invited Istrati to come to Russia as early as 1926, but preparations were drawn out. For propaganda reasons, Moscow was preoccupied with inviting intellectuals. Istrati was ideal for this purpose, in view of his notoriety, as well as his sympathies for Bolshevism. However, no one could have imagined that his visit would coincide with the decline of Racovski’s career. It remains unclear whether Stalin recalled his ambassador because he was preparing to exile Trotsky and his acolytes, or whether it was because of pressure from the French press. However, the tension was there. Racovski and Istrati were abreast of the fact that something was being prepared. Istrati asks him in the car: “Are you really being exiled by France or are you being destroyed by your countrymen?” Panait Istrati, Spovedanie pentru invinsi [Confessional for the Defeated], Editura Dacia, 1990, p. 39. Racovski prefers to change the subject. When Racovski was appointed ambassador to London in 1923, Lenin was already ill and no longer ruled Russia, which had fallen into the clutches of Stalin. Racovski is removed from his post of head of the Ukrainian government, which conferred on him too great a power, and sent to London as ambassador. It was, in fact, a luxurious exile. Racovski protests, but submits. In 1927, things became worse for him. Lenin had died three years previously. In the Kremlin, the struggle for succession was at its height. The party to which Racovski belonged loses. His closest friend, Lev Trotsky, Stalin’s number one enemy, is on the point of being removed. At the same time, preparations were under way in Moscow for the tenth anniversary of Bolshevik accession to power.
This is the context of Istrati’s arrival in Moscow. Three weeks later, on 14 November 1927, Trotsky and Zinoviev are excluded from the Party. Racovski, Kamenev, Shmilga and Yevdokimov, the leaders of the opposition within the Party, are excluded from the Central Committee of the CPSU. On 19 November, Adolf Ioffe, an advocate of Trotsky, is buried in Moscow. His suicide letter creates nervousness in political circles. At the funeral ceremony, we witness Trotsky’s last public appearance in Russia. Racovski also attends the funeral. In December 1927, Racovski is heckled as he gives a speech at the Party Congress. In January 1928, the leaders of the opposition are banished from Moscow and Leningrad, and sent into exile. Trotsky is forcibly transported to Alma-Ata, while Racovski is sent to Astrakhan, in the Volga Delta. Since Racovski’s name is closely linked to that of Trotsky, his career is practically over. The period Istrati spends in the USSR is full of events of this kind. The climate is that of a frenzied struggle for power. Stalin assails those who had opposed him in the operation to succeed Lenin. In January 1929, Trotsky is expelled to Turkey. The date almost coincides with that of Istrati’s departure from Russia. On 15 February, Istrati arrives in Paris, after having spent sixteen months in the USSR.
Thus, early in the morning of 15 October 1927, the two leave Paris. The previous evening, in a Paris restaurant, Racovski and Istrati meet Boris Souvarine, a former Bolshevik, expelled from the Komintern. In 1929, Souvarine, together with Istrati and Victor Serge, will write one of the books in the trilogy Vers l’autre flamme. In the mid-1930s, he will publish one of the best biographies of Stalin. He narrates the evening of departure thus: “That evening, Racovski was pensive, taciturn, from time to time he seemed absent, although he was usually such a sparkling causeur. […] Istrati was talkative, euphoric, even exultant at the thought of the pilgrimage to the “Mecca of communism” which he was about to make and of which he had dreamed for so long. So, Istrati kept heaping enthusiastic praise on the revolution and the radiant future that lay before it. He was not a member of the communist party, but he shared the popular convictions regarding the ‘great light from the east’, as they used to say back then, due to his powerful hostility to ‘bourgeois’ society. […] He did not know anything about Marxism but was not at all worried on that account; his feelings substituted for doctrine, instinct caused him to take the side of the poor, the exploited, the victims. And of rebels of every kind. […] His ideology placed him rather in the rank of a kind of humanitarian anarchism lacking in theoretical reasoning. Of the Soviet regime he knew nothing, excepting its hostility to the capitalist world […] Overcome by the joy of imminent departure, he did not sense the incompatibility of his behavior with that of his traveling companion. He had no idea of the political tragedy into which Racovski had entered […] The ambassador, a disciplined militant above all else, complied to a strict rule that forbade him to speak of secret family problems in front of a stranger to the Party, even if that stranger was a declared communist [such as Istrati – author’s note].” Boris Souvarine, Souvenirs, Editions Gérard Lébovici, 1985, pp. 56-58. The journey to the USSR takes the two by automobile to Berlin, whence they board the train to Riga, and thence to Moscow. Once he arrives in Moscow, Istrati enthusiastically declares to Pravda that he is a Bolshevik, that he has left the West for good, that Russia is the only place where there is the freedom to create. He would like to be buried here, but he further desires that his body be taken to Romania once a Bolshevik regime is installed in Bucharest. Are there echoes here of conversations with Racovski, who dreamed of being a red dictator in Bucharest? In spite of his conventional declarations, Istrati observes the way in which Racovski is received: “We arrive in Moscow one beautiful morning (20 October). At the station, there is nothing to attest the slightest attention on the part of the government for a great ambassador, even one fallen into disgrace… None of those luxurious limousines that drive the bureaucratic rabble around… Nothing. And the hand of the former president of the Council of Commissars of the Ukrainian People, which signed so many documents in Geneva, London and Paris, was shaken by no one. Racovski’s athletically built and highly intelligent Lithuanian attendant went to look for a taxi, while the photo-reporters fixed their lenses on us. Cristian dodged them. I say to him: ‘Why do you dodge them so maliciously? They are doing it to earn a living.’ ‘In that case, they don’t know what they are doing. I am sparing them from gaffes and worn-out clichés.’” Racovski knew what awaited him. The cold, even hostile, reception given to Racovski did not prevent Istrati from manifesting his enthusiasm for Russia and Bolshevism, even in the presence of his companion. In Confessional for the Defeated, Istrati was to recollect: “Before leaving, I asked Racovski: ‘What is going on in Soviet Russia?’ And he gave me this diplomatic reply: ‘If you look at the surface, you won’t be satisfied. However, if you know how to look, you will love our Revolution’.” Panait Istrati, op. cit., p. 39. Paid by the Soviet press, Istrati had already written two eulogizing articles about Racovski, which he had brought in his pocket. Neither of them was to be published. Why? Between the date they had been ordered and the date of his arrival in Moscow, the fate of the former head of the Bolshevik Government of Ukraine, of the former ambassador to London and Paris, had been decided.
Istrati’s relations with Bolshevism are not, however, as simple as they appear at first sight. Was Istrati won over by Bolshevism? Can we take his declarations at face value? Can we regard his enthusiastic words of autumn 1927 as a conventional response to the hospitality of his hosts? The Kremlin propagandists had great need of famous writers to give their regime credibility. The scenario was relatively simple. Major personalities from the West were invited and then given supervised tours of Russia. Big ceremonies are organized for them, receptions with flowers, celebrations; they are shown that they are popular. Back home, almost none of those invited enjoy such glory. Moreover, they were paid royally. Their works were printed in millions of copies, and the royalties they received were to match. They were requested to contribute to magazines, they were interviewed. All for a price. Soviet propaganda was unstinting, especially when the person invited was someone well known. Returning to the West, after the adoring crowds, financial rewards and grandiose ceremonies, they carried out their task by “remote control”, won over by the manner in which they had been received. They wrote eulogizing pages about the Soviet regime. Not necessarily because they had been corrupted, although this was also true, but because the manipulation had had its effect. They had seen not so much Russia as staged spectacles in which they more or less believed. Istrati was also the pawn of such a practice of the propaganda apparatus and the GRU. He was not naïve, but rather volatile in his options. He became easily enthused, lost his convictions just as easily, started over again. Istrati’s itinerary in Russia is telling in this respect. We might say that he comes to Russia ready to see what lies hidden behind the veil of Bolshevik propaganda. Panait Istrati’s political experience was more than sufficient for him to understand the truth. He had been a militant socialist in his youth; he had worked for trade unions. He had organized strikes and demonstrations; he had been an editor at Workingman’s Romania. He personally knew all the Romanian socialist and trade union leaders of the day. He was well acquainted with the conditions of the workingman, whose cause he upheld whenever he had the opportunity. He goes to the USSR believing that he will find a dictatorship of the proletariat “at work”. Instead, he encounters a venal bureaucracy and a working class exploited by brutal masters. Hence his disappointment, which, however, occurs later, towards the end of the journey, after his illusions have been shattered one by one. He sees the reason for the regime’s failure in Russia’s new rulers. The “bureaucratization of the Soviet regime” was the thesis of the Trotskyite opposition, with whom Istrati had close contacts. It is to be recalled that in 1913 he had met Lev Trotsky in Bucharest, in a hotel room near the Romanian Athenaeum. Racovski is his closest link to Opposition circles. On 6 August 1928, Racovski writes and sends his adherents an article/manifesto entitled “The Professional Perils of Power”. Six weeks later, Istrati is in Astrakhan. We have no direct evidence that Istrati had read the text, but it would be naïve to think that he had not, especially if we bear in mind the stir it caused. It was Racovski’s succinct analysis of the regime. Istrati adopts its theses in the way he views the USSR, as is transparent in Confessional for the Defeated. Accompanied by Nikos Kazantzakis and their girlfriends, Istrati arrives on 18 September 1928 in Astrakhan, “a malodorous city. Swarms of mosquitoes. Plague, malaria, cholera”. Panait Istrati, Confessional for the Conquered, Editura Dacia, Cluj, 1990, p. 88. They stay in the “best hotel” in town, the “Kommunal’naya Gostinitsa”. He finds bedbugs in his room. He goes out into the corridor and starts making a scandal. “A door opens in the gloom of the corridor, a squat man comes up to me. ‘Is it you who are doing all that swearing?’ Racovski? How? You’re living in a hotel with bedbugs?” The luxurious diplomatic residence in Paris was a distant memory. The reunion with the “great outcast” seems unreal. The former leader of the Communist International is living in a filthy hotel, exiled from his fellows. “A single room in which it would have been difficult to fit five people, a screen hiding the bed and washstand. Suitcases stuffed with books. A table heaped with papers. Racovski is working on ‘The Life of Saint-Simon’. He is ill with malaria.” They had last seen each other in Moscow in October. Almost a year had passed since then. Is the reunion between them an accident, as the description would have it? Did Istrati know that Racovski was in Astrakhan? He knew. Had he ended up in the city by chance? Hard to believe. Had he planned to go there in order to see his friend once more? Was there an understanding between them? Had he gone there out of solidarity, out of bravado? The pages of Confessional for the Defeated do not tell us. But perhaps he was not writing about these things in order to protect his host. “He has no dark ideas,” Istrati assures us, probably for the ears of the GPU. “He is always ready to fight and more than ever convinced of… Of what? I couldn’t say. His words give rise to convictions, but to define them is time wasted. For even when they are friends, Bolshevik ambassadors remain diplomats. Thus he prefers to speak enthusiastically of the lotus … and he describes to us the melancholy existence of these flowers, harried by cold. He extols to us the project to fertilize the sands.” Idem, p. 89. Does Istrati refuse to write about what the two “accomplices” have discussed in Astrakhan, or has Racovski lost trust in his visitor and prefers not to say anything risky, anything political? Istrati nevertheless cuts the figure of an unconditional enthusiast for the Soviets. He had made numerous press declarations to this effect. Racovski had reasons to be prudent and to view Istrati with suspicion. He had enough political experience not to be taken in by someone like Istrati, who was ever changing, ever exulted, rebellious, unrestrained, angry at something, at someone. At the time, he was fascinated by what he saw in Russia. Racovski would have had a lot to say. He was one of the main leaders of the opposition. He was at the centre of a clandestine network, with whom he corresponded and planned gestures of political protest. He was under close surveillance by GPU agents. Did he impart any of this to Istrati? Did he give him any message for persons in Moscow or for the foreign press? We shall probably never know. Confessional for the Defeated preserves its silence. On the other hand, we find out all about excursions on the banks of the Volga. Istrati, Kazantzakis and Racovski are accompanied, bizarrely, by two invalids, one missing a leg, the other paralytic. Both are “supermen”, fanatics for transforming nature. There is something of Bosch, of Breugel, in these pages. The only echo of Racovski’s position as exile, but also of the power struggle within the Kremlin, is captured by Istrati when he reproduces the words of an official, on a tugboat named “Comrade Stalin”. The latter admonishes his sympathy for the opposition, whose leaders are nothing but “traitors”. After eight days of excursions in the Volga Delta, the small group parts. Istrati, Kazantzakis and co. leave Astrakhan for Georgia/Tbilisi, Stalin’s native turf. Istrati gives no details of his parting from Racovski. They will never see each other again.
