After more than two decades silence, a journalist who was once expelled from the Soviet Union has made contact. With a resurgent Russia back on the scene, his knowledge of how things used to be in Moscow could once again be useful.
But why was he so silent for so long? Can this really be the same man? And what do the things he learnt nearly 40 years ago tell us about Russia today?
You could be forgiven for thinking that these opening sentences sound like the back cover blurb for Fatal Ally. They are not. They are about its author, Tim Sebastian.
Russia in Fiction has noted before that when you choose your reading based on whether a novel engages with Russia or not, you end up reading genres that might otherwise have passed you by.
Geoffrey Rose’s A Clear Road To Archangel sits on the edge of such a situation. It is a thriller and such are this blog’s staple diet, even as we endeavour to vary the menu with regularity. But beyond the thriller meta-genre, A Clear Road To Archangel fits into the so far neglected ‘man on the run’ sub-genre.
The book’s unnamed first person narrator is a British spy, caught up in the convulsions of revolutionary and Civil War Russia, and trying to find his way to Archangel (Arkhangelsk) in the far north. If he can get there, he is confident of rescue by British forces or their allies.
‘Nobody knows more about Russia than you’ (p. 33). So Dr Sam Gaddis, the hero of Charles Cumming’s fifth novel, is told.
Part-way through The Trinity Six, Russia in Fiction was less impressed with Gaddis, being more inclined along the lines of
‘Blimey – Dr Sam Gaddis gives academics a bad name. He is so slow, as if he’s never read a thriller in his life. Every coincidence that happens, he accepts unquestioningly. He completely fails to read the situation.’
Happily Gaddis improved, and with him the novel, which is a relatively complex example of the ‘secrets from history which must never come to light’ genre.
The Betrayal is not the first book reviewed on the Russia in Fiction blog that is set in Leningrad in the opening years of the 1950s. That honour goes to City of Ghosts, which is set in 1951. Helen Dunmore’s novel takes place a year later, in 1952.
In both cases, the key fact in relation to setting is that Stalin was still alive.
Before Stalin’s death in 1953, the feeling that the demise of his repressive dictatorship was long overdue was particularly keenly felt in Leningrad, a ‘hero city’ that suffered more than most during the Second World War.
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.
The Useful Idiot tells a tumultous tale that entertains amidst the terror of its subject. It is a story of duplicity and dupes.
Set in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the spring of 1933, The Useful Idiot is based on the real life story of a short but significant visit to Moscow and Ukraine by Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (1905-1935).
This short post is prompted by a line in Anna Blundy’s novel Neat Vodka. Her heroine, foreign correspondent Faith Zanetti, flies in to her latest assignment in Moscow, reading on the plane ‘my predecessor’s “Whither Russia?” book’.