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.
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.
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.’
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.
Donald James was a quite brilliant thriller writer. One of Russia in Fiction’s all-time favourites; he died exactly 13 years ago today, on 28th April 2008.
The distinctive trait of his Russia-related novels was to set them in a plausible yet radical near-future. Monstrum was written during the chaotic mid-1990s in Russia. James did in novel form what many Russia-watching analysts sought to do in methodical, scenario-planning form. He took current trends and extended them.
Except Donald James’s version involves a serial killer, love affairs, and betrayal.
Part two of this review is here
John Kruse wrote three novels about the Soviet Union in the decade from 1981. His first — Red Omega (1981)— is the best and most successful, as evidenced by the fact that it has been made available as an ebook.
So, if Red Omega is the best of Kruse’s three novels, why turn, in Russia in Fiction’s first review of a Kruse work, to his second book, the somewhat sprawling 1987 novel The Hour of the Lily?
Afghanistan is the reason. The Hour of the Lily has a setting that is largely neglected in Western novels and thrillers, namely, the almost decade long Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989).
Part one of this review is here
One winter night in 1951, several miles outside of Leningrad, five mutilated corpses are discovered, laid out —indeed positioned— on railway tracks. Leningrad police (militsiya) officer, Rev Rossel, conducts an investigation that increasingly ties the murders to his own previous life as a violin student in the Leningrad Conservatory.
City of Ghosts vibrates with dissonance between the ubiquitous and ingrained violence of late Stalin-era Leningrad and the transcendent potency of music. Alongside portrayals of savagery by state and criminals alike, Ben Creed conjures up the otherworldliness of music.
The novel has five parts, each designated by a musical note; a motif that reaches a crescendo by its end whilst having been a refrain throughout. F A E♭ B♭ G.
Part two of this review is here
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.
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?
Part one of this review is here
Richard Pape’s reputation as a daredevil and dashing ex-military man turned author, coupled with a handily placed article in a British tabloid, helped to create the impression that Arm Me Audacity was autobiography, fictionalised for reasons of national security. Part one of this review investigates the novel’s background. Part two returns to more familiar Russia-in-fiction reviewing territory. What is the book about? And how does it portray Russia?
In particular, to those familiar with the traits of Cold War espionage thrillers and their representation of the Soviet Union, how present are these in a popular thriller from the 1950s?