Adorno's famous statement - that it is barbaric to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz –is an expression of a more general dilemma: how does art deal with the horrors of reality, and is it indeed appropriate to create an aesthetic experience based on horror? In the case of this novel, the horror is the Great Purge of 1934-8, or the Yezhovshchina, as it is called in Russian, and the novel stands on a par with Akhmatova's long poem Requiem as both an indictment and a testament to what occurred.
On December 1st 1934, the Leningrad Party head, and member of the Central Committee Sergei Kirov was assassinated on his way to work. The circumstances of his murder were – and still are – shrouded in a web of conflicting conspiracy theories, but it marked the start of the Great Purge. Suspects were rounded up, interrogated, forced to sign confessions, put on trial during which evidence of more conspiracies came to light, and then they were shot or imprisoned. The purge effected all ranks of Soviet society, especially the Old Bolsheviks, as Stalin used the assassination and subsequent enquiry as a pretext to remove anyone whose loyalty to him personally was not to be trusted. Among the most prominent victims were Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, all high level party members who had known Lenin personally, and who had played crucial roles in the Revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War, and who represented the main threat to Stalin's dictatorship. The chief implementer of the purge was the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, who was effectively Stalin's puppet until he too was purged in 1938 and replaced by Beria. The country became infected with fear as the purge extended its tentacles. Family, friends, colleagues, chance acquaintances, old comrades of the accused were hauled in for questioning and never heard of again; those who were doing the investigating one day were themselves hauled in and liquidated the next.
These are the events the novel describes. Victor Serge's credentials as a revolutionary were impeccable. Before the Revolution he had been imprisoned many times for revolutionary and anarchist activity, and had spent 5 years in solitary confinement before the age of 27. He joined the Bolshevik Party in 1919, played an active role in the Civil War and was sent on foreign missions for the Commintern. He became associated with the Left Opposition to Stalin's rule in the late 1920s, and in 1933 was himself arrested as part of the purge and sentenced to internal exile. He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1936 and died in exile in Mexico City in 1947. He produced major studies of the early days of the Revolution in addition to other non-fiction work and journalism, as well as seven novels. The Case of Comrade Tulayev was published in French in 1949.
One of the main themes of the book is the relation between reality and fiction; and concomitantly about the difference between journalism and literature. Tulayev is emphatically not journalism, but literature grounded in fact, a distinction that is important for Serge because he was a preeminent practitioner of both genres. Journalism is always restricted by its historical circumstance; literature always rises above it; journalism dates, literature - art in general- remains always relevant; and by a strange alchemy, the greatest art is that which is most firmly of its period and yet also eternally transcends it. This theme is signalled by the opening disclaimer, a subtle parody of the usual legal rider:
This novel belongs entirely to the domain of literary fiction. The truth created by the novelist cannot be confounded, in any degree whatever, with the truth of the historian or the chronicler.
Formally, what distinguishes journalism from literature is the presence of pattern, literally artifice. The novel proclaims itself as a work of literature through its structure, by the way it calls out to other works of literature, by the way it allegorises the facts of history, and by the presence of beauty.
Many readers and critics have seen the absence of a central protagonist as a weakness of the book, but this is to misread the novel entirely. For the first few chapters, the novel does indeed read like a collection of character-centred short stories connected only by their historical setting. Gradually the connections between these disparate characters become clear; they begin to appear on the periphery of each other's stories. What links them all is their connection to the case of Comrade Tulayev, the novel's name for Kirov. The novel thus highlights the way that the purge connected everyone in a kind of sinister six degrees of separation. The slightest connection with someone else could result in arrest for something you didn't know you had done. The novel – like the purge - is in effect a web, with the spider – the case of Comrade Tulayev – at the centre.
The first chapter is a wonderful imagining of how some of the most beloved characters in 19th century Russian literature would have coped in the Soviet regime of the 20th century. The novel opens with Kostia longing for a pair of shoes he has seen in a thrift shop. Shades of Gogol's story The Overcoat are everywhere present. The descriptions of the communal apartment are freighted with echoes of the very early works of Dostoevsky: Poor Folk, Mr Prokharchin and The Double; the clerk Romachkin who lives on the other side of the wall from Kostia is in effect an amalgamation of Dostoevsky's Prokharchin and Golyadkin. Life in the 1930s, Victor Serge seems to be saying, is not much different from life in the 1840s for those at the bottom of society: there is the same poverty, repression and fear.
