Charlotte Hobson’s account of her year as a Russian language student in Voronezh in 1991-92 is Russia in Fiction’s favourite memoir about Russia. Some time in the next few months, we will add a post here about other memoirs, but this one deserves a post all of its own.
Of course Black Earth City does not really belong on the Russia in Fiction blog, as it is not fiction; hence this post’s appearance in the ‘Editorials et al’ section and the fact that we are not counting the memoir in our path to reviewing one hundred books that portray Russia in fiction.
Russia in Fiction has noted before that when you choose your reading based on whether a novel engages with Russia or not, you end up reading genres that might otherwise have passed you by.
Geoffrey Rose’s A Clear Road To Archangel sits on the edge of such a situation. It is a thriller and such are this blog’s staple diet, even as we endeavour to vary the menu with regularity. But beyond the thriller meta-genre, A Clear Road To Archangel fits into the so far neglected ‘man on the run’ sub-genre.
The book’s unnamed first person narrator is a British spy, caught up in the convulsions of revolutionary and Civil War Russia, and trying to find his way to Archangel (Arkhangelsk) in the far north. If he can get there, he is confident of rescue by British forces or their allies.
In the flurry of Russia-related thrillers published in 2018, Karen Cleveland was a new name. She is one of those ex-security service officers (in her case, CIA) who bring a degree of inside knowledge to their writing. Although, this in itself is no guarantee of authenticity and quality; as the late Jason Matthews’s outdated portrayals of Russia illustrated, for example in Red Sparrow.
The plot of Need To Know is centred around a Russian sleeper agent who lives a normal happy family life with his wife and two young children in the Washington area; a convincing and likeable young American guy, going by the name of Matt.
The original twist is that Matt’s wife, Vivian, works for the CIA, is tasked with uncovering Russian sleeper agents, and discovers that her husband is a spy.
And before anyone complains of spoilers (never a complaint that Russia in Fiction has that much truck with anyway), all of the above is the set-up. It is in the blurb, it is in the first chapter.
‘Nobody knows more about Russia than you’ (p. 33). So Dr Sam Gaddis, the hero of Charles Cumming’s fifth novel, is told.
Part-way through The Trinity Six, Russia in Fiction was less impressed with Gaddis, being more inclined along the lines of
‘Blimey – Dr Sam Gaddis gives academics a bad name. He is so slow, as if he’s never read a thriller in his life. Every coincidence that happens, he accepts unquestioningly. He completely fails to read the situation.’
Happily Gaddis improved, and with him the novel, which is a relatively complex example of the ‘secrets from history which must never come to light’ genre.
G. D. (Garry) Abson’s first book is a cracking crime novel, set in contemporary St Petersburg and shaped around the character of a maverick female detective, Natalya Ivanova.
In Abson’s portrayal of Russia, for ‘maverick’, read ‘not corrupt’. Ivanova’s efforts to solve crime —in this case the disappearance of a young woman— are hindered as much by obstructive, careerist, regime-loyal colleagues as they are by the normal stuff such as lack of evidence and the deceptive nature of the criminal class.
One strap-line we have seen used for Motherland goes like this.
The Betrayal is not the first book reviewed on the Russia in Fiction blog that is set in Leningrad in the opening years of the 1950s. That honour goes to City of Ghosts, which is set in 1951. Helen Dunmore’s novel takes place a year later, in 1952.
In both cases, the key fact in relation to setting is that Stalin was still alive.
Before Stalin’s death in 1953, the feeling that the demise of his repressive dictatorship was long overdue was particularly keenly felt in Leningrad, a ‘hero city’ that suffered more than most during the Second World War.
The former Soviet Union. It’s a short phrase that became commonplace after 1991. The phrase —and its abbreviation, FSU— cropped up in policy papers and elsewhere from that date on, and still does.
Did its first use appear in Donald James’s The Fall of the Russian Empire in 1982, almost a decade before the Soviet Union was former?
The plot of The Fall of the Russian Empire builds a scenario of workers’ unrest in the self-proclaimed workers’ state. The dissatisfaction of the workers swiftly turns into physical resistance to the Soviet regime and allies itself with nationalist sentiments amongst the republics that make up the Soviet Union.
Towards the end of The Fall of the Russian Empire, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and all of the Central Asian republics formally break away from the Soviet Union on the same day.
And what is that date? To quote precisely, ‘then on the morning of December 21st …’.
Nine years after this novel was published, these self same republics all signed, on the same day, the Alma-Ata Protocol, which saw them join the Commonwealth of Independent States and leave the collapsing Soviet Union behind. And what was the date of that signing? December 21st 1991.
The Fall of the Russian Empire was published in 1982, when almost no analyst was imagining the imminent collapse of the global superpower that was the Soviet Union.
In 1989, when Communist governments were thrown out of the power that they had usurped across Eastern Europe, the geo-political certainties of decades went with them. Almost overnight, multiple possible paths forward opened up; and fiction writers mapped them as much as did scholars, journalists and policy professionals.
John Hands’s Perestroika Christi was published in 1990. In that in-between bit during the collapse of Communism. Soviet control over the Central and East European satellite states had been lost, Germany was re-uniting —but what of the Soviet Union itself?
Russia in Fiction has developed a bit of a fascination for books published in the Chernenko era. We did not intend this. After all, Chernenko did not really have an era.
Konstantin Chernenko was in office as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for less than a year from April 1984. He followed on from Yurii Andropov’s comparatively lengthy 15 months in that role. And both came at the end of nearly a decade in which the Soviet superpower had been ruled by a gerontocracy —between the time that Leonid Brezhnev died for the first time in 1976* and a sprightly Mikhail Gorbachev came to power at a mere 54 years of age in March 1985.