Russia in fiction

A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Letters from Yelena by Guy Mankowski (2012)

Russia in Fiction’s previous review was of Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney’s 700-page thriller about Russia invading Ukraine. Given the current war scares, it seemed appropriate.

We follow up our review of Command Authority by reviewing a book that in almost every way has nothing in common with a blockbusting Clancy techno-thriller. In almost every way but one in this case, and the commonality is that Letters from Yelena is partly set in Donetsk and in Russia.

Only today President Putin recognised the Donetsk Peoples Republic, in eastern Ukraine, as an independent state. When Guy Mankowski’s Letters from Yelena was published, a decade ago, there was scarcely a hint that this region was on the brink of years of fighting that would lead up to today’s unfolding crisis.

But even if the novel had been written now, we doubt that any of these nationalist, military, geo-political questions would feature much, if at all, in Letters from Yelena. This is no international thriller, but rather a deeply personal and psychological story of one woman’s inner emotional torment. Its structure consists of an interior monologue in the mind of the eponymous heroine.

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Command Authority by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney (2013)

Russia is about to invade Ukraine. Or so the warnings from the UK, the United States, and various other western governments have been telling us for the past couple of months.

Whilst normal practice would be for analogous war fiction to appear after the event, Russia in Fiction has a fascination with those authors who wrote Russian history before it happened. (See our reviews of, for example, The Fall of the Russian Empire and The Red Fox).

Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney wrote about a Russian invasion of Ukraine back in 2013, before even Crimea had been incorporated into the Russian Federation. Command Authority spotted that possibility in advance. But now, in 2022, the novel’s plot seems potentially prescient once more.

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Kolchak’s Gold by Brian Garfield (1973)

Brian Garfield’s thriller Kolchak’s Gold takes on the mystery of what happened to the gold reserves of the Russian Empire after the revolution of 1917.

This is a made-for-fiction mystery. It is known that the gold —which had been transported to Siberia from St Petersburg during World War One to prevent it from falling into enemy hands— came under the control of the overall leader of the White movement in the Russian Civil War, Admiral Aleksander Kolchak.

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Freedom is Space for the Spirit by Glen Hirshberg (2016)

A beautifully written allegorical fantasy in novella form, Glen Hirshberg takes Thomas, a middle-aged German on the cusp of fatherhood, on a short trip back to the city where he spent his wilder younger student days in the early 1990s. That city is St Petersburg. A city that itself has changed from those wilder days into a far more settled state.

So Freedom is Space for the Spirit is an allegory of life stages, looking back to the open fields of youth as the responsibility of parenthood approaches? And of the new Russia beginning to establish itself more securely after its chaotic early years?

May be so.

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When The Kissing Had To Stop by Constantine Fitzgibbon (1960)

When the Kissing Had to Stop was a celebrated ‘coming threat’ thriller back in its day, that is just before the 1960s —the end of the Chatterley ban et cetera—got going.

From the Russia in Fiction perspective, this reasonably slim novel is worth a quick review simply because, as thrillers tend to do, it provides a useful caricaturish picture of popular conceptions of Russia. Specifically, When the Kissing Had to Stop offers a conservative, even establishment, portrayal of a Soviet Union taking over Britain with the same ruthlessness with which it had imposed its rule in Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War.

Like many such ‘Red threat to the UK’ novels (see our review of Russian Hide and Seek for a list), When the Kissing Had to Stop tells us more about England and about the author’s politics than it does about Russia.

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House of Meetings by Martin Amis (2006)

Predictable? That Russia in Fiction would follow a review of a Kingsley Amis novel with a review of a novel by his son Martin? May be so. But the authors’ shared surname is about all that these two books have in common.

Russian Hide and Seek (1980) was barely about Russia at all. House of Meetings essays a profound exploration of Russia; from the first page of Part One to the novel’s closing line.

This is a love story. All right, Russian love. But still love

******

Russia is dying. And I’m glad.

House of Meetings, p. 7 and p. 196
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Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980)

Russian Hide and Seek (1980) is set in the year 2035 and imagines an England that had been forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union since the mid-1980s. Amis’s fantastical future is of course shaped  by the world he knew in the late 1970s.

For all its title, Russian Hide and Seek is a novel about England far more than it is a novel about Russia.

Whereas Donald James —writing The Fall of the Russian Empire (1982) around the same time as Russian Hide and Seek came out— focused with notable accuracy on likely developments in Russia’s near-future, Amis has little to say about Russia and a little more to say obliquely about the declining state of the United Kingdom.

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Flames of Heaven by Ralph Peters (1993)

Ralph Peters is a distinctive author when it comes to military novels written in English around the end of the Cold War era; he writes whole novels with Soviet characters only. As noted in our review of his stand-out Red Army (1989), Peters tends to focus in on a small range of characters, rather than panning out to the geopolitical level of strategy and national leadership.

Flames of Heaven is set in 1990 and depicts the violence of protest and uprising in the Soviet republics, as the writ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union shrinks whilst anti-Russian feeling on the Soviet periphery grows.

All of which would have been touted by Russia in Fiction as to some degree prescient had Flames of Heaven been published in 1990 or 1991. What we had trouble getting our heads around was that the novel came out in 1993, by which time everyone knew that the Soviet Union had collapsed, and had done so with remarkably little bloodshed.

But when we did get our heads around the publication date question, Flames of Heaven grew in stature as a convincing portrayal of the pre-collapse Soviet Union, where the enormity of what was to come was not yet grasped even by those close to its unfolding.

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Firesong by Joseph Hone (1997)

In Firesong, noted writer of espionage novels Joseph Hone (1937-2016) tries his hand at the sprawling epic; 700 pages following Prince and Princess Rumovsky, members of the St Petersburg nobility, in the tumultuous 14 years between New Year 1906 and Christmas 1920.

Firesong is then a ‘Russia in the time of revolution’ novel. Like others of this sub-genre —Barnaby William’s Revolution (1994), James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love (2005), Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist (2016)— Firesong sets up the pre-revolutionary life of its central characters and then explores the impact of revolution and civil war on the same.

The epic is not Russia in Fiction’s favourite genre. That said, there is plenty here to fascinate and to enlighten from the Russia-in-fiction perspective. Not least, we learnt stuff about Harbin.

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