Victor Serge and the Journey into Defeat: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Delivering searing criticism on the psychosis of absolute power, Victor Serge’s fifth novel to be featured in my personal blog, For the Desk Drawer, is a masterly work. The Case of Comrade Tulayev was written in 1942 and is situated in the context of the Great Terror in Soviet Russia orchestrated by Joseph Stalin. In the sequence that constitutes the ‘defeat-in-victory’ trilogy (preceded by Midnight in the Century [1939] and succeeded by The Long Dusk [1943-5]), the novel intersects in several subtle ways with Serge’s other books. The Case of Comrade Tulayev is a chronicle of the Moscow arrests and show trials in the 1930s that pulls in a myriad of characters as well as the overbearing appearance of ‘the Chief’, Stalin himself. It does so by offering at least two intersections to aspects present in Serge’s earlier novels. First, it offers a set of intersecting elements linked to specific characters that appear in the earlier books; second, it offers direct intersections on the theme of space and the state. How the spatial logistics of the state, how the modern state organises space, and how the state engenders social relations in space are thus a quintessential feature of The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

The first significant intersection, then, is the reappearance of characters such as Comrade Ryzhik and David Fleischman that played a part in preceding novels, specifically Conquered City [1932] and Midnight in the Century [1939]. Once an erstwhile worker in the Hendrikson Pipe and Tube Works, then a participant of the Petrograd Committee in 1920 and a former member of the Cheka, Ryzhik is now a deportee on the brink of nothing, contemplating the empty white spaces of the Soviet steppe. In this snowbound landscape, Ryzhik is confronted with endless white space, the emptiness, the silence of nothingness in which the sky and earth merge as one sheet of enveloping whiteness. ‘Space, beyond the limits of human time, swallowed the small, unusual sound of his voice – not even the birds were frightened’ of Ryzhik. His plan during detention is to drag into the mire a series of apparatchiks by secretly planning a hunger-strike following his deportation back to Moscow, an act that is pivotal to the ending of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Additionally, David Fleischman of the VIth Army, of the Petrograd Cheka, of the General Staff Academy, of the Manganese Trust, and infamous during the arrests in Tula, nearly 200 kilometres south of Moscow, is also pivotal to the dread that is contained at the end of the novel. After all, it is Fleischman that finally closes the ‘Tulayev case’ with gripping dreadfulness. The second intersection relates to the broad theme of space and how state control is extended, shaped and reshaped through the production of space throughout The Case of Comrade Tulayev. The stratification of space, meaning the regressive and repressive mapping of space and how space is controlled, homogenised, and at the same time fragmented and broken, fractured and countered is fully present throughout the novel. Just as the spatial dimension was intrinsic to understanding the Soviet machine in Midnight in the Century, then the production of space and the presence of spatial metaphors are equally decisive in The Case of Comrade Tulayev. How is this so?

Before relaying some detail on the spatial ordering of the state in the novel, an additional note on its historical context is merited. The eponymous character Comrade Tulayev is a high government Soviet official whose murder sets off the arrests and executions of the Great Terror. Despite Serge indicating in a prefatory note to the novel that it should not be read as a roman à clef, it is impossible not to reflect on the connection to Sergei Kirov. It was Kirov who, as head of the Party organisation in Leningrad, was murdered in 1934 in his offices in the Smolny Institute at gunpoint by a young Party member, Leonid Nikolayev. With the finger of accusation pointing to Stalin himself, it was Kirov’s death that served as the pretext for the escalation of repression and the purges in the Soviet Union. In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary [1942-3], Serge comments:

Following the Kirov affair, Stalin had sent a message to the Leningrad Regional Committee upbraiding them for not having cleansed the city of the old “imperial” bourgeoisie. The “cleanup” began at once. The men were usually sent to concentration camps. The young woman I took in was the wife of a famous Soviet architect, young and distinguished, the builder, I believe, of the GPU building in Stalingrad; now he was in a camp.

