A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Category: 1950s setting

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (2010)

Red Plenty is a beautiful departure from the standard depictions of the Soviet Union in English-language fiction. Francis Spufford’s novel takes the reader not just to Russia in the years of Khrushchevian optimism, but into the heads of a succession of superbly drawn characters who experience those days from their different perspectives.

Front and centre are bright young believers in the Communist idea that rational scientific planning, deployed with intelligence and determined good will, represented a transformative step forward for humankind. We are not talking dull one-dimensional ideologues loaded down with notions of superpower competition, but bright individuals, excited to be alive at that time in a place where the dream of plenty seemed within reach.

once upon a time the story of red plenty had been serious: an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest people in the world. For a short while it even looked —and not just to Nikita Khrushchev— as if the story might be coming true … This book is about that moment.

Red Plenty, p. 5
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The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (2010)

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.

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The Kremlin Contract by James Barwick (1987)

Way before the death of Stalin became the title of a graphic novel which then in 2017 became a comic movie, banned in Russia, the actual passing of the Communist dictator in March 1953 provided the plot for several thrillers written by British writers.

The novel reviewed before this one —Robert Harris’s Archangel (1998)— begins on the day of Stalin’s death. John Kruse’s Red Omega (1981) develops the fictional notion that Stalin was assassinated. Barnaby Williams’s Revolution (1994) has Stalin suffocated by his Politburo subordinates.

The Kremlin Contract similarly has the theme of Stalin being assassinated. And almost all of its characters, on both sides of the Cold War divide, want him dead.

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Despite the Falling Snow by Shamim Sarif (2004)

On the Russia in Fiction blog, we categorise books according to their temporal setting. Shamim Sarif’s Despite the Falling Snow is set in Moscow in the Khrushchev years of the late 1950s and in Boston in the late 1990s. Yet somehow Russia in Fiction always thinks of it as being a novel about the Stalin era.

That this impression prevails is credit to Shamim Sarif. Thematically, Despite the Falling Snow could be summed up as an exploration of the way in which the inhuman brutality of Stalinism wreaks its deep emotional damage decade after decade, generation on generation, even following its victims halfway round the globe.

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City of Ghosts by Ben Creed (2020) – part two

Part one of this review is here

One winter night in 1951, several miles outside of Leningrad, five mutilated corpses are discovered, laid out —indeed positioned— on railway tracks. Leningrad police (militsiya) officer, Rev Rossel, conducts an investigation that increasingly ties the murders to his own previous life as a violin student in the Leningrad Conservatory.

City of Ghosts vibrates with dissonance between the ubiquitous and ingrained violence of late Stalin-era Leningrad and the transcendent potency of music. Alongside portrayals of savagery by state and criminals alike, Ben Creed conjures up the otherworldliness of music.

The novel has five parts, each designated by a musical note; a motif that reaches a crescendo by its end whilst having been a refrain throughout. F A E♭ B♭ G.

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City of Ghosts by Ben Creed (2020) – part one

Part two of this review is here

Mutilated  bodies found in the snow. That is a fairly standard starting point for a Russia-in-fiction detective novel. Think, of course, of the classic of the genre, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981). Or more recently, G.D. Abson’s second Natalya Ivanova novel, Black Wolf (2019).

City of Ghosts starts with five mutilated bodies found in the snow. This novel is no shy newcomer sneaking into the back of the Russia-in-fiction incident room hoping not to draw attention to itself.

City of Ghosts is the first of the Revol Rossel thriller series. Set in Leningrad in 1951, as the Stalin era is coming to an end, this is a book that knows its Russia, knows Leningrad, and knows Soviet history. The Stalin era did not limp off the global stage but —so far as its reputation for terror and oppression went— it stayed right on until the end of its road. And Leningrad was a particular target for Stalin’s personal ire.

Within this setting, Ben Creed (the pen-name of the co-writing duo Barney Thompson and Christopher Rickaby) develops a macabre tale brimming over with multiple ideas and intentions.

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Arm Me Audacity by Richard Pape (1954) – part two

Part one of this review is here

Richard Pape’s reputation as a daredevil and dashing ex-military man turned author, coupled with a handily placed article in a British tabloid, helped to create the impression that Arm Me Audacity was autobiography, fictionalised for reasons of national security. Part one of this review investigates the novel’s background. Part two returns to more familiar Russia-in-fiction reviewing territory. What is the book about? And how does it portray Russia?

In particular, to those familiar with the traits of Cold War espionage thrillers and their representation of the Soviet Union, how present are these in a popular thriller from the 1950s?

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Arm Me Audacity by Richard Pape (1954) – part one

Part two of this review is here

Published in 1954, Arm Me Audacity is a fascinating thriller, particularly when read from the standpoint of the 21st-century. Its author, Richard Pape, was a former RAF man who had turned his wartime exploits —captured and tortured by the Nazis only to then escape by ingenious and dashing means— into an autobiographical bestseller Boldness Be My Friend (1953).

Arm Me Audacity tells the story of Anthony Petheran, an Englishman with a wartime biography similar to that of the author, who hatches a plan to travel behind the Iron Curtain and assassinate a British defector to the Soviet Union.

This book, we are told in its preface

bears the absolute stamp of truth… [And] makes the reader wonder whether it is only in the interests of security that this book is described as a novel.

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The Russian Interpreter by Michael Frayn (1966)

Michael Frayn — man of letters, leading British playwright, acclaimed novelist; also a renowned translator of Chekhov and, less well known, of ‘the Soviet Chekhov’ Yurii Trifonov.

Published in 1966, The Russian Interpreter came at the outset of Frayn’s literary career. His second novel, it appeared in the year that his first novel, The Tin Men, won the Somerset Maugham Award. Unusually for a writer from the West in that era, Frayn was able to draw on significant experience of living in the Soviet Union.

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