It is a rare thing for a Russia-in-fiction novel to not have Moscow or St Petersburg in it. Yes, there are several that are set elsewhere in Russia, but even these tend to at least visit one or both of Russia’s current and former capitals. Kolymsky Heights is so absolutely determined to avoid them that its central character —sent into Russia by the CIA— enters and leaves by sea from the Far East of the country.
And ‘enters and leaves’ barely covers it. Jonny Porter’s journeys into and out of Russia are perhaps the most convoluted crossings in all the books reviewed on this blog. They take up about a third of this nearly 500-page story.
We will shorten them to a couple of sentences. Porter gets into the Far East of Russia disguised as a Korean seaman, working his passage on a Japanese trading vessel sailing from Nagasaki to Murmansk. He gets out across the ice of the frozen Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, shot at and shelled by pursuing Russian soldiers.
But before getting too far into the rather fantastical plot of Kolymsky Heights, let’s retreat a little into context.
When the Kissing Had to Stop was a celebrated ‘coming threat’ thriller back in its day, that is just before the 1960s —the end of the Chatterley ban et cetera—got going.
From the Russia in Fiction perspective, this reasonably slim novel is worth a quick review simply because, as thrillers tend to do, it provides a useful caricaturish picture of popular conceptions of Russia. Specifically, When the Kissing Had to Stop offers a conservative, even establishment, portrayal of a Soviet Union taking over Britain with the same ruthlessness with which it had imposed its rule in Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War.
Like many such ‘Red threat to the UK’ novels (see our review of Russian Hide and Seek for a list), When the Kissing Had to Stop tells us more about England and about the author’s politics than it does about Russia.
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
Russia is dying. And I’m glad.House of Meetings, p. 7 and p. 196
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.
Elegance. Charm. Intelligence. Wit. Such words inhabit the reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. They apply as much to its central character, Count Alexander Rostov, as to the novel itself. A truly appropriate book to mark the halfway point on Russia in Fiction’s path to 100 reviews.
The central premise of A Gentleman in Moscow is original and intriguing. Count Rostov, a rich young Russian aristocrat, is arrested in Moscow in 1922 as the Communist regime —whose Red Army has just secured Bolshevik hegemony in Russia’s vicious civil war— brings its class warfare to bear on the citizens of the new Soviet state. His guilt assured by his aristocratic status, the Count is sentenced to house arrest. He must remain indefinitely in his place of abode. That place happens to be Moscow’s grandest hotel, the Metropol.
As the proceedings of Rostov’s brief trial state, ‘should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.’
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.
Part one of this review is here
Red Army tells the story of an imagined Soviet invasion of western Europe in the 1980s, and tells it entirely from the point of view of Soviet troops. This is no Clancy-esque overview of grand strategy and political manouevres, although Peters does, like Tom Clancy, tell his story through a select series of individuals.
That all of these individuals are in the Soviet armed forces is grist to the Russia-in-fiction mill.
Part two of this review is here
Mutilated bodies found in the snow. That is a fairly standard starting point for a Russia-in-fiction detective novel. Think, of course, of the classic of the genre, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981). Or more recently, G.D. Abson’s second Natalya Ivanova novel, Black Wolf (2019).
City of Ghosts starts with five mutilated bodies found in the snow. This novel is no shy newcomer sneaking into the back of the Russia-in-fiction incident room hoping not to draw attention to itself.
City of Ghosts is the first of the Revol Rossel thriller series. Set in Leningrad in 1951, as the Stalin era is coming to an end, this is a book that knows its Russia, knows Leningrad, and knows Soviet history. The Stalin era did not limp off the global stage but —so far as its reputation for terror and oppression went— it stayed right on until the end of its road. And Leningrad was a particular target for Stalin’s personal ire.
Within this setting, Ben Creed (the pen-name of the co-writing duo Barney Thompson and Christopher Rickaby) develops a macabre tale brimming over with multiple ideas and intentions.
The Betrayers is set over a period of a couple of days, but unpacks several lifetimes of issues surrounding forgiveness, right decision-making, relationships, religious faith, the contingent nature of morality, success, and what it means to be a good person.
David Bezmozgis has excelled with this literary novel. Its physical setting is Crimea. As chance would have it, by the time of publication Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine, giving a certain unintended contemporaneity to The Betrayers. But the Crimea written of here is not tinged with any of its post-2014, post-reincorporation into Russia, resonance. Rather this Crimea, specifically Yalta and Simferopol, is portrayed as the run-down, faded and forgotten, former holiday haunt of the Soviet era.
Part two of this review is here.
‘It’s all right, Martha. You’ll find where you’re supposed to be.’
I spoke into my hands. ‘I’m supposed to be in Moscow. I love it there and there’s so much I didn’t see. I was waiting for the snow.’The wolves of leninsky prospekt