Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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Fiction

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven (2015)

Towards the Flame is a diplomatic history of imperial Russia in the years 1905 to 1920. By diplomatic history, I mean a detailed – a really detailed – account of the men who ran Russia’s Foreign Ministry and its embassies (with sometimes a nod to the heads of the army, navy or other government ministers), their policies, debates and disagreements.

We are given pen portraits of Russia’s premiers, foreign and finance ministers, and key ambassadors to London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and beyond and the guts of the book is a history of their diplomacy – the papers and memos they wrote laying out Russia’s strategies – the information they gathered about rival nations’ aims and goals – the assessments each nations’ military attaches made about their rivals’ readiness for war.

(For example Lieven examines position papers like the brilliantly prescient memorandum the former head of secret police, Petr Durnovo, gave Tsar Nicholas in February 1914, which said that the biggest risk of a prolonged war was that it would trigger a massive social and political revolution (p.304).)

In intricate detail Lieven builds up a picture of the web of political and diplomatic intrigue which took place in the crucial run-up to the Great War, not only between nations, but within nations, as ruling elites were riven by conflicting strategies and visions, by political and personal rivalries, subjected to pressure from often rabidly nationalistic newspapers, and harassed by a series of international crises which repeatedly threatened to plunge the continent into war.

In Lieven’s account the question is not, ‘Why did the First World War happen’, but ‘How did they manage to put it off for so long?’

Like many historians of twentieth century Europe, Lieven tells us he has benefited enormously from the opening of Russian archives after the fall of the Soviet Union. He has obviously used the opportunity to track down pretty much every diplomatic telegraph and memo and report and study written by all the key ambassadors, Foreign Ministers, the Tsar and his prime ministers, during these fateful years, and his book presents an excellent summary and contextualising of them.

This is what gives the book its character and distinction. At every crux – for example, over the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 – Lieven briefly tells us what happened on the ground (his book deliberately skips over purely military details, just as it skips over detail of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – all this can be found in thousands of other sources) in order to analyse the attitude of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Lieven details disagreements in overall strategy between the Foreign Minister, his Deputy, the Finance Minister, the Tsar and the Tsar’s unofficial advisers (like his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, leader of the so-called ‘Panslavic tendency’).

Lieven gives us summaries of the reports and recommendations coming in from the embassies in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, as well as opinions from the Russian officials on the ground in the Balkans: Count so-and-so reports back on a conversation with the King of Bulgaria, Prince such-and-such writes a long summary of the political situation in Serbia.

Lieven explains:

  • how each of these varying opinions fit in with their authors’ visions of what Russia is or could be (over the course of the book we get to know most of these diplomats and get a sense of their individual capacities and opinions)
  • how they fit in with conflicting views in the Russian elite about whether Russia should be allying with France and Britain, or with Austria and Germany
  • how the reports map onto the enduring belief in Russian elite opinion that Russia’s ‘history destiny’ was to conquer the Turks, take Constantinople and become leader of the world’s Slavic peoples
  • how they affect ongoing debates in the Russian government about whether Russia should be focusing its energies and resources to the East, to settle Siberia, or should cleave to its traditional role in the European balance of power

And so on. It is a deep, deep immersion into the small, densely populated and fiercely argued world of pre-war Russian government officials, and particularly the men of the Russian diplomatic service, who managed Russian foreign relations in the buildup to the war.

World War One an eastern war

Lieven opens his book with a bold claim: Contrary to all Western writing on the subject, the First World War was not a western but an east European war, triggered by events in eastern Europe, exacerbated by rivalries between east European empires, and with seismic consequences across east and central Europe.

So his focus in this book is on Russia and the East and his aim is to reorientate our thinking away from France and the Somme, towards the Eastern powers and the problems they faced, which he proceeds to describe in absorbing detail.

His core focus is Russian history 1905 to 1920, but to even begin to understand this period you have to range back in time by about a century, as well as comparing Russia’s imperial problems with the challenges faced by other countries further afield, as far away as America and Japan.

The balance of power

The backdrop to all this – the worldview of the time – is the diplomatic and military game which dominated the world for the century leading up the Great War, and the idea of a balance of power.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious Allies who had defeated Napoleon tried to parcel out Europe’s real estate to ensure that no one power could ever again secure domination over the continent (pp.120, 124).

The 1848 revolutions, the Crimean War (1853-6), the Franco-Prussian War (1870), unification of Germany (1870), the unification of Italy (1871), the spread of nationalism, the spread of the industrial revolution – all these events were processed by the leaders of every European nation insofar as they affected this will o’ the wisp, this fictional entity – the balance of power.

Every large nation was kept on constant tenterhooks about whether the latest little war in the Balkans, or the bids for independence by Hungary or Bulgaria or the Czechs, whether the Austrian alliance with Germany, or the Russian alliance with France, or Britain’s influence over Ottoman Turkey, would affect the balance of power.

And not only nations were concerned. Every nation contained factions, ruling parties, opposition parties and, increasingly, ‘public opinion’, which had to be taken into account.

(It is one of the many ironies of history that the spread of literacy, education and ‘civil society’ i.e. newspapers and a free press, which is so assiduously promoted by liberals, in actual fact, in the event, tended to encourage rabble-rousing nationalism. The press in Serbia comes in for special criticism for its ferociously nationalistic warmongering, but the panslavic Russian newspaper, Novoe Vremia, was so consistently anti-German that the authorities in Berlin singled it out as a prime cause of the poisoning of German-Russian relations, pp.215, 220, 289.)

One of the few critics of the entire balance of power idea was Baron Roman Rosen (Russian minister to Tokyo during the Russo-Japanese War, posted to Washington, then served on the Tsar’s Council of Ministers until 1917). Rosen thought that, far from creating a secure basis for peace, the so-called balance of power had merely created two armed camps which lived in constant fear of each other (p.138). As you read on in the book you can’t help agreeing with Rosen’s view. Lieven himself appears to agree, stating that the problem with the diplomacy of the 1900s was it was armed diplomacy, with the constant threat of violence behind it. This is what made it so inherently unstable – the slightest misunderstanding threatened to escalate into Armageddon (p.339).

Age of empires

It was an age of empires – the British empire, the French empire, the German Reich, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire and the Russian empire. But Lieven’s book is at pains to make you put aside the traditional Anglophone notion of ’empire’ as power exerted over black and brown people far overseas in Africa and Asia. He is concerned with the great land empires of Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans and Russia, the empires which were mostly land-locked and had to expand, if at all, into territory contested by the other empires.

It was a zero sum game, meaning that Russia could only gain territory at the expense of the Ottomans or the Austrians; the Austrians, when they formally annexed Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908, did so at the cost of the humiliation of Russia, which considered itself to have a special leading role in the Balkans. And both Russia and Austria expected to seize or annex territory at the expense of the failing Ottoman Empire.

In fact it was almost an age of super-empires, for around 1900 there was a lot of chatter from journalists, writers, commentators and even politicians from the larger nations about consolidating themselves into ethno-religious power blocs.

What does that mean? An example is the way the hugely popular British politician Joseph Chamberlain proposed to create a new federation out of the white nations of the British Empire, bringing together Canada, Australia and New Zealand into a confederation with the UK, creating a free trade organisation, bringing their laws into harmony, to create a ‘British white empire-nation’ (p.21).

On an even bigger scale, some Brits and Yanks fantasised about bringing America into this union, to create a massive trading, political and military bloc – the Anglosphere.

(This is the background to a lot of Rudyard Kipling’s writings at the turn of the century, his marriage to an American, his friendship with America’s buccaneering Teddy Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, his hopes for a union of white English-speaking peoples. This explains conservative support for the Boer War, because the Boers were seen as a backward people who were blocking Cecil Rhodes’ great vision of a corridor of white imperialist rule running the length of Africa, from Cape Town to Alexandria. They imperialists had a vision, not of power for its own sake, but for the union of white English-speaking peoples to bring economic development and liberal civilisation to the non-white world.)

For their part, diplomats and statesmen in both Germany and Austria continued to speculate about a merger between the two countries to create a Greater Germany, something which had been debated since Bismarck had wondered whether to bring Austria into, or leave it outside, his project for a United Germany in the 1860s. Gross-Deutschland would then, of course, want to reclaim the German-speaking populations of the Czech lands and of Poland.

The other continental powers were well aware that this tendency to expansion was a powerful strand in German political thought (and, of course, it was revived by the Nazis with their claim for Lebensraum which led them to invade first Poland, then the Soviet Union 25 years later).

The price of failure And all the empires were nervously aware of what happened if your empire failed. They had before them the woeful examples of the Ottoman empire and, further away, the Chinese Qing empire, both of which were visibly falling to pieces. (Interestingly, Lieven uses the phrase ‘scramble for China’, which I don’t think I’d heard before, saying that if the 1880s saw a scramble for Africa, the 1890s saw a ‘scramble for China’.)

So everyone could see what happened to a failing empire. The great powers imposed unequal trade treaties on you, humiliated your government, annexed the tastiest parts of your lands, dismissed your culture and traditions. Total humiliation. China was probably the most humiliated: Russia and Japan signed conventions in 1910 and again in 1912 agreeing to divide ‘spheres of interest’ in China’s north-east borderlands (p.195).

None of these rulers could see forward a hundred years to our happy European Union of liberal democracies. The only alternative they could see in their own time to building up strong, aggressive empires was total collapse, anarchy and humiliation.

In the age of high imperialism, there was nothing strange in Austrian arrogance towards lesser breeds. In this era, Anglo-American Protestants most confidently stood at the top of the ladder of civilisation and looked down on everyone. The Germans were climbing the ladder fast, but their sense of superiority still lacked the confidence of their British rivals and could be all the more bruising as a result. The Russians knew that they stood well down the ladder of civilisation in Western eyes, which helps to explain many undercurrents in Russian culture and society of the time.  By despising and measuring themselves off against the weak, barbarous and un-Christian Turks, they in turn asserted their membership in the world’s exclusive club of European, civilised great powers. (p.208)

Hence the stress, hence the anxiety in so many of their calculations. It was a dog-eat-dog world. It was win, or be eaten alive.

Russian rearmament reflected a desperate search for security and status born of a deep sense of weakness and humiliation. (p.226)

But then, running counter to all these trends to expand and build up empires, the latter half of the 19th century was also the age of nationalism. In his epic biography of Karl Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones shows in detail how the virus of nationalism was spread by the troops of Napoleon’s army to the Rhineland of Marx’s boyhood, and the rest of Germany. The French revolutionary armies took it everywhere as they tramped across Europe in the early 1800s, telling peoples and ethnic groups that they should be free.

The struggle for Greek independence in the 1820s was an early example of the trend which was eclipsed by the massive central European struggles for the unification of Germany and Italy which dominated the mid-century.

But it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the spread of industrial technology led to the dissemination of at least basic education and literacy to more remote populations, and that the growth of interest in folk stories, languages and traditions among newly educated intelligentsias helped to foment ‘independence’ and ‘nationalist’ movements among the smaller nationalities – the Czechs, the Bulgarians, the long-suffering Poles, the Ukrainians and, fatefully, among the squabbling peoples of the Balkans.

Nationalism was, to use the Marxist notion of the dialectic, the antithesis to the thesis of imperialism. One bred the other. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century nationalisms popped up all across Europe as a result of the civilising impact of their imperial rulers, but which threatened to undermine the great land empires, continually jeopardising the famous balance of power.

So, the central political problem of the age for the administrators of empires was – how to handle the nationalist demands for independence which threatened to undermine the homelands of empire.

Ireland Lieven takes the unexpected but illuminating example of Ireland. Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards was so bitterly opposed by the British Conservative and Union Party because the British elite was well aware how relatively small and fragile the homeland of the global British empire – i.e. the four nations of the British Isles – really was. Knock away one of the four legs supporting the table and maybe the whole thing would collapse.

Austro-Hungary It is one of the many insights thrown up by Lieven’s book that he applies the same logic to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Balkans. In the late 19th century virtually all the European nations clambered on the bandwagon of empire building, seeing it as the only viable way to maintain economic and political equality with the leading nations, France and Britain. Hence the ‘scramble for Africa’ in which even little Italy and puny Spain took part (claiming Libya and the north of Morocco, respectively).

