The Case of Comrade Tulayev
By: Victor Serge
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
One cold Moscow night, Comrade Tulayev, a high government official, is shot dead on the street, and the search for the killer begins. In this panoramic vision of the Soviet Great Terror, the investigation leads all over the world, netting a whole series of suspects whose only connection is their innocence—at least of the crime of which they stand accused. But The Case of Comrade Tulayev, unquestionably the finest work of fiction ever written about the Stalinist purges, is not just a story of a totalitarian state. Marked by the deep humanity and generous spirit of its author, the legendary anarchist and exile Victor Serge, it is also a classic twentieth-century tale of risk, adventure, and unexpected nobility to set beside Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and André Malraux’s Man’s Fate.
This book has been sitting on my TBR pile for a few years now. It has elements that I like in a novel: set during a period of history that I had studied extensively, a mystery with many implicated elements to it, never really heard of it but hailed as a great novel (okay, not a necessity when I pick up a book but it’s enough to pique my interest, lol.
This book reminded me of a Charles Dickens novel with the large cast of characters, the different statuses they hold in the Soviet Union–well-off position in the Party, working in one of the other states, a low-grade worker, etc–and the different problems that they face in their everyday life. The Party and its Ideology with the Great Leader looms large in the background and colours much of their society, but the author does this wonderful job in conveying their humanity, their struggle underneath the facade of the State’s goals and the snowballing Terror that was picking up speed during the time. He really does a very precise job in conveying the absurdity of the State at times, the twisted humour that develops from the madness, and comedy of humanity that reveals itself at odd moments. The case of Comrade Tulayev’s death really does get lost in the crush of everyone else’s problems, fears of the Party apparatus, etc. Like never-ending paperwork, if you want an analogy.
Perhaps I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would–I was expecting myself to rate this book higher; my standards are pretty high when it comes to books set during the Soviet period–but it’s such a sweeping glimpse of Soviet society at the height of the Great Terror. Definitely recommended reading if you’re a student of Soviet history, it’s quite informative.