Radek: A Novel
By Stefan Heym, translated by Alexander Locascio
$28 paper / 978-1-58367-955-5 / 616 pages
Radek: A Novel is the first-ever English translation of the final book by the bestselling dissident East Berlin author Stefan Heym. His subject, Karl Radek, is best known as the editor of the newspaper of record throughout the Soviet era, Isvestia. Beginning as Lenin’s companion at the dawning of the October Revolution, Radek later became Stalin’s favorite intellectual – only to find himself entangled in the great purges of the late 1930s and scripting his own trial.
Before joining the Bolsheviks, the young Karl Radek took part in the socialist politics of his native Polish district of Austria-Hungary. Factionally first with and then opposed to Rosa Luxemburg, his journalistic skills were appreciated in the thriving socialist press of pre-WWI German Empire. Taking refuge in neutral Switzerland from the carnage of WWI, Radek participated in the first conference of anti-militarist socialist parties at Zimmerwald in 1915. Among those present were Lenin and Trotsky, and the movement that emerged from Zimmerwald adopted as its working program the manifesto drafted by Radek. Then, arriving in Saint Petersburg just before the October revolution, Radek was given responsibility for international press relations. As the new Russian government began peace negotiations with the German Empire at Brest-Litovsk, Karl Radek was part of the Russian negotiating team along with Joffe and Trotsky.
As a central figure of the communist world, Radek is above all an ambiguous personality and always controversial, cultivating vagueness and confusing genres to the point where even his historical biography seems to be a work of fiction. With his thick glasses and most non-Aryan appearance, he was what the French call beau-laid, and carried on a torrid affair with the famously beautiful Larisa Reisner, a “young woman who flashed across the revolutionary sky like a burning meteor, blinding many.” His history takes the form of a frenzied chase, haunted by the fear that the revolution will cease to move forward.
When the German revolution broke out in the winter of 1918-19, Radek was sent as an emissary from Moscow. With Luxemburg and Liebknecht in the days before their murder in January 1919, Radek himself narrowly escaped death and was imprisoned by the German social-democratic government. Claiming diplomatic status at first without success, Radek was able to conduct a salon from his prison, entertaining writers, businessmen and politicians.
When Lenin was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt by the dissident socialist Fanny Kaplan in Moscow in August 1918, Radek was one of the first to be at his side. Later, as the Comintern’s German expert and a proponent of German-Russian co-operation, Radek was dispatched to Germany by the dying Lenin at the time of the great inflation of 1923.The German Communist Party was thought to be in position to take power – but the attempt failed miserably. Radek was blamed for the fiasco in Germany by Zinoviev, a ploy in the fight for power – he returned to the bitter power struggle that followed Lenin’s death.
Later, when Stalin’s growing power caused a belated union of his opponents, Radek joined with Trotsky and Zinoviev in the futile attempt. Sent to Siberia, Radek chose to capitulate to Stalin in the hope of continuing the building of socialism.
Stalin’s favorite intellectual, Radek wrote some of the earliest worshipful encomiums of Stalin, believing that they were so excessive that no-one could possibly take them seriously. When finally entangled in the great purges of the late 1930s, by Heym’s account, Radek persuaded Stalin that the earlier trials had been unbelievable, and was permitted to script his own. A fitting final scene of his life.
Through it all, his enormous talent as a writer, his political acumen and his continuous curiosity carried him through event after event. Sometimes cynical, sometimes hopeful, in Heym’s version of his life, Radek’s famous humor is never far from view.
From the Introduction to Radek: A Novel
by Victor Grossman
THE LIVES OF STEFAN HEYM and of Karl Radek were conglomerates of countless contradictions, with de nite personal similarities and both wholly shaped by events in a bloody century over full of huge victories and giant defeats, events still quarreled over by those who regard its final decade as a victory over totalitarianism while others, greatly diminished in number, stubbornly mourn a tragic, possibly permanent defeat.