Thus even landlocked Germany managed to seize some choice parts of Africa (German South West Africa, Cameroon, German East Africa).

But Austro-Hungary was not only landlocked but – having lost territory in Italy and France in the 1870s – its rulers were struggling to hang on to what they’d got, struggling to manage the rising tide of Czech nationalism in the borderlands with Germany on the north, and the bickering of Balkan nationalities (Bosnians, Croats, Serbs) at the south-east fringe of Europe (p.205).

(Lieven quotes the opinion of Alexander Giers, ambassador to Montenegro, that there was little to choose between the Serbs, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Romanians: ‘They all hate each other’, quoted p.142).

Permanently anxious about her alliance with Germany, and permanently twitchy about the presence of the huge Russian Empire on her borders, the Austrians felt about the Serbs something like the British felt about the Irish. And reacted with just the same over-violence born out of prolonged stress and anxiety, as the British did to the Irish.

Serb nationalism Thus when Serb nationalists assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in July 1914, hawks in the Austrian government thought it would make an excellent opportunity to crush little Serbia’s bid for independence and put paid to bickering in the Balkans once and for all. Show them who’s boss. Make the Austrian empire secure for a generation.

This is just one of the many insights and fruitful comparisons thrown up Lieven’s deliberately non-Anglocentric perspective.


Russia

The majority of Lieven’s content is about Russia. He takes you swiftly by the hand through the highlights of the previous two hundred years of Russian history – Peter the Great (1682-1725), Catherine the Great (1762-96), Napoleon and 1812, Crimean War (1853-56), the emancipation of the serfs (1861) – Russia’s geographical resources and economic and political development – and shows how parties or factions naturally and logically arose from the specific Russian situation.

Court and country parties

For example, Lieven explains the fundamental fact that there were ‘court’ and ‘country’ parties in Russian government. The court party surrounded the young, inexperienced and shy Tsar Nicholas II. Sophisticated St Petersburg liberals, they thought Russia should welcome Western influences, Western industrialisation, Western technology and Western values. They promoted alliance with France and Britain. (p.106)

By contrast, the ‘country’ party despised Petersburg intellectuals, half of them had foreign (often German) names or Jewish ancestry, for God’s sake! The country party were based in Moscow, good old patriotic, heart-of-Russia Moscow (p.129). They thought the Tsar should reject western values. They thought Russia should ally with the most powerful nation in Europe, Germany, and her handmaiden, Austria. (p.70)

Some of the country party subscribed to various shades of ‘Slavophilia’ i.e. the notion that Russia was special, had a special Orthodox culture, a special social system, a special ruler etc, and so should emphatically reject all Western ideas and the Western route to ‘modernisation’, which were corrupt, decadent and irrelevant to Russia’s special traditions.

Another major thread of ‘Slavophilia’ was the notion that the Slavic Russians should support their Slav brothers in the Balkans, the peoples of Serbia or Bulgaria, defend and lead the noble Slavic inheritance.

Onwards to Constantinople

A complicated mix of motives kept the issue of Constantinople bubbling at the top of the agenda. One was religious-ethnic. Some Russian thinkers thought that Russia had a historic destiny to sweep through the Balkans and recapture Constantinople from the weak and failing Ottoman Turks. This would:

  1. Unite all the Slavic peoples of the Balkans, reviving and glorifying Slavic culture.
  2. Allow Constantinople to be reborn as a great Christian capital, as it had been until conquered by the Turks as recently as 1453. It would be a symbolic rebirth of the ‘second Rome’ of Byzantium to rank alongside the ‘third Rome’ of Moscow.

Less quixotic than these millennial religious fantasies, hard-headed military men also thought a lot about Constantinople. Russia possessed the largest territory in the world, with immense land, people and resources. And yet it was prevented from projecting that power outwards, unlike all the nations on the ocean e.g. Britain, France, Spain, Holland, and especially America, sitting astride the two great oceans.

(The importance of naval power was crystallised in the widely-read contemporary book by American theorist Alfred Mahan, summarised on page 160).

Russia possessed three big fleets and naval ports – in the Baltic, at Vladivostok in the far Pacific East, and at Crimea in the Black Sea – but all of them were problematic. The Baltic was nearest to homeland Europe but was frozen for half of the year, and egress was blocked by Germany and Denmark. Vladivostok was too far away from the European centres of power.

All thoughts were therefore focused on the Black Sea, where Russia’s main shipyards were, and on the Crimea, which was the base for a large, modern naval fleet.

Yet it was a permanent irritation to the Russian military that this fleet was blocked up in the Black Sea, prevented from sailing through the Dardanelles and into the Mediterranean. The subtle way round this perennial problem was to negotiate alliances and pacts with the other European powers to bring pressure to bear on the Ottoman controllers of the Dardanelles to allow the Russian fleet out to patrol the high seas and claim her rights as a Great Power.

The not-so-subtle approach was to launch the umpteenth Russo-Turkish War, march on Constantinople and seize the Straits, solving the problem once and for all. After all – as Lieven points out in a thought-provoking comparison, the British had bullied their way to seizing Egypt and the Suez Canal in 1882, and the Americans had created the country of Panama in 1903 solely in order to build a canal joining the Pacific and Atlantic, both empires acting in unashamed self-interest.

The only catch being that the major European nations would probably pile in to stop Russia – as they had during the disastrous Crimean War when Britain and France came to Turkey’s aid against aggressive Russian incursions into Ottoman territory.

All of these ‘country’ party ideas – Pan-Slavism, conquering Constantinople – were deprecated by the ‘court’ party, who thought they were:

  • low and vulgar, usually whipped up by rabble-rousing nationalist newspapers
  • contrary to Russia’s true interests – Russian peasants and workers couldn’t give a damn about Constantinople
  • and anyway, Russia’s course was best left to the professional, aristocratic diplomats like themselves, who knew best

Nonetheless, Russian leaders of all parties looked on with dismay as British ascendancy over the Turks, which had lasted into the 1880s, was slowly replaced by the influence of Germany, which sent soldiers to train the Turkish army and engineers to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad. (As Lieven points out, the Germans were the only European power who had not at some stage tried to seize Ottoman territory – you can see how this might work in their favour in Istanbul.)

(And, of course, Turkey would end up joining the side of the Germans in the Great War. With the result that the Allies in 1915 themselves took up the Constantinople Question, floating the possibility that Russia would be encouraged to take the city. Prince Grigorii Trubetskoi was even named the future Russian commissar of the city. Wheels within wheels.)

West or East?

Another school of thought, and advisers, recommended leaving the complex problems of Europe to sort themselves out, and focusing on what Russia already possessed, namely the vast extent of Siberia and the East – a policy which, after the Revolution, would come to be known as ‘Eurasianism’ (p.143).

It was under Nicholas II that the great Trans-Siberian Railway was built. Proponents of an Eastern policy pointed out that Siberia had huge untapped natural resources, it just needed:

  • the infrastructure to join up the tens of thousands of settlements scattered across this vast waste of steppe and tundra
  • the emigration of settlers into the vast empty spaces
  • the creation of new towns and cities
  • the harvesting of the country’s natural and human potential

Given peace in the troublesome West, given enough time, the Eurasian party believed that Russia could develop its economy and resources enough to compete with Germany, even compete with America, to become a truly great power.

The Russo-Japanese War 1904-5

All of these hopes came crashing down when Russia came into conflict with the new, aggressive and confident Japanese Empire in 1904 and was badly beaten. Beaten for a number of reasons – their army was big but badly trained and under-equipped, the navy had to steam all the way from the Baltic to the Far East, by which time the major land battles had already been lost, and in any case it was then comprehensively trashed by the much better-led Japanese navy.

Defeat rocked all the traditional pillars of Russian society. The Tsar was personally blamed, the Army and Navy looked like fools, even the Orthodox Church which had blessed the war as a ‘crusade’ was made to look powerless and irrelevant.

The war gave rise to a revolution whose specific trigger was when troops fired on a protest march in Petersburg on 22 January 1905, which went down in folklore as ‘Bloody Sunday’, and rebellion, mutiny, strikes and insurrection spread like wildfire across the country.

The revolution was, in the end, only quelled when the Tsar issued the October Manifesto of 1905 which pledged major political reforms such as the creation of a parliament – called the Duma – with elected representatives, plus land and industrial reforms. The strikes ended, the agrarian disturbances subsided, the mutinies were crushed – but to many, even committed supporters of the Romanov Dynasty, the clock was ticking.

Towards the flame

Believe it or not, everything I’ve just summarised is all just the introduction to the book’s core and is covered off in just the first 100 pages or so. If you recall, the text’s main focus is on the period 1905 to 1920, i.e. beginning after the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 revolution.

Having set the scene and established many of the enduring themes of Russian politics and diplomacy in the first hundred pages or so, Lieven now goes into very great detail about the personnel, the men who manned the key roles in the Russian government – Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry, Army, Navy and so on. These men’s backgrounds, their families and family connections, their beliefs and the policies they pursued are all described in a long chapter titled The Decision Makers (pages 91 to 181).

Lieven gives pen portraits of the main diplomats, their careers and their views, including:

  • Count Vladimir Lambsdorff, Foreign Minister to 1906
  • Count Alexander Izvolsky, Foreign Minister 1906 to 1910, architect of the alliance with Britain
  • Sergey Sazonov, Foreign Minister from November 1910 to July 1916 i.e. during the crisis of 1914
  • Pyotr Stolypin, Prime Minister of Russia and Minister of Internal Affairs from 1906, who tried to counter revolutionary groups and pass agrarian reforms, until he was assassinated in 1911
  • Prince Vladimir Meshchersky, editor of the Monarchist newspaper, Grazhdanin, the only paper Tsar Nicholas read, an unpopular reactionary
  • Count Vladimir Kokovtsov, who replaced Stolypin as Prime Minister of Russia from 1911 to 1914
  • Count Sergei Witte, Finance Minister 1892 to 1903, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers 1903 to 1905, first Prime Minister of Russia 1905-6 during which he designed Russia’s first constitution – an intelligent businessman who thought Russia needed a generation of peace to blossom
  • Prince Grigorii Trubetskoi, epitome of liberal imperialists and the panslavic policy, head the Near Eastern Department of the Foreign Ministry, which was responsible for Balkan and Ottoman affairs 1912-14 i.e. at the heart of the 1914 crisis
  • Baron Roman Rosen, 1903 ambassador to Tokyo, ambassador to USA 1905, State Council of Imperial Russia 1911-17 – who believed Russia should forget Constantinople and the Balkans and focus on developing Siberia and the East
  • Alexander Giers, Consul General in Macedonia, Press Council 1906, who saw at first hand how unreliable and unpredictable the Balkan Slavs were and warned that the Serbs were manipulating Russia into backing them against Austria
  • Nikolai Hartwig, Russian ambassador to Persia (1906–1908) and Serbia (1909–1914), a strong pro-Slav, sometimes described as ‘more Serbian than the Serbs’

Lieven then gives similar treatment to the main military leaders of the period – heads of the army and navy, major military thinkers, their dates, relationships and the often bitter in-fighting between them for resources and about strategy.

Having established a) the deep themes or concerns of the Russian state and its ruling elite, and having b) described in some detail all the key personnel, all the ‘decision makers’ of the period – Lieven then takes us through the years leading up to Armageddon, with chapters devoted to:

  • the emergence of the Triple Entente 1904-9
  • the sequence of crises 1909-13, being:
    • The First Moroccan Crisis, 1905–06 – Germany challenged France’s control of Morocco – worsening German relations with both France and Britain
    • The Bosnian Crisis 1908 – Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been under its sovereignty since 1879 but which infuriated the Serbs and Pan-Slavic nationalism in the region
    • The Agadir crisis in Morocco, 1911 – the French sent troops into Morocco, angering the Germans who sent a gunboat to Agadir, eventually backing down but the crisis cemented the alliance between France and Britain
    • The Italo-Turkish War 1911–12 – Italy invaded what is today Libya but was then a province of the Ottoman Empire. Nobody came to Turkey’s aid, showing that Turkey was now friendless – which meant that land grabs in the Balkans would be unopposed – i.e. the delicate balance of power had vanished
    • The First Balkan War October 1912 to May 1913 in which the Balkan League (the kingdoms of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro) defeated the Ottoman Empire and seized almost all of Turkey’s territory in Europe
    • The Second Balkan War June to August 1913, in which Bulgaria, dissatisfied with the settlement of the first war, attacked Greece and Serbia, and also managed to provoke neighbouring Romania, all of whom defeated Bulgarian forces, forcing it to concede territory to all of them
  • the crisis of 1914
  • The First World War and the Russian Revolution

Some thoughts

The backwardness and repressiveness of Russia bred a special kind of fanatic – extreme socialists or anarchists – who thought they could bring about change through strategic assassinations.

