Obituary: 'In the Tail of Trotsky's Comet'

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Susan Weissman pays tribute to the Mexican artist and son of Victor Serge, Vlady Kibalchich, who died recently.

Vlady Kibalchich, born in Petrograd in June 1920, died on 21 July 2005 at home (in his studio) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, after a difficult battle with cancer which began as a melanoma but spread to his brain. He was 85. It is customary to say that someone of that age had a 'full life', but in Vlady's case it is an understatement. The 20th century was his life. La Jornada headlined his death by saying 'a subversive creator and critic of power has died'.

For Vlady the Russo-Mexican artist (painter, muralist and lithographer), art was resistance, and his themes were revolution and liberty. He was called a heretic and a rebel, but one who transformed his rebellion into art. Though he painted with Renaissance formulas and Venetian colours, everything about Vlady was revolutionary. His art, his daily life, his writing - social revolution, cultural revolution, revolution of material, revolution of colours. His murals can be seen in the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada in Mexico City, and in the National Palace of the Revolution in Managua, Nicaragua. In 1994 he was commissioned to produce four monumental paintings for the ministry of the interior. True to form, Vlady used this commission to question power through his art. The paintings soon suffered the fate of revolutionaries in disfavour - they were 'disappeared', sequestered in the old Lecumberri prison because the authorities decided they were a tribute to the Zapatista rebellion. They will resurface, we are told, in an exhibition of his work next year.

Vlady belonged to the world, but he was Mexico's national treasure. Last year he donated some 4,600 works to Mexico's National Institute of Fine Arts, enough to fill a museum in itself. There will be a homage to Vlady at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in April 2006. And just this month Vlady's dream of an exhibition in Moscow was fulfilled - though he was too sick to be there to see it.

Political development

Vlady lived in Mexico for 64 years, but he dressed in a Russian peasant blouse, had a long ponytail and always wore a worker's cloth cap. While his father, the anarcho-Bolshevik revolutionary novelist and historian Victor Serge, was arguably more Belgian-French than Russian, Vlady was considered Russian, though his real nationality was that of revolution.

Vlady's life mirrored the political development of the Soviet Union - born in the civil war, child of the opposition, gulag and defeat. Vlady said he understood nationalism, and for that reason he detested it. His teacher was the history he lived through and participated in, his friends the generation of revolutionaries surrounding him - erudite autodidacts of the times. Vlady often said that this generation is on the way to extinction. He was one of the last links, and a Mexican newspaper called him the last Bolshevik.

Trotsky once accused Serge of having the temperament of the poet or artist. It was much more true of Vlady. Like his father, Vlady was largely self-taught. Serge's teachers were the Russian anarcho-populists in exile after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II - his parents were part of the group Narodnaya Volya, and his uncle was executed for his role in the assassination itself. Vlady's teachers were the exiled Left Oppositionist Bolsheviks sent to internal deportation in Orenburg. Vlady did attend high school for a while, but was expelled for insisting that free trade unions existed in France.

Vlady's mother, Liuba Russokova, was Lenin's stenographer. Lenin was a frequent guest in the apartment at the famous Astoria Hotel in Petrograd. Vlady liked to tell the story of the time Lenin visited, to find the baby Vlady crawling naked. Lenin affectionately picked up baby Vlady, only to find himself bathed in the warm jet of Vlady's urine. Depending on the audience, Vlady would adjust the story, saying instead, 'I shat on Lenin.'

The Astoria was just a few blocks from the Hermitage, or Winter Palace, where Vlady spent many of his days while skipping school which he found boring. The Hermitage changed his life - it was his refuge, and he spent countless hours in the rooms featuring the artists of the Renaissance.

Vlady said his house was filled with the fire of revolution - tales of sacrifice, repression, death and pogroms told in many languages and cultures. He grew up in Leningrad, Berlin, Vienna, Orenburg, Brussels, Paris and Marseilles. In 1921 Serge went on Comintern assignment to Germany and participated in the German Revolution of 1923, then to Austria until 1925. Vlady's first language was German, but he was most at home in Russian, French and later Spanish.

Vlady's first Trotskyist act came at the age of seven when he rescued a portrait of Trotsky from under the heels of the GPU agents ransacking the apartment. As they arrested his father, Vlady wept - not in fear but in anger. He was a teenager when he accompanied his father into the gulag of internal exile. Liuba, Vlady's mother, was driven insane by the Stalinist persecution and remained behind, hospitalised in Leningrad. In Orenburg Vlady and his father nearly starved and nearly froze to death. They survived thanks to food packets and money from the sale of Serge's novels in France. Magdeleine Paz sent one with flour, sugar, rice and olives, and Serge gave Vlady a single olive which he divided among a group of schoolmates - none of them had ever seen one.

Art was Vlady's escape from the tightening noose of Stalinism, the detention of his father and his mother's growing insanity. Art was also his resistance.