How, at different times in that century, did Heym fit in, how did Radek? Neither ever really “fit in”….
BORN APRIL 10, 1913, into a well-off family in the industrial city of Chemnitz, the boy born as Helmut Flieg was bullied in school for being interested in poetry and also for being Jewish, this at a time when Nazi gangs were gathering for the kill…
IN 1995, Stefan Heym published the long novel you are holding. It was another of his books about a brainy, witty writer, as in most cases, Jewish, just like Heym. But he is not Heym, who shows him much sympathy but keeps a critical distance. Like the author, Radek has trouble with the powers that be. In Radek’s USSR, however, that was far more dangerous than in the proto-McCarthy United States or the GDR of Ulbricht or Honecker.
When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Heym wrote a sorrowing eulogy, not idolatrous, but indeed based on praise. After Nikita Khrushchev’s detailed account of crimes committed under Stalin’s rule in 1956, Heym joined most remaining leftists in burying such sympathy.
Some “ultra-leftists” still demonstrate under banners showing Marx, Lenin, sometimes Mao, but also Stalin. Such views are isolated; yet how can anyone cherish the memory of a man responsible for the imprisonment and execution of so frightening a number? (For me, this is also a personal matter: I knew well some who survived and some whose relatives did not.)
Yet despite the broad scythe of his killing, a completely total repudiation of every facet in his life is, for anyone interested in history, simplistic. Heym has related Stalin to Napoleon, an emperor who blanketed Europe with corpses—but also led in ending feudalism and official anti-Semitism. But with Stalin, can an objective examination lend any positive factors?
I would stress one point: the negative meaning of the term “Stalinism,” so frequent in political discourse, is constantly extended beyond a description of his one-man, murderous command style to act as a verbal condemnation of all the USSR represented, from start to finish—its tragedies, its achievements, and its sacrifices…
But does the repudiation of Stalin in Radek also abandon visions of a future Utopia, free of hunger, insecurity, military destruction? Is the downfall of the USSR, some early causes of which were indicated by Heym, truly proof that it is a useless dream to strive for a socialist world that is no longer built on prof- its and moneymaking? Or of the GDR?
I wonder, on the contrary, whether they are not urgently necessary. Several immense catastrophes now threaten the world. One is the destruction of the environment, with the floods, drowning coastlines, res, hurricanes, and droughts that we are increasingly witnessing…
The biggest threat, for some the most remunerative one, is war, ever more war, ever closer to use of the Armageddon weapons that could end all other problems for the human species.
As I see it, all these problems are caused, basically, by a circle of millionaires and billionaires who have only contempt for the needs and lives of the more than 90 percent they have overtaken with their swollen, ever more astronomic fortunes. And these people seek world hegemony!
The only genuine solution I can imagine is a total abolition of their positions, possessions, and their wealth, as soon as it is possible. Would Stefan Heym, would Karl Radek, have agreed?
From Radek: A Novel, by Stefan Heym
Book III, Chapter 1:
…on this gloomy late afternoon, he found himself in the corner of the Smolny canteen, where someone had pinned a piece of red cloth to the wall, and was giving information about his party past to a pale, white-blonde person who was dipping his steel nib far too often into a smudged ink pot and writing down with a nervous hand Radek’s answers, as far as he understood them. Even more than the disputes with the wing of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania led by Leo Jogiches and comrade Luxemburg, the expulsion proceedings initiated by the German party leadership against him for non-payment of dues and other offenses aroused the mistrust of the white-blond, causing him to ask even more probing questions.
Until Radek finally lost his patience and he shouted at the man that he should finish up this ridiculous procedure and sign the document, or refuse to do so if he wished, but enough of the questions now; then a touch of bluish red appeared on the man’s gaunt cheeks and, muttering incomprehensibly, he put his signature to the precious booklet.