Russia was riddled by extremist political factions for the fifty years before the revolution, and plagued by the assassinations of high officials. As Lieven points out, it is no coincidence that the Russian aristocracy and gentry produced the two greatest anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth century, Prince Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin (p.119)

But the entire strategy of assassination was almost always counter-productive. It is a great irony that the assassins who murdered Tsar Alexander II in 1881 did so just as he was about to authorise a set of liberal laws. His successor, Alexander III, was an old-style, clumsy, bearish, paternal reactionary who inaugurated thirty years of repression, thus condemning Russian radicals to decades of arrest, Siberian imprisonment and exile, and polarising the intelligentsia even further.

The view from the upper classes

Lieven is posh. From Wikipedia we learn that:

Dominic Lieven is the second son and third child (of five children) of Alexander Lieven (of the Baltic German princely family, tracing ancestry to Liv chieftain Kaupo) by his first wife, Irishwoman Veronica Monahan (d. 1979).

He is the elder brother of Anatol Lieven and Nathalie Lieven QC, and a brother of Elena Lieven and distantly related to the Christopher Lieven (1774–1839), who was Ambassador to the Court of St James from Imperial Russia over the period 1812 to 1834, and whose wife was Dorothea von Benckendorff, later Princess Lieven (1785–1857), a notable society hostess in Saint Petersburg.

Lieven is ‘a great-grandson of the Lord Chamberlain of the Imperial Court’ of Russia.

He was privately educated at Downside School, the famous Benedictine Roman Catholic boarding school.

Having just read Edmund Wilson’s long study of the communist tradition, and Engels’s powerful pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, my head is full of revolutionary thoughts about the industrial proletariat and about the way the ruling classes everywhere use repressive ‘ideologies’ to keep the exploited in their place, ideas like ’empire’ and ‘tsar’ and ‘religion’, ‘honour’ and ‘duty’ and ‘fatherland’.

There is little of that Marxist sensibility present in Lieven’s book. Lieven takes it for granted that there were empires and that they were ruled by an extraordinarily privileged aristocratic elite. I’m not saying he’s naively in favour of them. But he takes them on their own terms. This became obvious during the long, sometimes pretty boring chapter, about the Decision Makers. Prince so-and-so of the court party was related to Count so-and-so who took a slavophile line, while his cousin, the archduke so-and-so was more a supporter of the policy of eastern expansion. And so on for a hundred pages.

In a way typical of prewar European diplomacy, the Foreign Ministry and Russian diplomacy were a nest of the aristocracy and gentry. The nest was very, very small: in 1914, there were fewer than two hundred men of all ages who had passed the diplomatic exam and in principle were eligible for mainstream posts. (p.119)

Later he points out the importance of notions of honour to the Russian aristocracy, and the vital importance of remaining a great power to the entire diplomatic, military and political leadership.

But to the ordinary Russian, these concepts were all but meaningless. The Russian ruling classes thought that, when push came to shove, the masses would demonstrate their love for the Tsar and for Mother Russia and the Great Pan-Slavic Cause, but they were wrong, so wrong.

Exciting the Russian masses about Constantinople or their Slave brothers proved an impossible task. In 1909, Grigorii Trubetskoy’s brother Prince Evgenii Trubetskoy wrote that only someone who believed Russia to be a ‘corpse’ could imagine that when it stood up for its honour and the Slav cause against Germany, there would not be a surge of ‘powerful and elemental patriotism’.

The First World War was to prove him wrong. (p.131)

What makes it puzzling is that the Russian elite had already had the test drive of the 1905 revolution in which they should have learned that far from rallying to the cause of Mother Russia, peasants and workers all across the country rose up against the court, the aristocracy, the police, the Church and everything the elite believed in.

For me the big question is, ‘How was the Russian ruling elite able to persist in their obtuse ignorance of the true nature of the country they were living in?’

Without doubt the tiny coterie of men Lieven describes made up the diplomatic and foreign policy elite, and their decisions counted, and it was the clash of their policies and ideas which made up ‘debate’ in the ruling elite and determined Russia’s strategy through the decade of crises leading up to 1914.

Without doubt this is precisely the point of Lieven’s book, to give an unprecedentedly detailed account of the sequence of events 1905 to 1920 from the Russian point of view, explaining the key personnel and their ruling ideas and concerns and how they reacted to, and created, events.

In this aim the book doubtless succeeds and can’t help impressing you with the depth of its research and the thoroughness of its analysis.

But it feels so airless, so claustrophobic, so oppressively upper class. Clever, well educated, sensitive and sophisticated though the Russian ruling class so obviously are, you can’t help cheering when the enraged workers storm their palaces and throw all their fancy paintings and porcelain out into the street.

To put it another way –  as Lieven himself does half way through the book – the Russian ruling élite believed its own ideology, defined itself in terms of its preposterously unreal, disconnected value system – forged its identity in terms of Russian dignity and nobility and honour and the need to remain an Empire and a Great Power.

So they were staggered when they discovered that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people didn’t give a toss about these fantasies, was incapable of defending them, and eventually rebelled against them.

In a nice detail, Lieven tells of a German officer during the Great War, whose job was to debrief Allied prisoners of war. He discovered that the French and British soldiers had a clear sense of what they were fighting for, but the Russian soldiers didn’t have a clue. Pan-Slavism – what was that? Controlling the Turkish Straits – what were they? Preserving the European Balance of Power – what on earth was that?

The over-educated, incestuous, airless narrowness of Russia’s elite condemned itself to extinction.


Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short by John Willett (1984)

This is a large format Thames and Hudson paperback (27 cm by 23 cm) which is designed to foreground large black and white historic photos and images rather than text.

After a short 10-page introduction, almost the whole book consists of assemblies of original images from the avant-garde of the Weimar culture, with only a small amount of accompanying commentary. It is a visual history. Just to recap the main events, the period falls roughly into three parts:

  1. 1918-1923 Post-war economic and social chaos
  2. 1924-1929 Peace and stability
  3. 1929-1933 Wall Street crash prompts more economic and social chaos, leading to the appointment of Hitler chancellor in January 1933, at which point the republic ends

The three periods of the Weimar Republic

1. The First World War ended in November 1918. The Kaiser abdicated to be replaced by a civilian government. The two commanding generals Ludendorff and Hindenberg made sure that this civilian government signed the peace, thus allowing them forever afterwards to blame civilians for stabbing the army in the back. In the same month there were coups in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere to try and set up revolutionary councils and soldiers and workers, which is how the Bolshevik revolution started.

For the next three or four years the Communist International in Moscow held out high hopes that Germany would fall to communism and trigger a Europe-wide revolution. In the event all these insurrections were put down by Freikorps or locally organised militia. Right from the start the left-liberal government had to rely on the army to keep it in power, and this was to prove a fatal weakness.

In March 1920 some of the Freikorps tried to overthrow the Berlin government and the army did nothing; it was only a general strike and popular armed resistance which restored the government. In 1922 Freikorps elements murdered Walter Rathenau, the Republic’s Foreign Secretary who had negotiated a trade treaty with the USSR and was Jewish. This led to outbreaks of anti-republican and communist agitation in the streets.

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, announced in summer 1919, caused great resentment. It blamed Germany entirely for the war, seized over 10% of Germany’s territory in the east (given to Poland) and west (Alsace-Lorraine returned to France), took away all Germany’s colonies and imposed a punishing reparations bill. In 1922 failure to keep up repayments led the French to send in troops to reoccupy the Ruhr industrial area.

The government replied by ordering a go-slow by German workers. This undermined an already weak economy and exacerbated inflation. Mid- and late-1923 saw the famous hyperinflation where a loaf of bread ended up costing a billion marks, where people carried bank notes around in wheelbarrows and eventually stopped using money at all. In November Hitler and his infant Nazi Party tried to mount a coup against the Bavarian government, in Munich, which was quickly quelled by the authorities.

2. The Americans drew up a plan devised by Charles G. Dawes to give Germany huge loans which it could use to invest in industry. Higher taxes from increased industrial productivity could be used to pay off the French (and the French could then pay off the huge war debts they’d run up with the Americans). The deal was finalised in the autumn of 1924.

The point is that as a result of the stabilisation of the currency and the confidence given to business by the certainty of American investment, the entire country underwent a great feeling of relief. Street fighting disappeared, strikes and industrial unrest diminished, the government could proceed with coherent economic policies. Leaders of the Soviet Union reluctantly abandoned the dream they’d been nurturing since 1919 that Germany would fall to communism. There were political ups and downs over the next five years but economic stability and increasing employment meant that extremist parties on both sides (Nazis, communists) lost support.

3. In October 1929 there was the Wall Street Crash. American banks withdrew all their loans in order to stay solvent and that included the loans to Germany. The German economy crashed, companies large and small went bust, and there was a phenomenal growth in unemployment. The effect was to revive the social unrest of the post-war period, to polarise political opinion and to encourage extremist parties to opt for street violence.

In the September 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazis won 18% of the votes and became the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democrats. Hitler ran for President against the incumbent Hindenburg in March 1932, polling 30% in the first round and 37% in the second against Hindenburg’s 49% and 53%. By now the Nazi paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung, had 400,000 members and its running street battles with the SPD and Communist paramilitaries (who also fought each other) reduced some German cities to combat zones.

At the July 1932 Reichstag election the Nazis polled 37%, becoming the largest party in parliament by a wide margin. The Nazis and Communists between them had won 52% of the vote and a majority of seats. Since both parties opposed the established political system and neither would join or support any ministry, forming a majority government became impossible. The result was weak ministries forced to rule by decree.

During the second half of 1932 there was much behind the scenes manoeuvring. Chancellor von Papen, his successor Kurt von Schleicher and the nationalist press magnate Alfred Hugenberg, spent December and January in political intrigues that eventually persuaded President Hindenburg that it was safe to appoint Hitler as Reich Chancellor, at the head of a cabinet including only a minority of Nazi ministers – which he did on 30 January 1933. Hitler was Chancellor of Germany but still restricted by democratic forms.

The Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933 gave Hitler a pretext for suppressing his political opponents. The following day he persuaded the Reich’s President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended most civil liberties. On 23 March, the parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave the cabinet the right to enact laws without the consent of parliament, in effect giving Hitler dictatorial powers.

Now possessing virtually absolute power, the Nazis established totalitarian control – they abolished labour unions, all other political parties and imprisoned their political opponents at the first, largely improvised concentration camps. The Nazi regime had begun.

The three periods of Weimar arts

1. The Expressionist years 1918-23

Before the war German art was dominated by Expressionism. This had two key elements: it was an art of personal expression; and this personal expression was influenced by current ideas about the spirit, about a great spiritual awakening, about a new world of art and culture about to be born etc, as a glance at the writings of Kandinsky or Franz Marc make clear. Paradoxically this highly personal view of the world could easily tip over into grand paranoia, fear, a sense of brooding catastrophe, anxiety, terror etc.

Unsurprisingly, it is these elements of the grotesque and nightmarish which artists felt and expressed during and immediately after the Great War. Thus the works made by artists like George Grosz or Bertolt Brecht in 1919 to 1923 can loosely be called Expressionist. Similarly the immediate post-war years in film were the high point of Expressionism, with horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922) famous for their jagged Expressionist sets.