Many things had occurred before the reunion of Istrati and Racovski. In the USSR, Istrati was the official guest of VOKS (a GPU den – apparently, the organization handled cultural relations with foreign countries). From the outset, he seems fascinated by the adventure in which he finds himself. He makes and reiterates enthusiastic declarations about the homeland of the revolution, about the workers, about Bolshevism. He vehemently attacks the West, especially France, and the “putrid and decadent bourgeoisie”. Of course, Soviet propaganda records all such declarations and reproduces them word for word. Istrati plays his role well; he seems to have blinkers over his eyes. That was why he had been invited and paid – to be taken to different places under the strict supervision of the GPU, to be toasted at banquets, to give interviews, to witness parades, to be welcomed with fanfares, to travel in special trains and limousines, surrounded by activists ready to provide him with almost anything. The scope of the hosts was to win him over, so that on his return he would become – willing or not – an agent of Soviet influence. So that, ultimately, he would write works of pro-Soviet propaganda. He was not the only one. H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, Nikos Kazantzakis, Lion Feuchtwangler, Emil Ludwig and André Malraux also fell prey to the same treatment. Istrati is enchanted by his reception, by the money he is earning in abundance. Many of his books are translated, for which he earns copious royalties. He writes articles, gives interviews. He is treated like a dignitary, although he is just a “fellow traveler” from the West. Things go well for a while. Istrati does not see what is happening, or feigns not to see. He lets himself be carried away by success, money and ceremonials.
Let us compile a time-line of the journey. Only just arrived in Moscow, he takes the train to Leningrad, where he arrives on 31 October. Here he makes the acquaintance of Victor Serge, a French translator living in Russia. He returns to Moscow and, on 7 November, in Red Square, he attends an ostentatious parade on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of what the regime names the “Great October Revolution”. He witnesses a counter-demonstration organized by the opposition and the reprisals that follow. Istrati does not react, although he personally knows many of the anti-Stalinist opposition leaders. One week later, on 13 November, he meets Nikos Kazantzakis, who from now on accompanies him. Kazantzakis had displayed Bolshevik ideas since as early as 1922. In 1927, he came to the USSR at the invitation of VOKS, like Istrati. He had also traveled in the USSR two years previously, in 1925. On 16 November, Istrati and Kazantzakis set out on an official excursion to the Black Sea and Caucasus.
In December, they both set out for Greece. Beforehand, they send a letter to Stalin, in which they express their admiration for the USSR. They embark at Odessa on the vessel “Chicherin”, arriving in Piraeus on 31 December 1927. A confidential report sent to Bucharest by the Romanian legation to I. Gh. Duca, the ad interim Foreign Minister, noted that “under close surveillance, the authorities at once realized that Istrati is a dangerous agent of Moscow”. ANCR, Archive CC of the PCR, Fd. 95, D 9796, vol. 1, p. 72. He makes contact with the Soviet legation and Greek communist leaders. On 3 January, Istrati visits Singros Prison. What does he say to the political detainees, most of whom are communists? He shows them that he has two fingers missing and tells them that he lost them as a manual laborer. He is not “Istrati the writer” but “Istrati the worker”. He recalls that “I too have been thrown into prison on many occasions”, and they sympathies with him. Then he speaks to them about the USSR. “Something unrepeatable and wonderful is being accomplished there.” He ends by saying: “Do not be discouraged in moments of affliction. Victory is ours. […] Istrati is yours. Istrati is no lick-spittle. I shall not bow my head. No. The others are traitors… I am and remain in your ranks. I shall remain a soldier in your ranks.” Idem, pp. 73-74. He visits a hospital for consumptives. He is summoned by an examining magistrate to give an explanation for his speech at Singros. To the amazement of the Romanian diplomat, as noted in his report, Istrati is not deported. Moreover, on 11 January, he gives a lecture at the Alhambra, an auditorium in central Athens, on the blessings of the regime in the USSR, which is followed by scuffles with the police in the street. A report for the Sigurantza translates an article published in a pro-Bolshevik newspaper. “Yesterday evening, at seven o’ clock, PANAIT ISTRATI spoke of his impressions of Soviet Russia […] The lecturer was greeted with enthusiastic applause and spoke in French, translated for the auditorium by an interpreter. The Soviet Union, as it is today, can be loved only by two social categories, by the workers and by those who are born courageous […] I shall divide the Soviet Union into two unequal parts, one the part of living souls and the other the part of dead souls. The first part comprises that terrible organism that carried out the October revolution and which now holds power. The second part comprises the parasites of this organism: a few kulaks, bureaucrats and professionals, they are tolerated by the new organism of the vigorous Russia. […] It is always good for a living soul to sense around it the cold breath of a dead soul, behold the spectacle of reality […] in the red democracy there is not enough work for all, nor food, nor abundant clothing, but what does exist is shared equally and fairly between the entire nation. BEHOLD GREAT JUSTICE!! The great power of communism. […] It is said that the Bolsheviks do not get on with each other and that very soon they will devour each other and this will be their end. You, miserable undertakers of Soviet Russia, must have lost your reason to be able to believe such hopeless ideas […] The more they contradict each other, the more they will strengthen Soviet power, because in Russia it is the people that governs…” ANCR, Archive CC of the PCR, Fd. 95, D 9796, vol. 1, p. 58-59. On leaving the lecture theatre, the audience provokes incidents with the police, who “try to break up the crowd, but the workers do not back down and chant down with white democracy, down with the coalition government […] long live the communist party… Many were beaten and trampled. The crowd heads for the university avenue, automobiles and tramcars are stopped, nothing can be heard except the Internationale and the protests of the crowd…” Idem, p. 61 Istrati is called before an examining magistrate. To the amazement of the Romanian diplomat sending the report, he is not deported. Not for long. The press is unleashed against the two. Istrati’s visa expires and he has to leave. Kazantzakis remains to face trial. “We inform of the following: On 23 February, at 14:00 hours, the communist Panait Istrati, expelled from Greece, boarded the Soviet ship “Chicherin” at Piraeus. He is heading to Odessa and Moscow, where he will stay for two years, after which he intends to return to the country,” notes a telegram addressed to the General Bureau of the Sigurantza. Idem, p. 69. The two writers’ expedition to Athens was evidence of “enthusiasm and sacrifice”. Both Istrati and Kazantzakis wanted to show their loyalty to the revolution. It was a provocation, an agitator parachute-drop behind enemy lines.
While the two writers are in Greece, Trotsky and Racovski are sent into internal exile. The Greek press announces the event. No reaction on the part of Istrati. Moreover, he returns to the USSR. He meets up with Kazantzakis in Kiev. On the way north, they stop over in Leningrad, where they see Victor Serge again. At the end of March, they both go to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. Istrati and Kazantzakis wanted to visit the “re-education camp” on the Solovki Islands. Gorky is to come here a year later and, to his shame, will write a eulogy. The two, accompanied by their girlfriends, do not reach Solovki; they remain in Murmansk for a few days, waiting for the necessary permits. To this end, Istrati writes to the GPU. He also writes to Romain Rolland a letter enthused by what he is seeing, by the visit he is going to make… Istrati is still prey to the illusion and to his prejudices, maintained by the VOKS organizers of the trip. When the answer from Moscow delays in coming and the accommodation is bad, he calls off the plan. It is only by chance that PANAIT ISTRATI did not visit the camp at Solovki, the first Soviet concentration camp. It is only a fortunate accident that shielded PANAIT ISTRATI from the shame of having numbered among the ecstatic visitors shown round horrible “achievement” by the GPU. “To go over to the side of the executioners and to praise them for the suffering they inflicted on the people became a way of life (sometimes of death) for the proletarian revolutionary writers.” Mircea Iorgulescu, Dilema, no. 64/1994. Our travelers change their minds and head south. In April, they arrive in the Crimea. A note by the Sigurantza reveals that “at Odessa he is working on the making of a cinema film about his communist ideals, and it is to be titled The Haidouk […] From the information we have, the aforementioned is very interested in the fate of the communists imprisoned at Jilava, which causes him to publish in various foreign newspapers about the way they are treated in prison.” ANCR, CC Archive of the PCR, fd. 95, D 9796, vol. 1, p. 76. Istrati is still a devotee of the Komintern, for which he has performed many services as a propagandist and agent of influence.
