A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Category: 1990s published (Page 1 of 2)

The Visiting Professor by Robert Littell (1993)

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.

Russia in Fiction has reviewed a le Carré (Our Kind of Traitor), a couple of McCarrys (The Secret Lovers and Old Boys), and one and half Moss’s (Moscow Rules, and The Spike co-written with Arnaud de Borchegrave).

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.

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Perestroika Christi by John Hands (1990)

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?

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The Moscow Club by Joseph Finder (1991) – part two

Part one of this review is here

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.

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The Moscow Club by Joseph Finder (1991) – part one

Part two of this review is here

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.

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Archangel by Robert Harris (1998)

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.

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The Last Defector by Tony Cape (1991)

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.

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Revolution: a Novel of Russia by Barnaby Williams (1994)

A novel of Russia. That is the subtitle of Barnaby Williams’s novel Revolution. A subtitle like that is catnip to a blog called ‘Russia in fiction’. But what does it mean?

The phrase ‘novel of Russia’ turns out to be a reliable marker of genre. Several other books of the past few decades carry this marker, and they are all of a type.

‘Novel of Russia’ denotes what might be termed an ‘epic’; a sprawling, multi-generational, hundreds of pages long saga. Revolution begins —predictably enough— in 1917, on the eve of the Communist seizure of power in Russia, and ends as the Communist era itself ends, in the early 1990s, with Boris Yeltsin becoming the first president of a newly independent Russia.

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Monstrum by Donald James (1997)

Donald James was a quite brilliant thriller writer. One of Russia in Fiction’s all-time favourites; he died exactly 13 years ago today, on 28th April 2008.

The distinctive trait of his Russia-related novels was to set them in a plausible yet radical near-future. Monstrum was written during the chaotic mid-1990s in Russia. James did in novel form what many Russia-watching analysts sought to do in methodical, scenario-planning form. He took current trends and extended them.

Except Donald James’s version involves a serial killer, love affairs, and betrayal.

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A Patriot in Berlin by Piers Paul Read (1995) – part two

Part one of this review is here

Part three of this review is here

A Patriot in Berlin has some of the archetypal features of books set shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. To the fore is the presence of those ex-KGB and military types deeply concerned at the loss of Soviet power, and with it their own power. The list of novels built on similar concerns in the 1990s is long (immediately springing to mind are Tim Sebastian’s Saviours Gate, and Tony Cape’s The Last Defector).

Having elements of a formula does not make a novel formulaic, nor does dealing with common themes make it derivative. A Patriot in Berlin has striking elements of its own. It is set in post-unification Berlin in 1992-93 and is based around plans for an exhibition of Russian art forbidden in the Soviet years.

Read has a gift for encapsulating the uncertainty of these years; an uncertainty which Russia in Fiction remembers well from life in Moscow during that period.

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