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Extreme emotion was exacerbated by disillusionment with the failure of the 1918 revolution by many of the artists involved in it such as Piscator, Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, George Grosz. For the next few years their Expressionism was given extra bite by savagely satirical disillusionment, by the realisation that the SPD’s socialism was only skin deep and that the army would always step in to crush any revolt, any rebellion, any revolutionary forces. Hence the talismanic meaning, for years to come, of the murder in the streets by thuggish Freikorps of the two heroes of the Spartacist or communist party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on 15 January 1919.

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

The Bauhaus, a kind of bellwether for all these developments, was in its Expressionist phase. Although the director was Walter Gropius, the introductory course and much of the tone was set by the eccentric Johannes Itten, a believer in mystical Eastern religions, who imposed vegetarianism and breathing exercises on his students.

2. The high point – New Objectivity 1924-29

Around 1924, as the economy and political situation stabilised, the Expressionist wave in the arts was exhausted. Instead this is the golden era of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. The term was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub as the title of an art exhibition staged in 1925 in Mannheim to showcase artists working in the new spirit, namely Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. At the Bauhaus, the spiritualist Ittens was sacked and replaced by the tough-minded Hungarian émigré and polymath László Moholy-Nagy. Willett hesitates over the translation of Sachlichkeit – his 1978 book on the period prefers to translate it as ‘objectivity’. Here he suggests it means ‘matter-of-factness’ (p.81). It represented a completely new mood and approach. Hard edges and technology. Design for the machine age.

  • Instead of self-involvement – objectivity, interest in the social world, the masses.
  • Instead of art promoting the artist – artists sought collaboration, both among themselves (thus Grosz’s collaborations with John Heartfield on photomontages) and with the public (in the new forms of agit-prop or street theatre, often performed in factories and workplaces and calling for audience participation). From among hundreds of examples, Piscator’s 1929 production of A Merchant of Berlin had a set designed by Moholy-Nagy and music by Eisler.
The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

  • Instead of vague romantic idealism – hard-headed practical engagement with the problems of the age. Hence a slew of movements with ‘time’ in the name Zeitoper, Zeitstück.
  • Instead of the ‘demented’ Expressionism of Caligari – the purposeful social criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Or, as the pioneering stage director Erwin Piscator said, in 1929:

In lieu of private themes we had generalisation, in lieu of what was special the typical, in lieu of accident causality. Decorativeness gave way to constructedness, Reason was put on a par with Emotion, while sensuality was replaced by didacticism and fantasy by documentary reality.

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

This is the period Willett loves. This is the heart of his enthusiasm. This is the moment Willett claims that artists, designers, architects, theatre and film directors in the Soviet Union and in Weimar Germany converged in a period of hyper-experimentalism, making massive breakthroughs in adapting their respective media to the demands and possibilities of the machine age. New media called for new ideas and the creation of photojournalism, documentary cinema, broadcasting, radio, and gramophone records. El Lissitsky and Rodchenko devised new styles of graphic design, magazine and poster layout. Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) rejected the crazy fairy tale sets of Expressionism, and instead used thrilling new technical techniques like montage, shock close-ups, setting the camera at high angles to the action and so on to tell an entirely realistic, in fact brutally graphic tale of revolutionary insurrection.

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Crucial to Willett’s view is that there was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilisation between the avant-garde in Russia and in Germany, though that idea is explored much more in The New Sobriety – this book focuses exclusively on the German side of the equation.

In 1925 the Weimar government withdrew funding from the first Bauhaus, which accordingly moved to Dessau, into purpose-built modernist buildings designed by Gropius. The buildings remain classics of modernism to this day, and the new, industrially-focused school dispensed with the arty farty flummery of the Itten years and began designing all kinds of practical fixtures and fittings which would suit the modern, stripped-back architectural style. From this period date the famous tubular steel and leather chairs, along with sets of tables, chairs for factory canteens and so on. Practical, sober, industrial.

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

It is during these years that Willett feels the collective effort of creative people in all media took modernism to ‘a new level’ (a phrase he uses several times) and stood on the brink of creating an entirely new civilisation. Willett’s passion convinces you with an almost science fiction feeling that a completely new society was trembling on the brink of appearing.

This explains his contempt for the workaday, wishy-washy, luxury goods associated with Art Deco in France. For Willett French culture sold out, compromised and abandoned the quest for a truly new world. This was because the economic and social structure of French society (as of British society) had remained unchanged by the war so that aristocrats kept on buying Lalique jewellery and holidaying on the cote d’azur decorated by tame artists like Dufy or Derain. French culture was both a) more centralised in Paris only and b) still reliant on the patronage of the rich.

By contrast German society was turned upside down by the war and the intense political upheavals of the post-war. An important factor was the way the last aristocratic principalities became fully part of the German nation, often turning over art galleries, schools, theatres and opera houses to the new state. The (generally socialist) regional governments took over funding for the arts from aristocrats and often lent a sympathetic ear to avant-garde experiments.

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

While French designers created Art Deco ink stands adorned with scantily clad nymphs, Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus designed a completely new typography for the German language, rejecting all capital letters and serif styles, as well as designing the famous leather chair. Gropius and colleagues designed entirely new style of council estates for workers at Stuttgart. Moholy-Nagy oversaw his students’ new designs for lamps and chairs and tables, while the Bauhaus wallpaper department devised coolly objective, undecorative wallpaper designs which still sell to this day.

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

While Paris was staging the arch neo-classical works of Stravinsky and Les Six, politically committed German composers like Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler were working with communist playwright Bertolt Brecht to write songs for a new kind of play designed to convey powerful communist propaganda messages, and these were staged in an entirely new style by the revolutionary director Erwin Piscator, using bare, undressed sets, with the lights exposed and projecting onto bare walls relevant bits of movie footage or headlines or facts and figures and graphs showing the economic situation. The composer Paul Hindemith became associated with the notion of Gebrauchmusik i.e. music that was socially useful and Eisler took this to mean propaganda music, marching songs and the like, which could be widely disseminated among Germany’s many community music groups.

Not all these innovations worked or were very popular, but it was an explosion of talent experimenting in all directions. As Willett emphasises, many of their innovations are still used today – stark, exposed, non-naturalistic sets in the theatre – street theatre – abrupt cuts and high angles in experimental film – and a lot of the language of architecture and design developed by the Bauhaus architects went onto become a truly International Style which dominated the 20th century.

In 1925:

  • the Bauhaus moved to Dessau
  • Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush)
  • Ernst May is given the opportunity to deploy socialist architecture in a grand rehousing scheme begun by Frankfurt council
  • in Mannheim the artistic exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit
  • Bertolt Brecht moves to Berlin
  • December, Alban Berg’s opera Wozzek has its premiere
  • elementare typographie, was an influential supplement of Typographic Notes, the journal of the Educational Association of German Book Printers in Leipzig. The supplement was laid out by Jan Tschichold using innovative principles he’d picked up on a visit to the Bauhaus and included contributions from Bauhaus staff such as Bayer, Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy and so on
elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

3. The final crisis 1929-33

All of which was cut short by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Throughout 1930 the Germany economy went into a tailspin and unemployment climbed out of control. During these three years of mounting crisis, 1930, 31 and 32, many of the artists he’s discussed reached new heights of commitment, especially Brecht who produced a series of his most stingingly anti-capitalist works.

But Willett shows how a reaction had already set in in Russia where, from about 1928, the chilly winds of Stalin’s influence began to blow through the arts. The suicide of the famous communist poet Mayakovsky in 1930 is often heralded as a tipping point. In 1932 the official doctrine of Socialist Realism was proclaimed and experimentation in the arts came to a grinding halt, to be replaced by kitsch paintings of happy smiling workers and the beaming features of the Great Leader, Stalin.

For completely different reasons a similar chilling came over the avant-garde in Germany. In 1930 nationalists took control of the state government in Thuringia and secured the resignation of the Bauhaus’s overtly communist director Hannes Meyer (who had replaced Gropius in 1928). Meyer quit and went to Russia, taking with him a dozen or so of the most politically committed students. He was replaced by the noted architect Mies van der Rohe, who was given the job of depoliticising the Bauhaus, especially the radical students. He did his best but the Bauhaus was on the list of institutions the Nazis considered enemy, and in 1933 they secured its final closure.

Summary

This is a visually powerful portfolio to support Willett’s thesis that a new fully modernist civilisation trembled on the brink of realisation in the uniquely innovative and experimental artistic culture of the Weimar Republic. This is more accessible and makes its points more viscerally than the often very clotted New Objectivity book, but probably both should be read together, not least to make sense of the Soviet connection which is omitted here but explored in numbing detail in the other book.

In passing I noticed that there’s no humour whatsoever in this book. Nothing for children, no book illustrations or cartoons. A handful of political cartoons radiating bitter cynicism but, basically, not a laugh in sight.

The other absence is sex. In the popular view Weimar is associated with the ‘decadence’ of the Berlin cabaret, with openly lesbian and gay bars and vaudevilles. Willett is having none of it. His Weimar is a puritan republic of high-minded artists, designers and architects devoted to bringing into being a better world, a fairer world, a workers’ world. There is a one-page spread about a volume of short stories whose cover showed a man groping a fully dressed woman but this is included solely to tell the story of how it was censored by the Weimar authorities. Sex is a bourgeois indulgence which undermines the dedication of the committed worker and intellectual.

Once you start pondering this absence, you realise there is little or nothing in either of Willett’s books about fashion, haircuts, dresses, about style and accessories, about new types of car and motoring accessories (gloves, goggles, helmets), about cartoons, popular novels, detective stories (this was the decade of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers). He mentions jazz, of course, but only as it inspired painters and German composers to include it as a theme in their serious works about social justice – not as a thing to relax and enjoy

Only by looking at other books about the same period and reading about the explosion of pastimes and leisure activities, of ways to have fun, does it dawn on you how very intense, very urban, very cerebral and very narrow Willett’s view is. His dream of a ‘new civilisation’ is just that, a dream.

Which also makes you realise how thin and brittle this layer of hyper-inventiveness in the arts turned out to be, how little it had spread, how little it had influenced or changed the minds or lives of the vast majority of the German population. When the crunch came, they followed Hitler, and acquiesced in the burning of the books, the banning of the plays, and the ridiculing of ‘degenerate art’.


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Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases, each of a single colour (red, yellow and blue), which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alexander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown Socialist Realist painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary, urban and atheist, but that they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971). It is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

Related links

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith (2013)

‘All I know is that we don’t have a government anymore, just thieves.’ (p.269)

Joseph

Joseph cycles out to the beach. He’s a cool, well-paid freelance translator. The current job has gone well and he’s cycled here to Kaliningrad strand on his priceless bicycle to take the sea air and feel the sand between his toes. Onto the empty beach rolls an odd-looking van, a butcher’s van with a model pig on the top. A thug gets out, comes over and starts talking to Joseph, then hassling him. Finally, he bundles him into the back of his van and the gulls flying overhead hear a single shot.

Moscow

Senior Investigator Arkady Renko and Detective Sergeant Victor Orlov attend the funeral of a Moscow gangster, Grisha Grigorenko, bantering with his thuggish son Alexi, observing the other mafia bosses in attendance – ‘Ape’ Beledon, Abdul Khan the ‘rap artist’, Isaac and Valentina Shagelman – before the hoods go off for a wake aboard the old crook’s luxury yacht, the Natalya Gocharova, moored in the Moscow river.

Renko and Orlov are distracted by a noisy demonstration marching by. It’s the readers and fans of the ‘fearless’ investigative journalist, Tatiana Petrovna, who recently fell to her death from her 6th floor apartment in Moscow. They’re protesting at the lack of investigation of her death and at the suspicious way her body has gone missing from the morgue.

Arkady joins the protest marchers, noting the presence of Tatiana’s editor Sergei Obolensky, the fashionable poet Maxim Dal, and other intelligentsia, among the crowd. Arkady also spots his occasional bed partner, Anya Rudenko, also a journalist, who lives in the same apartment block as him. Barely have the rag-tag marchers arrived outside Tatiana’s apartment building than a gang of skinheads attack them with steel-capped boots and metal pipes.

When the police turn up they are – as so often in these Arkady novels – much more scary than the criminals and start attacking the protesters. Arkady had been knocked to the floor by some skinheads, and was taking a serious kicking when the militia arrived. He manages to fight his way back to his feet, and then make his identity known to the militia, and tries to protect Anya from arrest.

