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One winter afternoon Comrade Tulayev, an important Party official, is shot dead.  By the time The Case of Comrade Tulayev comes to an end hundreds have been arrested.  Five men, all high in the Party, have been imprisoned and interrogated. Three confess, not only to having plotted the death of Comrade Tulayev, but of other crimes, such as planning and carrying out the famine of hundreds of thousands of peasants. Three are executed.  A fourth, accused of being a supporter of Leon Trotsky, is exterminated on a ship off the Spanish coast.  A fifth resists cooperation or confession and dies of a hunger strike, hidden from his interrogators by flushing food down the toilet. Only one is allowed to live, exiled by the sometimes paternal Chief to the far east to oversee enormous gold-mining operations needed for the threatening war with Germany.

The actual murderer, a Dostoyevskian impoverished student, confesses at the end of the novel in a letter to the authorities:

“Alone, unknown to the world, not even knowing myself the moment before what I was going to do I fired at Comrade Tulayev whom I detested without knowing him.

 No one is interested. Case closed.

Ω

The Case of Comrade Tulayev, 1949, was the fifth of seven novels written by Victor Serge, all of them clawed from the years of revolution and counter revolution in Europe and Russia which Serge himself had lived through.  It is told not as a John Le Carré spy thriller, though the elements are there.  We know from the opening pages who the killer is and that the men imprisoned have nothing to do with the killing.  What interests Serge are the motives of men, not for crimes committed, which they had not, but for cooperating, or resisting, the accusations leveled at them. 

Unlike Arthur Koestler, whose Darkness at Noon,1940, was written about the same time with the same themes –loyalty, betrayal, false confessions and the end of revolutionary hope.   Serge had himself been in a Soviet prison for three years at Orenburg on the border of Kazakhstan. He had also been jailed in France, and earlier in Russia. Koestler had been in prison also, under a death sentence, but for 6 months in 1937, as a communist in Franco’s fascist-supported Spain. After his release and after severing his membership in the German Communist Party, he merged his experience of Spanish  prison with the question disturbing him and so many others: why were men high in the Party in the Soviet Union confessing to crimes they hadn’t committed? His answer, Darkness at Noon, became a world-wide phenomenon.  (Koestler was in prison twice more, after he had written the novel, once in the French internment camp, Le Vernet, in 1940 and again by the British for illegal entry. where he was when the original English translation was published in 1941.)

Serge knew these men, of which they both wrote, more intimately than Koestler.  Of Russian heritage he had been traded from a French prison to the Soviets in a 1918 prisoner exchange where, despite his anarchist beliefs,  he joined the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, writing articles for French newspapers and joining the armed defense of the city against the White Army.  When the end of the Civil War in 1921 did not end the draconian methods felt to be necessary during the war, and especially with Bolshevik suppression of the Kronstadt sailor’s revolt in March, 1921 he began to revert to his anarcho-libertarian origins.  He joined the Left Opposition, including supporters of Lenin’s once heir apparent Leon Trotsky,  a party initially recognized but ultimately banned and criminalized.  As the show trials of 1934-1936 took place — and these were not the first of such trials– he knew from the inside the confused, angry, betrayed emotions of many; they were his own.  How could the Revolution, having begun with such hope and sacrifice, the goal of ending centuries of exploitation, the formation of new men and women, the inevitability of history, have turned against its best and brightest? How was Serge himself think about it?

His examination, in fiction, is not through a single man as Koestler did with Rubashov, using a standard narrative moving from day-to-day, or interrogation to interrogation. Some memory displacement, or flashbacks, fill us in,  but the story drives forward under the tension of what is going to happen?  Not so with Serge.

He divides his novel into ten chapters or ‘complementary panels’ as he called them, each more or less self-contained, focusing on a different figure. In fact, by putting aside the impatience to know what happens in the next chapter, it could be fruitfully read as a series of novellas in which each man wrestles with the question –if History has chosen the Party for the advancement of the future, and the Party has called on me to die, lying to keep the party line intact, am I still loyal? If I were a solider in battle and ordered to take an impossible hill, I would do it, for the good of all, for the victory.  How is this different?   Obey the Party’s orders, and die, or Betray the Party which I believe in, and die.  Unlike Koestler’s Rubashov, Serge’s characters have different answers. Unlike Koestler we do not see prolonged interrogations but men while going about normal Party duties begin to sense the turbulence around them, after the assassination of Tulayev, might concern them.

New faces appeared in offices instead of the faces you had known; you felt ashamed when you mentioned former incumbent’s name, and ashamed when you did not.

They are not arrested by thugs with boots and truncheons bursting in through locked doors, but with deception, slight-of hand, an invitation to a “meeting” where they are first stripped of their Party Card and then driven off for interrogation. Each struggles to understand — is this  still the party which I helped build, and to which I owe my loyalty,?  What is this sickening feeling that everything is going off the rails, that what I fought for is being betrayed?