Trotsky liked intelligent conversations, and one could tell that he missed the Viennese coffeehouses where he, then known as Herr Dr. Bronstein, had spent hours upon hours discussing and reading newspapers. Again and again, the concise, objective nature of the discussion, demanded by pressing circumstances, threatened to lose itself in more or less amusing digressions, again and again one moved from the practical to the theoretical, or even the aesthetic, and Radek was not the man to keep Trotsky on the prosaic, sober paths; he himself enjoyed too much the winking consideration of the most diverse possibilities, the search for surprising solutions, the footnotes of thought, so to speak, so often completely overlooked by the majority of people, even within the intelligentsia, or just considered to be insignificant accessories.
“So”, said Trotsky, lovingly stroking the warm, glistening brown of the edge of the desk in front of him, “you’re taking over the press and news department of this commissariat. Agreed?”
“Agreed”, nodded Radek, “but – “
“Your special area, and I hope to have your agreement here as well”, Trotsky raised his head and thrust his goateed chin towards Radek, “will be Germany. That is to say: the world revolution, in which the Germans will have to shape the next stage. Of course, you won’t work there alone, but hand in hand with the Bureau for International Revolutionary Propaganda, which the party is organizing and which will be headed by comrade Boris Renstein with the collaboration of a certain John Reed, an American correspondent on location – do you know him? You’ll get to know him – a believer.”
“Aren’t we all believers?”, said Radek.
Book III, Chapter 1, continued…
…“Well, somebody has to make peace! Why not you, Roman Ivanich? Besides, you’ll have pork to eat from the Germans, and gingerbread, and copious amounts of vodka to drink to aid your digestion. We’ll send your nails and needles to your village for you. So come on, we don’t have any more time to lose.” And he grabbed the old man by the arm and pushed him toward the car, and the driver got out and together, they heaved him into the back seat between Joffe and Kamenev, and Radek said, “this is comrade Stashkov, Roman Ivanich”, and then they were at the Warsaw Station, and Joffe and Kamenev, together with their new guest, got into the Pullman car at the end of the train, and the train started and Radek waved after them until he could no longer see comrade Stashkov, Roman Ivanich, who dutifully waved back for a long time out of the open window…..they dined together in the officer’s mess, the Germans with their inferior brothers-in-arms and the Russian delegation – the main person at the table was old Stashkov, who swallowed vodka by the hundred gram and shoveled vast quantities of sausage, cabbage, and potatoes into the wide hole that opened up in his beard….
Book IV, Chapter 1:
The name was a household word: Larissa Reissner. Trotsky had called her an Olympian goddess: Boris Pasternak, meeting her for the first time on the deck of a warship, the only woman – and what a woman! – in the midst of a crowd of red sailors, had been fascinated by her voice, which suggested a personality of a special kind. And Vadim Andreyev, the son of Leonid, the poet, had described how on the streets of pre-war St. Petersburg, every third man stopped as if rooted to the spot when she, then still a young girl, passed on the side walk.
Strange, thought Radek: he alone, although he knew and appreciated much of what she had published, had never met her face to face….
And now she sat there in front of him, in his paper littered editorial room, one leg crossed over the other, the little hat slanted on her reddish shimmering hair, and acted as if her face were the most extraordinary thing in the world, flat and sober as a postage stamp. You’re not going to have your heart touched, he thought, by Madame Reissner; she’s been through recontres like this dozens of times, and expects from you the usual measure of compliments, no more and no less; so pace yourself…
“I admit”, he said, “I’ve tried to prepare for our meeting.”
From under a pile of magazines and pamphlets on his work table, he pulled out a stapled booklet; recognizable as a product of War Communism.
“Astrakhan”, he said. “I had no idea I would ever read from it, and certainly not to the author.