When Arkady makes it away from the scene he discovers he has a black eye and cracked ribs, in fact one of his ribs has punctured a lung. Several days of bed rest are prescribed, with a pipe inserted in his chest which will help reinflate the lung.

He is tended by Dr Korsakova, the sardonic doctor who nursed him through being shot in the head in the Stalin’s Ghost, with much entertaining banter on both sides. She points out that, according to X-rays, shell fragments seem to be moving round inside his brain. They could rupture at any moment. ‘Might as well smoke, then’, says Arkady, with typical bloody-mindedness.

Arkady ignores the medical advice and starts making enquiries about the ‘suicide’. He visits Tatiana’s flat in a soon-to-be-demolished block, and finds it has been ransacked. He visits Svetlana, the young woman Tatiana took off the streets and fixed up in the flat opposite her, along with her six cats. He visits Tatiana’s editor, Obolensky, who says they’d both seen a TV report about a body washed up on the shore off Kaliningrad, and Tatiana had set off to find out more. Nobody had identified the short skinny corpse (the corpse of Joseph who we met in the opening chapter), but Tatiana had tracked down the kids who found the body on the beach and discovered that they had found Joseph’s notebooks. She bought themoff the kids and found they were full of notes made in an eccentric and idiosyncratic style, using personalised hieroglyphs and symbols.

In the usual style of the Renko books, the plot ramifies out into a number of threads:

  • The poet Maxim Dal is unusually interested in Tatiana because, he claims, they had an affair years earlier.
  • Arkady is surprised to come across his own, admittedly occasional, girlfriend, Anya, hanging out with Alexi, the crime boss’s son (more or less what happened in Stalin’s Ghost, when Arkady’s girlfriend deserted him for the bad guy in that novel).
  • Arkady visits Professor Kunin at Moscow University (p.89), an expert on language and ciphers, whose lungs are ruined and so who drags around an oxygen tank and breathing tube. Some interesting light is shed on translators’ codes in general, but Kunin can’t decipher these ones.

Zhenya

Arkady examines the notebook carefully and notes the recurrence of bicycle pictures and cats. When he rings them, the authorities in Kaliningrad, namely one Lieutenant Stasov, are monumentally unhelpful (hiding something? or just standard Russian obstructiveness?).

Zhenya, the street kid we first met aged 8 in Wolves Eat Dogs, is now a shabby-looking 17-year-old and appals Arkady by announcing he wants to join the army. (This gives Cruz Smith the opportunity to refer to the terrible ‘hazing’ ie systematic cruelty, to which new recruits are routinely subjected, and so he refuses to sign the paper allowing him to enlist.) But Zhenya complicates the plot by breaking into Arkady’s apartment and stealing the notebook. He’ll only give it back if Arkady signs the form.

Panther bicycles

Arkady has a beer at a genuine ‘Irish’ bar where the bartender, unexpectedly, turns out to be an expert on bicycles. He makes the connection between the bike frames doodled in the notebook and the images of cats. The latter must, in fact, be panthers. And Panther is a range of hand-built and extremely expensive bicycles made in Italy by a firm named Bicicletta Ercolo (p.109). So Arkady tracks down the firm’s phone number and makes some long distance phone calls to the owner of the firm in Italy.

These calls, with their confusions and misunderstandings, are partly played for laughs, but the owner eventually comes up with the name of a purchaser from Russia who more or less fits the corpse’s description – one Joseph Bonnafos (p.154).

Bad memories

Interleaved through the novel are Arkady’s memories of his brutal Red Army general father – especially the time the General nearly shot Arkady when the boy sneaked into his study and hid behind the thick curtains. Eventually his father killed himself (as his mother had, in the events traumatically described in Wolves Eat Dogs).

Arkady also remembers the events surrounding the tragic and futile death of his wife, Irina, mistakenly given an injection of penicillin to which she was allergic.

In this melancholy vein Arkady finds himself drawn to listening, in the haunted early hours, to the trove of tapes he found scattered over Tatiana’s floor. They are records of her investigations and amount to a summary of recent Russian scandals, which Tatiana either attended or investigated:

You can see why the authorities wanted her shut up. But what was her involvement with organised crime? To find out, Arkady goes the rounds of some of the gang leaders or godfathers he and Victor noted at Grisha’s funeral, notable Abdul Khan, ‘Ape’ Beledon, Valentina Shagelman.

In the middle of the night Arkady’s car alarm goes off and when he trudges down to the garage, he is knocked unconscious. Coming to, he finds himself on a barge on the river, being tortured by Alexi Grigorenko who, to his surprise, wants to find out what Arkady knows about Kaliningrad and to get him to hand over the notebook.

Alexi’s eyes were slightly hooded. Hands quick and delicate as a croupier’s. Under his jacket the hitch of a gun. (p.119)

Just as Arkady’s wondering whether he’ll die, Alexi makes a slip which allows Arkady to grab his arm, pull him down, dislocate his shoulder and punch him quite a few times in the face before walking free, in the casual insouciant manner we’ve become accustomed to.

Arkady learns from his friend, Willy the pathologist, that Tatiana’s body has gone from ‘missing’ to ‘found and cremated’ in one fell swoop. Nothing to see but ashes. Apparently, her sister, Ludmila, identified the body over the phone using photographs faxed to her. The sister lives in Kaliningrad. Aha.

Kaliningrad

As in Stalin’s Ghost a lot of the plot strands point towards a specific location outside Moscow, thus giving the author an opportunity to send the ostensibly Moscow-based investigator to a new and interesting location. In Stalin’s Ghost it was the town of Tver, scene of major battles in the Second World War. Here it is Kaliningrad, where Arkady flies to be met by the poet Dal, in his swanky ZIL, the Russian version of a limousine.

Dal claims he had to be in Kaliningrad anyway to promote some Moscow-to-Kaliningrad rally. He tells Arkady he wants to know more about Tatiana’s fate because he’s up for a sizeable poetry prize from the United States ($50,000) and, if her death turns out to be murder, the fact of his old relationship with her might jeopardise the award. They sound like excuses to Renko.

Arkady and Maxim go to visit the sister, who doesn’t even let them into the house but wears dark glasses and yells out the window. She is more concerned about her vegetables than her dead sister. Yes, she identified her sister’s body from the photos she was sent, what does she care? ‘Now please leave.’

This isn’t the result Arkady spent the time and money flying here to find out to get. Back at Maxim’s flat the poet gets hopelessly drunk. Arkady carries him to his bed and sleeps on the couch.

Moscow Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Zhenya takes part in a ‘Blitz’ chess championship among university students and finds himself losing to an attractive red-head named Lotte, the first time he’s lost a game of chess in years. Intrigued, he lets her take him home to meet her grandfather, who made a career painting nothing but portraits of Stalin back in the day.

Then Zhenya takes Lotte to Arkady’s empty apartment, the only place he has to go. They’re sharing a beer and playing a game of chess when Alexi walks in with a gun and a big bruise under his eye (where Arkady hit him). Alexi threatens Lotte and Zhenya with the gun, demanding to know where the notebook is. Zhenya feigns ignorance and angrily says he’s got hundreds of notebooks of chess games, but not the notebook Alexi wants. Alexi leaves, pissed off. But Zhenya does have the notebook. It was lying on the coffee table throughout the whole confrontation.

Pig man and amber

Kaliningrad Arkady insists Maxim drives him out to the sandy spit where Joseph’s body was found. Apparently, this is where Tatiana bought the notebook from the children. They see a few children in the sea, playing with rakes except Maxim explains they’re actually raking for amber, which they can sell for a good price. The butcher’s van with a model pig atop it, which we met in the first chapter, turns up and the driver watches the kids for a while. Ominous.

On the drive back from the spit, Maxim takes a detour to an open pit mine and tells Arkady that Kaliningrad produces 90% of the world’s amber. Until recently the mafiosi Grisha Grigorenko owned the whole operation. Until someone shot him in the head, that is. Grisha’s front company was named Curonian Amber, the Curonian Spit being the long, thin, curved sand-dune spit that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea coast.

So it looks more than ever as if the murder of Joseph the interpreter, the suicide of Tatiana the journalist, and the clumsy threats by Grisha Grigorenko, the gangster’s son, are somehow linked – and have something to do with control of Kaliningrad’s amber.

Maxim then takes Arkady on a car tour of the city, taking in Kant’s tomb and also the mock old town. It is going to be heavily invested in, apparently. Money is flooding into the area. They’re going to open casinos. Whoever owns it will make a fortune. So that explains the gangland connection…

Just as they arrive at the quaint quayside, a 4×4 looms out of nowhere, rams the ZIL to a standstill and two heavies get out with Uzis, which they proceed to empty into the side of Maxim’s car. But Maxim’s car is an old Kremlin ZIL, completely armour plated and, when Maxim goes to ram the other car, it reverses and takes off. Angry, Arkady extracts from Maxim the fact that he promised to help Alexi, and promised to be parked down at the quay at this time. Why? Because he was scared. Because Alexi threatened to kill him.

Moscow Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Alexi returns to Arkady’s flat to catch Zhenya and Lotte red-handed, trying to decode the notebook. They have barely made any sort of start but Alexi threatens that he’ll be back in 10 hours and, if they haven’t decoded it, he will torture Lotte. He takes the kids’ mobile phones. He cuts the cable of the apartment’s phone. He stations one of his men on the door with a gun.

Kaliningrad Back in Kaliningrad, Arkady returns to the spit of land and finds one of the boys who was playing there. He is called Vovo. He and his sister saw the pig man murder Joseph, then search through his clothes looking for something, before throwing them away. When he’d gone, the kids found the notebook and a card with a phone number scribbled on it. When they rang it, Tatiana answered, and told them to keep the notebook till she arrived and could pay them $50. Which is what happened. And so she passed it on to her editor for safekeeping. And he gave it to Arakdy. And then Zhenya stole it. And now Alexi is threatening to torture Lotte unless she and Zhenya decipher it.

A twist

Leaving a forlorn and broken Maxim, Arkady hires his own car and drives back to Ludmila’s cottage. Now she is not wearing dark glasses and her little pug dog bounces out the front door. Ludmila says, ‘So you’re back.’ Arkady says, ‘And you are Tatiana.’ And she admits it, yes. Her sister, almost identical to look at, was visiting her in Moscow. Someone lay in wait and bundled her over the balcony rail. Max rang her at the magazine to tell her someone had murdered her sister thinking it was her, came to pick her up, and they drove through the night to Kaliningrad where they agreed Tatiana’s best hope of surviving was to impersonate the sister.

Arkady understand. ‘Will she be safe here?’ she asks Arkady. ‘No’, he replies. Especially when he points out that there’s an unmarked police car parked opposite her cottage, keeping an eye on her.

So they devise a scam. Arkady takes her dog for a walk past the car and rolls its toy ball under the car. The cop in it turns out to be the obstructive Lieutenant Stasov, who yells at him to piss off, while Arkady makes a big song and dance about getting the ball back for his dog. By the time this noisy charade has been played out, Tatiana has slipped out of the side door and mingled with the passing pedestrians.

Moscow Back in Moscow, the ten hours Alexi gave Lotte and Zheny to decipher toe notebooks are up, and the man guarding the door of Arkady’s apartment goes to push it open to shoot Zhenya and Lotte, to the latters’ horror. But there are the sounds of a scuffle, and the door eventually opens to reveal stalwart old Victor banging the hood’s head against the wall, before throwing him down the stairs. Hooray! Lotte and Zhenya are saved!

Victor handcuffs the hood – named Fedorov – and allows Zhenya to menace him with Arkady’s pistol, till he admits that Alexi is in Kaliningrad, along with the heads of the mafia families we met at his dad’s funeral. But why?

Kaliningrad Back in Kaliningrad, Arkady meets up with Tatiana at a bicycle shop and they sign up to one of the all-day, all-night bicycle outings he’d seen advertised. Soon they are anonymous among a pack of cyclists leaving the city. That night they camp in the countryside, sing songs round a campfire, and are surprised to watch a small orgy get underway among the cyclists. Takes all sorts. They sleep chastely in a tent till dawn, then cycle off along the coast to Tatiana’s childhood seaside house, full of family memories.