Serge is able to show us, as one writer says,

…the things we call monstrous are not done by monsters but by persons …. with a multiplicity of perspectives on Stalin.  We see him through the eyes of those totally devoted to him, those who hate and fear him, those who remember him as a comrade from the days before…

One of the ten chapters steps outside the stories of the accused to follow the frantic efforts of Xenia, daughter of the chief prosecutor, Popov, while she is in Paris, trying to stop the execution of Rublev, an old family friend.  After sending off a hasty telegram, she and her father are both arrested for such “insanity,”  or, for having succumbed to “Bourgeois Morality,” as the party ideologues called it  –allowing emotional attachments to interfere with the logic of history, which says that he must go. 

There is a more immediate reason to read The Case of Comrade Tulayev than to be appalled at revolutionary terror. or the perfidy of Soviet communists eighty-five years ago.  We see in today’s headlines and news stories that great sectors of educated, democratic society can be persuaded  that Black is White, that Up is Down. While neither Serge nor Koestler probe the psychological underpinnings of such unshakable belief we do see that it rests not only on the fear of punishment and death. as in fully totalitarian societies, but  on an existential need to believe what I have already declared myself for, what those to whom I have allegiance also believe.  Perhaps one of the most difficult of human acts is to separate oneself from ones’ group, to admit that one has believed what is now clearly unbelievable.

Ω

The opening chapter introduces us to two impoverished Dostoyevskian young men, living in a single room separated by a curtain. Romachkin is an obsessive accountant.  He knows the newspaper reports of rising production and food for all can not possibly be true. Hearing the Chief’s claims on afternoon loudspeaker speeches he thinks, “Feeling unfathomabley sad …’How he lies!”

 

The first signs of the purges appear.  An older neighbor hails Romachkin on his way to his room and tells him of several disappearances. 

We get in shorthand of the themes:

 
“What do you think, Romachkin?” he asked at last. “Who is guilty, guilty of it all?”
“Obviously it is whoever has the most power. If there were a God, it would be God,” Romachkin said softly.
 

Comrade Tulayev is shot, on the spur of the moment, with a borrowed pistol.  Tulayev is Serge’s fictional stand-in for Sergei Kirov, the Leader of the Leningrad Bolsheviks who was in fact shot dead on a snowy December afternoon in Moscow, 1934.  The assassination was the excuse needed to begin the great purges of nineteen thirty-four and thirty-five.  They were not the first of Bolshevik purges of the Party, the first of which was in 1921, but those caught the attention of the world, and all but extirpated the original generation of Bolsheviks  – the iron men” as they were referred to.

As in life, so in fiction.  Because Tulayev was a high Party official, the assassination according to the logic of the times, could not be the work of one man but had to be a plot with far-reaching tentacles. 

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.

Not content simply to chronicle the political, ideological currents of the time, Serge also gives an indelible portrait of the poverty and desperation of the ordinary Russians.  A prostitute so poor she must bring her clients to a blanket on the floor of a hovel so as not to wake her baby.  tells Romachkin of her father killing their only horse for food through the winter.

“The Sword is Blind,” the second chapter, begins with an account of Tulayev’s chauffeur being

“Interrogated for sixty consecutive hours by inquisitors who themselves became exhausted and relayed each other every four hours, the chauffeur sank to the verge of insanity without changing his declarations, except insofar as he finally lost the power of speech, the faculty of reason, and even the use of the facial muscles”

Within pages, and after a visit by the Chief himself, Erchov, the High Commissar for Security, directing the dragnet, is being secretly investigated by the Deputy High Commissar.  He is called in for a visit with the Chief.

The Chief did not raise his head, did not hold out his hand to Erchov, did not ask him to sit down.

And so

Erchov underwent twenty-hour interrogations without flinching. Amid a mass of questions which apparently had no connection with one another, there were three which were asked again and again: “What did you do to prevent the arrest of your accomplice Kiril Rublev? What did you do to conceal the past of the Trotskyist Kondratiev on the eve of his mission to Spain? What messages did you give him for the Spanish Trotskyists?”

In the end, he is convinced by another prisoner, Ricciotti, that confessing is the best thing to do.  It gives him one chance in a thousand of not being shot. 

Comrade Rublev, once on the Central Committee, is an intellectual, a historian of some fame, until he is forbidden by the party to write anymore.  Though he doesn’t actually confess he can be counted on:

Popov the Chief Prosecutor says to him:

:You will say whatever they want you to say, because you know the situation … because you have no choice: obey or betray … Or we will call upon you to stand in front of the same microphone and dishonor the Supreme Tribunal, the Party, the Chief, the U.S.S.R. — everything at once, to proclaim …  to proclaim what you call your innocence.

