Pana´t Istrati 1928

Two Letters to the GPU

Source: Vers l'Autre Flamme, Folio, Paris, 1987;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2015.

While traveling in the Soviet Union with the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis Istrati took it upon himself to write to GPU secretary Gerson in two of the more curious letters written by any of the many Western writers who traveled in the USSR.

Novi-Afon (Abkhazia) December 4, 1928

Dear Comrade Gerson, secretary of the GPU,

We have reached the end of our second tour of the USSR. After the North and the Volga we have just completed Transcaucasia. Before that I'd already visited, without Kazantzakis, the Moldavian Republic and the Crimea. So all that’s left for us is Turkestan and Siberia, that is, six more months of travel.

But before deciding whether to take this last trip it would be useful if I were to speak to you with complete honesty, for the deeper I dig into Soviet life the heavier becomes my responsibility towards all those in Europe who are waiting for me to say what I think. (Everything that has appeared in the newspapers, signed by Kazantzakis and me, was written only by him without a single word of mine. I'll say this publicly, reserving to myself the right to say everything I have to say if I think it fit.)

But this isn’t easy for me.

Three types of writers can speak with ease of the Soviet Union. They are:

  1. The neutrals, more or less friendly scribblers like Duhamel, Viollis, etc.
  2. Our enemies, like Henri BÚraud, professional detractors of the Union.
  3. Our friends, like Barbusse, apologists every bit as professional.

I can tell you that the Kazantzakis type, which I've provided all the assistance I could, is the one I think the most honest and courageous, though reserved. But this isn’t my way of saying things.

You'll easily understand me when I tell you that for me the Soviet problem is a private drama. I am a rebel born and an old revolutionary. I didn’t go to the Soviet Union to find subjects for books but to see if I could be of use to the proletarian revolution.

Today I know that I can be useful to it on one condition: that of not writing like Barbusse.

When a writer renounces any critical sense and becomes the mouthpiece of an idea he is no longer someone who is listened to and he no longer serves the cause he thinks he’s defending: he compromises it.

I think exactly the same thing about a revolutionary militant who acts like Barbusse: he kills the idea.

I don’t mean that we should surrender ourselves to chatter and rumors that would plunge us into bourgeois chaos, but there is in all this a danger that must be called by its name.

There are men in the party unworthy of their posts and who do whatever they have to to keep them. These men are no longer revolutionaries, and even less Communists.

For the party worker there is fear of criticizing these men, the fear of losing their livelihood, and even of being imprisoned.

There are high Communist functionaries who ae all too happy to lead a life that is an offence to the harsh existence of the workers. I even saw uniformed members of the GPU exhibiting their inappropriately attired wives in kurorts.[1]

There is a type of so-called “proletarian writer” who is nothing but a parasite living on the back of the working class. This man is too enamored of banquets where he can drain bottles, retail political stupidities, and shout “Long Live Proletarian Literature!”

And finally, there is an inhuman persecution of members of the Opposition, who should be pushed to the side, to be sure, but who shouldn’t be driven to madness and suicide.

I tell you all this as a good Communist, as a good Bolshevik.

I don’t need to tell you that this isn’t all I saw as I crisscrossed the Union. I also and above all saw socialism in practice, which with every step caused me to cry out with joy. But if you'd like me to speak of this forcefully I must also be allowed to also speak of the evils, to speak of them with measure, with pity, and carefully, but to speak of them.

I ask for your consent, I ask for the party’s.

If you grant me this I'll write my impressions of the Soviet Union. If not I'll remain silent, in public and private, here and overseas.

I'll live alone.

Your devoted,

I'll be in Moscow in two weeks and will come see you.

Moscow, December 19, 1928
Hotel Passage
Dear Comrade Gerson:

I've been here in Moscow for three days. Being very busy right now before seeing you I would like to add to the program/latter I sent you from Novi Afon last December 4.

My definitive attitude (at least I hope it is) can be summed up in this way:

  1. No complacent return to capitalism and the bourgeoisie, both of which are to be destroyed despite the ideological and moral fallings of the Soviet regime.
  2. The current ills of the Soviet regime in my eyes are remediable, on condition they be attacked.
  3. Absolute confidence in the Soviet working class, which must find the strength and the means to cure the ills of its own regime and enter a road of socialist realizations that is more effective and less fertile in errors.
  4. I don’t in the least believe that this recovery is incumbent on the Opposition, as some obtuse Oppositionists think; on the contrary, left to its own devices the Opposition is capable of errors every bit as serious.
  5. I see only one way to escape the current critical impasse, and this is:
    1. To cease combatting the Opposition by means of terror.
    2. Proclaiming the right to criticism within the party for all its members, even those expelled for the offence of Oppositionism; and
    3. Creating the secret ballot in the party and unions.

This is what I call being a good Communist today.

I would like to be this Communist by every means at my disposal. This is impossible for me here without the consent of the party. And overseas, where my sincere speech could unleash an ignoble polemic in the enemy camp, I wouldn’t want to fight without your approval, for I am neither an Oppositionist nor an anarchist but a collaborator in the Soviet undertaking.

I strongly believe in the vital forces that remain silent within the working class, which must truly dictate, which is not the case at this moment.

This is my program. I am ready to die supporting it.

Sincerely yours,
PANA¤T Istrati.

In March of 1929 Istrati would write to Romain Rolland that “the horrible Roussakov Affair proved to me that the authorities are aware of the evil that is eating away at the Revolution but that it accepts no criticism.” Rolland, who publicly never ceased supporting the Stalinized USSR, wrote to Istrati in March 1929 that “it’s obvious that the men in power are too compromised, depend too much on their mutual material assistance to accept what you have to say to them...Your role is to save the ruins, the flames of heroic idealism that you see gathered here and there among the peoples of Russia and to re-ignite them.”

1. German for health resort