Here Tatiana explains that the government of crooks, dedicated to embezzling vast amounts for the state, has made a massive cock-up with its latest nuclear submarine, which cost hundreds of billions of rubles but is still not seaworthy.

The meeting of gangsters seems to be about a plan to get the submarine refurbished and cream off vast profits from the project. Joseph had been a translator at an initial meeting of those involved in the conspiracy, Tatiana had heard of him through her multiple contacts, and was going to ask Joseph to explain the details, but he was killed before he could meet her.

Tatiana explains that all the cases of corruption she’s dealt with over the past decades build to a climax with this one. It’s the lynch pin to the entire Russian system of official corruption – which is why everyone wants it.

Suddenly a searchlight cuts through the window of the cottage. It’s Alexi in a sleek, designer speedboat. He shouts threats through a loudhailer. He asks Tatiana if she wants to know what happened to her sister, Arkady if he wants to know what happened to Zhenya (implying he’s killed him). Tatiana, bravely or foolishly, walks into the open doorway and Alexi fires wildly at her, missing, but sending splinters pinging, then swings the boat around and roars away. Arkady was winged by some of the splinters. Tatiana cleans and dresses the wound, their hands touch, they kiss, they make love.

‘Afterward was an overused word, Arkady thought. It meant so much. A shifting of planets. A million years. A new sea. (p.276)

Now lovers, the couple go on the run, cycling up the coast in the dark. They encounter armed security guards who turn a searchlight on them and fire with automatics; but in the fog, they escape amid a herd of elk and cycle back to the resort town of Zeleogradsk and try to blend in as tourists.

From an internet cafe, they skype with Zhenya, Lotte and Victor in Arkady’s flat and both groups share the information they’ve discovered – Zhenya confirming the interpretation that the notebook was the record of conference, various parties spoke, it’s something to do with the sea, maybe a submarine, that the final meeting will be aboard the luxury yacht, the Natalya Gocharova, which has moored at Kaliningrad.

So getting out to the yacht and intervening in the meeting now becomes the plan.

The Natalya Gocharovas

In an odd scene Maxim, Arkady and Tatiana argue over which of them will be wired for sound and go out to the yacht, and who will stay in the flat recording whatever happens, onto a tape recorder.

In the event, Maxim insists that he goes instead of Tatiana, insisting on steering a dinghy out to the yacht moored in the harbour, on the basis that he’s a local and knows the seaways. It’s a very spooky and atmospheric trip…

But when they get there, the Natalya Gocharova is dark and unpopulated. What’s going on? Maxim turns nasty and claims the whole thing is a set-up so that Arkady could get him alone and kill him. Ridiculous, but the old drunk pulls out a pistol and is about to shoot Arkady when the latter’s mobile phone rings. It is Zhenya – he has somehow found out that there are two Natalya Gocharovas – the other one is an oil tanker, also moored in the harbour.

So Maxim grugingly puts his gun away and they putter on into the industrial section of the port, and discover that the other Natalya Gocharova is a ‘stubby coastal tanker’. Maxim and Arkady chunter up to it and ascend the rusty ladder to find a champagne party taking place. Overseeing it is old ‘Ape’ Beledon, along with Abdul the ‘rap artist’, Isaac and Valentina Shagelman, Alexi, along with a number of naval officers and two Chinese representatives from the Red Dawn shipyard.

There is a tense stand-off in which Arkady gets ‘Ape’ to confess details of the scam – the Russian government will sub-contract the refurbishment of the nuclear submarine to a Chinese shipyard, at a cost of billions of rubles (hence the presence of the Chinese delegates). But Russian crooks will work with corrupt government officials, going as high as the Kremlin, to cream half the sum into private pockets. It is a vast corruption conspiracy and explains the murders and assassinations which have surrounded it.

Arkady, initially outnumbered, does the classic thing of sowing disunity among his foes by pointing out:

a) that it was ‘Ape’s own sons who shot up the ZIL he and Maxim were in – not at Ape’s bidding, so someone else must have ordered them, probably Alexi – ‘aren’t you even in control of your own sons?’
b) that whoever killed someone as savvy as Grisha, must have been very close to him to get away with it – who else but his nearest and dearest son, Alexi?

At this very tense moment, Tatiana appears on deck, having rowed out to the tanker, and cries out to Alexi that he killed her sister.

She pulls a gun and fires on him but it jams and Alexi fires back at her. Maxim steps into the path of the bullet and is shot in the shoulder. ‘Ape’ – now convinced that Alexi shot his own father and suborned his, ‘Ape’s, sons, – shoots Alexi in the face, then twice in the back as he lies on deck. The naval officers have disappeared. The Chinese are long gone. ‘Ape’ suavely places the pistol in Maxim’s hands.

‘Congratulations. By the evidence you have just shot your first man.’ (p.312)

Being a reasonably civilised mafiosi – and realising there’s nothing to be gained by harming them – ‘Ape’ lets Arkady and Tatiana and Maxim go back to their boat and leave.

Death of the pig man

Now Arkady and Tatiana are free to share idyllic days in her family cabin by the sea. The shifting dunes, the sound of the waves breaking, the salt in the air – are all painted by Cruz Smith with characteristic prose poetry.

But Arkady wakes one night to hear footsteps prowling. It is the pig man, the psycho who killed Joseph in the opening scene. So Arkady is relieved when Tatiana announces that her editor, Obolensky, has commissioned her to write a long piece about Kremlin corruption, with the Natalya Gocharova story as its centrepiece. She has to go to Moscow to research and write it.

Off she goes and Arkady prepares for a shootout with the pig man. He rummages around in Tatiana’s father’s old tool shed and finds lots of cabling. He wraps this round himself and slips a poncho over. That night the pig van with the glowing model of a pig on top comes rumbling over the dunes. It parks and the pig man throws the three children Arkady met weeks ago, onto the sand, trussed and tied up. He threatens to shoot them unless Arkady shows himself. Arkady stands and walks towards piggy who, after some insults, shoots him. Arkady is knocked backwards but rises and walks forward. Pig man shoots again, and again Arkady staggers but carries on walking (as in a thousand movies), finally raising Tatiana’s little peashooter of a pistol and killing pig man at almost point blank range.

All threats are over.

Cleaning the bike

With the kids’ help Arkady and Tatiana find the lost Pantera bicycle. They take it back to Arkady’s flat in Moscow, strip it down and rebuild it. Zhenya gets involved. Tatiana is off collecting international prizes for journalism. Lotte, Zhenya’s ‘friend’, is playing at an international chess tournament in Cairo. His ex, Anya, is happily covering fashion. Maxim has recovered and has published a new poem.

All loose ends are tidied up and everyone is happy. Thus ends the 8th and most recent Arkady Renko novel.

Having read all eight, my favourites are Polar Star and Wolves Eat Dogs because their settings give full rein to Cruz Smith’s spectacular abilities as a prose poet. But all of them are immensely enjoyable and rewarding reads.


Credit

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Simon and Schuster in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Simon and Schuster paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith (2010)

She crossed the road to look at the bus shelter. It had been built during a period of optimism, and although the pain had faded and holes had been mysteriously punched through the wall, Maya could still make out the faint outline of a rocket ship lifting off the ground, aspiring to more. The bus route had been closed for years. The shelter was mainly used now as a pissoir and message centre: GO FUCK YOURSELF, I FUCKED YOUR MOTHER, HEIL HITLER, OLEG SUCKS COCK.(p.118)

Three Stations is the nickname Muscovites give to Komsomol Square because of the proximity of three mainline railway stations, as well as the intersection of two metro lines and ten lanes of traffic, ‘a Circus Maximus with cars’ (p.12). Into its vortex are swept the worst scum of Moscow.

Men with vague intentions idled in small groups, beers in hand, watching prostitutes grind by. The women walked with a predatory eye and looked as likely to eat their clients as have sex with them. (p.13)

This is the shortest (277 pages) and most Muscovite of the Arkady Renko novels, as it uses its characters and plot to explore the dingy surrounds, the violent underworld, and the moneyed corruption of Arkady’s home town. Its 36 chapters are short and punchy, making it feel fast-moving and edgy.

Arkady

Senior Moscow crime investigator Arkady Renko is in deep poo with his boss, prosecutor Zurin, despite solving the mystery of ‘Stalin’s ghost’ and nailing two colleagues who turned out to be murderers in the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

Zurin has forbidden him to work on any case. Typically, Arkady gets round this ban by simply tagging along with his assistant, the trying-to-give-up-alcohol detective Viktor Orlov. The novel opens with the pair standing over the body of a murdered prostitute in a shabby trailer near the three Stations. She seems to have been poisoned then her skirt hitched up around her waist and her legs carefully arranged so one ankle is touching the other heel. Why?

They follow a power cable from the one naked bulb in the trailer, through rubbish outside, to the nearest militia office: i.e. the police appear to have been pimping her out. This comes as no surprise since successive Renko novels have taught us that Russian police are often worse than the criminals they supposedly pursue; someone who’s been burgled often finds the militia removing any valuables the burglars missed.

Arkady names the corpse ‘Olga’ and gets an old schoolfriend, fat Willi Pazenko, to do an autopsy. She was given knock-out pills then poisoned with ether, which has remained in her asphyxiated lungs.

Zhenya

For the last couple of novels Arkady’s life has been enlivened by the occasional presence of Zhenya, a street kid who flops in his apartment sometimes, but also goes missing for stretches. Zhenya is a larger presence in this book than usual, as we see him fitting in with the hundreds if not thousands of street kids who infest the squalid Three Stations area. Cruz Smith repeats the stunning fact, first mentioned in Stalin’s Ghost, that there are anything up to 50,000 children living wild on the streets of Moscow, having run away from the traditional Russian, alcoholic, abusive home, and who have contributed to an epidemic of petty crime, mugging, arson and vandalism (p.102).

Zhenya differs from most of the kids in that he is a chess genius, rarely seen nott clutching his precious board. In the previous novel we learn that his father, Osip Lysenko, spotted his talent from an early age and used him to lure unwary passengers on trains or in waiting rooms into chess games which Zhenya was briefed to lose until the gull could be persuaded to bet big money on a game – at which point Zhenya wiped the floor with him. If Zhenya made any mistakes, let alone lost, his father beat him. That’s why he ran away when he was about 8 and Arkady first met him at one of Moscow’s many refuges for children.

Zhenya is 15 now and playing chess for money is the only life skill he has. Thus, throughout the novel there are scenes where he persuades unwary travellers between the three stations to bet on a match with him, with variable results, including violence.

Maya

The novel actually opens by introducing us to a simple-minded young woman, Maya Pospelova, aged 16. She is on a train to Moscow with her very small baby, Katya. When she goes outside the carriage to breast feed it she is confronted by a drunken soldier who threatens her for a blowjob. She is rescued by a sweet old lady, calling herself Auntie Lenya, who smacks the soldier and sends him off, before helping Maya back to her seat, giving her some of Auntie Lenya’s nice tea etc, generally fussing over her and telling her to get some rest while she looks after the baby.

When Maya wakes up the train is in Moscow station and Auntie Lenya and the baby are gone. Distraught, she searches all over the train, asks the guard, the driver, any station official she can find, and then the police. Nada. Nothing.

It is now that she is spotted by Zhenya who gets talking to her. He takes pity on her and takes her back to his secret base, a luxury casino near the station, named after Peter the Great, which has recently been closed down and mothballed, but which Zhenya is the only one to have figured out how to break into. Thus he – and she, now – have free run of a big, eerily empty building, giving Cruz Smith scope for some typically atmospheric descriptions.

Eva

Fans of the previous books in the series will be impatient to find out what happened to Dr Eva Kazka, the doctor Arkady hooked up with two novels previously, and who was – shockingly and unexpectedly – seriously wounded in a knife attack in the very last pages of the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

We have to wait until page 70 before she’s even mentioned whereupon we find out, rather disappointingly, that she recovered from her injuries, that their relationship staggered on a bit, and then she left him. She simply declared she didn’t want to wait around for him to be executed by criminals; she didn’t want to be the grieving widow at the graveside. Boom. She’s out of his life. Shame, She was a sparky, recalcitrant element in the novels.