 “What answer shall I take from you to the Central Committee?” And Rublev, erect too, said firmly: “That I have lived my whole life only for the Party. Sick and degraded though it may be, our Party. That I have neither thought nor conscience outside of the Party. That I am loyal to the Party, whatever it may be, whatever it may do. That if I must perish, crushed by my Party, I consent … But that I warn the villains who are killing us that they are killing the Party …”

Makeyev, another of the accused, a one time peasant turned fierce revolutionary in 1917,  has risen to be a regional director.  Under Tulayev’s direction he, like Erchov, has participated in purges of those down-slope from himself.  

The Party and administrative purges were just completed, under Makeyev’s energetic leadership. In the offices of Kurgansk there remained but a small percentage of old-timers — that is, of men formed in the storms of the past ten years.

After three years of purges and increasingly dire famines Makeyev refuses an order from Tulayev and writes his objections to the Central Committee.  He also, unfortunately, curses him in front of his wife.

Now, it is his turn

He is arrested in a thriller like scene while attending the opera,

“Makeyev, you admit that it was you who organized the famine in the district which the Central Committee entrusted to you …” Makeyev made a sign of assent.

“The time has come for you to make us a fuller confession. What you are hiding from us shows what an indomitable enemy of the Party you have become. We know everything. We have proof of everything, Makeyev, irrefutable proof. Your accomplices have confessed. Tell us what part you played in the plot which cost the life of Comrade Tulayev …”

The irrefutable proof is his wife’s own deposition against him.  And so, 

“Makeyev. If you have the remotest chance of salvation, it lies in a complete and sincere confession …”

(He ) Wrote: “I cease all resistance in the face of the Party. I am ready to sign a complete and sincere confession …” Signed it: Makeyev. The M was still strong, the other letters looked crushed.

Ivan Kondratiev is the only one of the six to survive.  An old war comrade of the Chief, he is called in to be confronted with “Even you have betrayed me.”  Some determined truth-telling leads to reminiscences, and he is spared, sent to the far east to oversee enormous gold mining operations –gold needed for the certainly coming war with Germany. 

Of all the men, Ryzhik is the most militant, the only one to have actually opposed the regime.  Ten years in prison for being a Trotskyist had shielded him from the onslaught of the early purges but this one reaches everywhere.  His friendly rural minder, when writing a periodic report to Moscow, asks what he should say.

“Write them,” said Ryzhik, “that I shit on the bureaucratic counterrevolution.”

After a  transfer to a Moscow prison and being told he is being charged with conspiring to assassinate Tulayev — while he was in prison– he decides to save his captors the trouble. He will starve himself to death. Serge knows the effects of fasting; clearly he has done it himself.

The great difficulty would be to cheat the vigilance of his guards in the matter of destroying his rations. At all costs he must avoid the loathsome business of forced feeding … The flushing apparatus of the toilet worked well; Ryzhik found no difficulty until it came to destroying the bread, which he had to crumble up, and it took a long time, the smell of fermented rye rose into his nostrils, the feeling of that doughy substance which was life itself entered into his fingers, into his nerves.

Only the results of the trails are reported in the newspapers.  We are not been privy to them, as we have been with Koestler’s Rubashov.

“From our special correspondent: Informed circles are discussing … — the principal defendants — the former High Commissar for Security, Erchov; the historian Kiril Rublev, former member of the Central Committee; the Regional Secretary for Kurgansk, Artyem Makeyev; an immediate agent of Trotsky’s, whose name is still a secret … — are said to have made complete confessions … — it is hoped that this trial will cast light on certain points which the preceding trials left obscure …”

Neither author attributes the confessions to extreme, brutal torture, of the kind employed in spy thrillers and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. While Rubashov in Darkness at Noon is subject to sleep deprivation and merciless interrogation, certainly a form of torture, and physical torture is implied for others, what both authors wrote to reveal is that extreme pain is not necessary for men to be persuaded to make extreme statements.

Obey or Betray: Obey the party to which you have devoted your life, and confess, for the good of the party, and die,  or die anyway, not having confessed, and betray the party in so doing.

As Rubashov, going to his death, still retains hopes for a better, revolutionary future, so Serge, in the closing chapter, finds human hope despite the failures he has shown.  The actual killer, young Kostia, is now a fervent communist on a kolkhoz in rural Russia.  The severe edicts of the Party during the famine years have let up and the peasants are finding their way to real, uncoerced cooperation.  A priest is allowed back and joins Kostia in leading the villagers on a three-day walk to get seed, supplies and much wanted cloth when the trucks which had been promised are in useless disrepair.  On the way back Kostia finds love with Maria who bears the sacks of seed along with him, sleeping out at night under the stars.

