Russia in Fiction has a thing about novels published at key junctures in Russian history and set in that same time. (Just search this blog for ‘Chernenko’ to get an insight into how thriller writers saw the Soviet Union in 1984.)
Writing about the Soviet Union in 1991 took matters to a whole new level. In fiction and non-fiction, a good number of authors wrote about the Soviet future only for there to be no Soviet Union by the time their books were published. As a French language summary of The Red Defector put it:
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.
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.
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.
Russia in Fiction has several times repeated our short list of the best writers of Cold War espionage novels. It goes, John le Carré, rhymes with Charles McCarry, and add a couple of Bobs (Littell and Moss).
But have we yet reviewed a Robert Littell espionage novel? It’s a rhetorical question.
And now we finally get round to reviewing a Robert Littell book, and what do you know, it is not one of his invariably terrific espionage novels. In fact it is not even a book we enjoyed much. But it is a fine novel from the Russia-in-fiction perspective, written by a skilled writer with undeniable panache and wit and knowledge of Russia.
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?
The central character of The Moscow Club —’the first great post-Cold War thriller’— comes straight out of the standard thriller stable. There is not a great deal of room for doubting that he is on the side of the angels and will triumph.
The reader knows, from the moment we encounter him rock-climbing, on vacation from his role as genius Soviet analyst with a secret CIA off-shoot agency, that Charles Stone is always going to win through.
That is not a plot-spoiler. It is just obvious. Stone’s work with an off-the-books CIA branch (slightly reminiscent of the off-the-books British agency for which Petra Reuter works in Mark Burnell’s superb novels) plunges him into the hunt for plotters in the KGB and the CIA alike. It then gets personal when his godfather (Winthrop Lehman) and his father (an academic, expert on Russia, broken by spying allegations and prison during the McCarthy witch-hunts of the early 1950s) turn out to be involved in some way.
Oh, and Stone’s estranged wife also comes into the picture. Handily, from many perspectives, she’s a beautiful, blonde, Moscow-based, TV reporter.
The first great post-Cold War thriller. So proclaims the front-cover strap line on this early paperback edition of Joseph Finder’s The Moscow Club. For once, the blurb has substance.
The Moscow Club is a great thriller. And it is post-Cold War. Though handily in terms of giving an undeserved sense of planning to the Russian in Fiction blog, its plot reaches back into the Soviet past, providing a neat link from our preceding mini-splurge reviewing novels on the death of Stalin.
According to the publicity blurb, The Moscow Club was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best spy thrillers of all time. That might be pushing it. But Finder’s first novel might well nudge the top ten of the 100 books this blog will review, providing as it does almost 600 pages worth of densely plotted, action-filled, twist-on-twist thriller.
Like the book reviewed immediately before this one (Shamim Sarif’s Despite the Falling Snow, 2004), Robert Harris’s Archangel is a novel largely set in the 1990s that can legitimately be tagged as Stalin-themed.
Whereas Despite the Falling Snow focuses on the personal impact of Stalin on individuals, in Archangel Robert Harris develops his plot on the national level, drawing on the hopes of a significant minority of Russians —and the fears of the rest— that the economically depressed and internationally diminished Russia of the mid-1990s might be ‘saved’ by the emergence of a Stalin-like figure ruthlessly committed to restoring former greatness.
Archangel is a classy page-turner of a thriller. But why Russia-in-Fiction particularly enjoyed it also has much to do with its early set-up bearing close affinity to our own experiences in the Russia of the early 1990s.
The chilling thriller that predicted the Soviet military coup; so says the front cover blurb. Not a bad strap line.
Though that line is a little post-hoc, given that The Last Defector was published in paperback after the military coup of August 1991. Cape did not predict the military coup, just a military coup. Bit picky on our part, after all precise prediction is too much to ask.