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
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.
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?
Here at the Russia in Fiction blog, we are interested in how Russia is portrayed in English-language fiction. Whether that fiction is any good comes into the reviewing too of course, but the tropes and plot devices and imagery and assumptions of a remaindered thriller can still fascinate as insights into popular perceptions of Russia at any given time.
James Steel’s December serves as a great example for taking the ‘how Russia is seen’ temperature. From title and front cover blurb, at the end of this century’s first decade, that temperature is low.
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.
Stephen Coonts is at the forefront of the book-a-year thriller writer stable, and has been since the 1980s. Like many others (Tom Clancy, Stella Rimington, Daniel Silva, to name but three of a long list), he often writes about the same characters — in the case of Coonts, the chief protagonists in his fiction are Admiral Jake Grafton and CIA officer Tommy Carmellini.
Coonts less often writes about Russia, but even that, he does with relative frequency —for example, The Red Horseman (1993), Fortunes of War (1998), and Wages of Sin (2004).
What Coonts does, he does well; namely, snappy and well-plotted action thrillers. He is an ex-military man and, from what I have read —basically, the Russia-related titles named above— his politics seem to be patriotic American.
As The Senility of Vladimir P. progresses, both the story element and the Russia-in-fiction element get progressively more serious. Nikolai Sheremetev, full-time nurse to a dementia-afflicted ex-president Putin, is forced by events to question his good and simple approach to caring for his patient.
And these events are not simply stuff that happens, but come to be seen —as the scales of good-hearted naivety fall from Sheremetev’s eyes— to be endemic in the Russia that Putin created.
The Senility of Vladimir P. is a cleverly crafted, multilayered novella that works on a number of different levels. If you had never heard of Vladimir Putin, you might well still be engaged by the story of an honest man, Nikolai Sheremetev, in a corrupt world. Sheremetev is drowning in a dilemma, the only escape from which appears to be thieving and bribery.
That the honest man in question is the full-time carer of an aged and dementia-stricken Vladimir Putin creates a conceit that allows The Senility of Vladimir P. to explore the Putin era in Russia and its legacy.
Ssshh, I’m sneaking this book into these ‘Russia in fiction’ reviews , despite the fact that Henry Porter’s Brandenburg is not about Russia or set in Russia.
So why am I mentioning it here? Two real reasons: first, it’s just a terrific book — one of my favourite political thrillers; second, whilst it might not really be ‘Russia in fiction’, it does feature —as a major character— a young Vladimir Putin, serving as a KGB Colonel in Dresden.
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’.