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 chilling thriller that predicted the Soviet military coup; so says the front cover blurb. Not a bad strap line.
Though that line is a little post-hoc, given that The Last Defector was published in paperback after the military coup of August 1991. Cape did not predict the military coup, just a military coup. Bit picky on our part, after all precise prediction is too much to ask.
A Patriot in Berlin has some of the archetypal features of books set shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. To the fore is the presence of those ex-KGB and military types deeply concerned at the loss of Soviet power, and with it their own power. The list of novels built on similar concerns in the 1990s is long (immediately springing to mind are Tim Sebastian’s Saviours Gate, and Tony Cape’s The Last Defector).
Having elements of a formula does not make a novel formulaic, nor does dealing with common themes make it derivative. A Patriot in Berlin has striking elements of its own. It is set in post-unification Berlin in 1992-93 and is based around plans for an exhibition of Russian art forbidden in the Soviet years.
Read has a gift for encapsulating the uncertainty of these years; an uncertainty which Russia in Fiction remembers well from life in Moscow during that period.
‘Cover for a thriller about Russia? No problem. If it’s a thriller, you’ll need a silhouette of someone. From behind is what most people choose. And Russia? Hmm … We’ll just put them on Red Square. That should do the job.’
But it wasn’t always like that. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, it was symbols, not silhouettes. Usually the hammer and sickle. Sometimes a red star.
Russia in Fiction might even have found the cover that sits on the boundary between symbols and silhouettes. Read on …
You would think that after several decades reading spy thrillers about Russia, I would know all the good ones. Then, browsing the Oxfam bookshop on the Woodstock Road in Oxford a few years ago, I came across The Cambridge Theorem.
How had I missed this for so long? The Cambridge Theorem is brilliant. What is more, it turned out —or so I thought at the time— that it was the first in a trilogy based around its central character.