Russia in Fiction has a thing about novels published at key junctures in Russian history and set in that same time. (Just search this blog for ‘Chernenko’ to get an insight into how thriller writers saw the Soviet Union in 1984.)
Writing about the Soviet Union in 1991 took matters to a whole new level. In fiction and non-fiction, a good number of authors wrote about the Soviet future only for there to be no Soviet Union by the time their books were published. As a French language summary of The Red Defector put it:
The Long Song of Tchaikovsky Street is a semi-autobiographical novel by Dutch author, and long-term Russia resident, Pieter Waterdrinker.
Waterdrinker’s take on Russian history —from the revolution of 1917 to its 100th anniversary— puts Russia in Fiction in mind of a knowledgeable boxer, confident in the Russia-writing ring. His experience gives him an assured air; he side-steps the lightweight clichés and name-checking typical of journeymen writers, and slams home his heavy take on Russia’s past, present, and future.
And, particularly from the view-point of 2022, it is an ominously heavy take on what lies at the end of this century-long dance of history.
The dance goes on —yes, the dance always goes on. Maybe this was another false rhyme of history, and we were on the cusp of a new biblical deluge of blood.
Russia in Fiction’s previous review was of Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney’s 700-page thriller about Russia invading Ukraine. Given the current war scares, it seemed appropriate.
We follow up our review of Command Authority by reviewing a book that in almost every way has nothing in common with a blockbusting Clancy techno-thriller. In almost every way but one in this case, and the commonality is that Letters from Yelena is partly set in Donetsk and in Russia.
Only today President Putin recognised the Donetsk Peoples Republic, in eastern Ukraine, as an independent state. When Guy Mankowski’s Letters from Yelena was published, a decade ago, there was scarcely a hint that this region was on the brink of years of fighting that would lead up to today’s unfolding crisis.
But even if the novel had been written now, we doubt that any of these nationalist, military, geo-political questions would feature much, if at all, in Letters from Yelena. This is no international thriller, but rather a deeply personal and psychological story of one woman’s inner emotional torment. Its structure consists of an interior monologue in the mind of the eponymous heroine.
Brian Garfield’s thriller Kolchak’s Gold takes on the mystery of what happened to the gold reserves of the Russian Empire after the revolution of 1917.
This is a made-for-fiction mystery. It is known that the gold —which had been transported to Siberia from St Petersburg during World War One to prevent it from falling into enemy hands— came under the control of the overall leader of the White movement in the Russian Civil War, Admiral Aleksander Kolchak.
A beautifully written allegorical fantasy in novella form, Glen Hirshberg takes Thomas, a middle-aged German on the cusp of fatherhood, on a short trip back to the city where he spent his wilder younger student days in the early 1990s. That city is St Petersburg. A city that itself has changed from those wilder days into a far more settled state.
So Freedom is Space for the Spirit is an allegory of life stages, looking back to the open fields of youth as the responsibility of parenthood approaches? And of the new Russia beginning to establish itself more securely after its chaotic early years?
In Firesong, noted writer of espionage novels Joseph Hone (1937-2016) tries his hand at the sprawling epic; 700 pages following Prince and Princess Rumovsky, members of the St Petersburg nobility, in the tumultuous 14 years between New Year 1906 and Christmas 1920.
Firesong is then a ‘Russia in the time of revolution’ novel. Like others of this sub-genre —Barnaby William’s Revolution (1994), James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love (2005), Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist (2016)— Firesong sets up the pre-revolutionary life of its central characters and then explores the impact of revolution and civil war on the same.
The epic is not Russia in Fiction’s favourite genre. That said, there is plenty here to fascinate and to enlighten from the Russia-in-fiction perspective. Not least, we learnt stuff about Harbin.
Gillian Slovo’s novel begins and ends in ice. Set in Leningrad, Ice Road follows about half a dozen characters through the decade from the early 1930s to the early 1940s.
Leningrad’s headline story over that period sees the death of one —Sergei Kirov, the city’s Party Leader assassinated in 1934—, followed by the deaths of many in the gathering brutality of Stalin’s purges, before unfurling to the prospective death of all in the genocidal 872 day Siege of Leningrad by the forces of Nazi Germany (1941-1944).
Readers who know even the outline of the Soviet Union’s path are aware of what is coming in the historical narrative as the novel progresses. Less evident, and —to Gillian Slovo’s credit— far less predictable than might be imagined, are the paths of her characters’ lives as they plot their courses through these times.
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.