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Russia: A Great Conspiracy And The Lone Assassin--A Book Review

Washington, 29 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - The recent assassination of Galina Starovoitova in St. Petersburg has revived interest in books about the assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1934 and the purges that followed.

In addition to Arthur Koestler's well-known "Darkness at Noon," ever more people concerned about the Starovoitova case are now reading "The Case of Comrade Tulayev" by Victor Serge. Originally written in French in 1942 and first published in English in 1950, the book was reissued this month and is sold by the New York bookseller Barnes and Noble via the Internet. Victor Serge's life reads like that of his own characters. A second-generation Russian revolutionary born in Brussels in 1890, he fought in the Catalonian anarchist uprising in 1917 and then became a leading functionary of Lenin's Communist International in Moscow.

Serge later broke with Lenin and joined Trotsky's camp. Stripped of his party membership, he was eventually jailed in 1928. Eight years later Stalin gave in to French intellectuals and let Serge go to France. But only a year later, Trotsky excommunicated him. Serge completed his novel, "The Case of Comrade Tulayev," in Mexico, in 1942. He died in 1947 in Mexico City.

No disavowal by the author can obscure the parallels between the fictional Tulayev case and the actual assassination of Sergey Kirov and the great purges that followed. Though Serge insisted on calling his book "historical fiction," it has a ring of truth that many historical studies have so far lacked, at least partly because authors have been unable to sort out the reasons behind Stalin's decisions to destroy one old Bolshevik or ruthless opportunist while sparing others seemingly equally implicated.

To Serge, The Chief -- the leader is left unnamed in the book -- institutes his system of terror without a master plan. He picks his victims at random, and his secret police stooges are baffled by their task of linking them.

Serge writes: "The examiners herded along a motley crowd of prisoners, all exhausted, all desperate, all despairing, all innocent in the old legal meaning of the word, all suspect and guilty in many ways." With all the power in their hands, the examiners keep stumbling. For instance, they cannot deal with the half a dozen people who used convoluted and inconsistent arguments, each claiming to have murdered Tulayev. One of them, an American woman, professed to be in love with Tulayev but said she wanted to avert a danger that threatened The Chief himself, whom she also loved. One moment she asked to be shot, but then claimed immunity from prosecution as an American citizen and tried to send an SOS message to the American consul -- as if such a message could ever get through.

The doctors summoned to examine the people who claim to be the assassins contend that some of them had connections to the murder. The secret police chief who dismissed the volunteers as lunatics sends the doctors back to their patients for a review. But that order causes the doctors to go mad in their turn, and the secret police chief dispatches the doctors to an insane asylum under a strong guard.

Serge presents a gallery of meticulously described Soviet patriots of all types thrown together as co-conspirators. He is equally adept in portraying the investigators.

Serge shows how each conspirator was guilty of lingering doubts about the way The Chief ran the country. He details how each thread of the investigation was tied to another in a way that was almost plausible. The plot did link the suspects, whether they had once risked their lives fighting for communism in the Spanish civil war or tried to build a viable economy in Siberia.

In the hands of the investigators, the plotters are marionettes. But the investigators are also marionettes, as one director manipulates the others. The shadow of The Chief hovers over them all. He is the source of all evil; he is the master weaver of deception and lies.

In the end, the chief investigator cleans up his drawer and stumbles upon the confession of the actual killer, a passersby with a revolver in his pocket who did not intend to kill Tulayev. But once he saw the leader responsible for so many deaths, he surprised himself by pulling the trigger. Then he disappeared in the night.

The investigator knows instinctively that he is reading a genuine confession. But he also knows that it makes no sense to catch the lone assassin. He must burn the letter, which he does. Then he announces that the case is closed, as all those guilty in the grand conspiracy have been captured.