June Reading: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

For a variety of reasons, including co-teaching a Greek History course, working on my dissertation, and watching (too much) Justified I only finished one book this month, Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Serge himself was born in Brussels to Russian parents and moved to Russia to join the Bolshevik revolution. He was expelled from the party in 1928 and arrested multiple times before being allowed to leave Russia in 1936 and lived in multiple foreign countries (always on the run from Soviet agents) before his death in Mexico City in 1947. The Case of Comrade Tulayev was published posthumously.

Comrade Tulayev is a high official in the Soviet government, but on a cold night in Moscow he is shot down in the street. Serge does not hide who committed the murder, which takes place on the page in the very first chapter, but the killer escapes into the night and the hunt begins. The story unfolds in a panoramic look at investigation into the murder, the fundamental mistrust and uncertainty bred in the Stalinist state, and the purges that rippled outward from the case. The murder investigation provides the fulcrum on which the story rests, but Serge delves into the Soviet policies of scarcity, the deception of economic productivity, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, accusations and false-confessions, and the tension between the veterans of the revolution–those people who knew Lenin–and the younger generations that aspire to positions of influence.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev was an excellent novel, grimly funny at times, and for all the terror and failures of the Soviet system, Serge displays an unshakeable faith in humanity. To give just one example, Stalin makes several appearances throughout the story and he is neither a heartless monster nor a cuddly caricature. Instead, Joseph Stalin comes across as detached and isolated, subject to the mistrust that filled the atmosphere. It would have been simple for Serge to attribute the mistrust to Stalin’s own personal paranoia, showing it to be something that radiated outward from the dictator and into the subordinates, but he does not. The mistrust is part and parcel of the system and acts upon each individual equally.

I firmly believe that not every book is for everyone and while I like Russian literature, I also sometimes find it difficult to read. To be fair, this is in part an issue of translation because Russian is more difficult to render well into English than many other languages, including Spanish, Italian, and based on the luck I’ve had thus far, Turkish. That said, I recommend that anyone who has read Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita or Orwell’s 1984 give The Case of Comrade Tulayev a chance for different look at life under the Soviet State.

Currently, I am about 70% of the way through Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which is an enchanting tale of murder and marriage in 16th century Istanbul that also serves as a meditation on the nature of art, east and west.

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