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Defectors. 1961 - a community of Western double agents, exposed and living in exile in Moscow. Notorious back home, avoided in Moscow. As one of them says, Moscow is the kind of place where you keep top yourself. So they meet up every night in hotel bars, discussing old times and trying to trap one another into making damaging statements. The spectre of Stalin hangs over everything; nobody quite sure whether Khrushchev’s new freedoms are real or not. The exception is Frank Weeks. A former CIA agent, he has found a new role as a senior KGB officer, moving with apparent ease and confidence in Soviet Society. He speaks with confidence about the rules that the KGB must follow - hidden rules, unfair rules, but rules that he knows and navigates. Frank has written a book about his life before and after his defection some 12 years earlier. Both the KGB and CIA seem willing to let the book loose into the wild, but Frank has asked his brother Simon, a publisher in the States, to come to Moscow to edit the text. This provides Simon and Frank with an opportunity to renew family ties while Frank’s KGB batman Boris providers a curious mixture of concierge and surveillance services. And needless to say, there is a Cold War plot of intrigue and betrayal that is well done. The real strength of Defectors, though, is the portrayal both of the limbo faced by the western defectors, and by the privileged life of the KGB within the “bubble” they have created for themselves. They have access to luxurious restaurants, theatres, dachas, travel, the finest rooms in the finest hotels, cars, trains, hairdressers... They live with an acceptance that they are watched; they know and befriend the watchers. They accept that they may have to report on friends and colleagues and sometimes this will not end well, but they convince themselves that this is a necessary thing that would have happened anyway. And they also have to accept a rigid pecking order and clearly scaled privileges that come with increased status. The secondary strength is the gradual ratcheting up of the suspense. What starts out as a very gentle - and literal - walk in the park becomes more and more tense until we reach a truly heart stopping and frenetic end. All the time, trying to guess who is on which side. That’s the thing with double agents - you can never tell which side they are on, and perhaps they themselves never really know. At least one of the characters - Gareth Jones, a gay British dandy - just seems to enjoy betrayal for its own sake. Defectors is a bit of an anachronism, being a Cold War thriller nearly thirty years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. But in focusing on the Western defectors, it does something new; it breathes life into an already over-populated and rapidly dating genre in a way that would make Le Carre envious. ****0
So, you are so worried that the KGB will come calling one night that you can't sleep. And because you can't sleep, neither can your wife. So you pack a small suitcase with a change of underwear, pyjamas and some cigarettes. Then you stand on the landing, by the lift, waiting... And thinking. An involving account of what it might have been like for an artist to live under Soviet rule. Was Shostakovich a coward as he thought? Or just a survivor? Whatever; this is an involving book. Highly recommended.
The Zoo is a farcical romp through the last days of Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union. Yuri is a twelve year old boy who claims to have suffered some form of brain damage as a child, leaving him a functional idiot. He can see everything that goes on around him, he can learn facts, but he hasn’t the guile to understand people. Yuri takes everyone at face value, all the time. By a quirk of fate, he ends up meeting Stalin who likes having a confidant he can trust completely. So he immediately appoints Yuri to be his food taster, thereby necessitating Yuri’s witnessing of the last days of the Great Leader’s life. And this is not a glamorous end to a glorious life. Basically, Stalin is holed up in his dacha with this inner circle (Beria, Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov), all of whom want to usurp the crown. These five do not like each other, they do not trust each other, but they end up spending all their time together watching films and playing drinking games. The plotting, aside from the crazy drunken antics, the stunt doubles follows Harrison E. Salisbury’s 1983 account of Stalin’s last days faithfully. It is a surprise – indeed a frustration – then that Christopher Wilson insists on using near approximations of the protagonists real names. Stalin (man of steel) becomes Iron-Man; Beria becomes Bruhah; Molotov especially irritatingly becomes Motolov, etc. It feels like it is cheapening what could otherwise have felt like a satire to take seriously. Because, underneath all the drunken japes, this is a pretty good study of the paranoia of a brutal regime waiting for its leader to die. As a kitchen cabinet, the regime has the power of life and death over anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path, but yet remains powerless to bring about any meaningful social or economic change. Stalin himself is portrayed as a tired, sick and unsatisfied man, troubled about the legacy he would leave. He was lonely and desperate for unguarded, non-judgemental company, yet he had created a world in which only an idiot boy could fulfil that function. If anything, Yuri’s role was that of the mediaeval court fool, speaking truth to a king by dressing it up as wit. In a neat story arc, we see Yuri come from ordinary society to mix with the elite; and then we see him return to ordinary society. It feels like completing a circle, albeit a rather sad circle because, as Khrushchev says to Yuri: “Poor child… You see it all. Yet you understand nothing”. But in a way Yuri inhabits a fool’s paradise. Right up to the end, as his world disintegrates around him, Yuri still remains optimistic.This really is a great read. Short, lively, humorous but thoughtful. Yuri’s narrative voice is fabulous and his perpetual innocence is captivating. Stalin’s inner circle is well drawn and Beria, in particular, is a standout character – vain, foppish, ambitious and sadistic. He is a well-rounded psychopath. Given the way history played out, it might have been interesting to dwell just a little more on the character of Khrushchev whom history has treated with affection – it would have been nice to explore his role in the purges, his role in the Ukraine and his personal relationship with Stalin a little more closely. But this is a minor complaint in a tight and entertaining novel. *****
The Vanishing Futurist follows the story of Gerty Freely, a British governess who happened to be working in Russia in 1917, as the Russian Revolution unfolded. In broad terms, her employers flee to the Ukraine and she becomes part of a commune living in the family's Moscow house. One of the members of the commune, Nikita Slavkin, is a futurist who is developing a time travel machine... On the positive side, there is some good exploration of the psyche of a new Russia when it was not clear that the revolution had delivered power to a totalitarian regime. There was still idealism and attempt at dialogue with the new powers. There was a sense of common purpose based on ideology rather than expedience. But on the debit side, the novel drags on way too long, with too many characters, most of whom are indistinguishable. They do not do anything or say anything terribly interesting and when Slavkin finally disappears, the reader is probably beyond caring. Overall, The Vanishing Futurist does not deliver on the promise of the premise and the wonderful cover. ***00