Although the novel is recognisably of its historical circumstances, the essential facts of the purge have been scrupulously ambiguated. The action of the novel takes place in an unnamed year, and it is unclear exactly how long the action of the novel lasts. Some of the real events mentioned in narrative arc include the demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (1931), the show trials of Zinoviev and Kamenev (1936), the Battle of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War (1936), and the re-establishment of religion (1941), and it's through these events that a time frame for the action of the novel can be worked out. A similar ambiguation for characters is employed. Tulayev is obviously Kirov, but Kirov is also mentioned in the text, so perhaps Tulayev is not Kirov. Kostia both is and is not Leonid Nikolayev, the Lee Harvey Oswald-figure who was ostensibly Kirov's assassin. Candidates for Yezhov include Erchov, while the Prosecutor General Vyshinsky, who led the show trials, is represented by Rachevsky; Rublev in the novel could be both Zinoviev and Bukharin; and Kondratiev, the Old Bolshevik, writer and Commintern activist, could be Serge himself. Stalin appears in the novel as the Chief, not as the Boss, which was how he was actually called by the Party rank and file. The novel employs the same device used by Dostoevsky in Demons in which a character represents both a real person and a type, in a kind of double signification. However, the opening disclaimer disingenuously warns against looking for these kind of connections:
Any attempt to establish a precise connection between characters or episodes in this book and known historical personages and events would therefore be without justification.
A recurring image throughout the novel is starlight, and stars; and it's in these passages – and in the passages describing nature generally -that Serge's writing is at its most beautiful. Amidst the terror and the squalor, the descriptions of starlight on snow, or cranes flying over a winter forest stab the heart with beauty:
Crystals full of a secret light flowered on stones, covered the house fronts, clothed monuments. You walked on powdered stars through a stellar city: myriads of crystals floated on the globes of light around the street lamps. Toward midnight the sky became incredibly clear. The smallest light shot skyward like a sword. It was a festival of frost. The silence seemed to scintillate...
Historians of the purges have exercised themselves over the question of why the purges happened. This is the wrong question: they happened because Stalin ordered them. What's more interesting, surely, are the questions of how those purged reacted, how they themselves perceived the way purges were effecting the progress of the Revolution, why the Old Bolsheviks allowed Stalin to get away with what he did, why no one inside the upper echelons of the party stopped him before it was too late, how they justified the purges to themselves, indeed, how they lived with themselves. What historians cannot answer, the novelist can; and one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the way it examines these questions by imagining how key figures in the Party attempted to reconcile their commitment to the Revolution with their sense of revulsion of what Stalin was doing to it.
In a hushed conversation in their bugged apartment between the intellectual Rublev and his wife Dora shortly before his arrest, Dora asks: "Don't they realize they are poisoning the soul of the proletariat? That they are poisoning the springs of the future?" Rublev answers: "No, they are not cowards...they are true, that is still true to the Party, and there is no more Party, there are only inquisitors, executioners, criminals... They assure themselves that it is better to die dishonoured, murdered by the Chief, than to denounce him to the international bourgeoisie..." He almost screamed like a man crushed in an accident: "And in that they are right."
In another scene, the High Commissar, now under arrest himself, is brought face to face with an old comrade, Ricciotti, who tries to persuade him to sign the confession which has been prepared for him. "Better men than you and I have done it before us. Others will do it after us. No one can resist the machine. No one has the right, no one can resist the Party without going over to the enemy." As Erchov resists and protests his innocence, Ricciotti reminds him of all those Erchov himself has signed off for execution, of the terrible things the Bolsheviks did in the name of Revolution. Erchov's riposte is: "I was a soldier, I obeyed orders- that's all", the eternal refrain of the loyal functionary who has forgotten his humanity.
In another key scene where Kondratiev reports on his trip to Spain to the Chief, the Chief asks him: "Do you think I have many faults, Ivan?" Kondratiev answers him: "It is not for me to judge you. You are the Party." The Chief muses: "I'll wipe out every one of them, tirelessly, mercilessly, down even to the least of the least. It is hard, but it must be. Every one of them. There is the country, the future. I do what must be done. Like a machine."
In addition to the all-pervasive fear of the times, Victor Serge movingly brings to life the sense of great ideals, sacrifices and hopes utterly crushed by the burden of petty expediences, violence and lies, and the resultant feeling of desolation and unspeakable regret; and in this, perhaps, lies the great achievement of the novel.
The stars of death stood over us.
And Russia, guiltless, beloved, writhed
Under the crunch of bloodstained boots
Under the wheels of Black Marias.