The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge
Translated by Willard R. Trask
Thinking about it, I’m not actually sure what prompted me to pull “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” off the shelves right now; it’s a book I’ve had for a couple of years, gifted for either Christmas or birthday by Eldest Child, and it just called to me at the moment. Perhaps enjoying “Kolymsky Heights” gave me a taste for an actual Russian author!
I’ve written about Serge before, in my review of his “Conquered City”, and I said at the time:
I’ve long been a fan of Russian literature – since I first studied the Russian Revolution in my teens and following on from that dragged my friends to see “Dr. Zhivago” at the cinema. Since then I’ve read a *lot* of Russian books, both classic and modern literature, but this is my first experience with Victor Serge. Which is odd, really, as I’ve been aware of his name for years – maybe it just took NYRB to reprint and bring him back to prominence. Wikipedia says:
“Victor Serge, born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich (December 30, 1890 – November 17, 1947), was a Russian revolutionary and writer. Originally an anarchist, he joined the Bolsheviks five months after arriving in Petrograd in January 1919 and later worked for the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He was critical of the Stalinist regime and remained a revolutionary Marxist until his death.”
That really just scratches the surface as the excellent introduction to this volume makes clear. Serge had an exciting and active life, moving from country to country, and although he hated what Communist Russia came to stand for, he never lost faith in the force of revolution.
“Conquered City” was a powerful book, and one of the things which struck me about it was Serge’s wonderful use of language. That’s evident once more in “The Case of Comrade Tulayev”, an engrossing and beautifully written book with many layers.
The story opens with us meeting two lowly Muscovite neighbours, Kostia and Romachkin. Both are poor and disaffected, living in a city where there are shortages and disease and discomfort. Romachkin, the elder, has a Colt pistol which he gives to Kostia; and in an unpremeditated action, when the latter spots Tulayev on the street, he recognises him as an unjust man who is involved in the current purges and shoots. Tulayev dies, Kostia flees and there is nothing to connect him to the murder and so he gets away scot-free.
However, we are in Soviet Russia in the late 1930s, where purges and executions and conspiracies are the norm, and a culprit must be found. Those in charge find it impossible to conceive of any kind of random act of violence and therefore it must have been a plot and there must be conspirators. The apparatus of the Soviet state grinds into action, and the search begins for the perpetrators.
What starts as a fairly simple story deepens as the tale develops, as there are a number of people involved with axes to grind. The younger party members use the opportunity to get rid of the older members, whose connections to the revolution go back a long way and who might have inconvenient memories. The repercussions of this one random act are far-reaching, like ripples in a pond spreading from the single point where a stone was dropped. The most unlikely people are suspected of taking part in the conspiracy and each chapter explores an individual’s life, beliefs and connections to Tulayev.
Serge’s book is wide-ranging, encompassing just about every kind of Soviet citizen who could have been affected and laying bare the effect of the constant purges. There is the peasant-made-good Commissar, Mateyev; the Party functionary Erzhov; the high-ranking Kondratiev who flies off to report on the progress of the Spanish Civil War; and the old-guard theorist Kiril Rublev who sees everything with a very clear eye. Add into the mix the final part of the puzzle, in the form of the imprisoned and exiled Ryzhik, and you get the cast of characters who will be accused of conspiring to kill Tulayev – even though it’s impossible and untrue. For the State needs to have scapegoats and only a conspiracy will do; to admit that this was a random act by a nobody would be unthinkable.
Ryzhik clearly deciphered the hieroglyphics (perhaps he was the only person in the world to decipher them, and it gave him an agonizing feeling of vertigo) — the hieroglyphics which had been branded with red-hot iron into the very flesh of the country. He knew, almost by heart, the falsified reports of the three great trials; he knew all the available details of the minor trials in Kharkov, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Tashkent, Krasnoyarsk, trials of which the world had never heard. Between the hundreds of thousands of lines of the published texts, weighted down with innumerable lies, he saw other hieroglyphics, equally bloody but pitilessly clear. And each hieroglyphic was human: a name, a human face with changing expressions, a voice, a portion of living history stretching over a quarter century and more.
