Russia in fiction

A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

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The Fall of the Russian Empire by Donald James (1982) – part two

Part one of this review is here

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.

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The Fall of the Russian Empire by Donald James (1982) – part one

Part two of this review is here

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.

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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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Russian Spring by Dennis Jones (1984)

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.

*According to Moscow News, in a revelation made during the Gorbachev years, Brezhnev was declared clinically dead in 1976 but was revived to carry on at the head of the Soviet superpower for six more years.

upi.com/Archives/1988/09/08/Brezhnev-once-pronounced-clinically-dead-revived
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Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story by Andrea Bennett (2015)

Russia in Fiction has reminded readers often enough that the reviews on this blog ask two questions of every book. What is the book like? And how does it portray Russia?

Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story unquestionably knows its Russia. Andrea Bennett falls into the category of authors who lived in Russia in the unforgettable chaos of the 1990s. Just as did Sophia Creswell, Anna Blundy, and A.D. Miller, Andrea Bennett successfully draws on that experience in writing memorable fiction.

And as for what the book is like? Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story summons up the sometimes joyous, sometimes tragic disorder of the immediate post-Soviet years in a slightly surreal yet recognisably realistic comic tale.

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Old Boys by Charles McCarry (2004)

Before our next review goes somewhere slightly different (the town of Azov, to be precise), Russia in Fiction fancies bringing together a few themes from our first year of blogging. Charles McCarry’s Old Boys is a fine book for doing that.

As its name denotes, in its reviews the Russia in Fiction blog probes the fiction written and the Russia portrayed. Old Boys came from the pen of one the classiest of literary espionage writers of the Cold War years, Charles McCarry (1930-2019). And its decades-spanning take on Russia serves as a summation of Russo-specific themes often to the fore in fictional renderings.

What is more, the edition of Old Boys that Russia in Fiction read has enough on its cover to keep us going for a paragraph or two before we even get to the novel itself. Specifically, Silhouette, Red Square; and a degree of pre-approval —from almost two decades before we devised it— of our ranking of great Cold War spy novelists.

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Moscow 5000 by David Grant (1979)

The Moscow Olympics of 1980 presented a setting for thriller writers that was too good to miss. Especially if they timed it right and got their book in the shops ahead of the Games.

Russia in Fiction has already reviewed one such book (John Salisbury’s 1980 novel Moscow Gold). David Grant beat Salisbury to the tape, with Moscow 5000 being published in 1979.

Well, we say David Grant. In reality, Moscow 5000’s author was renowned British thriller writer Craig Thomas (1942-2011), writing under a pseudonym. And the novel’s skilfully complex plot betrays that it is not written by a novice; with four strong and interlinked story lines coming to their conclusion in the running of the men’s 5000 metres final in the XXII Olympiad in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in 1980.

From the Russia-in-fiction angle, two of these plot strands are notable; particularly so the Ukrainian nationalist one.

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Red Traitor by Owen Matthews (2021)

It is a happy coincidence that the Russia in Fiction blog is being written at a bumper time for Russia-in-fiction trilogies. We are in the middle of those by Sarah Armstrong and Ben Creed. The final one of Henry Porter’s Paul Samson series was published in April of this year, followed the next month by the last in Tom Bradby’s Kate Henderson series (the first is reviewed here, the third is mentioned here). And we are certainly at the end of the Dominika Egorova trilogy by Jason Matthews, as he sadly passed away a few months ago (again, the first is reviewed here).

And now his namesake Owen Matthews brings us the second in his Alexander Vasin series.

Red Traitor differs from the first novel in the series, Black Sun (2019). Black Sun was very much a detective story, and notable for its plot being contained geographically and culturally in the distinctive and little-known world of the Soviet closed city.

Red Traitor ranges more widely. In genre terms Red Traitor moves onto the ground of the international relations thriller, with sonar-pinging echoes of Tom Clancy’s early work.

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Death in Siberia by Alex Dryden (2011)

The Cold War is dead, but Russia’s ambitions continue to rage.

So proclaims the front cover blurb of this 2011 thriller, in a bombastic non sequitur that typifies the return of ‘big bad Russia’ to Western thriller writers’ armoury at the end of this century’s first decade.

The Cold War ended at the end of the 1980s. For a decade or more, if thriller writers wrote about Russia, they wrote of decline and gangsterism. Then as a recovering Russia reasserted itself on the international stage, it once more became the ‘other’ against which Western spies and governments fought.

Russia in Fiction reckons that this return to a portrayal of Russia in these terms can be dated to around 2010. Alex Dryden was one of the earliest authors to embrace it.

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Red Metal by Mark Greaney and Lt. Col. H. Ripley Rawlings IV (2019)

War-with-Russia novels were legion in the 1980s. Authors such as Tom Clancy, Ralph Peters, Dennis Jones, Larry Bond, Ian Slater, and General Sir John Hackett all produced one or more examples of military scenario fiction, usually written as a sort of alternative history.

To generalise with some degree of assurance, their plots consisted of carefully worked out military campaigns of the war-gaming variety, drawing on the detailed plans that NATO and the Warsaw Pact had developed for such eventualities. To make them more than simply glorified campaign manuals, human interest would be added by naming individual soldiers, sketching out their characters and home lives, and following them into battle.

Russia in Fiction has reviewed one of the betters ones, Red Army by Ralph Peters (1989). Red Metal, published three decades later, gives an updated and original take on the war-with-Russia concept.

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