A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Tag: KGB (Page 2 of 4)

The Starlings of Bucharest by Sarah Armstrong (2021)

Hey, this is the Russia in Fiction blog — what’s with The Starlings of Bucharest? Have we gone all Romania in Fiction? Now that would be a struggle to get to our 100 reviews …

Well, rest easy. The Starlings of Bucharest is book two in the Moscow Wolves trilogy; at least, we assume it is going to be a trilogy. As regular readers of this blog know, pre-announced Russia-in-fiction trilogies are very much in vogue these days. See reviews of novels by Tom Bradby, Owen Matthews, and Ben Creed for further evidence.

Its title not-withstanding, The Starlings of Bucharest has many chapters set in Moscow. It is a terrific semi-sequel to the enjoyable The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt.

What do we mean by semi-sequel?

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Revolution: a Novel of Russia by Barnaby Williams (1994)

A novel of Russia. That is the subtitle of Barnaby Williams’s novel Revolution. A subtitle like that is catnip to a blog called ‘Russia in fiction’. But what does it mean?

The phrase ‘novel of Russia’ turns out to be a reliable marker of genre. Several other books of the past few decades carry this marker, and they are all of a type.

‘Novel of Russia’ denotes what might be termed an ‘epic’; a sprawling, multi-generational, hundreds of pages long saga. Revolution begins —predictably enough— in 1917, on the eve of the Communist seizure of power in Russia, and ends as the Communist era itself ends, in the early 1990s, with Boris Yeltsin becoming the first president of a newly independent Russia.

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The Mercenary by Paul Vidich (2021)

The Russia in Fiction blog likes a good sub-genre. So how about, ‘books set in the Chernenko years’?

Except of course, Konstantin Chernenko was leader of the Soviet Union for so short a time that we can’t even talk about years. It would have to be ‘books set in the Chernenko year and 25 days’. He became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1984 and died in March 1985.

Après Chernenko, Gorbatchev et le déluge.

Paul Vidich’s The Mercenary, subtitled A Spy’s Escape from Moscow, is a terrific espionage thriller, that is not only set in early 1985 but is written in a style reminiscent of Cold War era spy novelists.

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City of Ghosts by Ben Creed (2020) – part one

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.

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A Patriot in Berlin by Piers Paul Read (1995) – part two

Part one of this review is here

Part three of this review is here

A Patriot in Berlin has some of the archetypal features of books set shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. To the fore is the presence of those ex-KGB and military types deeply concerned at the loss of Soviet power, and with it their own power. The list of novels built on similar concerns in the 1990s is long (immediately springing to mind are Tim Sebastian’s Saviours Gate, and Tony Cape’s The Last Defector).

Having elements of a formula does not make a novel formulaic, nor does dealing with common themes make it derivative. A Patriot in Berlin has striking elements of its own. It is set in post-unification Berlin in 1992-93 and is based around plans for an exhibition of Russian art forbidden in the Soviet years.

Read has a gift for encapsulating the uncertainty of these years; an uncertainty which Russia in Fiction remembers well from life in Moscow during that period.

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A Patriot in Berlin by Piers Paul Read (1995) – part one

Part two of this review is here

A Patriot in Berlin is a novel of the collapse of Communism. It is set in the immediate aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, between August 1991 and July 1993. In other words, in that strange period of suspended political time, between Boris Yeltsin emerging as the victor in Russia after the attempted coup of August 1991 and his eventual victory over the last of the old Soviet-era parliament’s resistance in October 1993.

As is to be expected from its author, A Patriot in Berlin has literary substance. It addresses the questions that this startling and unexpected moment in modern history throws up, dealing with themes of nationalism, materialism, and Communism. At the same time, Read roughly adheres to some spy thriller formulaics; false identities, political factions, violence and torture and sex.

Robert Harris’s review of A Patriot in Berlin noted

There’s more skill here, and more intelligence, than in any number of contemporary novels and the attempt to bridge the gap between ‘serious’ literature and mass-market fiction is a laudable one

Robert harris, daily Mail, 16 september 1995
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The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (2014)

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.

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Tsar by Ted Bell (2008)

Can we get the excuses out of the way first? Russia in Fiction reviews all sorts of stuff. Basically, if it is fiction that is set in, or at least features, Russia, then we might review it. Reviewing a book is not recommending a book. The idea is get a sense of how Russia is portrayed in the popular imagination.

But even so, Russia in Fiction did a lot of umming and aahing before reviewing Ted Bell’s Tsar.

You know those heavy metal bands that are so over the top that you wonder whether they are being deliberately ironic, taking the mickey out of the genre itself? Think the movie This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and the amplifiers that go up to eleven because full-volume ten is not loud enough. That’s what Ted Bell’s Tsar reminds me of.  It has all the usual elements of a Russia-related thriller, but ramps them up to beyond believable.

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The Jericho Files by Alan Gold (1993)

The Jericho Files is the first novel by Australian author Alan Gold, and the only one with a Russia focus. Even then, that focus is not on Russia alone, but also on Israel —the subject of most of Gold’s many later novels.

The titular ‘Jericho Files’ hold the secret of a Soviet plot, dating back to the late Stalin years, to insert a Communist sleeper agent into the political life of the nascent state of Israel. By the 1990s, this man has become Prime Minister of Israel and sets about disrupting the international order in alliance with Moscow.

The Jericho Files is a well-constructed page-turning thriller; but with one issue that bugs Russia in Fiction. There is a questionable premise at the heart of the plot, a premise that recurs in several post-Soviet thrillers. Why would a died-in-the-red-wool, decades-long Communist feel allegiance to the regime that overthrew Communism in Russia?

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Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow by Paul Gallico (1974)

When your choice of fiction is influenced by where it is set, then you can end up reading novels that you would not otherwise have given a second glance to. So far as Russia in Fiction is concerned, Mrs Harris Goes To Moscow is one such novel.

Russia in Fiction claims no special expertise in the literature of the prolific Paul Gallico (1897-1976), whose output of over 50 books ranged from The Poseidon Adventure, which was made into a blockbuster disaster movie, to children’s books much loved by Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling.

Lacking such expertise, we turned to a website that is, in the words of its writer, ‘dedicated to the literature of Paul Gallico, one of my favourite authors’. Its conclusion with regard to Mrs Harris Goes To Moscow?

… it’s really not very good

http://www.paulgallico.info/mrsharrismoscow.html
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