Each of the so-called conspirators actually has nothing to do with the death of Tulayev; each is inexorably drawn into it by the machinations of the various prosecutors and investigators, none of whom are safe from investigation themselves; and each of the accused deals with the situation in their own way.
None of this is rushed, and Serge allows the story to unfold at its own pace; we see Kondratiev in Spain during the conflict (which helps us place the book a little more precisely), allowing his human side to come through at a great cost; we watch the rise of Mateyev and then the fall, as his native cunning fails him; we see Erzhov struggling to retain his privileges; we follow Ryzhik in and out of exile in Siberia; and we watch Rublev calmly continuing to work on his writings while in prison. All of these men represent the different types of Soviet revolutionary, and each is committed to revolution in his own way. Some of the men will perish, some will not, according to whims or connections or choices, and in many ways the acts of the state are just as random as the act of Kostia which started off the whole process.
The case ramified in every direction, linked itself to hundreds of others, mingled with them, disappeared in them, re-emerged like a dangerous little blue flame from under fire-blackened ruins. The examiners herded along a motley crowd of prisoners, all exhausted, all desperate, all despairing, all innocent in the old legal meaning of the word, all suspect and guilty in many ways; but it was in vain that the examiners herded them along, the examiners always ended up in some fantastic impasse.
“The Case of Comrade Tulayev” was a deeply satisfying book to read. Apart from the fact it covers a country and a period of history which fascinate me, it’s just so brilliantly written. There is a ring of authenticity about the book; with Serge’s long experience in Soviet Russia, you feel he’s drawing on his knowledge of what it was like to live through the horrors of the 1930s and his story never strikes a false note. His depiction of how it felt to live amongst the purges is unparalleled and I don’t think I’ve read a book that captures so well the mental twists and turns, the lack of trust amongst people, the small slips that can cause a person’s fall from grace.
The characters are allowed to meditate on their lives and beliefs, and through them Serge explores what happened in Russia at the time. The book was composed in a number of locations, ending up with Mexico in the early 1940s, where Serge had fled; and there is the sense of the man looking back at the times he had lived through and measuring them. There is also a powerful portrait of Stalin, named only as “The Chief”, a constant presence throughout the book either in person, or as a whisper amongst people, or as a picture on every wall. Serge, of course, had plenty of personal knowledge of how it was to work under Stalin which only adds further credibility to the book. Nowadays, we all know about the purges and the executions that went on in 1930s Russia; but at the time Serge was writing this, it was not common knowledge and, as the introduction points out, if Serge’s book had been published when he wrote it, he would have been the first to break the news to the outside world; as it was, that honour fell to Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”.
What were needed today were books like thunderbolts, full of an irrefutable historical algebra, full of merciless indictments, books which should judge these days, every line of which should breathe implacable intelligence, be printed in pure fire. Such books would be born later.
However, I keep going back to the quality of Serge’s writing, and that’s an important factor here that lifts the book above what could have been simply a political novel. Serge has a lyrical quality to his writing, almost impressionistic in places, and his characters are beautifully painted and ring true. Not all are party functionaries; Serge is equally at home portraying peasants and workers and clerks and everyday people, as well as the wider world. At one point, Xenia, the daughter of one of the investigators, is seen in Paris where she’s on a mission for the Soviets; her thoughts, the contrasts between East and West, and the belief that Russians still held in their revolution, are wonderfully realised. Yet Serge is clear-eyed about the faults of the Soviet system and brings plenty of wry sarcasm to bear.
So I’m immensely glad I picked this book up about now, as it ended up being one of my best reads of the year so far – and will most likely be in my top ten. I’m not sure how well Serge’s work is known nowadays, but on the evidence of the two I’ve read, he deserves huge recognition. I believe many of his works weren’t published until after his death, and his novels appear to have been very neglected. Yes, you do need a certain interest in Soviet Russia and perhaps a little basic background knowledge, but even without that this would be an incredibly powerful book. My edition is an NYRB one, with an excellent and informative introduction by Susan Sontag, and in fact the publisher has several Serge books on their list. I really can’t rave about or recommend “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” enough – and now I have a *massive* book hangover…