Friday, April 12, 2013

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen (Viking 2008)

I found the Mensheviks kind, intelligent, witty. But everything I saw convinced me that, face to face with the ruthlessness of history, they were wrong.
- Victor Serge
Mark's dissertation, in the end, was about Roman Sidorovich, 'the funny Menshevik." Lenin had called him that, menshevitskiy khakhmach, in 1911. Sidorovich was tickled, "I'd rather be menshevitskiy khakhmach" he said (to friends) "than bolshevitskiy palach." I'd rather be the Menshevik funny-man than the Bolshevik hangman. Oops.

They were all in Switzerland then, having fled the scrutiny of the tsar's secret police. In 1917, they all, Lenin and Trotsky and Sidorovich, returned home after the tsar abdicated. Or anyway Mark thought they did. The truth is, Sidorovich was too minor a figure for anyone to have noticed when exactly he returned, what exactly he was wearing, his friends and widow gave contradictory accounts, and his personal papers were confiscated in the 1930s. But Mark thought he could see him in the documentary evidence, cracking jokes. It was in fact the task of his dissertation to prove that many of the anonymously attributed humorous remarks of 1917 ("someone joked," "a wit replied") were attributable to Roman Sidorovich.

In 1920, after securing power, Lenin exiled many of the Mensheviks. The Sidoroviches found themselves in Berlin, where Roman briefly succumbed to the temptation to write humorous book reviews for Rul', the liberal paper associated with, among others, Nabokov's father. In 1926, however, Sidorovich grew bored and depressed and asked to be allowed back into the country. He was allowed. Five years later, he was arrested, and his "humorous remarks," the ones Mark spent all his time authenticating, were spat back at him during his interrogation. It turned out the Bolsheviks had a very good memory for humorous remarks.

"I confessed to the good ones right away," Sidorovich said later.

"Then they tortured me, and I confessed to the bad ones, too.

"Then they tortured me some more," he also apparently said, a few times, "and I blamed the bad ones on my friends."

The record of the interrogation had not survived. But it was known that Sidorovich received a five-year sentence in Verkhne-Udalsk. He returned to Moscow in 1936 and was rearrested in early 1941. He was on his back to Verkhne-Udalsk, or beyond, when the Germans invaded. At this point history lost track of Roman Sidorovich, and so did Mark.

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