A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Tag: Yeltsin (Page 1 of 2)

To the Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury (2000)

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.

To the Hermitage, chapter 21
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JUDAS 62 by Charles Cumming (2021)

Charles Cumming is at the forefront of contemporary British thriller writers, and is on a bit of a roll at the moment. JUDAS 62 is his eleventh novel. The majority of these —with The Trinity Six being one of three exceptions— are not really Russia-in-fiction territory. But JUDAS 62 most definitely is.

‘Big bad Russia’ is back as the main enemy, and a large part of JUDAS 62 is set in the Russian city of Voronezh in 1993.

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The Fall of the Russian Empire by Donald James (1982) – part two

Part one of this review is here

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.

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The Fall of the Russian Empire by Donald James (1982) – part one

Part two of this review is here

Towards the end of The Fall of the Russian Empire, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and all of the Central Asian republics formally break away from the Soviet Union on the same day.

And what is that date? To quote precisely, ‘then on the morning of December 21st …’.

Nine years after this novel was published, these self same republics all signed, on the same day, the Alma-Ata Protocol, which saw them join the Commonwealth of Independent States and leave the collapsing Soviet Union behind. And what was the date of that signing? December 21st 1991.

The Fall of the Russian Empire was published in 1982, when almost no analyst was imagining the imminent collapse of the global superpower that was the Soviet Union.

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Perestroika Christi by John Hands (1990)

In 1989, when Communist governments were thrown out of the power that they had usurped across Eastern Europe, the geo-political certainties of decades went with them. Almost overnight, multiple possible paths forward opened up; and fiction writers mapped them as much as did scholars, journalists and policy professionals.

John Hands’s Perestroika Christi was published in 1990. In that in-between bit during the collapse of Communism. Soviet control over the Central and East European satellite states had been lost, Germany was re-uniting —but what of the Soviet Union itself?

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Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story by Andrea Bennett (2015)

Russia in Fiction has reminded readers often enough that the reviews on this blog ask two questions of every book. What is the book like? And how does it portray Russia?

Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story unquestionably knows its Russia. Andrea Bennett falls into the category of authors who lived in Russia in the unforgettable chaos of the 1990s. Just as did Sophia Creswell, Anna Blundy, and A.D. Miller, Andrea Bennett successfully draws on that experience in writing memorable fiction.

And as for what the book is like? Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story summons up the sometimes joyous, sometimes tragic disorder of the immediate post-Soviet years in a slightly surreal yet recognisably realistic comic tale.

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

Part one of this review is here

The central character of The Moscow Club —’the first great post-Cold War thriller’— comes straight out of the standard thriller stable. There is not a great deal of room for doubting that he is on the side of the angels and will triumph.

The reader knows, from the moment we encounter him rock-climbing, on vacation from his role as genius Soviet analyst with a secret CIA off-shoot agency, that Charles Stone is always going to win through.

That is not a plot-spoiler. It is just obvious. Stone’s work with an off-the-books CIA branch (slightly reminiscent of the off-the-books British agency for which Petra Reuter works in Mark Burnell’s superb novels) plunges him into the hunt for plotters in the KGB and the CIA alike. It then gets personal when his godfather (Winthrop Lehman) and his father (an academic, expert on Russia, broken by spying allegations and prison during the McCarthy witch-hunts of the early 1950s) turn out to be involved in some way.

Oh, and Stone’s estranged wife also comes into the picture. Handily, from many perspectives, she’s a beautiful, blonde, Moscow-based, TV reporter.

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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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Monstrum by Donald James (1997)

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.

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A Patriot in Berlin by Piers Paul Read (1995) – part one

Part two of this review is here

A Patriot in Berlin is a novel of the collapse of Communism. It is set in the immediate aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, between August 1991 and July 1993. In other words, in that strange period of suspended political time, between Boris Yeltsin emerging as the victor in Russia after the attempted coup of August 1991 and his eventual victory over the last of the old Soviet-era parliament’s resistance in October 1993.

As is to be expected from its author, A Patriot in Berlin has literary substance. It addresses the questions that this startling and unexpected moment in modern history throws up, dealing with themes of nationalism, materialism, and Communism. At the same time, Read roughly adheres to some spy thriller formulaics; false identities, political factions, violence and torture and sex.

Robert Harris’s review of A Patriot in Berlin noted

There’s more skill here, and more intelligence, than in any number of contemporary novels and the attempt to bridge the gap between ‘serious’ literature and mass-market fiction is a laudable one

Robert harris, daily Mail, 16 september 1995
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