A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Tag: New York

Metro by Alexander Kaletski (1985) – part two

Part one of this review is here

Metro is a semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1985. The author, Alexander Kaletski, and the novel’s first person narrator, share the central facts of their life stories — coming to Moscow from the provinces in the late 1960s to study at a prestigious drama school, beginning a successful acting career in the Soviet Union, including a tour to the West, before falling out with the Soviet regime and managing to emigrate in the mid-1970s.

Just as Aleksander Kaletski and his wife, Elena Bratslavskaya, performed together in the Soviet Union, so too do Sasha and Lena in Metro. The novel follows them as they form a singer-songwriter duo, with a repertoire of self-penned songs that, almost inadvertently, do not fit with the strict Party line required. This of course —combined with their musical ability— makes them an underground hit around Moscow. The trouble is that occasionally they get booked for bigger events and get noticed by those in authority.

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Metro by Alexander Kaletski (1985) – part one

Part two of this review is here

Published nearly four decades ago, Metro has long been a Russia in Fiction favourite. We read it back in the 1980s, and at least a couple of times since, latterly re-reading it for this review.

We think of Metro as one of the last English-language novels about Russia written in the pre-Gorbachev era, before the rapid reforms and unravelling of the Soviet state began. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Within a couple of years, events sped up, and the certainties of the Brezhnevite era of stagnation were rapidly dropped out the back of history’s peloton.

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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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The Last Defector by Tony Cape (1991)

The chilling thriller that predicted the Soviet military coup; so says the front cover blurb. Not a bad strap line.

Though that line is a little post-hoc, given that The Last Defector was published in paperback after the military coup of August 1991. Cape did not predict the military coup, just a military coup. Bit picky on our part, after all precise prediction is too much to ask.

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The Sixth Directorate by Joseph Hone (1975)

Joseph Hone, ‘the most unjustly neglected spy novelist of his generation’. So said Hone’s obituary in The Telegraph (23 September 2016).

From the Russia-in-fiction perspective, The Sixth Directorate opens with a prescient view of what a few —though I think not many— observers of the Soviet scene with astute foresight were thinking possible in the mid-1970s. Surely, such apparently wishful thinking went, there must be people within the organisations at the heart of that closed stagnating system who wanted progressive reform?

And how right they were.

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A Quiet End by Nelson DeMille (2015)

(published in the US as Radiant Angel)

If you know thrillers, you will know the name of Nelson DeMille. He is one of those guaranteed bestsellers. He doesn’t write about Russia most of the time, but he has done occasionally both before and since the Soviet era.

The Charm School (1988) is a classic, with its scenes in the Soviet Union and its plot feature of KGB agents trained in a special area in Russia set up to simulate life in small-town USA. The Talbot Odyssey (1984), about Soviet agents in the CIA, is pretty good too. And DeMille’s non-Russian oeuvre is also above average in the thriller stakes —for example, from what I’ve read, The General’s Daughter (1992) and Word of Honour (1985).

A Quiet End comes decades later on from these best-sellers, and it shows in plot and style.

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The Useful Idiot by John Sweeney (2020) – part two

Part one of this review is here.

Who is The Useful Idiot in John Sweeney’s 2020 thriller set in Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1933?

Although the book’s hero, Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, feels himself —in a moment of passing regret— to have behaved as such, the true useful idiots are those Westerners, diplomats and journalists, who are willingly hoodwinked by dreams of Communism whilst refusing to spread abroad stories of the violence, famine, and death before them.

And chief ‘useful idiot’ of the piece is Walter Duranty.

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