In The Case of Comrade Tulayev, the thought of assassination comes first to the character Piotr Petrovich Romachkin, an assistant clerk in the wages department of the Moscow Clothing Trust, who witnesses the dynamiting of St. Saviour’s Cathedral in Moscow at the time of his illegal purchase of a Colt revolver. At the entrance to the scaffolding yard to the demolition, Romachkin contemplates his search for justice with the heavy Colt laid against his chest inside his coat pocket. The following passage is quoted at length for the incisive insights that are captured on the spatial form of the city that, at the same time, are conveyed through Romachkin’s plight:

In the distance, through scaffolding and the rubble of demolished buildings, he could see the waters of the Moskva, as through the crenelations of a ruined fortress. To the right was the scaffolding of an uncompleted skyscraper; to the left rose the citadel of the Kremlin, with the heavy flat façade of the Great Palace, the tall tower of Czar Ivan, the pointed turrets of the enclosing wall, the bulbous domes of the cathedrals rising against the starry sky. Here searchlights reigned, men ran through a zone of harsh white light, a sentry ordered back a crowd of gapers. The wounded mass of the Cathedral of St. Saviour occupied the foreground; the great gilded cupola that had crowned it was gone like an ancient dream, the building rested heavily on the beginning of its own ruins; a dark crack a hundred feet long split it from top to bottom, like a dead lightning bolt in the masonry . . . Smoke rose slowly, the thunder rolled over the ground and vanished in a silence like the end of the world; a deep sigh rose from the mass of stone, and it began to sink in upon itself with a snapping of bones, a cracking of beams, a desolate look of suffering . . . Romachkin, having read it in the papers, thought that life progressed through destruction, that things must perpetually be torn down so that things could be built, that the old stones must be killed so that new buildings, better ventilated and worthier of man, might rise; that on this spot would one day stand the beautiful Palace of the Soviets – in which perhaps iniquity would no longer reign.

Romachkin then explores the city centre and frequents the gardens across from Red Square that border the outer wall of the Kremlin. He stops at Lenin’s tomb for a moment and the twisted domes of St. Vasili the Blessed (Saint Basil’s Cathedral). At one crucial moment, Romachkin sees ‘the Chief’, gropes for the Colt but, through fear and inaction, misses his opportunity as he stumbles before the secret police escort. ‘“Damned vegetarian!”’, shouts one of the guards, assuming that Romachkin cannot hold his drink without realising his true intentions. The action them moves to Kostia, flatmate of Romachkin, working in the office of a construction yard for the Moscow metro and now in possession of the Colt revolver. At the construction site, ‘the first layers appeared to be composed of human debris; they had an odour of corpses, of the decaying city, of refuse long fermented under alternative snow and hot pavements’. Enraged by the suicide of a female associate, following her drowning in the Moskva, Kostia takes revenge by opportunistically killing Comrade Tulayev, of the Central Committee, responsible for mass deportations and university purges, with a single gunshot. The machinery of Soviet counterrevolutionary terror then kicks in, thus consummating the tragedy of the Russian revolution. ‘“Remaking men”’, jokes the High Commissar for Security Maxim Andreyevich Erchov, ‘“consists in reducing them, by persuasion, to the condition of corpses . . .”’.

In these opening scenes there is already a profound sense of the partitioning of space through the state. The significance of the destruction and crumbling disintegration of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is emblematic of the destruction and failed utopia of the USSR. Demolished in 1931, with the gold from its domes recycled and its marble benches and walls reused for the Moscow Metro, the site was to be the location for the monument known as the Palace of the Soviets. Designed by Boris Iofan who won the commission ahead of competitors, including Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, the Palace of the Soviets was to be the world’s tallest skyscraper, a huge administrative centre for the Soviet Union standing at 415 meters in height with a statue of Lenin at the top to crown its glory. Abandoned as a project during World War II, the site instead became the world’s largest open-air swimming pool, the Moskva Pool under Nikita Khrushchev. The 1990s then witnessed the rebuilding of the cathedral under the leadership of controversial architect and artist Zurab Tsereteli, which was consecrated in 2000 and today stands as the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world, at 105 meters. As Henri Lefebvre has argued in The Production of Space [1974], a monumental work has a horizon of meanings that are codified through relations of production inseperable from the signifying processes of discourse. Hence ‘monumental buildings mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought’. The urban form throughout The Case of Comrade Tulayev is therefore represented through the asphyxiating expression of state-dominated abstract space. Abstract space becomes a site dominated by state strategies of centralising power that reduce diversity and multiplicity (heterotopy) to the violent symbolism, phallic monumentality, and oppression of homogenous space (isotopy) linked to the state. Concurrent with Lefebvre, in ‘Space and the State’ [1978], ‘oppression and domination, and thus power – but also splendour and meaning – are inherent in the very word “monument”’.