He has health problems and stays in bed for around a month. At the beginning of May, Istrati is at Bekovo, near Moscow (one of the sites where victims of the Great Terror were executed between 1936 and 1938). From Bekovo, Istrati intervenes in favor of Victor Serge, who he discovers has been arrested. On 28 May, with Kazantzakis he meets Gorky, in the offices of a publisher. In July, the first article about Kazantzakis to appear in the West is published in Monde, a magazine published by Barbusse and financed by VOKS. The author: Panait Istrati. He then travels down the Volga to the south of Russia. On 1 August, Istrati meets Ecaternia Arbore, a militant socialist whom he knew in Romania, now Minister of Health in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (murdered in 1937 on the orders of Stalin). Red Ploughman, the local Romanian language newspaper, publishes on 10, 14 and 17 August articles about Istrati’s journey. Here is an excerpt from an interview published on 17 August: “As soon as I heard about Moldova, I decided at once to come and see what the Moldavians were doing […] I have been down to the banks of the Nistru. Thence I gazed over to the other side for a long time. And on seeing the empty fields, the gendarme with a rifle over his shoulder, I was filled with pity. And how can you not pity your brother, who you know is so sorely afflicted. You are especially filled with pity when you see how on the Moldavian side they are building socialism before your very eyes, while on the other side the greater part of Moldavians and Romanians are still under the yoke of the boyars. I came to Russia weary; I leave cheerful. And I shall be more cheerful still when the time comes and I shall see what I have seen here in the whole of Romania, that is, when the whole of Romania will be a free Soviet country.” Idem, p. 106.
At the end of August, Nikos Kazantzakis and Panait Istrati, together with Eleni Samiou and Istrati’s lover, Bilili Baud-Bovy, are already in the south. On 30 August, the two meet Barbusse, who is in hospital at Nizhny Novgorod. On 8 September, they arrive in Astrakhan, where Istrati sees Racovski once more. On 30 September, they arrive in Tbilisi. Thence by ship to Baku, Batumi, Sukhumi, Nvorosisk. On 2 December, Istrati is in Rostov, then Kiev. On 19 December, he arrives in Moscow at last. On 30 December, he is in Leningrad with Victor Serge and Nikos Kazantzakis. It is here the two part ways. Kazantzakis does not support Istrati in the “Rusakov affair”. On 11 January 1929, Istrati is already getting ready to leave. On 15 February, he is in Paris. Kazantzakis remains in Russia until April, when he leaves for Berlin.
Before leaving the USSR, Istrati addresses two letters to Gerson, one of the heads of the GPU, in which he begs leave to criticize one per cent of the realities in the USSR as he has seen them. At the same time, he gives assurances regarding his loyalty to it. Is the idea that the GPU might solve such problems naivety on the part of Istrati? Or had he understood that the USSR was a police state and that everything depended on the special services? Had he understood that the GPU held the real power? We do not know. What is for sure is that instead of addressing himself to the Komintern, Agitrop, VOKS or directly to the Kremlin leaders, Istrati writes to the GPU, asking permission (with fake or genuine candor) to criticize the Bolshevik regime when he gets to the West. Istrati writes: “There are three kinds of writers who may pronounce on the Soviet Union […] 1, The neutral, authors of books that are more or less agreeable […] 2, Our enemies, professional detractors of the Union. 3, Our friends, of the Henri Barbusse type […] professional apologists […] As for me, the Soviet issue is a personal drama. I am a born rebel and a long-time revolutionary. I did not come to the Union in search of subjects for books, but to be able to see for myself and to be useful to the proletarian cause. Today I realize that I can be of use only on one condition: not to write like Barbusse. When a writer gives up all sense of criticism and becomes the cracked bell for an idea, he is no longer a man who is listened to and he no longer serves the cause he thinks he is upholding. He compromises it. I do not mean by this that we should succumb to the babbling and prating that would submerge us in bourgeois chaos. But there are dangerous evils here, whose name should be uttered aloud. […] then let me be permitted also to speak of what is bad, moderately, compassionately, gently, but to speak of it. I ask your consent, I ask for that of the Party. If you accord me it, I shall write about my impressions of the Soviet Union. If not, I shall keep silent in public and in private. Here as well as abroad. I shall live alone.” Once back in Moscow, he again writes to Gerson, the secretary of the GPU: “My definitive position (at least so I hope) can be summarized thus: 1, No willing return to capitalism and the bourgeoisie, which must be annihilated, in spite of the ideological and moral shortcomings of the Soviet regime. 2, The current evils of the Soviet regime are, in my eyes, remediable, on the condition that they are dealt with. 3, Absolute faith in the Soviet working class […] 4, I do not believe that this rectification is incumbent upon the opposition […] On the contrary, left to do as it will, the opposition is capable of even greater mistakes. 5, I can see only one means of escape from the current critical impasse: a, to cease combating the opposition through terror; b, to proclaim the right to criticize within the Party, for all members […] c, introduction of secret ballots, in the Party and trade unions […] I should like to be such a communist and to fight using all the means at my disposal. Here it is impossible without the consent of the Party. And abroad – where my honest word might give rise to base polemic in the opposing camp – I should not wish to combat at all, except with your approval, since I am neither an oppositionist nor an anarchist, but a collaborator in the Soviet project. […] This is my program. I am ready to give my life to defend it.” Panait Istrati, Confessional for the Conquered, Editura Dacia, 1990, pp. 136-139.
“Istrati is definitively disillusioned, disabused, and in the end he no longer thinks in terms of deceptive formulas about the pseudo-dictatorship of the proletariat. […] He returns to Paris on 15 February 1929, broken, ill, disoriented, no longer knowing to whom or to what he should dedicate himself; he can no longer speak, nor remain silent. He can neither write, nor refrain from writing,” writes Boris Souvarine. OP. cit., pp. 72-73. On 23 February, he makes his first declarations: “Trotsky or the opposition represent the gold reserve of the Russian revolution. Without this reserve, I do not know how there will be any revolutionary progress in Russia […] It is a country that today allows all revolutionary hopes. […] For me, Stalin and Trotsky and still two good revolutionaries. I have met no real counter-revolutionaries in Russia, apart from the ill-omened bureaucratic apparatus, made up of rodents, of communists without a party, who gnaw away and threaten to demolish the wonderful work that resulted from the October Revolution.” Interview in Les Nouvelles littéraires, 23 February 1929. Just two days later, Madeleine Paz, See Cahiers Panait Istrati, no. 11/1994, pp. 147-150. a member of Parisian Bolshevik circles, publishes another interview in a small-circulation magazine, Contre le courant, which had the stigma of opposing Stalin. Istrati explains the difference between his declarations at the beginning of his visit to the USSR, when he was an admirer of the Moscow regime, and those made on his return, when, disillusioned, he had become critical. In the meantime, he had traveled the length and breadth of Russia, he had made contact not only with officialdom but also with simple people. The image he had of the revolution and the Bolshevik regime had changed radically. “In the last three months of my stay in Moscow and Leningrad, the enchantment faded, the veil suddenly fell away, and the real situation […] confronted me in all its cruelty.” Idem,p. 149. He repeats the main thesis of the opposition in Russia – the bureaucratic degeneracy of the revolution – and he holds Stalin responsible. The most delicate subject of the interview is “Trotsky”, who was on the front pages of all the newspapers at the time, due to his expulsion from Russia. Istrati says: “The way in which the opposition and their leader Trotsky are treated in Russia is the reason that determined me to leave Russia so quickly.” He regards the act as barbarous. And adds: “When I hear how Trotsky is branded a counter-revolutionary, I wonder whether he would have been treated the same if Lenin had been alive today. I am convinced that if Lenin had been able to see what is happening in Russia now, he would have acted no differently than Trotsky.” Idem, p. 150. With these words, Istrati becomes a persona non grata for the Kremlin. When Monde, Barbusse’s magazine, interviews him, Istrati’s tone is milder; he sometimes contradicts himself. Istrati thus exposes himself to the ripostes of his former comrades. These are not long in coming. On 29 April 1929, Literaturnaya Gazeta publishes an article by Boris Volin, entitled “Two-faced Istrati”. Idem, p. 151. The author compares the differing positions taken by Istrati in NRF and in Monde, the magazine run by Henri Barbusse.
The truth is that, scarcely returned from Russia, Istrati was not yet decided on what to do; he was hesitating. The issue was not what he thought of the USSR, since on this matter he was clear, but whether he should make these opinions public. The blackmail that criticizing the USSR served the enemies of the revolution was powerful in left-wing circles. Hence, his formulations do not always get to the very bottom of the truth as he knew it. Volin accuses him of duplicity and wonders whether Istrati had ever been sincere. He accuses him of using typically Trotskyite phraseology and petty bourgeois idle talk. Likewise, he warns readers about the announced publication of Istrati’s book about the USSR. An anthropologist might say: a witch-hunt was being readied. The dogs are ready to be set loose. Istrati becomes ever more implicated. He intervenes in Brussels in order to obtain political asylum for Trotsky. Without success. Nor does he insist, although he meets with Belgian officials, because Trotsky in the meanwhile announces the formation of a Fourth, Trotskyite International, opposed to the Komintern. Istrati takes a step back. He does not want to be politically involved. He remains a loner. However, his initiative does not escape the Soviet authorities and he is placed on a blacklist, if he was not already. In both his interviews and his moves to secure political asylum for Trotsky, we can see that Istrati is hesitating.
His decision to break his silence was not at all simple. He was taking a number of great risks: that of not making himself understood, that of irritating his readers, but especially that of bringing down upon himself the agents of the Komintern, the fellow travelers and the pro-Soviet press. The lobby was very powerful in the West, especially in France, and it should not be forgotten that Istrati himself had been launched and supported by this lobby. He thus risked alienating his old friends, without any guarantee of gaining others. His revelations might have seemed just a family quarrel, between Bolshevik sympathizers, and nothing more. This would have made the report of his transfiguration produce indifferent reactions. Given that Istrati had loudly proclaimed his pro-Soviet convictions up to then, why should he be believed now? When had he been lying and when had he been mistaken? When he had declared his enthusiastic attachment to the Bolsheviks, or when he had become a critic of the USSR? For the Kremlin, the fact that an “insider” was rebelling was extremely dangerous. He had to be liquidated morally, to be compromised and discredited. Did Istrati know what awaited him? Yes and no. In 1929, although the opposition had been defeated and Trotsky disembarked in Constantinople, matters were still unclear. The USSR was still an ambivalent country, capable of going either way: either towards a fascistic regime, or towards an amplification of the NEP, a kind of semi-capitalism, following Bukharin, or towards a harsh communist dictatorship, which is what indeed happened. Stalin is getting ready for forced industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. A nefarious policy, which will leave millions dead in the famine of 1929-1931, a policy which will lead to the Gulag, to the “Great Terror” at the end of the 1930s. Russia is faced with a historical disaster. However, the terrain of 1929 was not as clear-cut as it would be later on. Moreover, the illusions connected to the “revolution” of October 1917 were still powerful everywhere, both in the USSR and in the West. Numerous and influential left-wing intellectuals saw in the USSR the only salvation, the only exit from the crisis of capitalism.
