A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Author: Russia in Fiction (Page 1 of 13)

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

It is a rare thing for a Russia-in-fiction novel to not have Moscow or St Petersburg in it. Yes, there are several that are set elsewhere in Russia, but even these tend to at least visit one or both of Russia’s current and former capitals. Kolymsky Heights is so absolutely determined to avoid them that its central character —sent into Russia by the CIA— enters and leaves by sea from the Far East of the country.

And ‘enters and leaves’ barely covers it. Jonny Porter’s journeys into and out of Russia are perhaps the most convoluted crossings in all the books reviewed on this blog. They take up about a third of this nearly 500-page story.

We will shorten them to a couple of sentences. Porter gets into the Far East of Russia disguised as a Korean seaman, working his passage on a Japanese trading vessel sailing from Nagasaki to Murmansk. He gets out across the ice of the frozen Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, shot at and shelled by pursuing Russian soldiers.

But before getting too far into the rather fantastical plot of Kolymsky Heights, let’s retreat a little into context.

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Metro by Alexander Kaletski (1985) – part two

Part one of this review is here

Metro is a semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1985. The author, Alexander Kaletski, and the novel’s first person narrator, share the central facts of their life stories — coming to Moscow from the provinces in the late 1960s to study at a prestigious drama school, beginning a successful acting career in the Soviet Union, including a tour to the West, before falling out with the Soviet regime and managing to emigrate in the mid-1970s.

Just as Aleksander Kaletski and his wife, Elena Bratslavskaya, performed together in the Soviet Union, so too do Sasha and Lena in Metro. The novel follows them as they form a singer-songwriter duo, with a repertoire of self-penned songs that, almost inadvertently, do not fit with the strict Party line required. This of course —combined with their musical ability— makes them an underground hit around Moscow. The trouble is that occasionally they get booked for bigger events and get noticed by those in authority.

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Metro by Alexander Kaletski (1985) – part one

Part two of this review is here

Published nearly four decades ago, Metro has long been a Russia in Fiction favourite. We read it back in the 1980s, and at least a couple of times since, latterly re-reading it for this review.

We think of Metro as one of the last English-language novels about Russia written in the pre-Gorbachev era, before the rapid reforms and unravelling of the Soviet state began. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Within a couple of years, events sped up, and the certainties of the Brezhnevite era of stagnation were rapidly dropped out the back of history’s peloton.

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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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