Midnight in the Century: The Eternal Heretic Panait Istrati

A reflection on a Romanian-born writer's heart-wrenching falling-out with the progressive faith.

ip“Humanity’s well-being only starts to interest me the moment it ceases to be murderous and becomes moral.” – Panait Istrati (1929)

The twentieth century bore witness to some truly extraordinary destinies. For instance, let us think of André Malraux, who left for Asia in the ‘20s in search of the treasures of long-lost empires and the world revolution. Upon his return to France, he became a champion of antifascism and a genius novelist. He fought in Spain on the republicans’ side, was part of the anti-Nazi resistance, and then became a Gaullist, even a minister of culture. An example even closer to home is that of the Romanian-born writer Panait Istrati (1884-1935), another seeker of absolute truths, the ultimate naïve type, according to some (including Ilya Ehrenburg, the professional survivor, who regarded Istrati as an adventure-loving lumpen), a noble spirit, according to others – including us, the authors of this essay.

From Malraux’s point of view, which we ourselves share, Istrati “deemed the revolution inseparable from an ethical will, from a will for justice.” When he realized the absence of this dimension, he denounced the Bolshevik dictatorship as a terrorist-police state. Unlike his friend Nikos Kazantzakis, who stayed true to the Leninist utopia and felt an attraction towards charismatic totalitarian leaders, Istrati saw the error of his ways and had a heart-wrenching falling-out with an entire political and spiritual family. Istrati’s book “Vers l’autre flamme” (October 1929) was one of the first great confessions about what is known as the god that failed. As a fascinating fact, Panait Istrati was the one who wrote the foreword to George Orwell’s first book published in France, at Gallimard, in 1935.

When he broke things off with Stalinism, in 1929, the same people who had previously worshiped him accused him of being the voice of the ‘lumpenproletariat’ – a category that any orthodox Marxist is compelled to utterly despise. He ceased to be “a Gorki of the Balkans”, as Nobel laureate for literature Romain Rolland, the author of “Jean-Christophe”, called him, upon receiving his letter from a hospital where Istrati was being treated in the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt.

How did Istrati – this self-taught genius, perhaps a precursor of Eric Hoffer, the cosmopolitan Greek-Romanian, a mortal enemy of bourgeois philistinism, he who, as we said, wrote the foreword to Orwell’s first book translated into French – end up breaking off with Sovietism? How did he – a nostalgic for outlaws, for drunken cutthroats, for whores respectable and less so, but also for ill-famed taverns, the wanderer through Cairo, Istanbul, Marseille and Constanța – manage to see through it all and discover the truth about Stalin’s Russia long before so many an erudite and stiff spirit?

We believe it was precisely in that complete uprooting, in that refusal of any mechanical, depressingly predictable enrollment that lay the secret of the awakening of Panait Istrati – a great friend to Victor Serge and Boris Souvarine. We will soon revisit the character of Victor Serge, representative of that minority who did not morally yield when it was midnight in the century (the title of his great novel, admired by Susan Sontag and many more).

When he writes with something of a bitter condescension about Istrati, Ehrenburg is paying tribute to the official stance: just like André Gide (who followed in his footsteps, but eight years later!), Istrati denounced the Great Lie. A lie that Ilya Grigoryevich was fully in service of, at least until Stalin’s death. Sure, afterwards he wrote “The Thaw”, a novel that gave its name to the era when the great ice age came to an end. All omissions and even fabrications notwithstanding, Ehrenburg's memoirs, “People, Years, Life”, was one of the books that altered perceptions and rehabilitated the memory of many victims, including Isaak Babel, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Titian Tabidze. Equally important, Ehrenburg had the courage – since, no doubt, it was still an act of courage even in the ‘60 – to attack Soviet anti-Semitism.

Istrati was wrong many times throughout his life, including when he agreed to become a columnist for Mihail Stelescu’s newspaper, “Cruciada românismului” (“The Crusade of Romanianism”). We can easily picture him smiling bitterly at the thought that he of all people, who had written about left-wing luminaries such as Ștefan Gheorghiu and Christian Rakovsky, had ended up on the xenophobic side. But he never became a legionnaire. He was neither a communist, nor a fascist. He was a free spirit, who slipped in directions that – when he still had the power to do so – he admitted to be wrong. In the history of honor from a century that lacked any, the name of Panait Istrati casts an adamantine shine. In his own ingenuous, straightforward, and spontaneous way, he was a harbinger of what the great Kremlinologist Robert Conquest called, only partly in jest, the United Front against Bullshit (as quoted by Christopher Hitchens in “Why Orwell Matters”). A front that is more necessary than ever, we would rush to add...

It has been said that the three books authored by Istrati were in fact written by Serge and Souvarine. We doubt that the author of “Kyra Kyralina” was in need of such tutelage. The two celebrated anti-Stalinist authors certainly helped him document his research and structure his thoughts. But the works were his all the same. His indignation against the bureaucratic ignominies in Soviet Russia was genuine, it needed no external stimulus. Istrati was neither a Trotskyist, nor an anarchist. He abhorred Stalinism. He was a lover of freedom, who shunned any ideological confines.

It would be interesting to compare Istrati to another Romanian writer, Alexandru Sahia, author of the apologetic report “The USSR today”. Sahia was probably an honest man, as well, but he was a zealot, a fanatic. He justified the unjustifiable. He died young, also of tuberculosis, just like Istrati. There are no clues on whether the two had ever met. But a dialogue between Sahia and Istrati about the Bolshevik utopia would have been something right out of a Tom Stoppard play. They were both in love with the revolution, feeding on myths. It’s just that Istrati had the intuition to grasp, even ahead of Koestler and Orwell, the system’s schizophrenia, whereas Sahia participated in perpetuating and reinforcing a lethal delusion. For Panait Istrati, even if the Bolshevik regime would achieve its encrypted goals during the first Stalinist five-year plan, “it would still have to answer for the bones it grinded in its happiness-manufacturing machine.”

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including most recently “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.”

Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist, author of books in Romanian and Polish, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bucharest. This essay was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.

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