Istrati operated within a political and intellectual climate full of uncertainties. We observe, throughout 1929, his hesitations, insecurity, and about-turns. He makes his mind up with difficulty, changes it, and then starts all over again. He receives contradictory pieces of advice from his entourage. Some warn him not to put himself in a bad light with the Soviets and their fanatics in the West. Others, fewer in number, encourage him. His correspondence with Romain Rolland is dramatic. From Rolland, Istrati was expecting clarification. He sends him the two letters addressed to Gerson, the GPU secretary, in which he had undertaken not to write critically about the USSR. At the end he adds, for Rolland’s eyes only: “When I made this commitment, I imagined, in my naivety, that the men of Power are of good faith, that they are unaware of the putrefaction below them, and I believed that it would be sufficient for a powerful and friendly voice to alert them, in order for them to become aware and to take measures. After the ‘Rusakov Affair’, I became convinced that those in power were aware of the evil that was undermining the Revolution, and that they did not brook any criticism. This situation released me from the commitment I had taken, since there was no longer anything to be expected from those at the top. To proceed cautiously will not mean anything.” Panait Istrati, Confessional for the Conquered, Editura Dacia, Cluj, 1990, p. 139. Rolland answers him: “The letters addressed to the GPU are perfect (I condone them in their entirety). […] She [Rolland’s sister, Madeleine – author’s note], like myself, thinks that you cannot, that you must not publish them at this moment, and in particular you must not let Boris [Souvarine – author’s note] or the friends of Serge [Victor – author’s note] publish them. That would be a terrible, bludgeoning blow by which the wretches would strike at the whole of Russia, under the illusion that they were crushing the putrefaction […] You have done all that you had to, all that you could. There is nothing more you can do. These pages are holy. They should be conserved in the archives of the eternal Revolution. […] We still love you and, moreover, we venerate you for what you have written. But do not publish them!… It would not serve the Russian Revolution, but rather the European reactionaries, whose game the opposition blindly play. […] It is evident that those in power [in the USSR – author’s note] are too compromised, depend too much on one another, on their material competition, to be able to take account of what you are saying. […] unfortunately their force is destroyed, there is no one else capable of leading post-revolutionary Russia. It can only hasten the process of putrefaction […] Your role is to save the flames of heroic idealism from the ruins.” Idem, pp. 115-116. PANAIT ISTRATI replies impressively, two days later, on 30 May: “I am no longer writing Vers l’autre flamme.” Idem, p. 117.
At the end of August 1929, Istrati comes to Romania for the second time. Four years had passed since 1925. Istrati was a different man. In the meantime, he had completed his journey through the USSR. Shortly before taking the train to Bucharest, he leaves the manuscript of Confessional at the Rieder publishing house in Paris. The promise made to Rolland is not kept. On 18 August, he is already in Munich. On 20 August, one day before entering Romania at the Curtici border crossing, he writes to Rolland from Budapest: “My friend, I have poured out my anger! During 28 days of sciatica and toothache, I poured out al the hell that was poisoning my life […] There will be three volumes 1, written by me 2, by V.S. 3, by B. Suv. All provisionally signed under my name.” There were thus to be three books, written by Victor Serge, one of the characters of his book, Boris Souvarine, an expelled communist, and by Istrati himself. In order for the enterprise to produce a reaction, PANAIT ISTRATI was provisionally to sign the three volumes under his own name, since the others were virtually unknown at the time. This gesture clarifies the fact that he knew what he was doing. He did not wish merely to bear witness, he wanted to win the match. It was a kind of campaign, which he knew well how to unleash.
The reason for his presence in Bucharest was not literary. At the beginning of August, a miners strike had taken place in Lupeni. The county prefect, Stefan Razvany, had given the order to fire. Razvany was the brother of the well-known communist Eugen Razvany, the lawyer from Salonta/Oradea. Even if his change of attitude regarding the Kremlin regime had been heard of, Istrati remained a dangerous Bolshevik agitator as far as the Sigurantza were concerned. His long trip to the USSR and his repeated declarations of support for the Kremlin made him all the more suspect. The Romanian Communist Party was in a state of collapse. A number of factions were vying for power. One led by Marcel Pauker-Luximin, the other by Vitali Holostenco, nominated general secretary in 1928 by the Komintern. Arrests and betrayals from within had completely annihilated the PCdR. Not by chance, PANAIT ISTRATI – arriving in Romania right in the midst of this crisis – is suspected of having come to rebuild the PCdR or else to “organize a new Romanian workers’ party”, as a note of the Sigurantza claims. The press are also scandalmongers for this information (Curentul, Universul). The truth is different, simpler, and emerges from the so-called “clandestine scenario”. It relates to a tragedy. On Sunday 4 August, the miners of Lupeni declare a strike. On 5 August, they occupy the electricity plant and begin to flood the tunnels. The army intervenes; the miners refuse to cease their actions. On 6 August, they are fired on, 21 fall dead. The press extensively describe the event. Istrati quickly makes a decision. On 8 August, he writes to Romain Rolland: “I am going to Romania for the sake of those massacred at Lupeni.” He was impressionable by nature and a believer in the “workers’ cause”. Moreover, he had managed to finish Confessional for the Defeated. He leaves Paris, where has been stalked by journalists. The tension around his manuscript increases. There was already talk of the book in editorial offices, cafes, and political and literary circles. Many classed him as a suicide. Perhaps he wished to take account of the advice given by Rolland, who had asked him to leave Paris. There was another argument in favor of going to Romania: he was going to take the side of the workers in the trial of the communists at Timisoara. Then, he wanted to make an enquiry, to write a reportage about the tragedy at Lupeni. By these two gestures, he wanted to counterbalance his anti-Bolshevik attitude. His former comrades’ accusation that he had betrayed the “cause” would have been diminished. He thus balanced his criticisms directed against the Kremlin with criticism directed “against the Romanian authorities guilty of the tragedy at Lupeni”. He wished to underline that he was on the side of the workers, of the strikers and of the communists standing accused in the trial at Timisoara. Istrati did not want to pass as a traitor of the proletariat, of the USSR, of the revolution. He did not want to go over to the other side of the barricade, “to the bourgeois camp”. He wanted to be an “honest critic of the revolution” and the Bolsheviks. A spectacular gesture in favor of the strikers arrested and investigated by the police, of the victims of “bourgeois terror”, could show the West, but also the USSR, that he had not changed his options. Another detail in this confused situation. A crossroads. Istrati still maintained many of his old convictions. He had not abandoned his sui generis Bolshevism. For him, what he had seen in the USSR was still an authentic revolution, which had unfortunately fallen into the hands of corrupt and incapable leaders. Istrati was still a believer, one of the faithful. The heresy towards which he was now tending caused him much suffering. The break had not yet occurred. This will occur later, after the launch of the campaign of denigration conducted by Moscow. Only then will he understand the nature of the regime led by Stalin and sever the umbilical cord. In the summer of 1929, however, he still finds himself at a crossroads. He had not emancipated himself from communism, even if he was preparing to become a heretic.
Reaching the Romanian border (on 21 August) he is met by the Sigurantza. “On 21 August, on international train No 24, the writer PANAIT ISTRATI entered the country, coming from Paris, together with his wife, with destination the town of Braila, where he will stay for six weeks. He possesses certificate 930 issued on 2 May by our legation in Paris.” ANCR, Archive of the CC of the PCR, Fd. 95, D 9796, vol.1, p. 109. Here is another note: “Department of General Security, Brigade IV. Today, 28 August, he left the locality on the 8:40 express train, with the destination Timisoara. The scope of this journey is in connection with the trial of the communists, brought on the occasion of the disorder at the funeral of the communist Fonaghy, deceased in hospital at Cimpina, and transported by automobile to Timisoara. From Timisoara he is going to Lupeni in the Jiu Valley, where he will make contact with the workers and will inform himself about the incidents that have taken place, with a view to an account that he is going to publish in pamphlets. After completing these enquires, he is going to return to Bucharest and stay there for a couple of days, after which he will go to Braila, his birthplace, where he will stay for two weeks. On 5 October, he is leaving the country with the destination Paris.” As we can see, the agent is very well informed as to Istrati’s plans. The writer is shadowed, watched, his correspondence is opened. “General Department of Police No. 2751/29 August. NOTE. The Timisoara Regional Police Inspectorate reports: after being given permission by Mr. Chief Prosecutor Nicolau to make contact and speak with those arrested on 7 April [when the incidents connected to the funeral of Fonaghy occurred – author’s note] and after introducing himself to them, Mr. PANAIT ISTRATI communicated to them that he had been sent by the French Government at the request of our government in order to make contact and to verify the disagreements between the workers and capitalists in Romania. In discussions, the aforementioned said that, in fact, since he arrived in the country, he had ascertained that in Romania the working class is terrorized by the capitalists and had become convinced that this country is administered by bandits, promising those under arrest that on his return to France he would inform public opinion over there about the terror being exerted in these trials and about what had happened at Lupeni, when he leaves the country he will assist the workers and will discredit, as is only warranted, this country and its leaders. […] Before leaving the country, the aforementioned is going to inform Minister VAIDA-VOIEVOD of the latest events. As the latter gentleman, through promises made to those under arrest, is to a large extent agitating the spirits of the workers, compromising the leadership of the country and the entire administration. He has even dared to defame our Romanian women, saying that they are depraved. We have been informed that tomorrow he wishes to make contact with workers’ leaders at various factories, something which is against our interests and will produce discontent in the ranks of the workers, encouraging them to continue the disturbances which have been repressed only with great difficulty up to now. The trial continues and will probably last another two days. We shall report in the morning to the County Prefect Dr. TIGAREANU who is similarly informed. We ask that you should order the measures which we are going to take.” Idem, pp. 113-114. Istrati takes part in the debates at the trial in Timisoara. On 7 April 1929, a conflict had arisen between the authorities and participants at the congress of the communist United Unions. It was a provocation engineered by Komintern agitators. The body of Ion Fonaghy, a detainee from the Doftana Prison, is brought to Timisoara during the congress. There is a confrontation between police and demonstrators and shots are fired. There are dozens of arrests. “What happened at Timisoara should come as no surprise. Hidden instruments machinated everything. […] Everything was calculated. The stupidity of the police and the magistrates, always ready to light the fuse, counted for little. The communist leaders even thought of the consequences. The break-up, the terror […] But this is precisely what they were after. Moscow has no need of unions, of democratic workers’ legislation. Moscow knows one thing and one thing only: there must be agitation at any cost – even at the price of innocent workers’ blood; and as for the monitors with millions of chernovetz [money – author’s note], the only thing that suits them is clandestine activity. It’s very profitable.” Socialistul [The Socialist], 1 April 1929. “… A ludicrous police provocation”, notes Istrati (Lupta [The Struggle], 26 September). Against the background of these events, Istrati meets Lucretiu Patrascanu, the defense lawyer, who offers him information and asks him to intervene on behalf of his clients. Which is precisely what Istrati does.