Still, listen to this: When children die, perhaps their whole unlived life appears to them in the mirror of their dreams. In an agonizing hour, in a night of confusion and fever, they relive a whole life and give it up without regret, like a glorious garment worn only on a festive day and now discarded forever and with all its flowers and fragrances…”
Book IV, Chapter 1, continued…
…She spoke to him of the city, which, like a freshly caught fish, still twitched in the net, and the smoke of revolution still hanging over it; or, another image, standing piled up like an ancient colossus, its huge legs splayed across the banks of the Elbe, that old, filthy inn for the hoodlums of the ocean.
For kilometers along the water, nature was as good as extinct, and where a tree trunk had survived, it was more like a mast left over from a shipwreck. Two of these trees were particularly memorable to her, one at the pier, cramped and bent over like an woman fighting the wind; the other in front of the office of Blohm & Voss, the largest of the Hamburg shipyards. The shipyards, it should be noted, where hardly anything was stirring, while bloody fighting was going on in the suburbs.
Just as, by the way, business continued as usual in St. Pauli, and people continued to offer living flesh for sale in these alleys with unaffected simplicity; visitors came to look at the goods on display from one little shop window to the next; then they entered, in a more or less drunken state, to have the most divine of lies, love, acted out for them, and flying out after a while onto the pavement, accompanied by the noise of heavy curses.
Larissa was back on her subject; she had, probably remembering her time during the Civil War, this interest in tactical questions.
The barricade had taken on a different function; it was no longer like a fortress wall between the guns of the revolutionaries and those of the government; in general, it no longer served as protection for anyone, but rather as an obstacle for everyone; now it was nothing but a largely permeable wall made of trees, beams, stones, overturned carts, concealing a deep trench from the armored cars of the government, the most dangerous enemies of the uprising.
It was precisely this trench that was the purpose of the modern barricade, she instructed him; thrown across the street, it deprived the army and the police of a view of the real events behind the disheveled backdrop, drawing the troops’ attention to itself, and serving as the only recognizable target; with its empty chest, it received all of the fierce fire directed by the government’s forces against its invisible revolutionary opponents.
How wonderful, he thought, how passionate, and how tactically clever! – Only, to have to hear and recognize all this now, from the loser’s perspective, made it seem doubly senseless; but she didn’t seem to notice that; she was so immersed and absorbed in her insights and realizations that she wanted only one thing: to pass them on to someone whose mental world would be able to absorb and process it all; she forgot that her listener might never be able to benefit from it for the future; in order to learn from the course of history, be it an episode or an entire epoch, one had to be in a position to learn from it and then apply its lessons. But would he be left in such a position, or would he instead be removed from it as soon as possible, precisely because he had shared responsibility for the emergence of these lessons?
…The workers, he lectured, had become invisible, elusive.
They almost no longer fought in the streets, which they left to the police and troops. Their new barricade, with hundreds of secret passages and thousands of reliable hiding places, consisted of the network of working-class neighborhoods with their cellars, floors, and apartments. Every window in the upper floors was a firing post, every attic an observation post, every bed in every worker’s household a sickbed, on which an insurgent could count in case he was wounded.
This was the only explanation for the numerous casualties on the side of the government forces, while the workers, in the Barmbek district for example, had only about a dozen wounded and a handful of dead. The troops, however, had been forced to attack in the open street; the workers fought in their own homes. For an entire day, the Reichswehr’s attempts to take Barmbek failed because of the widely scattered positions of the workers who, hidden behind shutters of some kind, chose their targets while below, the military’s guns pelted the empty barricades with fire…
Book VIII, Chapter 4:
It was a beautiful autumn, warm and sunny, and he had time, a lot of time, and more than once, when he walked through the streets and went to the parks, where the leaves began to change color, he thought that this would now likely be the last autumn he experienced, and he felt the sadness that wrapped itself around his heart like a gray veil.