The Nijinsky Fair

At the scene of Olga’s death, Arkady found an invitation to a glitzy, high society charity event called the Nijinsky Fair, so he uses it to go along. He looks woefully out of place, a skinny, lank, badly-dressed cop trying to mingle with super-rich mafia types and skinny supermodels in a huge ballroom festooned with luxury brands, flashing lights, waiters serving champagne cocktails and so on. Arkady catches sight himself in a room full of mirrors.

With so many mirrors reflecting each other, he seemed to share the room with multiple desperate men with lank hair and eyes deep as drains, the sort of figure who might wander the streets on a rainy night and cause people to roll up their car windows and jump the traffic light. (p.126)

Not, in other words, a desperately reassuring presence. To his surprise he bumps into Anya Rudikova, his new neighbour in his apartment building, a rather self-dramatising journalist. She is drinking with Sasha Vaksberg, a characteristically semi-criminal New Russian multi-millionaire who was running a set of casinos among other things, until ‘our friend in the Kremlin’ decided to cut the oligarchs down to size and closed them all down. His casinos include the Peter the Great casino in Three Stations, which we have seen Zhenya making his hideout. Aha. The reader has the familiar sensation of threads and storylines beginning to pull together.

This party is actually a charity event, given by nice Mr Vaksberg to raise money for the very street kids we’ve seen as we follow Maya and Zhenya. It leads up to a big stage show, part of which features ballet dancers, not actually dancing but adopting the numbered postures and positions they use in training. For some reason number 4 is missing, so Vaksberg surprises us all by running down onto the stage and nimbly adopting the posture himself. Laughter from his super-rich audience. More cocktails. Gaiety as a trapeze artist pulls cunning stunts and then there is another tableau, this time of the dwarfs from Snow White. And so the show rambles on while Arkady watches, dazed by all the bling on display.

The trapeze arsonist

Poking around, as is his habit, Arkady finds himself backstage and climbs to the gallery to look down on the stage. Here he finds the trapeze artist who was part of the show, crouched on his almost invisible wire. As Arkady asks him questions, the artist dementedly lights matches for each question and drops them down into the flies below. He could easily start a fire which would cause mayhem in the club, is he mad? Scratch, another match dropped. Arkady makes his excuses and leaves…

Maya the child prostitute

We get an incredibly bleak flashback of Maya’s childhood in some God-forsaken dump miles from Moscow and civilisation, working from as early as she can remember, since before puberty, as a child prostitute in a room decorated as a little girl’s room, all in pink complete with teddy bears.

She remembers all the fat, middle-aged clients who want to fuck Daddy’s little girl but end up on the side of the bed crying. Matti, her Finnish pimp, tells her she’s been sold into prostitution by her parents, presumably to buy more vodka, that noble drink for, as Arkady points out, ‘Four out of every five violent crimes involved vodka’ (p.20).

It is a portrait of a society in complete moral and social collapse.

‘Girls flock to Moscow with romantic ambitions of being models or dancers and Moscow turns them into escorts and whores. We wax them and pluck them and inflate their breasts like balloons. In short, we turn them into freaks of beauty.’ (p.138)

Eventually, Maya becomes pregnant, which causes trouble with the brothel’s owners who make Matti look like Father Christmas. Soon as she’s had the baby, two of the ‘Catchers’, as they’re known, come to visit, intending to take Maya away and make an example of her as they have of previous girls who in any way rebelled – burn her face off with acid or break every bone in her body, that kind of thing. Foolishly, they let her sit in the derelict bus shelter out front of the brothel while they crank up with some of Matti’s vodka.

Unexpectedly, an Army bus is passing from the nearby barracks and to everyone’s surprise stops when Maya sticks her hand out. She quickly boards to the cheers of the soldiers and although the Catchers come running out brandishing pistols, the bus has pulled off and Maya is safe. It drops her at the local train station and she uses all her pitiful savings to buy a train ticket to Moscow. It was on this journey that the kindly old lady stole her baby.

Shootout on the freeway

Back in the present, Vaksberg offers Arkady and Anya a lift home in his huge armour-plated, bullet-proof Mercedes. As it starts to rain, Vaksberg sits snugly inside patting the Adidas bag filled with the takings from the charity event, bitterly complaining how ‘the judo master in the Kremlin’ (p.138) ie Putin, has screwed the oligarchs.

The car drives up onto a stretch of freeway flyover which was never completed and the car stops at the edge of the road, yawning into space as thunder and lightning erupt. Vaksberg gets out to pace under an umbrella and is in mid-rant when the trunk of the Mercedes unexpectedly pops open and a figure opens up with a gun. Vaksberg’s bodyguard fires back and is mown down by sheets of submachine gun bullets, same with the driver, as Vaksberg drops to the floor and Anya hides inside the car. Meanwhile, Arkady grabs the bodyguard’s gun and walks calmly towards the boot and, as the assailant pauses to reload, shoots him dead.

To everyone’s surprise the shooter turns out to be the man who played Dopey from the Seven Dwarfs in the gala show earlier that evening.

Maya in the underground

Maya falls into the unhealthy orbit of a bully boy among the street kids, Yegor, who promises to find her baby for her if she becomes his whore. Zhenya tries to dissuade her but he can’t out-gun Yegor and his gang. Yegor’s mere name inspires terror.

Yegor’s name was a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade. (p.62)

In fact, we now learn how and why the baby was stolen. After leaving the train holding Maya’s baby, Auntie Lenya emerges from the toilets in her true identity of Magdalena, and joins up with the drunken soldier who turns out to be her partner in crime, Vadim. They take the baby back to their flat and then on to an apartment overlooking the Three Stations. Here, in a crappy Soviet-era tower block, lives Colonel Kassim and his wife, who is always nagging him for a baby.

Now Kassim pays off Magdalena and presents his wife with a real baby. But it is crying for its milk and refuses to take formula. After twelve hours of non-stop crying Kassim’s wife is begging him to get rid of the horrible little brat.

He packs it in a box with airholes punched in it, puts it in a carrier bag and sets off through the drizzle to the chaos of Three Stations. On one of the concourses he finds nowhere good to ditch a whimpering baby and is wondering what to do next, when he realises – he’s been robbed. He put the bag down for a second and – it’s gone! Oh well. Job done, he returns to his apartment where his wife resumes her nagging.

The catchers

The two angry Catchers arrive in Moscow in pursuit of the girl who got away. They show people in the Three Stations crowds photos of Maya. One of the people they show is Zhenya, who feigns ignorance but realises Maya is in deadly danger and is wondering how to get word to her, but one of the other street kids has already been shown the photo and immediately told the bad guys Maya is holed up with the street kid, Yegor. Off they go to find her.

Angry Anya

The journalist Anya turns up on Arkady’s doorstep, soaking wet and furious. Arkady left her and Vaksberg at the scene of the shooting waiting for the militia who, of course, stole the Adidas bag with the cash in it and gave them both a grilling. Some friend he turns out to be! Anya sleeps on his sofa, carrying on giving him a hard time until Arkady rather angrily shows her the letter he’s just received from his boss, Zurin.

Arkady has been officially fired for disobeying the clear order not to take part in any further investigations. So he has no influence with the cops any more, that’s why he left the shooting scene, advising Vaksberg to take the credit for shooting the assassin.

Itsy’s gang

Now the novel introduces us to a new set of characters, the barely pubescent members of Itsy’s street gang. Turns out it’s they who stole Colonel Kassim’s bag and are astonished to find it contains a crying baby. The narrative gives us several half-comic descriptions of owners of shops around Three Stations being ‘steamed’ by a gang of children storming through their shop, causing havoc but, when the dust settles, only having lost nappies, wipes and milk formula. Aha. That’ll be Itsy’s gang deciding they are going to raise the baby as their own and stealing the necessary kit.

We get Itsy’s backstory, too. Like Maya’s parents selling her into prostitution and Zhenya’s dad beating him until he became a chess huckster or Arkady’s own dad bullying him until he can strip and rebuild a pistol, Itsy’s childhood was one of unmitigated misery. Her father was a dog breeder, often drunk, who forced Itsy to feed and tend his dogs. One day he went too far and began knocking her about inside the dog pen and the dogs, who had come to think of Itsy as their feeder, savaged him to death. She left for Moscow with the fiercest dog, Tito, and quickly carved out a space in the street gangs.

In the morgue

Inevitably disobeying his boss’s instructions, Arkady accompanies Viktor to the morgue to see Dopey’s body. Stripped bare it is covered with amateur tattoos. Viktor expains to Arkady (and the reader) that Russian criminal tattoos give an elaborate account of the owner’s criminal career. Dopey was no amateur; he was a hard-core professional criminal.

Arkady notices the crop of other corpses on ice in the morgue includes a young man who has committed suicide.

Viktor has been doing some research at Arkady’s suggestion, and found a number of other murdered young women from the past few years, all found without panties, with their dresses hitched up around their waists and their legs arranged in funny postures. In a flash Arkady realises all the murdered women have been posed in the classical postures of ballet training, the ones he saw at the Nijinsky Club!

Ballet dancers

Arkady sets out to interview the inhabitants of the tower block which overlooks the trailer where ‘Olga’ was found. He meets he choreographer of the Nijinsky Club, Madame Isa Spiridona, fascinating survivor from happier times, with her b&w photos of the greats.

With a shock Arkady recognises the photo of her son on the mantelpiece – Roman Spiridon – as the corpse he saw in the morgue. Madame Spiridona explains that she got a message to say he was going on a long trip, passed on to her by his old friend Sergei Borodin. And from another photograph he identifies the trapeze artist behind the scenes at the Nijinsky Club, the one who behaved as if he was mad, as the ‘friend’, Borodin. Could he… have murdered M. Spiridona’s son? Is he the killer?

When Arkady leaves, Madame S lets him take a coffee table book which has taken his fancy, about the great dancer Nijinsky, since ballet seems to be the thing and the club was named after him…

The catchers

Maya is plying her new trade under the supervision of young Yegor. She is in the middle of being screwed by a middle-aged Pakistani trader, Ali, who has broken off to go for a pee, when the two Catchers burst into the seedy hotel room. Ali returns to find them waiting for him. ‘Where’s the girl?’ they ask. They torture him but he doesn’t know. In fact Maya had heard a sound outside, hidden from the Catchers, then slipped into the hall and out while they attack Ali.

She steps over the body of Yegor, who has had his pool cue broken and stuffed down his throat before the Catchers then killed him. For his part, before he dies Ali mentions Zhenya, whose name he’s heard being mentioned by the girl and Yegor. Oops.

Anya attacked

When Maya finds Zhenya and tells him what she saw, Zhenya knows bad trouble is coming and phones Arkady. Our hero picks him and Maya up and bring them back to his apartment, where he interviews the terrified girl, along with trusty (if alcoholic sidekick) Viktor.

Half way through Arkady senses rather than hears something and goes cautiously into the next door apartment, the one recently leased by the pain-in-the-neck journalist, Anya.

He and Viktor discover Anya in a crumpled heap against the wall, no knickers and her skirt pushed up around her waist, her legs posed in ballet posture number 5, blue and not breathing.

Arkady realises she is suffering from anaphylactic shock, having mentioned something about being allergic to milk. He saves her life by finding her EPI pen in her fridge, and injecting her with a full dose in the thigh. Above her body, ‘God is shit’ has been sprayed in big words on the wall.

Anya starts and begins breathing. Soon she is conscious again. Arkady wraps her in blankets, feeds her, settles her on his bed, packs Viktor off to his long-suffering wife and settles down to read the book Madame Spiridona leant him. But it isn’t a book about Nijinsky, it is an edition of his notorious diary, which chronicles his descent into madness, and it falls open at one of his rants.

God is dog, Dog is God, Dog is shit, God is shit, I am shit, I am God. (p.218)

So Arkady realises: he is dealing with a Nijinsky-channeling, ballet-obsessed serial killer.