PANAIT ISTRATI arrives in Lupeni a month after the tragic events. On the night of 7/8 September, he stays in a hotel there. The next day, he visits the victims’ widows, visits the hospital where there were still many wounded, meets the miners’ leaders. The authorities take special measures, fearing new disturbances. There is a state of siege in the Jiu Valley. Additional squads of gendarmes are allocated to the area. Before traveling to the Jiu Valley, Istrati is received in Bucharest by ministers Alexandru Vaida-Voievod and Ion Mihalache. He obtains a free-access permit to the area. We know his impressions from a series of eight articles published in Lupta [The Struggle]. The “enquiry” undertaken by Istrati doubles the official enquiry. He does not have time sufficiently to inform himself, to gather impressions. His articles express revulsion at what has happened. Sometimes he admonishes, he threatens that he will inform western public opinion about what he has seen when he returns. From the series of articles published in Lupta, we transcribe a few notes about communism, a subject that preoccupies him: “I too believed in such [revolutionary – author’s note] enthusiasm, like so many heroes mixed up with the bandits, fanatics and bootlickers of which the as-yet-unwritten history of Bolshevism is full. Today, however, the hoaxed and bloodied masses believe in nothing except the power of their own arms.” Lupta, 24 September. “[…] It is a question of war. The communists have declared war on the capitalist bourgeoisie, throwing the pacifist, legal methods of social democracy onto the scrap-heap. […] The bourgeoisie had the right to defend its existence. And it did so, positioning itself very comfortably on the same field of illegality to which its mortal enemy had made resort, going beyond even the right to self-defense, tying the tin can of communism to the tail of all those who inconvenienced it, imprisoning, beating up, killing people. But the communists do not only use illegality in their struggle to lay hold of power. In non-fascist countries in particular, they agitate within the limits of the law. And thence one from two: either the law is for all, and in this case the communists are permitted to profit by it, or it is not for all, in which case one should say so decisively, eliminating any trace of legal communist agitation: newspapers, meetings, economic or political organizations. […] and I shall reveal these things [that he has discovered – author’s note] to the eyes of the West, because the governments here get away with too much… determined as they are to do everything in their power to create fertile ground for Bolshevism.” Lupta, 26 September.
Naturally, rumors and suspicions regarding Istrati’s journey to Romania are circulating. Some are fuelled from Paris, in the journalist sphere, others from Moscow. On 31 August, a report of the Sigurantza cites a news item from a Russian language newspaper published in Paris, Poslednaya Novosti, according to which “Istrati is recommended for preparation of renewal of diplomatic relations between Romania and the Soviet Union.” ANCR, CC Archive of the PCR, Fd. 95, D 9697, vol. 1, p. 129. Other rumors speak of the mission he is supposed to have been given by the Komintern to organize a new workers party, which would replace or unify the various conflicting factions. Idem, p. 130. The Security is to follow whether Istrati makes contact with these groups and their leaders. He does not.
On 18 September 1929, a confidential report, sent to the General Police Department, reveals that on 13 September a parcel, containing “72 typewritten loose leaves in French”, was received at the Braila Post Office. “[…] from the summary examination that has been made it results that these loose leaves are part of a work by the writer Panait Istrati, regarding his visits to various towns in Georgia and Soviet Russia and in which he documents the state of affairs in that country, the political turmoil and the means of organizing the Russian proletariat in plants, factories and construction sites etc.” ANCR, CC Archive of the PCR, Fd. 95, D 9696, vol. 1, unspecified page. Istrati was thinking of the book that was going to be published, Confessional for the Defeated. He had asked the publisher to send the proofs to Romania, in order to hasten publication of the book. Istrati stayed at home for a few days, reading the proofs. He might have waited until he returned to Paris. It is interesting that he had taken precautions for the operation not to be detected by the secret services. The envelope arrives in Timisoara, in the name of a friend, who in his turn sends it not to Istrati’s address but to that of another friend in Braila, who is to deliver it. It is possible that Istrati was afraid not of the Sigurantza but of the GPU, who were interested in reading the book in advance and attempting, as in other situations, to halt its publication. On 25 September, the General Police Department writes: “It would have been interesting for the Department to have copies of the letters addressed to the writer, or at least the excerpted findings made in Soviet Russia.”Idem, p. 136.
The Braila Police inspectors send daily reports to Bucharest regarding Istrati’s movements and conversations. Here is an excerpt for 29 September: “PANAIT ISTRATI shows himself to be a convinced partisan of the workers who suffer due to the social organization today and affirms that he will support, through his writing, this matter permanently but alone, isolated, unregimented by any party or left-wing or extreme left-wing group, of which he has a horror due to their narrow spirit and the compromises they accept. Thus he criticizes the Romanian Social Democratic Party which has made a compromise with the government, as well as the communist regime in Russia […] which he accuses of tyranny and narrowness of views.” Idem, p. 137. On 27 September, Istrati holds a conference in the local theatre. Nothing has remained of the pro-Bolshevik, inflammatory discourse of the speech given in the lecture room in Athens. “Finally, speaking about what has been happening in Soviet Russia, which is to say the behavior of the leaders, saying that they have done nothing short of banishing one social class and installing another, which pays no heed to even the most elementary humanitarian notions, proceeding more tyrannically with the people than the class deposed.” Idem, p. 143.
Istrati’s attempts to appear in public are obstructed by various groups. On 6 October, he was due to speak in the Tomis Room on Vacaresti Avenue, a traditional left-wing meeting place. The socialist leader L. Ghelerter was organizing the conference. “Ghelerter thought to obtain a victory thanks to the Social Democratic Party and thanks to PANAIT ISTRATI […] a writer of great talent, but … a great muddlehead. He has remained the same muddlehead as before the war. Those of us who knew him then will not deny this. Moreover, he is a man of no character. He was in the service of the Soviets – today he rejects them without having the courage to tell the whole truth about what he saw in Russia. The motive? He does not want to burn all his bridges with Moscow.” "The PANAIT ISTRATI Conference" (unsigned), in Socialistul [The Socialist], 13 October 1929. The Istrati conference did not take place. Agitators belonging to other socialist groups, as well as nationalist students, protest inside and outside the auditorium. Police agents stand by passively. Nevertheless, they bundle Istrati out of the theatre and protect him when the situation gets nasty. “The aforementioned PANAIT ISTRATI was notified by the Prefecture of the Bucharest Police that he must leave the country on 2 October this year. On that date, PANAIT ISTRATI, in two automobiles, transported his luggage, which was searched, to the station … The aforementioned and his wife have left the country…” At the Gara de Nord, there are likewise disturbances. Istrati takes the Orient Express to Paris. In the evening, he crosses the border at Curtici, as noted in another report by the Sigurantza. He had received news that Confessional for the Defeated was about to appear in the bookshops.
The Bucharest press treated him with suspicion; his recent past was not forgotten. Nichifor Crainic: “PANAIT ISTRATI has reappeared in Romania with his eternal hobby-horse: the persecuted masses. This too is a profession which we all know today. It has been practiced by … Guernet, Torres and Barbusse, the famous Masonic comrades of Panaitache, impresarios of the ‘venerable’, no less famous Costa-Foru. You know the story: they came, they investigated us, they left, they cursed us for the whole world to hear. Romania was depicted as a country of gallows and bandit officials. PANAIT ISTRATI too has practiced the trade of ‘defender of humanity’. He investigated us; he cursed us thoroughly, with world-wide resonance, protected by his great, and justified, prestige as a famous and fashionable writer. […] I saw him in Brussels, at the PEN Club congress. In front of writers assembled from all over the world, he gave a lecture – about Romania, naturally; slanders, curses, lies, outrages. Our country was presented as an immense inquisition from whose cellars any innocent man would emerge tortured and disfigured – if he emerged at all! […] PANAIT ISTRATI then spent a year in Soviet Russia borne in triumph and fed on the golden apples of the communist Paradise […] Returning to Paris from Marxist Russia, Panait gave fresh declarations to the press, in which, this time, he renounced communism, cursed the Leninist regime […] Such is the man!” "Un om neserios" [An unreliable man], in Curentul, 29 September 1929. Pamfil Seicaru writes: “The articles ‘What Lupeni conceals’ and ‘The Jiu Valley’ are a disgusting accumulation of insolence, intended to disfigure the majesty of a drama provoked by politicizing that became converted to communist methods of agitation. […] Panait Istrati’s articles have convinced us that apart from pederast confessions, the narrator is a little thug with stumpy fingers who strains to appear violent, who yelps so as to appear rebellious. [….] Conventional, mediocre, vulgar and stupid – such is the impression given by Panait Istrati’s articles. Poor humble poverty of the workers, how many pens sully you! […] But did PANAIT ISTRATI really come to our country in order to paint the blood shed by the miners of the Jiu Valley in the somber colors of tragedy? […] PANAIT ISTRATI obeys orders; he did not come at the call of any proletarian solidarity… Who are those who have assigned Panait Istrati? Who is so fervently interested in ‘what is happening here with us’? And what occult, irresistible, tyrannical force sent Panait Istrati, the poor little poet of deflowered bottoms? […] Here is what Panait was assigned to present to the mysterious masters who sent him: the Romanian authorities and army as beasts crazed by alcohol and thirsty for warm, human blood. ‘Those who have the right to rise up and to set the country ablaze’, writes the servant of Racovski. […] What a dangerous confusion – what an encouragement to all kinds of outrage! PANAIT ISTRATI the lyrical narrator of sexual perversions, the Marcel Proust of beer vendors, investigates us. Panait, Panait, was there any need to prostitute your writing, after you had defiled your body with so much voluptuous publicity?” "Ah, Panait, Panait", Curentul, 30 September, 1929. Finally, from the Universul newspaper of 30 September: “These are the words by which Panait Istrati, the slanderer of Romania and protégé of Minister Vaida-Voievod, cynically adopts – in one of the enquiries he has published about ‘Lupeni’ – the sad role of tool of anti-Romanian interest. But not even the cynicism of these confessions, nor the shameless insults, with which, in the same enquiries, this sinister character has slung mud at the army, magistracy, police and the government of this country itself, could prompt the order of the interior minister to withdraw the blessing for him to continue his enquiry, at the same time as the hospitality which he saw fit mock”. Istrati’s isolation in Bucharest is a bad omen and foretells what awaits him in Paris.