In April 1936 Serge and his family were expelled from the Soviet Union, just a few short months before Stalin began the trials that ushered in the Great Terror. They were saved; their comrades were not. Serge, Liuba, baby daughter Jeannine and Vlady went first to Belgium, then to Paris just as the thunderclouds of fascism were darkening Europe. In Paris, Vlady came into contact with the surrealist painters and poets. Along with his father, Vlady joined the Poum (the anti-Stalinist Spanish Marxist Workers Party who were largely massacred by the Stalinists and fascists during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39).

As Paris was falling, Vlady and Serge were making their way to Marseilles, teeming with refugees in search of a visa out of the nightmare. Liuba retreated from sanity and lived out her life in a mental institution in Aix-en-Provence. Jeannine was temporarily with friends in the Dordogne. In Marseilles Serge hooked up with Varian Fry, Mary-Jayne Gold, André Breton and others in a lovely villa Serge dubbed 'Chateau espère-visa.' The surrealists around Breton shifted their presence from the cafes of Paris to the beauty of the chateau. Vlady, considered the passionate young Marxist of the crew, developed his entrepreneurial talent, collecting dried fruit and nuts and making them into croque-fruit, or fruit rolls to sell so there would be food to eat. While Serge wrote The Case of Comrade Tulayev and André Breton was writing Fata Morgana, Vlady sketched relentlessly.

Serge and Vlady finally sailed for Mexico (the US refused a visa to the Bolshevik Serge), first being detained in Martinique, Santo Domingo and then Cuba. On the boat Vlady read Bukharin and Preobrazhensky's The ABC of Communism, which prompted Serge to angrily toss it into the sea, telling Vlady now was the time to study a Spanish primer.

In Mexico Vlady was part of a political group of exiles, mostly from the Spanish Civil War. He met his wife Isabel Diaz Fabela, who survives him. Victor Serge died in 1947, the year Vlady and Isabel married.

In 1949 Vlady became a naturalised Mexican citizen. For the next two decades he travelled and painted. He spent 1966 in Paris and 1968 in New York thanks to a Guggenheim grant. Vlady is celebrated as part of the school of 'Nuevo muralismo mexicano' along with Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros. Yet Vlady reacted against the nationalistic works of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, and came to lead Mexico's 'rupture movement'.

Autocratic absolute power

In an interview in Mexico Vlady was asked what he thought of Rivera and Siqueiros. In particular, Vlady was asked if his 'Sergean vision of the Stalinist fantasma' coloured his view. Vlady swore that wasn't the case. But Siqueiros lost the talent he had, Vlady insisted, not because a painter is bad because he is a Stalinist, but because Vlady believed he was a Stalinist because he was a bad painter.

In 1986 Vlady took me to an exhibition of his work at Bellas Artes. His gigantic portrayal that he painted and repainted for years of the Persian emperor Xerxes hung in the museum as a testament to the absurdity of autocratic absolute power. All around the grotesque Xerxes (a Cyclops in Vlady's painting) were tiny soldiers trying to follow his command to whip the sea for swallowing his fleet.

Unfortunately the next day the workers at the museum went on strike, making entry impossible without crossing a picket line. Vlady said to me sardonically, 'If only the workers understood the content and message of the work they are now making it impossible to see.' For Vlady it was incomprehensible that the workers struck when he - Mexico's uncompromising revolutionary artist - finally got an exhibition, and he saw it as a comment on the condition of working class consciousness in Mexico.

In 1989 Vlady and I travelled to Russia. It was his first time back in 53 years, and we were there to press for the rehabilitation of Trotsky and Serge in the glory days of glasnost and perestroika. Having Vlady as my Russian tour guide was like a stroll through the 1930s. His Russian was beautiful and we walked the familiar streets of his youth, stopping at the art museums as well as the infamous Lubyanka. When he saw the Kremlin he noted that it was yellow, the colour of cowardice. In the Manezh (art museum) across the street, Vlady imagined the exhibition of his work, a lifelong dream finally realised this month, the month of his death.

At a public meeting at the house of writers discussing the rehabilitation of Trotsky (this was March 1989, at the time of the then Soviet Union's first semi-free elections), several relatives of Left Oppositionists came to Vlady to introduce themselves. It was both moving and strange, this collection of the children of the revolution's heroes, converted into enemies and undesirables.

In 1987 Vlady commented that he and his father lived 'in the tail of Trotsky's comet'. He belonged to a unique generation who saw clearly, fought tenaciously but were defeated. Vlady was generous of spirit and intellect, an artist and a revolutionary to his core - he refused compromise yet socialised in wide circles of poets, politicians, writers, artists and dignitaries. He had the kind of energy that makes his death unbelievable - Vlady just seemed immortal.

Vlady is survived by his wife Isabel, his sister Jeannine and five nephews.