A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Tag: Khrushchev (Page 1 of 2)

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (2010)

Red Plenty is a beautiful departure from the standard depictions of the Soviet Union in English-language fiction. Francis Spufford’s novel takes the reader not just to Russia in the years of Khrushchevian optimism, but into the heads of a succession of superbly drawn characters who experience those days from their different perspectives.

Front and centre are bright young believers in the Communist idea that rational scientific planning, deployed with intelligence and determined good will, represented a transformative step forward for humankind. We are not talking dull one-dimensional ideologues loaded down with notions of superpower competition, but bright individuals, excited to be alive at that time in a place where the dream of plenty seemed within reach.

once upon a time the story of red plenty had been serious: an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest people in the world. For a short while it even looked —and not just to Nikita Khrushchev— as if the story might be coming true … This book is about that moment.

Red Plenty, p. 5
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Moscow Rules by Robert Moss (1985)

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.

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Russian Spring by Dennis Jones (1984)

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.

*According to Moscow News, in a revelation made during the Gorbachev years, Brezhnev was declared clinically dead in 1976 but was revived to carry on at the head of the Soviet superpower for six more years.

upi.com/Archives/1988/09/08/Brezhnev-once-pronounced-clinically-dead-revived
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Red Traitor by Owen Matthews (2021)

It is a happy coincidence that the Russia in Fiction blog is being written at a bumper time for Russia-in-fiction trilogies. We are in the middle of those by Sarah Armstrong and Ben Creed. The final one of Henry Porter’s Paul Samson series was published in April of this year, followed the next month by the last in Tom Bradby’s Kate Henderson series (the first is reviewed here, the third is mentioned here). And we are certainly at the end of the Dominika Egorova trilogy by Jason Matthews, as he sadly passed away a few months ago (again, the first is reviewed here).

And now his namesake Owen Matthews brings us the second in his Alexander Vasin series.

Red Traitor differs from the first novel in the series, Black Sun (2019). Black Sun was very much a detective story, and notable for its plot being contained geographically and culturally in the distinctive and little-known world of the Soviet closed city.

Red Traitor ranges more widely. In genre terms Red Traitor moves onto the ground of the international relations thriller, with sonar-pinging echoes of Tom Clancy’s early work.

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The Kremlin Contract by James Barwick (1987)

Way before the death of Stalin became the title of a graphic novel which then in 2017 became a comic movie, banned in Russia, the actual passing of the Communist dictator in March 1953 provided the plot for several thrillers written by British writers.

The novel reviewed before this one —Robert Harris’s Archangel (1998)— begins on the day of Stalin’s death. John Kruse’s Red Omega (1981) develops the fictional notion that Stalin was assassinated. Barnaby Williams’s Revolution (1994) has Stalin suffocated by his Politburo subordinates.

The Kremlin Contract similarly has the theme of Stalin being assassinated. And almost all of its characters, on both sides of the Cold War divide, want him dead.

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Despite the Falling Snow by Shamim Sarif (2004)

On the Russia in Fiction blog, we categorise books according to their temporal setting. Shamim Sarif’s Despite the Falling Snow is set in Moscow in the Khrushchev years of the late 1950s and in Boston in the late 1990s. Yet somehow Russia in Fiction always thinks of it as being a novel about the Stalin era.

That this impression prevails is credit to Shamim Sarif. Thematically, Despite the Falling Snow could be summed up as an exploration of the way in which the inhuman brutality of Stalinism wreaks its deep emotional damage decade after decade, generation on generation, even following its victims halfway round the globe.

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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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Arm Me Audacity by Richard Pape (1954) – part two

Part one of this review is here

Richard Pape’s reputation as a daredevil and dashing ex-military man turned author, coupled with a handily placed article in a British tabloid, helped to create the impression that Arm Me Audacity was autobiography, fictionalised for reasons of national security. Part one of this review investigates the novel’s background. Part two returns to more familiar Russia-in-fiction reviewing territory. What is the book about? And how does it portray Russia?

In particular, to those familiar with the traits of Cold War espionage thrillers and their representation of the Soviet Union, how present are these in a popular thriller from the 1950s?

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The Russian Interpreter by Michael Frayn (1966)

Michael Frayn — man of letters, leading British playwright, acclaimed novelist; also a renowned translator of Chekhov and, less well known, of ‘the Soviet Chekhov’ Yurii Trifonov.

Published in 1966, The Russian Interpreter came at the outset of Frayn’s literary career. His second novel, it appeared in the year that his first novel, The Tin Men, won the Somerset Maugham Award. Unusually for a writer from the West in that era, Frayn was able to draw on significant experience of living in the Soviet Union.

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