On 1 October (while PANAIT ISTRATI is still in Romania) “L’Affaire Roussakov ou l’Union Soviétique” (a text included in Confessional) is published in La Nouvelle Revue Française. Romain Rolland reacts thus: “I am consternated,” he writes one week later, on 7 October. “Nothing of all that has been written for the last ten years against Russia, on the part of its inveterate enemies, has done so much harm as these pages will do. […] The only ones who will gain any advantage from this crazed revenge: reactionaries. How could you not have realized?” Rolland again: “Istrati, I would have liked to spare you from this ill-fated error… Now it is too late! Withdraw from politics. You can bring nothing but misfortunes!” The question would be, to whom? Istrati replies on 18 October: “We no longer have the same knowledge of Russia, nor the same feelings towards our political friends (I might say even towards the working class, as I saw it there, crushed by my countrymen). You hold me responsible for this act, as if it alone were capable of organizing a capitalist crusade against the USSR. I am responsible only for a certain weakening of faith at the heart of the International. This is what I wanted and I should like to go all the way, annihilating this ‘communist’ party chock-full of charlatans.” Rolland’s reaction is extremely negative: “I refuse you my name […] My disapproval is net” (20 October 1929) Istrati writes to him, resigned: “I was expecting your refusal. I accept it. […] But if you are determined to sacrifice the best people in Russia today, not by defending the bad, but quite simply by refusing to make any distinction, taking Russia as a homogenous whole – then know that you are, without willing it, adhering yourself to the destruction of hope and the ideal in the world, which is now being perpetrated, in Russia and in the International, by a generation of careerists.” Roland replies (25 October): “[…] I know very well that any revolutionary government swims in blood. Nor do I like bloodied hands (neither those of Danton, Marat, Trotsky, Lenin etc.).” Istrati writes from Strasbourg (three days later, on 28 October): “I shall not hide from you my amazement at seeing you become so officially Soviet. Or perhaps it is because you think me an anti-Soviet? […] The question might be put to me now that I have returned from Russia. ‘Were you not at all aware of what was going on over there before you left? For everyone knew you were a Bolshevizer. […]?’ I answer NO! […] I know, today, that a majority of people from my class came to power, that they immediately started to stuff themselves, that they became distanced from the masses, allowing all those who were not on their side to die of hunger.” For the correspondence between Istrati and Rolland, see Les Cahiers Paniat Istrati, nos. 2, 3, 4/1988.
The attack against Istrati is launched by Moscow. In its September-October 1929 issue, Vestnik inostrannoi literaturny publishes “Le grand bazar des idéologies”, signed by Bruno Jasienski. In a polemic against the interview given to Barbusse’s magazine Monde, the author speaks of “Istrati the renegade” and about a slanderous campaign against the Soviet Union. On 2 November, Vechernyaya Moskva publishes “The True Face of Panait Istrati”, signed by Bella Illyes. It is a harsh attack, the subject is no longer limited to Soviet literary life, it moves into the political. There is talk here of the fact that Istrati might be an agent of the Romanian secret police and that he has accepted to create an anticommunist party. Istrati is a “writer-adventurer”. Bella Illyes recalls the leftist stance of Istrati and reproaches him that he was always dissatisfied with the money he received in the Soviet Union. Illyes’ conclusion: “Istrati quite simply wished to sell the USSR. But since in the USSR people cannot be bought, Istrati found other buyers – the enemies of the USSR.” We shall find the same accusations in 1935, signed by H. Barbusse. One week later, on 9 November, Literaturnaya Gazeta publishes a letter from a group of Soviet writers, including Leonid Leonov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Valentin Katayev etc., which warns the West to be on its guard and is in fact a denunciation. There is a list of the names of a number of writers who have viewed the USSR sympathetically: Theodore Dreiser, John Don Passos, George Duhamel, Stefan Zweig, H. Barbusse, Ludwig Renn. Then comes the denunciation proper. Panait Istrati, “whose very name sounds shameful” and who had come to the USSR as a “Determined apologist of the October Revolution”, has profited from all the privileges “of his situation, which were offered him in good faith and in abundance. […] He considers himself a ‘revolutionary’ but he is an ‘adventurer’. Istrati has demonstrated how convictions can change simply by crossing a border. After he had taken everything he could get, he abandoned his ‘country of adoption’ with the same ease, as can be seen, with which he once abandoned the ‘putrid West’, whence he has now returned.” Idem, p. 166 Linkskurve, a left-wing publication, takes up the accusation: “With what rapidity Istrati has changed his point of view! It seems to us that the opinions of this independent left-wing intellectual depend too often on the opinions of those paying him.” Idem, p. 168 The line of attack for the campaign is to discredit Istrati. It was not a case of a crisis of conscience, of a lived experience, of the fact that he had understood that the Bolshevik revolution was something other than the Kremlin pretended. Istrati was portrayed as an adventurer, a mercenary who, dissatisfied with how he had been treated and paid, had sold his services to the enemies of the USSR, the western bourgeoisie. Behind the scenes, we discover Agitprop, the propaganda section of the Komintern and GPU. Newspapers financed by the latter take part (in France, L’Humanité, Monde), as well as subservient intellectuals and fellow travelers. There are brief lulls in the campaign, but it will not cease until after the death of the author. Istrati is mentioned in pro-Moscow left-wing circles only in a negative context. Otherwise, his name is ignored. It is a conspiracy of silence, compounded by repeated campaigns of defamation.
Under these circumstances, Istrati prefers to return home. Confessional for the Defeated can be found in large Bucharest bookshops from January 1930. It is a refuge. Present in the political, newspaper and cultural media of the West, in Paris especially, where he had been launched and had achieved literary fame, he could have defended himself. By returning to Romania, did he give up? Is he overwhelmed, defeated? In any case, even at home he finds no peace. The Sigurantza continue to keep him under surveillance, suspecting him of communist activities, as is revealed by the reports in the archive. The polemics surrounding him, connected to his change of attitude to the USSR, were well known, but might be a diversion, they might be a legend created by the Soviet special services in order for him to operate more effectively as an agent of influence. In Bessarabia, the authorities ban sale of Confessional (the Romanian language edition, published by Cugetarea) in March. A few days later, at the beginning of April, a telegram from the police at Curtici signals that “he has entered the country on express train no. 24 […] declaring that he is going to Bucharest”. The next day, 6 April 1930, a note from the Police and Sigurantza reveals that “the agitator Panait Istrati, former honorary member of the USSR [sic!], has been expelled from the Third International, due to his attitude towards the latter, which culminated in the issue of the volume entitled Confessional for the Defeated/Soviet Russia”. ANCR, CC Archive of the PCR, Fd. 95, D 9697, vol. 1, p. 179. The same note recapitulates his trip of 1929 and his relations with Dr Leon Ghelerter, the president of the small socialist workers’ party. Likewise, the report records his daily movements. It is signaled that “he appears to be an inveterate enemy of the Soviet regime and describes the life of the Russian people in the blackest colors. PANAIT ISTRATI upholds that if the borders of Russia were not guarded with such severity by the Soviet authorities, a large part of the populace would emigrate to other countries.” Idem, p. 185. “PANAIT ISTRATI recently received from France a voluminous mailbag among which there are a few letters from Russia posted to his address in France, by the writer VICTOR SERGE (pen name), who is in Moscow with his family and of whom, PANAIT ISTRATI, makes mention in his recent book ‘The Rusakov Affair’ [sic!]. In these letters Victor Serge gives a detailed description of economic life in Russia, and in order to characterize better the state of affairs in that country, he expresses himself in the words ‘When you were in Russia in 1928, it was a paradise, but today it is a hell’. PANAIT ISTRATI, reading the letters, remarked ‘In 1928, when I was in Russia, it was already a hell, so what must it be like today?’” Idem, pp. 186-187. On 17 June, a report reveals that he has not made contact with any suspect left-wing organizations, that he has refused to give any more lectures in union circles, that he receives 6,000 French Francs every month from Raider publishers in Paris, that he is ill and is going to Compiling to take the air and for treatment. Other notes record the foreigners who visit him. Arriving in Bucharest, he meets Nina Arbore, Dr Ghelerter, George Costa-Foru. On 10 July, when he leaves Romania, also via Curtici, a note demands that “the person in question immediately be notified to the Department on his return” Idem, p. 197. The conscientious functionary does so on 17 July. Istrati goes to Braila, comes to Bucharest, whence he goes to Compiling etc. He receives foreign guests, publishes some works in the press, is signaled in reports by the Sigurantza, looks after his health. Istrati gives the impression of a man who cannot find his place. Which is true.
He provokes, like it or not, disturbances, debate. He does not have the peace he desired, if he ever desired such a thing. One example: in January 1931, at the conference in Jassy, the followers of A.C. Cuza and militant communists separately agitate to prevent him from speaking. The police take drastic measures to maintain order. Here is an excerpt from the Cuzist manifesto disseminated in the city: “A new crusade by the ‘advocates of humanity’ is venting its fury in our native Romanian lands. The communist INTERNATIONAL, hand in hand with occult freemasonry, the author of all the infernal plots to destroy Christianity, royalty and constructive nationalism, has this year sent the most odious scoundrel, the abortion who answers to the name PANAIT ISTRATI. In Jassy, the pederast cur was embraced with the utmost warmth by his brothers in Judas […] The miscreant who abroad made the most injurious slurs on our dear monarchy, our church and Romanianism in general, the scoundrel who, in collusion with all the internationals in the world, has caused the country the greatest evil is now coming to Jassy, sent here by occult Judaeo-Masonry, under the disguise of literature, to apologize for destructive communism […] he thinks that in Yiddified and Masonized Jassy there is no longer a Romanian consciousness to nail him to the post of infamy […] We shall give the miscreant a lesson.”Idem p. 197.