With this post already too long, I will limit the supplementary focus on the transformation of space in The Case of Comrade Tulayev to just two examples linked to the character Ivan Nicolayevich Kondratiev. On his return from secret service in Spain, Kondratiev resides in his fifteenth floor room in Government House and peers through the window looking out on the Palace of the Soviets (in course of construction) and contemplates the curve of the Moskva and the towers and buildings of the Kremlin in Moscow. ‘There were always people walking by the river, an official’s car overtook a shaky brickmaker’s cart from the previous century – the perpetual coming and going, as of busy ants with draft animals and motors, fascinated him. So the ants imagine they have something to do, that there is a meaning to their minute existences?’. Kondratiev is described as ‘a strong sad-faced stranger in a European-tailored suit, staring vaguely into space’. He takes a bus to Sokolniki Park and enters a tavern and passes by the buildings on Spartacus Place. Then, ‘Kondratiev walked on toward the towers of the three railway stations: October, Yaroslavl, Kazan – the station of the Revolution, the station of the city where we had eighteen shot and three hundred and fifty captured together, the station of Kazan, where, on a fire ship, with Trotsky and Raskolnikov, we set fire to the White fleet’.Yaroslavl now suggests nothing more than a prison in the present of the novel, a physical space bound to the state.

Finished wandering through Moscow, Kondratiev returns to his apartment and reflects on his personal conflict with ‘the Chief’ after contemplating suicide with his Browning revolver. ‘Morning brightened at the window, the street along the Moskva was still deserted, a sentry’s bayonet moved between the crenelations of the outer Kremlin wall, a wash of pale gold touched the faded dome on the tower of Ivan the Terrible, it was a barely perceptible light, but already it was victorious, it was almost the pink of dawn and the blue of the vanishing night, in which the last stars were about to be extinguished . . . An extraordinary freshness radiated from the landscape of sky and city, and the feeling of a power as limitless as that sky came from the stones, the sidewalks, the walls, the building yards, the carts which appeared and moved slowly along the street, following the pink-and-blue river’. He decides to denounce the purges of the Great Terror and says in a personal meeting to ‘the Chief’, his old comrade, ‘You will be alone under the avalanche’ as a result of all the deaths at his hands. Kondratiev and ‘the Chief’ walk together over the white carpet of the latter’s office, itself analogous to the whitest emptiness of snow. ‘They stopped before the Mercator’s projection: oceans, continents, frontiers, industries, green spaces, our sixth part of the earth, primitive, powerful, threatened . . . A heavy red line, in the ice-floe region, indicated the great Arctic road . . . The Chief studied the relief of the Ural Mountains: Magnitogorsk, our new pride, blast furnaces as well equipped as Pittsburgh’s. That’s what counts!’, Stalin exclaims.

These examples illustrate that a salient feature throughout The Case of Comrade Tulayev is the depiction of the logic of the state in the production of space. It is an intrinsic quality of much of Victor Serge’s novelistic writing: his spatial awareness, his capturing of the spatial logistics of the state, his focus on the state partitioning of space, his awareness of the contradictions of space within the urban form of the city. At the close of the book the Yaroslavsky rail terminal features once more. Named after the city of Yaroslavl and situated on Komsomolskaya Square in Moscow, this was the railway terminal from which the character Kostia, Tulayev’s assassin, fled. Just before his departure eastwards, Kostia posted a letter confessing to the murder. It is this letter that Fleischman stumbles across at the end of the book after all the purges, forced confessions, and shootings that unfold throughout the narrative of the book. ‘He lit the candle which he used to soften sealing wax. The stearine was encrusted with red streaks like coagulated blood. In the flame of the bloodstained candle Fleischman burned the letter’.

With the droplets of wax, normally used on state documents to convey the seal of the Archives of the Commissariat of the Interior, representative of burning blood, Fleischman declares ‘“The Tulayev case is closed”’. Roy Johnson has commented that The Case of Comrade Tulayev, ‘shows enlightened and courageous individuals inspired by noble ideals who are brought to a pitiable end by ideological flaws in the system they embrace’. In David Fleischman, this ‘man of state’ seals not only the murder case of Comrade Tulayev but also the fate of those ‘critics of state power’, those in a perpetual struggle to envision another society and alternative spaces of difference.

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