Here we have a Russian novel, except that it's written in French. Victor Serge was born Russian, was a young anarchist, joined the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919 and rose fairly high, but joined the Trotskyites and got really critical of Stalin. He was in and out of prison before being deported and spent the rest of his life in Belgium, France, and Mexico--where he died in 1947. (This is a very short and cockeyed summary of a very complicated life, so by all means look Serge up properly.) Comrade Tulayev was written near the end of his life. Serge remained a Marxist until the end--though I certainly couldn't tell from this novel.
In Moscow in the 1930s, the Terror is well underway. Comrade Tulayev, an official very high in the government, is shot dead on a quiet street one night and the Soviet machinery swings into action. Anyone associated with Tulayev is under suspicion, and suspicion means guilt. One after another, dedicated Party members--chosen almost at random--disappear, and everyone is considered guilty except the real shooter, who isn't considered at all.
Each chapter is a separate story, especially at first; different characters appear and you have to start over and figure out what's going on. It all comes together more in the last third, but for the most part, expect each chapter to be a new story or complete change of scene.
What this novel amounts to is a meticulous dissection of Stalinist paranoia. Anyone, no matter how loyal, can come under suspicion. Doublethink is required. When everyone stops talking to you, you know you're going to be arrested, and the next thing you know you're being tortured in the Lubyanka. Stalin himself is never mentioned by name--only as the Leader or some other epithet--but he is everywhere and he even makes an appearance at one point. It's absurd and surreal, and horrifying. The victims are loyal Communists, and their loyalty to the system that is murdering them is part of the surreal atmosphere. They have to tell themselves that their deaths will serve the Revolution somehow.
Serge's writing is pretty great and needs attention. There's a lot of subtle irony and some bright flashes of humor, but for the most part it's pretty grim. Seriously, I was surprised to find out that Serge was a Marxist when he wrote this. Some samples:
Sitting in the stern, suddenly tired, his hands crossed on his knees, the ghosts gone, he thought: Done for. The launch plowed toward the city through that dark certainty. Done for like the city, the Revolution, the republic, done for like so many comrades...What could be more natural? A turn for each, a way for each...How had he managed not to be aware of it until now, how had he lived in the presence of that hidden revelation without divining it, without understanding it, imagining that he was doing things that were important or things that were unimportant, when actually there was nothing left to do?
According to them, the situation was becoming untenable everywhere, but then the next minute they proposed a plan for victory; some advocated a European war; Anarchists insisted upon restoring discipline, establishing the sternest order, provoking foreign intervention; bourgeois Republicans thought the Anarchists too moderate and obliquely accused the Communists of being too conservative...the Communists despised every other party, at the same time treating all the bourgeois parties with the greatest politeness... [this is the Spanish Civil War]
The fact is that he both looked like a schoolmaster who was a champion chess player and resembled the portraits of the Bloody Czar. Once a schoolboy who had come whizzing along at top speed on a single skate and had crashed into him muttered this odd apology: "Excuse me, Citizen Professor Ivan the Terrible"--and could not understand the strange fit of laughter with which the stern old codger answered him.
And Rublev, erect too, said firmly:
"That I have lived my whole life only for the Party. Sick and degraded thought it may be, our Party. That I have neither thought nor conscience outside the Party. That I am loyal to the Party, whatever it may be, whatever it may do. That if I must perish, crushed by my Party, I consent...But that I warn the villains who are killing us that they are killing the Party..."
"Goodby, Comrade Rublev."