The story opens with a Dostoyevskian account of the background to the murder, with two low-level functionaries who are neighbours in a collective apartment. Romachkin, a clerk dealing with production statistics, is concerned about justice in the abstract and is shocked by the leadership's economic lies. The more spiritual Kostia, the young communist representative on a construction site, is jarred into action by the cynical scapegoating of one of his colleagues. Acting independently, they bring together just the right combination of premeditation and impulse to achieve the murder.
Successive chapters then introduce the central suspects, all of them loyal both to the party and the state, and recount the events leading up to their arrests. Promoted out of a more comfortable military career, High Commissar Erchov is originally in charge of the case himself, allowing us to see something of the security system's workings — with the fate of Tulayev's poor chauffeur as an example. As he senses the foundations falling away underneath him, Erchov faces his fate with resignation.
The Old Bolshevik Rublev is a historian and economist who is still obsessed by theoretical issues, still trying to understand what is happening in the Soviet Union intellectually. He discusses that and his personal situation with his wife and, in a last clandestine meeting that degenerates into a playful snowball fight, with two of his old friends, all of them knowing they are likely to be arrested at any time.
Peasant turned revolutionary strongman turned bureaucrat Makeyev has become a regional administrator, dealing without any subtlety with the implementation of collectivization and production targets. He is not too clever, comfortably ambitious, and loyal, but is swept up nevertheless because he has had a personal disagreement with Tulayev.
The revolutionary organiser Kondratiev flies into Barcelona to write a special report on the collapsing Spanish Republic for the Chief (as Stalin is referred to throughout). As well as an incidental perspective on the Spanish Civil War, we get here a cameo portrait of "left-deviationist" Stefan Stern and his arrest. Kondratiev flies back to Moscow realising his own downfall is imminent.
A chapter "Every Man Has His Own Way of Drowning" describes how the three central suspects respond to interrogation — Erchov is resigned, Rublev is stoic, and Makeyev goes to pieces — and are convinced in different ways to provide the confessions needed for a show trial. We also get to know their prosecutors and interrogators: Erchov's replacement Gordeyev, the efficient Fleischmann, the unctuous Popov and the brutal Zvyeryeva.
When the prosecutors receive "an order to add to the dossier of the Erchov-Makeyev-Rublev case (assassination of Comrade Tulayev) that of an influential Trotskyist (which meant a genuine Trotskyist), whatever his attitude might be", the system coughs up the ageing deportee Ryzhik, whom prison and exile have somehow preserved from execution. He endures his long journey back to Moscow and in the end manages to cheat the system.
Kondratiev also refuses to bow, determined to go down fighting. He debates the meaning of his personal revolutionary history with Popov, wanders the seedier areas of Moscow in the night, and gives a defiant truth-telling speech in a provincial town. He is saved from execution only by his personal friendship with Stalin, and goes into exile instead.
Some perspective is provided by Popov's idealistic daughter Xenia, working in Paris. She attempts to raise awareness of Rublev's plight in order to save him, but succeeds only in bringing down her father as well as herself. (Serge himself was saved from execution and allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1936, after three years in prison, because of international protests.)
The conclusion returns to the two characters with whom we started. Romachkin has given up his concerns about justice and climbed a little further up the bureaucratic ladder. Kostia has fled Moscow and sought solace in agricultural work; he sends a letter confessing to the murder of Tulayev, which the prosecutor Fleischmann burns before declaring the case closed. In a short finale Fleischmann reads Rublev's prison notebooks, which include a comment on his and his fellows' fate:
"We acquired a degree of lucidity and disinterestedness which made both the old and new interests uneasy. It was impossible for us to adapt ourselves to a phase of reaction; and as we were in power, surrounded by a legend that was true, born of our deeds, we were so dangerous that we had to be destroyed beyond physical destruction, our corpses had to be surrounded by a legend of treachery..."
In its breadth The Case of Comrade Tulayev is probably the most ambitious novel of the Soviet purges. It is not directly historical, mixing up details of the Kirov assassination and other events, combining attributes of different people, and making no attempt at chronological accuracy. Its setting is concrete, however, and Serge wrote from firsthand experience, giving it a solid historical engagement and making it fundamentally different to a work such as Darkness at Noon, which drew on the same events but abstracted from them a few central psychological themes.
Serge presents a splendid array of characters, with real historical and psychological depth, giving a feel for how a wide variety of people could fight so ardently for a cause, reconcile themselves to its failings, and in some cases even sacrifice their reputations for it. Their stories illuminate the purges and the atmosphere of paranoia and fear those induced; their careers give us a view backwards over the Russian Revolution and Civil War and the history of the Bolshevik party and its internal struggles. And there are insightful glimpses of the broader world of the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, its production targets and collective farms but also its ordinary everyday life, from the elite all the way down and out to the Moscow streets, the tradition-bound peasantry, and indigenous Siberia.
The Case of Comrade Tulayev also conveys a strong sense of place, whether it is Moscow in winter, the Caucasus where Erchov enjoys a final holiday, the remote Ostyak fishing hamlet where Ryzhik is in exile, the Paris summer enjoyed by Xenia, or the Ukrainian collective farm where Kostia ends up. And it wouldn't be a serious Russian novel — though it was written in French — without at least a little abstract philosophising, in this case in the form of some of Rublev's ideas on history and historical processes, which feel as if they must be Serge's own.
The overall effect is a kind of "theme and variations", with stories of fear and uncertainty and anxious expectation, arrest, and interrogation taking their different courses. They are threads in the same system and the same historical process, in which individuals are consumed by the inexorable logic of the revolutionary state's drive for party unity. The result is never, however, despondent or despairing: Serge has a faith in humanity and its potential that can encompass even protagonists who have themselves been torturers and killers, and for him the struggle for human decency is inseparable from the political struggle.
Note: This 2004 New York Review Books edition includes a twenty-five page introduction by Susan Sontag, which offers a mini-biography of Victor Serge along with some observations on the novel. The date of Willard R. Trask's translation is not given, but appears to be 1950; the French original was published in 1949, following Serge's death in 1947.
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