 

Romachkin, the other young man of the opening chapter, is still in the city, toiling as before, with a minor promotion.  He has found a new friend in old Filatov, who at an advanced age has taken up science and astronomy. They talk unguardedly, even as the purges go on. Romachkin tsays that he, along with others, had been asked in a meeting to raise his hand if he approved of the three executions for those who had confessed to the assassination of Tulayev. He raised his hand. 

 
“… but I thought “Did I betray pity? Should I have betrayed the Party if I had not raised my hand? What is your answer, Filatov, you who are upright, you who are a true proletarian?” 
 
“Romachkin, you had to vote Yes, otherwise things would have turned out badly for you, and there was nothing you could do about it, was there? You voted with pity — well and good. I did the same thing, last year. What else could we do?”
 

Though the various men’s stories might be read in a different order, as I did on a second read-through, Rublev’s journal extracts ending the novel,  (as Rubashov’s end Darkness at Noon) are likely Serge’s own closing thoughts, written in poverty and exile in Mexico, of what he has seen and thought. The youthful hopes of the early generation were still strong.

On the eve of our disappearance we do not reckon up the balance sheet of a disaster, we bear witness to the fullness of a victory which encroached too far upon the future and asked too much of men.

Ω

For more reviews see:

Ω

If you read or re-read Darkness at Noon, be sure it’s the newest translation by Philip Boehm (Scribner, 2019 ISBN13: 9781501161315.)  It is based on the newly discovered original German text by Koestler, which was translated in 1940 –and is the version we have all previously read–  by his British companion, Daphne Hardy, young and too British to accurately differentiate between British courts and totalitarian means.  Using “interview” instead of “interrogation” is but one example. 

Serge’s novels are sometimes grouped into two trilogies, the first being the “cycle of revolution.” 

  • Men in Prison (1930./1969) Translator: Richard Greeman; Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Translation of Les hommes dans le prison, Paris 1930.
    • Set in France, in Serge’s anarchist years. 
    • Susan Sontag said “The “I” of Men in Prison is a medium for giving voice to the others, many others; it is a novel of compassion, of solidarity. 
  • Birth of our Power (1931./1967) Translator: Richard Greeman; New York : Doubleday. Translation of Naissance de notre force, Paris 1931.
    • An epic novel set in Spain, France, and Russia during the heady revolutionary years 1917–1919

  • Conquered City (1932/1975) Translator: Richard Greeman; Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Translation of: Ville conquise, Paris 1932.
    • Captures the passions, the disappointments, the mundanities and the tragic ironies of the revolution’s aftermath. It is set in an “exhausted, besieged” St. Petersburg during the Civil War that followed the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in 1917
    • Several of the characters of Tulayev make their initial appearance here: The High Commissar for Security Erchov, the prosecutor Fleischman, the loathsome apparatchik Zvyeryeva, and the virtuous Left Oppositionist Ryzhik.

The second trilogy is the “defeat-in-victory” trilogy

  • Midnight in the Century (1939/1982) Translator: Richard Greeman; London. Translation of S’il est minuit dans le siècle, Paris 1939.
    • Held in solitary confinement for more than eighty days.he was then sent to exile in remote Orenburg for two years. These experiences were the inspiration for Midnight in the Century, a searching novel of revolutionaries living in the shadow of Stalin’s betrayal of the revolution. 
    • The very first depiction in a novel of the Gulag — properly, GULAG,
      • Arrives in Mexico 1941
  • The Case of Comrade Tulayev (finished in Mexico in 1942, published after his death in 1948 ?/ 1967) Translator: Willard R. Trask; New York : New York Review of Books Classics. Translation of L’Affaire Toulaev. Paris 1949.
    • The second novel about the purges.
  • The Long Dusk (1946) Translator: Ralph Manheim; New York : The Dial Press. Translation of Les dernier temps, Montreal 1946. 
    • The Fall of France

Outside the two trilogies but with much the same themes and events.

  • The Pitiless Years  finished in 1946 in Mexico, not published in France until 1971. Translator: Richard Greeman; New York : New York Review of Books Classics. Translation of Les Années sans pardon, Paris 1971.
    • Four sections,  In the first, D, a lifelong revolutionary who has broken with the Communist Party and expects retribution at any moment, flees through the streets of prewar Paris, haunted by the ghosts of his past and his fears for the future. Part two finds D’s friend and fellow revolutionary Daria caught up in the defense of a besieged Leningrad in WWII, the horrors and heroism of which Serge brings to terrifying life. The third part is set in Germany. On a dangerous assignment behind the lines, Daria finds herself in a city destroyed by both Allied bombing and Nazism, where the populace now confronts the prospect of total defeat. The novel closes in Mexico, in a remote and prodigiously beautiful part of the New World where D and Daria are reunited, hoping that they may at last have escaped the grim reckonings of their modern era.