THE CASE OF COMRADE TULAYEV.

Last month I wrote an annoyed post after reading a chapter or so of The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge. Now I’ve finished the book, and those initial irritations have faded from my mind, in part because they seem to have been concentrated in the early pages and in part because I was too gripped by the novel to care any more. It’s not a great novel in Nabokovian terms; the characters are memorable but one-dimensional, and the prose is only serviceable. Furthermore, it will frustrate people who need a central protagonist to bear the weight of the story—Serge didn’t believe in the importance of the individual (including himself), and he keeps jumping from one character to the next in order to give as full a picture as possible. But that picture is overwhelming and unforgettable; Serge was in Stalin’s prisons for years (saved only by a campaign by Western writers), he talked to everyone and remembered everything, and he was determined to tell the world about it. I would tell anyone interested in Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s to read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, the classic factual account, and Serge’s novel, which will make you feel what it was like for both the victims of trumped-up cases and the government functionaries who created the cases and then as often as not were arrested themselves. Now I’m very much looking forward to Serge’s World War II novel The Unforgiving Years.

Comments

  1. j. del col says:

    Conquest updated his book. It is now titled
    The Great Terror: a Reassessment.
    There was an apocryphal story going around that when he was asked whether he wanted to retitle the book, Conquest suggested “I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.”
    However, he has explicitly denied this and says it was a title made up by one of his friends, one of the Amises, IIRC.

  2. New Haven says:

    Thanks for the assessment of Comrade Tulayev — more commentary certainly welcome. I assign my students at Yale Ginzburg’s memoirs on the purges; I also have used Merridale’s book, Heart of Stone. Fortunately or not (given the circumstances), there’s more than one excellent book on the Purges.
    One the whole, teaching Civil War, famine, purges, WWII, and late Stalinism proves to be very, very hard on me…. Something students should study, but not something I want to do year after year. :-( [frownie face -- an understatement for all time]

  3. I’ve been thinking lately about how hard it would be to teach the history of twentieth-century Russia—not as hard as living it, obviously, but immersing yourself in it and then plunging the heads of innocent students into it can’t be much fun.
    Yes, there are a number of excellent books on the purges, but most of them (understandably) are from the point of view of “normal” people swept up in them. What makes Serge’s book so unusual is that it’s an inside viewpoint; almost all the characters are Party members and insiders who believe in the values of the Revolution, and those who are arresting others are aware that they may be arrested tomorrow. Serge’s picture of the mindsets involved is utterly convincing.

  4. j. del col says:

    Molotov’s memoirs are essential reading. He was involved in all the horrors and remained unapologetic to the very end of his long, ugly life.

  5. I agree with the difficulty of teaching these painful things to college students. I can only do so much of it (bringing up the Holocaust to teach The Chosen), but I try to encourage myself by remembering how shockingly little history they know. Try asking your students the first week of school: what countries fought in World War II? What are the three U.S. branches of government? What is the Bill of Rights? Who are your two senators? What party do they belong to?
    You may never recover from the shock….

  6. “However, he has explicitly denied this and says it was a title made up by one of his friends, one of the Amises, IIRC.”
    When last I googled this, I found that Conquest had, as you say, denied it and pointed at an Amis. But, IIRC, he late relented a bit and said something to the effect that he might have said something like it but not exactly in the context……
    Whoever first said it, it was a very fine sally.

  7. rootlesscosmo says:

    Serge’s picture of the mindsets involved is utterly convincing.
    A brief scene from “Tulayev” that stays with me is the young woman Communist gazing up at the Kremlin and thinking sympathetically of Stalin: “How hard it must be for a man like him, surrounded by traitors and enemies!” Truly chilling.

  8. John Cowan says:

    This change of title reminds me of the introduction to the 1993 second edition of McCawley’s impenetrable (to me) book on language and logic:

    Inevitably, this volume will be referred to as Everything that Linguists Have Always Wanted to Know about Logic — But Were Ashamed to Ask, second edition. Nonetheless, it may help readers if they take the trouble to notice the change in the title, which they might otherwise overlook: this book is entitled Everything that Linguists Have Always Wanted to Know about Logic — But Were Ashamed to Ask, whereas the book that appeared in 1981 was entitled Everything that Linguists Have Always Wanted to Know about Logic — But Were Ashamed to Ask. Had I retained the original title, the words printed on the cover would have to be Everything that Linguists Had Always Wanted to Know about Logic — But Were Ashamed to Ask, and what would really have been just a second edition of the 1981 book would have taken on the misleading appearance of a new book with a new title. However, I will bow to the inevitable and refer to the present book henceforth as the second edition, a policy that can be defended at least on the grounds that many of the sections are lineal descendants of corresponding sections in the original book, and thus is content is such as would easily merit a designation as “second edition” if the title did not involve a present tense whose deictic anchorage had changed between the two editions.

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