The only disturbing thing were the pursuers, who kept at such a distance that he could just notice them when he looked around; sometimes he managed to shake them off by quickly turning a corner or darting through a backyard to avoid them; then, not two minutes later, others appeared from another direction and of the same appearance and with the same casual attitude, and attached themselves to him…
Book VIII, Chapter 4, continued…
…Three steps to the window, three steps to the door; if one stood crosswise and stretched out one’s arms, one almost reached from wall to wall – window, that wasn’t a window, that was a barred hole, through which only at certain hours a thin ray of daylight came in, and the naked electric bulb on the wall was screwed into its socket in such a way that its light must catch his eye and, when he lay down on the narrow, hard cot, rob him of sleep.
In addition, there was a stool, and in the corner a tin bucket; next to it was a bowl with a pitcher; furthermore, there was a board on the wall, a kind of shelf, and under it a folding table, chained up at the time.
…Only now, when things were so tangible, he realized what they intended to do to him; until now everything had been only visual or auditory: Kamenev, Zinoviev. Vyshinsky, the court; but this, now, was physically palpable with the tips of his fingers feeling the splinters in the wood, the cracks in the lime, and the rough tissue with which he had sought to protect his tired body in the night – night? What was day here, what night? – against the damp cold of the masonry. And that, for how long? Only now he became aware how completely helpless he was at their mercy, their whims, their arbitrariness, because there could be no question of logic and reason, unless one called logic what resulted from their madness, and reason what derived from their lies and falsifications. But this trial would happen without him, he swore to himself; they would have to do this business without his cooperation; and not because of any ties to comrade Trotsky, against whom the whole web had been woven by Stalin, or out of any feelings of solidarity he, Radek, might have toward friends or likeminded people, but for his own sake; he was not the buffoon he sometimes appeared to be; he was, damn it all, a Communist.
There was a clank in the lock that tugged at his nerves….
…did Radek really believe that Comrade Stalin, who knew how to direct people so masterfully, was suffering from a split consciousness, what doctors called schizophrenia, or even from the disease of paranoia, and was having old Bolsheviks condemned and executed on the basis of some imaginary facts?… So his advice was to change the letter in the indicated sense; after that it could be that comrade Stalin would like to declare himself ready for a conversation with him, Radek.
Radek thought about it, and after an hour he called for the guard and asked for a pen and paper and for his table to be folded down, and wrote to Stalin: Esteemed Josif Vissarionovich, after an abundant two and a half months of obdurate silence on my part, endured by the government and the Party with the utmost longsuffering, I have come to the conclusion that my attitude is unworthy of a Communist, which I still believe I am, and which I have learned after thirty-five years in the labor movement, that I am obliged to abandon my individualism, which has led me into the company of criminals and traitors, and to contribute to the truth, and especially that concerning the parallel anti-Soviet Trotskyist center, reaching the people in our country as well as those outside its borders. How I can best make this contribution of mine, I would like, if you can lend me a little of your valuable time for this purpose, Comrade Josif Vissarionovich, to discuss with you.
And the signature….
…Radek interrupted himself, cast an appraising glance at Stalin and continued. “How is it possible, they will ask, that men who fought for the idea of socialism all their political lives became traitors and saboteurs and treacherous murderers in the span of so few years and in such large numbers?”
“Yes, how?” asked Stalin, leering. “Perhaps you, who are known for your clever answers,” smiling ironically under his mustache, “perhaps you will find us an explanation which will be as simple as it is generally acceptable.”
“So you think my truth needs improvement?”
“The truth,” Radek replied, “can’t be improved. The truth is true, or it is not. But a line of evidence can gain a great deal by new and better evidence, and by the way in which one produces it.”
Stalin looked down at Yezhov. The latter raised his head and cocked his ear.
“You have Radek’s confession?”
“It’s as good as ready.”
“Then let him read it,” said Stalin, “Since, as he informed us, he has recognized the necessity of our procedure, he will be able to supplement and perfect it a little here and there. After all, with him we are dealing with an experienced writer.”
He rose, tapped out his pipe in the ashtray on Jeshow’s table, nodded to Radek, and left, as silent as he had come. Jeshow hurried after him and yanked open the heavy door…