After more than two decades silence, a journalist who was once expelled from the Soviet Union has made contact. With a resurgent Russia back on the scene, his knowledge of how things used to be in Moscow could once again be useful.
But why was he so silent for so long? Can this really be the same man? And what do the things he learnt nearly 40 years ago tell us about Russia today?
You could be forgiven for thinking that these opening sentences sound like the back cover blurb for Fatal Ally. They are not. They are about its author, Tim Sebastian.
To the Hermitage tells parallel tales of men who travelled to St Petersburg. Both are fictionalised versions of actual journeys.
One being that of Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, who visited his patron, and Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, in 1773.
The other being the anonymous narrator of To the Hermitage, a version of Bradbury himself —English academic and author— making his way to St Petersburg as a member of a distinguished study group, the Diderot Project, in October 1993.
The very temporal settings speak of the novel’s parallelism.
Russia then as now was in trouble, tugged as it ever has been between east and west.
Predictable we may be, but Russian in Fiction couldn’t resist reviewing in succession two books with identical titles.
Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules (2008) is a very different sort of thriller from Robert Moss’s Moscow Rules (1985), in terms of both aspects of Russia in Fiction’s reviewing template.
Russia in Fiction asks two things about the books we review. What is the novel like? And how does it portray Russia? For the former, Daniel Silva is a doyen of the novel-a-year, same central character, same formula series. For the latter, when Silva deals with Russia, he tends to the straight down the line, big bad Russia approach; not uncommon at all amongst Western thriller writers, and a useful marker of how Russia has been popularly perceived at particular points of time.
And if this brief opening summary makes it sound like Russia in Fiction doesn’t think much of Daniel Silva’s writing, then we want to correct that misperception immediately.
G. D. (Garry) Abson’s first book is a cracking crime novel, set in contemporary St Petersburg and shaped around the character of a maverick female detective, Natalya Ivanova.
In Abson’s portrayal of Russia, for ‘maverick’, read ‘not corrupt’. Ivanova’s efforts to solve crime —in this case the disappearance of a young woman— are hindered as much by obstructive, careerist, regime-loyal colleagues as they are by the normal stuff such as lack of evidence and the deceptive nature of the criminal class.
One strap-line we have seen used for Motherland goes like this.
The Betrayal is not the first book reviewed on the Russia in Fiction blog that is set in Leningrad in the opening years of the 1950s. That honour goes to City of Ghosts, which is set in 1951. Helen Dunmore’s novel takes place a year later, in 1952.
In both cases, the key fact in relation to setting is that Stalin was still alive.
Before Stalin’s death in 1953, the feeling that the demise of his repressive dictatorship was long overdue was particularly keenly felt in Leningrad, a ‘hero city’ that suffered more than most during the Second World War.
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.
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.
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.
Key to many a thriller/crime writer’s success is the creation of a memorable lead character. Martin Cruz Smith has his Arkady Renko, Boris Akunin his Erast Fandorin, and even John Le Carré returned again and again to the enigmatic George Smiley. Tom Clancy did not simply create such a character, he created a dynasty and alternative history.
Clancy’s Jack Ryan rose, across a series of novels, from CIA analyst to two-term US President. There then followed a series of novels about Jack Ryan Jr., continued after Clancy’s death in 2013 with varying degrees of quality across multiple authors. Jack Ryan movies are multiple, and there is a Jack Ryan Jr. TV series.
In The Cardinal of the Kremlin —the third novel to feature Clancy’s signature character— we meet CIA analyst Jack Ryan as part of an American delegation to Moscow, charged with negotiating an arms control treaty. The US side are sceptical of any Soviet concession.
If you want your Russia-in-fiction tropes, Moscow at Midnight provides a collector’s cornucopia, and does so with style and originality.
As part one of this review observes, McGrane provides so many Moscow references that it might sounds as if she reduces them to a passing mention, or, in one of her many memorable phrases, ‘a strange kind of Baedeker’.
Whilst there are occasional hints of that, Moscow at Midnight elevates its location with lyrical and evocative descriptions.