Victor Serge, “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” (1949) (translated from the French by Willard Trask) – Is Victor Serge the great Trotskyite writer? He certainly is pretty great, I guess I’m just curious if there’s some other big time Trotskyite novelist I’m not thinking of? Either way, Serge lived an adventurous life — raised by anti-Czarist Russian emigres in Belgium, bummed around the anarchist scene as a youth, went to Russia to help with the Revolution, fell in with Trotsky, prison, exile, narrowly avoided being killed by both Stalin and Hitler’s people — and began writing novels towards the end of it, after the Stalinist communist presses blackballed him from publishing essays. He never went right, never turned his coat, so novels became what he could get out. It sucked for him but it turned out to be pretty good for literature.
“The Case of Comrade Tulayev” finds the titular comrade, a big man in the Soviet government, shot dead on the streets of Moscow one snowy evening. We know who did it from the beginning- a rando with a gun and fleeting inspiration. But how random can it be in the midst of Stalin’s great terror? The machinery of repression goes into motion and numerous people are sucked in. The first half or so or the book introduces characters that get brought in as suspicious. Most of them were already marked, one way or another. There’s Erchov, the head of the secret service, marked for his failure to protect Tulayev and because secret service chiefs, coordinators of so much terror, only have so much shelf life. Rublev the historian is a leftover old Bolshevik, yet to be cleaned up by Stalin’s jealousies and ripe for cutting down. Makeyev, a regional governor, got too big for his britches and his wife, enraged by his infidelities, turned him in. Kondratiev returned from overseeing the Stalinist repression of rival left forces on the Republican side of the Spanish civil war only to find himself suspect.
Their various fates have little to do with their personalities or qualities, and of course nothing to do with innocence or guilt. There’s some reasonably interesting twists and turns as you try to figure out what will happen with this one or that one. The investigators are not notably competent at their jobs, even the job of backbiting and fucking people over, so things don’t go well for them, either. The person of Stalin, referred to as “the Chief,” occasionally intervenes, to condemn or save as was his wont. A kind of demoniac perversity seems to rule the day in what’s supposed to be a realm of human reason. A character tries to speak up in such a way that Stalin will kill him, and it backfires; a veteran apparatchik is done in by the momentary idealism of a family member. We see Tulayev’s killer in the end- he escapes consequences, but is stuck with the system. He moves and starts over again every few years, and it seems to work ok for him- wonder how viable that was in the Soviet system in real life?
You see this elsewhere in Serge’s take on the Soviet Union, this perversity- the stores full of fake goods, the peasants moved to incredible deeds by falsehoods or failing to do what they need to faced with facts, the whole self-aware machinery of lying, obedience, and repression. Many of the characters had been involved with the initial Bolshevik revolution, which also threw at them massive difficulties and betrayals, but none of them seem to regret it (as Serge didn’t, in life). The perversity of the revolutionary life — the sheer dogged stubbornness of the world’s flaws and failures, dotted with just enough sublime success to bait the trap, to keep you going — shaded into the perversity of the counterrevolution of Stalinism. I think that, more than any mystical tendency for revolutionists to turn against each other, makes up the continuum between revolutions and their failure: it’s fucking hard to change things, to keep at it year after year and failure after failure. Serge, I think, understood that, and not for nothing is he the great — Trotskyite — novelist, in that he kept going and never stopped trying to improve (and never stopped criticizing). That critical eye can make for good writing, sometimes. ****’