Nor do the communist treat him any better. Alexandru Sahia writes on 30 January 1932, in the publication Floare de foc [Flame Flower] (director Sandu Tudor): “What a great scoundrel you are, comrade Istrati! I remember your glory days, when it was sufficient for you to announce a book for all the western publishers to fall over themselves with offers. What was this down to? Talent? Let’s be honest! It was the red trampoline that bounced you so amazingly high. The two fat cows, Racovski and Trotsky, proffered you their teats to suck your fill, like a frisky colt. Racovski, representative of the Soviets in Paris at the time, was happy to meet the comrade again; he offered you rubles. Away in Russia, recommended by Racovski to Trotsky – the latter espied in you a fresh element for his permanent revolution movement. But Trotsky has been thrown overboard in the meantime, Racovski sunk in Astrakhan. And in Russia, formidable industrialization and reconstruction of the economy begin in earnest. Who would think that in a corner there still exists Panait, the bard of the ‘taverns’! But things might still have been confused if the one who today curses communism had not come up with meddlesome financial claims […] As his reward, Panait, a follower of Trotsky, was shown to the Nistru. The Bolsheviks were unaware of any way to pay you except with bread, the same as any other worker, and on top of it all they gave you the freedom to roam. You couldn’t understand. You refused indignantly; you wanted money and blood. You feel good now […] among the Danube cesspools, providing for the King’s dictatorship… lover of tyrants.” On 15 November 1932, Santier [Building Site], a left-wing weekly run by socialist Ion Pas, translator of the first version of Confessinal, published an article by Sandu Eliad (himself a man of the left, a journalist, film director, the discoverer of singer Maria Tanase, and later one of the founders of the “Friends of the USSR” association): “Panait Istrati: A Globetrotter of Beliefs”. It is a personal attack: “PANAIT ISTRATI has flown all the banners of beliefs according to the fashion of the time, according to how much he expected to get paid.” Another attack came from a friend of his youth, also a communist, who lived in Paris and whom he also used to see at the USSR embassy, hosted by Racovski. On 7 February 1932, his old friend Alecu Constantinescu breaks with him, publishing in Detroit, in the Romanian communist weekly Desteptarea [Awakening], a long article entitled “A necessary explanation. My friendship with Panait Istrati”. It is a late reaction to Confessional for the Defeated. “I have known Istrati since 1909. During the period when the union and socialist movement headquarters were situated on Victory Avenue, opposite the White Church, a tall, slim young man, with a greedy mouth but gentle, obedient eyes, introduced himself to me…” Constantinescu wanted to make the decorator, who had only four years of primary schooling, into a theoretician of Marxism. He introduces him to left-wing circles, discusses with him, helps him to get to Paris, and initiates him into the mysteries of the doctrine. Then their paths separate. Constantinescu adheres to Bolshevism, becomes head of the clandestine movement in Romania, is condemned to death, arrested, escapes, emigrates to Russia, then lives in Paris, as a Komintern agent. Istrati goes to Switzerland in 1916. He too is full of enthusiasm for what is happening in Russia, for Bolshevism. Before becoming a well-known writer, he attempts suicide. Istrati, the ‘born revolutionary’ (his words), could find nothing better to do in Nice than to slit his throat when four or five white armies surround Soviet Russia, ready to slice into the living flesh of the Russian people. Istrati is also guilty of revering Trotsky. “Trotsky is the only leader capable of illuminating the opinion of the masses”, he believes, while Constantinescu believes that Trotsky tried to obfuscate it. For Istrati, “these communists are inferior beings who have lost any notion of individual liberty, puppets moved by the strings of the Komintern and the Russian Party”. We discover that Istrati threw his French communist party membership card into the Seine when Trotsky was expelled from the Komintern. His old friend disapproves of him and says that he is a “thoughtless anarchist, for anarchy at any price.” He also reproaches his opinion that there is no proletarian class awareness, writing of the latter that it is “the mere appetite to get their hands on the bourgeoisie’s turkeys and geese! Nothing more. PANAIT ISTRATI could see nothing more in Russia and Marx.” And he concludes: “The difficult times through which my class are passing has opened a gulf between myself and the writer Istrati.” Desteptarea,7 February 1932. Their split did not prevent Alecu Constantinescu writing to Istrati, who was in Filaret Hospital, one month later: “[…] for all the deep differences between our views and the bitterness your apolitical capers have provoked in me, the news that you too have arrived in the last palace of Gheorghiu [Stefan Gheorghiu, militant socialist, friend of Istrati in his youth, died of tuberculosis in Filaret Hospital in 1914 – author’s note] and perhaps even in the same bed, has touched me […] I have received the parcel of newspapers and thank you.” Further on, the text seems to be rather a secret, ciphered message, such as those which old, clandestine friends used to send each other. In Panait Istrati, Pagini de corespondenta [Pages from the correspondence], Braila Museum, Editura Porto Franco, Galati, 1993, pp. 114-115.
In 1935, the anti-Istrati campaign erupts once more. This time, it is connected to the trial of a university professor from Cernauti, Petre Constrantinescu-Iasi. After his arrest, in November 1934, the Komintern organizes the usual agitation. The Moscow-financed press comes to the defense of the arrested professor, claiming that he is not a communist agent, but an anti-fascist intellectual. Various (crypto-)Bolshevik associations from Europe join the campaign. Naturally, a group of “independent” intellectuals come to Romania in order to make an enquiry. At their head, we find a well-known figure, architect Francis Jourdain (1876-1958). He is the vice-president of the “Les amis de l’URSS” association. In 1927, he is part, together with PANAIT ISTRATI and others, of the French delegation that attends the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in Moscow. The French Communist Party daily L’Humanité (31 October 1927) even announced on its front page “PANAIT ISTRATI et Francis Jourdain à Moscou”, in an article illustrated with color photographs of the two. They knew each other well. After 1929, ties between them are broken. On 14 January 1935, Petre Constantinescu-Iasi is released to await trial on bail. On the same day, the French delegation arrives in Chisinau. On 17 January 1935, PANAIT ISTRATI publishes in Curentul an “Open letter to my friend Francis Jourdain, vice-president of the French Friends of the USSR, and currently their moral delegate in Romania.” A few excerpts: “[…] you should understand how unsuitable it is for a man of your moral worth to play the role of communist investigator in a communist affair, a role you have accepted to play in the country most exposed to communist terror. […] You admit that in the investigation you are making you are accompanied by two Soviet stooges of more than dubious morality […] you should ask yourself whether it is honest to patronize moral investigations only when a communist is arrested in a bourgeois country, and on the contrary to remain tight-lipped whenever, in Soviet Russia, legions of young idealists are exiled to the icy wastes and summarily executed, idealists that have included my personal friends […] Professor Constantinescu-Iasi was neither exiled nor martyred, but was quite simply arrested for communist agitation […] I presume that you are not so naïve as to believe that the situation in Romania, here at the Nistru, is the situation of France, between the Rhine and the Atlantic, or that the bourgeois government could have been moved by this whole sentimental comedy [Petre Constantinescu-Iasi’s hunger strike – author’s note], when they have to deal with an adversary that promises to put them up against the wall on the very day a Soviet regime is installed here. I read in the papers today that, arriving in Chisinau, you had nothing better to do than make contact with two communist Jews, which unleashed the legitimate fury of those nationalist strata that have a thousand reasons not to share your sympathy for the communist regime. Well, dear Jourdain, you will not know the consequences of this exploit of yours, because you are going away, protected by those Romanian soldiers which the theology professor’s comrades shoot year after year on the Nistru and who don’t really know what to make of you when they are fighting communist banditry.” Istrati resumes two days later, in Universul: “I no longer believe in communism – which, especially for the defeated, I regard as the greatest danger that threatens humanity today.”
These two articles unleash a frenzied campaign in Monde, a publication financed by the Komintern. But before that, in Bucharest, Mihail Sebastian writes of Istrati in Rampa: “Rhetorical, sentimental thinking, quite gross in its theories, but lyrical, animated, made to warm simple hearts. […] Bolshevik or Nazi, Mr. Istrati is innocent. […] What Mr. Istrati says on the subject of political doctrine is hilarious, pretentious, mediocre and – let us say it clearly – stupid […] The theory of a semiliterate, limited man, a closed mind.” "Panait Istrati, ideolog politic" [P. I. political ideologue], Rampa, 30 January 1935. Mihail Sebastian was not lacking in left-wing sympathies. Sahia, in Bluze albastre, 1 July 1932, sharply reminds him of his communist sympathies, already abandoned at that date, and the fact that he had become a member of the bar on the recommendation of two communist lawyers. Sebastian had a marked awareness of his status as a Jew. As such, he was disturbed by Istrati’s appurtenance to the Crusade of Romanianism. The attack in Rampa may be a coincidence, not necessarily an episode in the anti-Istrati campaign.
