A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Tag: Stalin (Page 1 of 3)

Fatal Ally by Tim Sebastian (2019)

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.

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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 Trinity Six by Charles Cumming (2011)

‘Nobody knows more about Russia than you’ (p. 33). So Dr Sam Gaddis, the hero of Charles Cumming’s fifth novel, is told.

Part-way through The Trinity Six, Russia in Fiction was less impressed with Gaddis, being more inclined along the lines of

‘Blimey – Dr Sam Gaddis gives academics a bad name. He is so slow, as if he’s never read a thriller in his life. Every coincidence that happens, he accepts unquestioningly. He completely fails to read the situation.’

Happily Gaddis improved, and with him the novel, which is a relatively complex example of the ‘secrets from history which must never come to light’ genre.

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The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (2010)

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.

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The Moscow Club by Joseph Finder (1991) – part one

Part two of this review is here

The first great post-Cold War thriller. So proclaims the front-cover strap line on this early paperback edition of Joseph Finder’s The Moscow Club. For once, the blurb has substance.

The Moscow Club is a great thriller. And it is post-Cold War. Though handily in terms of giving an undeserved sense of planning to the Russian in Fiction blog, its plot reaches back into the Soviet past, providing a neat link from our preceding mini-splurge reviewing novels on the death of Stalin.

According to the publicity blurb, The Moscow Club was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best spy thrillers of all time. That might be pushing it. But Finder’s first novel might well nudge the top ten of the 100 books this blog will review, providing as it does almost 600 pages worth of densely plotted, action-filled, twist-on-twist thriller.

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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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Archangel by Robert Harris (1998)

Like the book reviewed immediately before this one (Shamim Sarif’s Despite the Falling Snow, 2004), Robert Harris’s Archangel is a novel largely set in the 1990s that can legitimately be tagged as Stalin-themed.

Whereas Despite the Falling Snow focuses on the personal impact of Stalin on individuals, in Archangel Robert Harris develops his plot on the national level, drawing on the hopes of a significant minority of Russians —and the fears of the rest— that the economically depressed and internationally diminished Russia of the mid-1990s might be ‘saved’ by the emergence of a Stalin-like figure ruthlessly committed to restoring former greatness.

Archangel is a classy page-turner of a thriller. But why Russia-in-Fiction particularly enjoyed it also has much to do with its early set-up bearing close affinity to our own experiences in the Russia of the early 1990s.

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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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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)

Elegance. Charm. Intelligence. Wit. Such words inhabit the reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. They apply as much to its central character, Count Alexander Rostov, as to the novel itself. A truly appropriate book to mark the halfway point on Russia in Fiction’s path to 100 reviews.

The central premise of A Gentleman in Moscow is original and intriguing. Count Rostov, a rich young Russian aristocrat, is arrested in Moscow in 1922 as the Communist regime —whose Red Army has just secured Bolshevik hegemony in Russia’s vicious civil war— brings its class warfare to bear on the citizens of the new Soviet state. His guilt assured by his aristocratic status, the Count is sentenced to house arrest. He must remain indefinitely in his place of abode. That place happens to be Moscow’s grandest hotel, the Metropol.

As the proceedings of Rostov’s brief trial state, ‘should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.’

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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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