Predictable? That Russia in Fiction would follow a review of a Kingsley Amis novel with a review of a novel by his son Martin? May be so. But the authors’ shared surname is about all that these two books have in common.
Russian Hide and Seek (1980) was barely about Russia at all. House of Meetings essays a profound exploration of Russia; from the first page of Part One to the novel’s closing line.
This is a love story. All right, Russian love. But still love
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.
One of the aims of the Russia in Fiction blog is to get a sense of how Russia is portrayed in English-language fiction over time. What are the themes that come to the fore in different periods? What are the constants? And how realistic is any of this stuff?
One thing that we didn’t expect to find when we started out was quite the number of ‘Chernenko-era’ books that there are. We have written about this before at some length, and don’t want to re-hash all of that here. (Have a look at the review of Russian Spring (1984) by Dennis Jones for more details).
Moscow Rules is another thriller set in the year of Konstantin Chernenko as leader of the Soviet Union (1984-85). It stands out because it recognised, ahead of the events, that the Soviet system was heading to a swift end.
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.
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.
War in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union learnt a couple of decades before the United States that however super the superpower, its military might does not guarantee an easy victory when such a war turns to guerilla engagement in barren mountains and ambush-friendly valleys.
In The Hour of the Lily, John Kruse explored, through the lens of fiction, this clash between the armed forces of the Soviet Union and the guerilla units defending their homeland and culture. The geographical setting throughout is Afghanistan. The temporal setting is 1982, as the Soviet occupation forces have ensconced themselves in Kabul and are beginning their ultimately fruitless task of trying to quell mujahideen opposition.
Kruse is an accomplished writer who has done his research. The terrain of Afghanistan, the sights and sounds of Kabul, the socio-cultural aspects of a tribal system within a strict Islamic setting; all these and more are well drawn.
John Kruse wrote three novels about the Soviet Union in the decade from 1981. His first — Red Omega (1981)— is the best and most successful, as evidenced by the fact that it has been made available as an ebook.
So, if Red Omega is the best of Kruse’s three novels, why turn, in Russia in Fiction’s first review of a Kruse work, to his second book, the somewhat sprawling 1987 novel The Hour of the Lily?
Afghanistan is the reason. The Hour of the Lily has a setting that is largely neglected in Western novels and thrillers, namely, the almost decade long Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989).
Key to many a thriller/crime writer’s success is the creation of a memorable lead character. Martin Cruz Smith has his Arkady Renko, Boris Akunin his Erast Fandorin, and even John Le Carré returned again and again to the enigmatic George Smiley. Tom Clancy did not simply create such a character, he created a dynasty and alternative history.
Clancy’s Jack Ryan rose, across a series of novels, from CIA analyst to two-term US President. There then followed a series of novels about Jack Ryan Jr., continued after Clancy’s death in 2013 with varying degrees of quality across multiple authors. Jack Ryan movies are multiple, and there is a Jack Ryan Jr. TV series.
In The Cardinal of the Kremlin —the third novel to feature Clancy’s signature character— we meet CIA analyst Jack Ryan as part of an American delegation to Moscow, charged with negotiating an arms control treaty. The US side are sceptical of any Soviet concession.
There is something fascinating about Soviet-related thrillers published in the 1980s, because we know the real life geopolitical plot outcome. That is, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. You cannot help but ‘read back’ into novels of that era, what we know to be the eventual outcome.
Blind Prophet is one of those novels that took me back to what got me into Russia in fiction in the first place. By the final pages I was speed-reading, not from boredom, but from the page-turning momentum of a terrifically plotted Cold War thriller, with all the key ingredients and more.
Fancy a little pre-Christmas quiz? This is one for lovers of Russia-in-fiction detective stories. There is only one question, and it is an absolute doddle.
If the first murder victim in a Russia-in-fiction detective thriller is killed with a sickle, how will the second murder victim meet their grisly end?
Of course, to give you the answer might be seen as a spoiler by some —but I am not really one for this fastidious fad for being horrified at minor plot points being revealed. So here goes, the answer is …