For the first —and no doubt only— time, Russia in Fiction is reviewing a book that does not mention Russia.
And its set-up cannot fail but bring to mind the 2006 Oscar-winning German movie Das Leben des Anderen (The Lives of Others).
In the basement of a block of flats in the capital of ‘an anonymous Iron Curtain country’ called Commitania, sits a man, headphones on, tape reels whirring, listening in on conversations throughout the apartment block.
And how do we know it is about Moscow in the 1960s? Regular readers of this blog might already have picked up the clues.
Martha marries Kit, a gay British diplomat serving in Moscow in 1973. This platonic marriage suits them both — Kit feeling the need to disguise his sexuality; Martha finding a route out of the conventional home-bound English middle-class future her parents see for her.
Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt plays off the temporal and physical settings of Moscow and 1973 against one another.
Martha embraces life in Soviet Moscow, with all its faults and fears. For Kit, working in the British Embassy, the reality of Cold War tensions are ever present.
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 …
Tatiana is the 8th of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, all of which were re-packaged in 2013, with new monochrome photo covers and availability as ebooks.
The Renko novels go all the way back to their remarkable opener, Gorky Park published in 1981, during the dying days of the stagnant but, from this distance, strangely beguiling Brezhnev years. The most recent, The Siberian Dilemma, was published in 2019.
In several interviews over the years —for example in the New York Times in 1990— Martin Cruz Smith has talked about how he originally intended to write a novel about an American detective who goes to Soviet Moscow. Then the ‘obvious idea’ came to him; to make his hero a Russian detective. Arkady Renko was created.
The Russian Affair alights on themes of Moscow life in the high Soviet years of the Brezhnev era.
Just as Soviet authors of the late 1960s and early 1970s did, Michael Wallner frames his story around everyday problems —multi-generational living in cramped apartments, the ‘double burden’ carried by Soviet women, access to essentials in a time of shortages, the importance of social connections, the ubiquity of the vlasti (the authorities), and the treasured pleasures and freedoms of normality around the ‘kitchen table’ inner circle of family and friends.
Are you familiar with the notion of nostalgia for a time or place that you have never known? Anemoia is the term.
Or perhaps, as we are dealing here with a novel translated from German into English, the German word Sehnsucht is appropriate; often simply translated as nostalgia, it has a sense of wistful vagueness that the more common German word Nostalgie does not have.
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’.