The leader of this campaign was Henri Barbusse, director of Monde. Barbusse was a militant communist. A Kremlin favorite involved in all the Komintern’s agitation and propaganda activities in Europe. He was to be found more often in Moscow than in France. His relationship with Istrati dated from 1919, when the Romanian had addressed to him a letter, “Lettre d’un ouvrier à Henri Barbusse”, published in La Feuille in Geneva. In the 1920s, the two collaborated. In 1928, Barbusse publishes “Istrati est des nôtres”, in defense of Istrati, attacked for anti-Sovietism in the German communist press. After publication of the Vers l’autre flamme trilogy, the two part ways. The new anti-Istrati campaign is launched under the heading “Les victoires du capitalisme” in Monde, with an article signed by Francis Jourdain himself: “Réponse à Panaït Istrati”, dated 1 February 1935. The text was published in Romanian translation in the gazette of L. Ghelerter Proletarul [The Proletarian], on 4 March. A few quotations: Since we arrived in Romania, the reactionary press has treated my comrades and myself as agents provocateurs, thugs disguised as ‘intellectuals’, OFF WITH THE MASK! it cries […] You [PANAIT ISTRATI –author’s note] willingly lend them the support of your talent, you place at their disposal the authority granted to you by your supposed acquaintance with us […] since you are afraid that, from an excess of modesty and discretion, I might forget to tell your anti-Soviet government that I am an active friend of the USSR, then you pre-empt me, with a generous and chivalrous initiative, presenting me as the vice-president of an association whose activity is banned in your country, and whose members your fascist friends have undertaken to exterminate […] Sincerely, such sentimentalism (?) might naturally have forced a number of errors: BUT NOT CAPITULATION. I no longer believe in the sincerity of your disordered ardor. I do not incriminate you for what you were unable to be, for what you in any case have never pretended to be: A MARXIST. I impute to you that you are not what you claim to be: a rebel, a refractory. Rebellious, braggart but sincere, you would have wept for admiration before the courage and abnegation of the likes of Dimitroff, Thaelmann, Rakosi – likewise before the likes of Constantinescu-Iasi, at whom you bark like a cur. […] Anarchist, rebel, unyielding? Let’s be serious! Patriot, anti-Semite, fascist!” In the same issue, Louis Dolivet publishes “Le loup devenou mouton ou Panaït Istrati fasciste” (The wolf turned into a lamb or PANAIT ISTRATI the fascist). There follow others – author Charles Vidrac and lawyer J. Ferucci (the latter of whom comes to Bucharest) under the title “Le cas Panaït Istrati”. The subject is the same, Istrati’s fascism. “You are neither a democrat nor a communist. All that is left is for you to be a fascist.”, J. Ferucci tells him. In a long article for La Commune (March 1935), entitled “Un traître”, Vladimir Pozner reminds Istrati of his erstwhile opinions about the USSR and publishes a letter sent to Francis Jourdain in 1928, from near Moscow, in which the Romanian is very critical of the West and displays his enthusiasm for the USSR. “[…] friends, believe steadfastly in the red star that rises over the horizon of communist humanity!”, wrote Istrati then. After returning from the USSR, Istrati became a “a professional of oaths, a recidivist of good intentions, a hysterical man of letters, he declaims, he foams at the mouth, he spits out his lungs”. Pozner accuses him of Trotskyism and fascism: “The ambivalence did not last an eternity. There followed a brutal descent into chauvinism, anti-Semitism, fascism: the ‘other’ flame’ of Panait Istrati”. Istrati is a “corpse”. We shall also encounter this double accusation, of Trotskyism and fascism, in the trials of the Great Terror.
The most significant text of the campaign is signed by Henri Barbusse, on 22 February: “Le Haïdouk de la Sigurantza”. We also find here the themes with which we have been dealing in this book: collaboration with the Security, denunciation, betrayal and money. Thus, Istrati is an agent of the Sigurantza and became a critic of the USSR for financial motives. Barbusse writes that “PANAIT ISTRATI made his debut in life as a poor man. Crushed by social injustice, needy, a vagabond, porter, vendor of postcards and itinerant photographer, one fine day he was washed up with his belly empty and his literature drowned, on the Côte d’Azur.” After being saved by Rolland, “he knew satiety, fame, almost glory […] moreover, in our half of humanity [the communist half – author’s note], we saluted him as a rebel.” Then Istrati, writes Barbusse, referring to Confessional for the Defeated, published books which did not live up to the hopes placed in him. And he adds: “The decline of PANAIT ISTRATI as a writer and the decline of PANAIT ISTRATI as a man are not two different stories, but one and the same story. For him, the man has ended up demolishing the artist.” The two had known each other for almost fifteen years. What he recalls now, in 1935, is that “Istrati was infatuated and displayed an air of superiority, that he hated Gorky because he had been compared to him and he earned more money. In any case, Istrati used to talk only about himself and about money.” “The dithyrambic praises of the USSR […] the solemn oath […] to be buried in Soviet soil” were nothing more than a business deal for Istrati. Barbusse tells us that Istrati told a mutual friend that if the USSR had treated him better, he would have had a different attitude. Naturally, Barbusse does not tell us who has given him this information. He knew perfectly well that VOKS, Agitprop, Komintern and the GPU paid cash for the many image-building services that various journalists and writers agreed to perform for the Soviet Union. He himself received stipends from Soviet funds, and he was adept at making propaganda and taking part in campaigns such as the one launched against Istrati. Istrati too had received large sums in royalties for the many editions of his books translated into Russian. He had also received money for articles and interviews. The Russians had paid for his hotels, train fares, meals etc. for the entire duration of his trip. This is true, but it did not prevent him, once he had become aware of what was happening in the USSR, from keeping his distance, even if he knew that he would lose all these advantages. Barbusse did not do likewise, and remained until his death, in August 1935, on the payroll of the Komintern.
After finishing with the accusations regarding money, Barbusse passes on to accusations regarding morality. He claims that , at Lupeni in 1929, Istrati took part in a “government investigation”, he traveled around with official investigators, he was in agreement with the authorities that ordered the miners to be fired on and were guilty of the massacre of the union that called the strike. Denunciation, slander and blatant lies were part of the techniques frequently used by the Komintern when some one had to be destroyed. Barbusse manipulated them dexterously and unscrupulously. Then, Istrati is supposed to have taken part at a congress of the (communist) United Unions in 1932 and to have demanded that it should be outlawed and a large number of its militants arrested. Furthermore, Istrati is supposed to have denounced to the press a number of communists who were living clandestinely in Braila and played the “role of provocateur”. The Security made many arrests, writes Barbusse, after these denunciations, approved by Istrati in an article for Curentul. The episode is entirely invented. For six months, continues Barbusse, “Istrati has been officially attached to a faction of the Iron Guard, an armed, pogromist and terrorist faction, controlled by the Hitlerite government.” Barbusse mentions that the Iron Guard assassinated prime-minister I. Gh. Duca. Istrati belongs to the Mihai Stelescu group and is one of the group’s three leaders. He mentions that he writes for Cruciada Românismului [Crusade of Romanianism], the group’s newspaper, and that it has dedicated many articles to him. This episode in the career of Istrati requires separate analysis, which we do not propose to make here. Barbusse accuses that, on 19 January 1935, Istrati wrote in an article for Universul that the wider interests of humanity were threatened by communism and revolution. “Behold the writer, behold the man!”, exclaims Barbusse, overcome. Istrati “presents himself as an apostle and even as a martyr, when in fact he is the lackey of the reaction of the hangmen, the holders of secret funds, and the Police torture chambers. Panait Istrati, rabid dog of the pack that hunts down revolutionaries. Panait Istrati, bought by the enemy to betray his former brothers in poverty and his former comrades in the struggle, to betray his own cause. Panait Istrati, handsome ornament of Panurge’s flock of mangy sheep.” In his indictments, prosecutor Andrey Yanuarevich Vyshinsky will also dub Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin Rykov and Racovksi as “rabid dogs” and demand their extermination. As he was writing these lines, Barbusse was negotiating the royalties and expenses for his work on Stalin. And he was paid handsomely. See the details in Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin. O noua biografie [Lenin. A New Biography], Orizonturi-Lider, 1999, p. 435 and in Arkadi Vaksberb, Hotel Lux. Partidele comuniste fratesti in slujba Internationalei comuniste [Hotel Lux. The Fraternal Communist Parties in the Service of the Communist International], Editura Humanitas, 1998, pp. 74-77. Barbusse had a sumptuous villa on the Côte d’Azur, and practically unlimited sums from Soviet sources. The “venal Istrati” remained poor. The accusations had no relation to reality. The attack was strictly a propaganda product, intended to destroy the adversary.
The article was a public execution. Who could check the truth of the affirmations made by Barbusse and the others in Monde, La Commune, and L’Humanité? The silence surrounding Istrati is remarkable. No one came to his defense. He was also far from Paris, in Bucharest; he was ill and had no means of intervening. He also had a reputation for inconstancy. He passed as a former, vehement, noisy Bolshevik, who had betrayed his old beliefs. He was viewed with suspicion by apolitical intellectuals; for them, Istrati was far too mixed up in political disputes and had once adhered to a dubious cause. The politicized, but with other allegiances, viewed him as a former communist. In any case, Istrati did not hesitate to criticize capitalism and western democracies in harsh terms even after 1929. In this context, it is no wonder that Istrati is isolated, put up against the wall of infamy by Barbusse and co., morally assassinated, annihilated. Many preferred to view the campaign passively, seeing it as a “family” quarrel. The 1936-1938 trials in Moscow will be viewed in the same way. The death of Istrati, on 16 April, puts an end to this campaign.
The 1930s were a decade of Manichaeism, of fascism versus communism. Any “midway” position, independents or nuances were neither understood nor followed. Changes of attitude were even less appreciated. Hitler’s accession to power in Germany had simplified the terrain and reduced the options. The criticism unleashed by Istrati’s travel impressions, which under normal circumstances ought to have become broader, more focused, and to have provoked a debate (as happened in the 1970s when Alexander Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago), is reduced to silence. After January 1933, the USSR is perceived as a hope, an alternative to the Nazi regime in Germany. For a time, Europe had to choose between two dictators, Hitler and Stalin. The democracies seemed weak and lacking in any political will to confront their adversaries. Istrati had been a proponent of the cause of revolution and Bolshevism who, disillusioned by what he had encountered in the USSR, broke the silence. He was regarded as a traitor. The Greater Soviet Encyclopedia (1937) writes: “Istrati manifests himself [in his novels – author’s note] as an anarchist extremist and individualist. In 1928, he visited the Soviet Union. In collaboration with counter-revolutionary Trotskyites he wrote a series of revolting caricatures about the Soviet Union.” In the same year, 1937, the Lesser Soviet Encyclopedia noted: “His works are colored by facile romanticism and a spirit of petty bourgeois revolt. He likewise manipulates this mediocre ideology in his description of the haidouks.” After he had made a journey to the USSR, “he spread venomous slanders against the Soviet land and out of compliance with the international counter-revolution spread propaganda hostile to the USSR.” Cahiers Panait Istrati, no. 11/1994, pp. 187-188.
Translation ©Alistair Ian Blyth, 2006. Translation commissioned by the Romanian Cultural Institute.
This translation appears with the permission of Humanitas, Bucharest, publishers of Clienţii lu’ tanti Varvara (Aunt Varvara’s Clients), 2004, by Stelian Tanase. We thank the Romanian Cultural Institute, New York, for their assistance.
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