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.
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.
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.
Published in 1989, but set a decade earlier, as Jimmy Carter’s presidency is coming to an end and the Soviet Union seems as threatening as ever to the West, The Romeo Flag flew briefly in the world of Russia-in-fiction thrillers.
The Romeo Flag offers a complex globe-trotting, decade-spanning, page-turning plot that differs from the run-of-the-mill, even whilst being built around a couple of the staples of Russia-related fiction; a surviving Romanov heir and a Soviet mole at the heart of the US government.
On top of that, The Romeo Flag turns out to contain uncanny parallels with a fresh new soon-to-be bestselling novel published only last week.
Hey, this is the Russia in Fiction blog — what’s with The Starlings of Bucharest? Have we gone all Romania in Fiction? Now that would be a struggle to get to our 100 reviews …
Well, rest easy. The Starlings of Bucharest is book two in the Moscow Wolves trilogy; at least, we assume it is going to be a trilogy. As regular readers of this blog know, pre-announced Russia-in-fiction trilogies are very much in vogue these days. See reviews of novels by Tom Bradby, Owen Matthews, and Ben Creed for further evidence.
Its title not-withstanding, The Starlings of Bucharest has many chapters set in Moscow. It is a terrific semi-sequel to the enjoyable The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt.
When your choice of fiction is influenced by where it is set, then you can end up reading novels that you would not otherwise have given a second glance to. So far as Russia in Fiction is concerned, Mrs Harris Goes To Moscow is one such novel.
Russia in Fiction claims no special expertise in the literature of the prolific Paul Gallico (1897-1976), whose output of over 50 books ranged from The Poseidon Adventure, which was made into a blockbuster disaster movie, to children’s books much loved by Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling.
Lacking such expertise, we turned to a website that is, in the words of its writer, ‘dedicated to the literature of Paul Gallico, one of my favourite authors’. Its conclusion with regard to Mrs Harris Goes To Moscow?
Joseph Hone, ‘the most unjustly neglected spy novelist of his generation’. So said Hone’s obituary in The Telegraph (23 September 2016).
From the Russia-in-fiction perspective, The Sixth Directorate opens with a prescient view of what a few —though I think not many— observers of the Soviet scene with astute foresight were thinking possible in the mid-1970s. Surely, such apparently wishful thinking went, there must be people within the organisations at the heart of that closed stagnating system who wanted progressive reform?
Martha marries Kit, a gay British diplomat serving in Moscow in 1973. This platonic marriage suits them both — Kit feeling the need to disguise his sexuality; Martha finding a route out of the conventional home-bound English middle-class future her parents see for her.
Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt plays off the temporal and physical settings of Moscow and 1973 against one another.
Martha embraces life in Soviet Moscow, with all its faults and fears. For Kit, working in the British Embassy, the reality of Cold War tensions are ever present.
The Russian Affair alights on themes of Moscow life in the high Soviet years of the Brezhnev era.
Just as Soviet authors of the late 1960s and early 1970s did, Michael Wallner frames his story around everyday problems —multi-generational living in cramped apartments, the ‘double burden’ carried by Soviet women, access to essentials in a time of shortages, the importance of social connections, the ubiquity of the vlasti (the authorities), and the treasured pleasures and freedoms of normality around the ‘kitchen table’ inner circle of family and friends.