Itsy’s gang

In a weird scene Itsy takes some of her gang of kids shoplifting leaving the two boys, Leo, Peter and Emma to guard their camp and look after the baby. The two boys immediately sniff air freshener and have a trip. They see a brightly caparisoned Mongol from the Golden Horde approaching, jangling his bridle. In fact it is a street cleaning machine driven by a Tajik (although Muscovites call anyone who comes from one of the central Asian republics a ‘Tajik’, regardless of their ethnic identity).

The driver sees that the boards of several crates near the kids’ base have been broken off to make firewood. What they don’t know is that the crates contain a big consignment of Afghan heroin which is being stored here in the scruffy backstreets before being distributed.

The ‘Tajik’ is not happy at the discovery. He pulls Peter’s head back and is about to slash his throat, when the baby starts crying. Emma, who has seen all this, scuttles to the furthest end of the container, and watches as the ‘Tajik’ approaches the baby’s makeshift cot.

She – and the reader – fear the absolute worst and steel our nerves. But when Emma pokes her head out from cover, the ‘Tajik’ has left, and she discovers the baby alive and kicking, having been given an amulet with Koranic script on it to suck on. Thank God there is some humanity in this God-forsaken wasteland.

Anya apologises

It’s a few days later and Anya is well enough to be up and doing her part time charity work, distributing condoms to the street children. We see her being hassled by the militia who try to blackmail out of her box till they realise what’s in it. Back in the apartment block she knocks on Arkady’s door to thank him and apologise again. She has found out from contacts that Vaksberg is virtually bankrupt and has been creaming the money from his own charities. The whole incident with Dopey was staged by him. Dopey was meant to steal the bag of cash and make off, later giving it to Vaksberg (minus a fee) but he got carried away with the gun and sparked a bloodbath.

Anya carefully establishes that Eva has definitely left, and that Arkady is definitely a single man – before abruptly consenting to have sex with him. Arkady isn’t complaining.

The catchers

Itsy returns from the shoplifting trip and Emma tells her what happened with the ‘Tajik’. Itsy realises they have to leave this base. She hussles her gang into packing up and moving out, whipping them on ahead of her, but Peter and Leo are lagging behind. When she goes back to find them, she discovers they have both been shot dead by the Catchers, their little bodies lying in the mechanics trench next to the trailer.

Then Itsy herself is shot dead by Ilya, one of the Catchers. He crouches over her body and is not at all expecting Tito the wolf to attack him, knocking him onto the trench and, while his partner tries to get a clear shot, ripping open his carotid artery so he is dead in seconds. Tito then bounds out of the trench to kill the second Catcher, but he empties his magazine into the beast which falls dead.

Christ, he thinks, what a mess. How is he going to move his partner’s body? Then he realises there’s a laser red mark on his own body, and he himself is shot by the ‘Tajik’. Carnage.

Sergei Borodin

Arkady is fairly sure the trapeze artist, Sergei Borodin, is the killer so he rings him, and implies he has the evidence to convict him, and invites him to his apartment for a chat. Then Arkady sets up two separate tape recorders to capture everything.

Eerily, Sergei is accompanied by his mother, who clearly dominates and dictates his life (distant echoes of Norman Bates in Psycho). Realising he really thinks he is Nijinsky reincarnated, Arkady plays on his delusions and extracts a spectacular confession from Borodin. All helped when he stage manages for the supposedly dead Anya to enter Arkady’s kitchen dressed in the nightgown she was wearing when Sergei tried to murder her, at just the right psychological moment. Confronted by a ghost, Borodin screams his confession.

Sasha at the races

Arkady visits Vaksberg at a racetrack outside Moscow where the millionaire is hosting a bizarre party. When Arkady had left the scene of the shooting of Dopey, he had told Anya and Sasha to omit mention of his presence and claim that it was Sasha who foiled a daring attack on a respectable businessman.

This has had the unexpected consequence of turning Vaksberg into a popular hero and, even more improbably, he has been rehabilitated with the Kremlin, had his passport returned, and his ability to do business restored.

Hence he is getting back into the swing of things with a new business venture. Although the stands at the racecourse are empty, the loudspeakers blare out the sounds of cheering crowds, as the relatively small number of VIP guests quaff champagne and let them be persuaded by Sasha to get involved in his next enterprise, buying and breeding elite racehorses.

This isn’t the first time Arkady sees Moscow’s hyper-rich in action and each time it gets harder to bear.

On his mobile Arkady gets a call from Viktor identifying Dopey as a regular at the racetrack, Pavel Petrovich Maksimov. Without even being questioned, Sasha suavely admits to Arkady that the dwarf attack was staged, and confirms Anya’s story that, yes, he was, at that point, skimming money from his own charities. But now everything has turned out well – ‘more champagne, detective?’

Madame Furtseva

In his questioning of characters in the apartment block overlooking Three Stations Arkady had met Madame Furtseva, a world famous photographer, her rooms adorned with b&w photos of the mid-century greats, Hemingway, Malraux etc. Out of nowhere, she appears next to the startled Emma in one of the alleyways around the Square, and offers to take her in.

Old and infirm, Madame Furtseva explains that, although she can barely move nowadays, still she likes to spend her time staring out the window, observing the human wildlife prowling around the waterholes of the Three Stations. She has seen a lot of Emma’s story play out and offers to protect her and the baby.

Car chase with Sergei

To his astonishment Arkady’s solid gold confession from Sergei Borodin is rejected by Arkady’s vindictive boss, Zurin, because it was obtained while Arkady was not technically employed as an investigator. Borodin is released from custody to kill again.

Driving back from police headquarters in Viktor’s knackered Lada, Arkady finds himself terrorised by a shining black Hummer. There is a high tension car chase around the snowy, midnight-black streets of Moscow and when the Hummer draws level the automatic window slips slickly down and Sergei points a pistol at Arkady’s head, smiling like the psycho he is.

But all the time Arkady has been driving towards his own rundown neighbourhood, and in particular towards the pothole which has been causing him grief intermittently throughout the novel and which we have observed various squads of unhappy workman trying and failing to fill.

Now, as Sergei goes to pull the trigger, the Hummer hits the big pothole at 150 kph, upending into it so that Borodin mother and son go flying through the windscreen at speed. End of the Borodins.

The final catcher

In a final sequence the sort-of family of Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya take a break at his father the General’s old dacha out in the country by a lake.

But – with wild improbability – Arkady has been ‘befriended’ by the second of the Catchers. Turns out he wasn’t shot dead by the ‘Tajik’ as we thought, just shot through the shoulder.

Now recovered, the Catcher makes efforts to adopt an (implausible) disguise, pretending to be a bookish intellectual who bumps into Arkady at libraries. He follows the ‘family’ to Arkady’s dacha and makes elaborate plans to swim across the lake in a wetsuit, emerge silently and kill them all in their beds.

Instead, as he emerges slickly from the black water, Arkady who had long ago rumbled his disguise, is waiting, and cuts him open from sternum to balls, then watches him writhe and die in the lake water, in clouds of his own blood.

This whole sequence feels like it comes from a different novel, even a different type of novel, a more straightforward action hero novel.

Maya’s baby returned

And in another scene which doesn’t quite match the tone of the book, the reader is surprised to encounter a fairy tale happy ending.

Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya put on a little carnival in one of the squares around Three Stations, hiring a number of child-friendly acts, balloons and entertainers, jugglers and fire eaters.

Lured from her hideyhole up in the veteran photographer’s apartment, Emma wanders open-eyed among the marvels and, when Arkady asks her to, very gently hands little baby Katya back to her mother, Maya.

Against all probability, plausibility or reason, this made me burst into tears. Thank God that something good and innocent and pure is capable of coming out of the moral, physical, spiritual, economic and cultural desolation which is modern Russia.

Comment

Three Stations is the shortest of the Renko novels and feels like a chamber symphony, with all the same instruments and elements, but on a more domestic scale, based on tighter, tauter, more integrated plotlines and themes – especially the locale of Three Stations with its hookers, street kids and street crime.

The waiting hall at Kazansky station put Zhenya in mind of the nocturnal habitat at the zoo, a place where things stirred indistinctly and species were difficult to identify. (p.41)

Russia is depicted as a lost, doomed civilisation. Is it really as woeful, as impoverished, violent and corrupt as depicted in these novels? Are there really so many Russian prostitutes in Italy that the new slang word for prostitute is ‘Natasha’? (p.18)

Mind you, in 2009 when this novel was being written, the entire global financial system was nearly brought to its knees by clever bankers in London and New York, and Cruz Smith makes the point that, in many ways, we in the West are no better, having the New Russian billionaire crook Vaksberg drily comment:

‘A year ago we had over a hundred billionaires in Moscow. Today there are less than thirty. So it’s the best of times, the worst of times and sometimes it’s just the shits. It turns out we don’t know how to run capitalism. That’s to be expected. As it happens, nobody knows how to run capitalism. That was a bad surprise. Cigarette?’ (p.97)

Maybe because it’s shorter and tauter, there were fewer really breath-taking turns of phrase in this novel than in its predecessors, though there are still some crackers:

The Lada’s exhaust pipe and muffler hung low and occasionally dragged a rooster tail of sparks. (p.8)

He tried to sleep but his anger was a match struck before a mirror and he saw what a fool he’d been. (p.160)

As a footnote, I annotated for the first time something I’ve noticed in the past few Cruz Smith novels, a particular verbal formula which helps express Arkady’s sense of whatevere-ness, a kind of verbal shrug of the shoulders: his or the narrator’s habit of saying or thinking that, if something is not x, then what is?

The director of the children’s shelter that Zhenya originally came from claimed that the boy and Arkady had a special relationship. Zhenya’s father had shot Arkady. If that wasn’t special, what was? (p.9)

‘A healthy young woman was dead. If that doesn’t make you suspicious, what does?’ (p.89)

I like it. I like pretty much everything about these wonderful books.


Credit

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Mantle in 2011. All quotes and references to the 2011 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith (2007)

This is the sixth of the eight novels featuring Russian homicide investigator, Arkady Renko, and arguably the most Russian.

As usual there is an extensive cast list and lots of scenes, events and encounters which often border on the bizarre and even visionary. For example, one evening Arkady is driving through the choked Moscow traffic when he comes across a jam around the Moscow Supreme Court. Getting closer he sees canvas awnings and police guiding the traffic, so he gets out to ask what’s going on. A cop tells him that workaday excavations under the Supreme Court to build a new café and facilities have revealed a mass grave. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Russians during the Stalin era of the 1930s, 40s and 50s were brought directly from the court room down into the cellar and shot in the back of the head.

Later in the novel, in countryside hundreds of miles from Moscow, Arkady gets accidentally involved with a group which calls itself ‘the Diggers’, poor provincials who assemble every weekend at rural sites which might contain mass graves from the second world war, and here they dig up the corpses, looting anything valuable from the German ones, sending the Russian ones, where identifiable, back to their families.

This latter scene takes outside the town of Tver, where the Nazi advance into Russia was halted then reversed, for this novel, more than any of the others, is about the toxic legacy of Russia’s immensely troubled past on its chaotic, crime-infested present. This is the guiding theme of the novel and it is brought out through a number of intertwining elements.

Elements of the plot

1. Moscow

Stalin’s ghost It opens with riders on the late-night Moscow metro claiming to have sighted Stalin, standing clear as day on one of the central stations. Arkady is tasked with what seems the trivial mission of getting to the bottom of this odd story. When he rides the last metro he comes across a TV crew led by the director Zelensky, his assistant, Petya, and a thuggish minder, Boris Bogolovo aka ‘Bora’. They claim to have been simply filming the metro passengers but Arkady suspects them of doing something with mirrors or optical illusions, or somehow being involved in what he thinks is a publicity stunt, so he confiscates their tape, and shoulders his way past the protesting crew, including Bora who is obviously tempted to get physical, except for all the witnesses.

Once outside the station, Arkady realises Bora is still pursuing him. In a scene of mounting tension, the fit hard man Bora follows Arkady into the snow-covered Gorky Park, but the latter has cleverly lured him onto the snow-covered ice of the lake at the park’s centre. As Bora catches up, Arkady jumps up and down to crack the ice and Bora falls through it, drifting away from the hole and starting to drown. Arkady waits a good while before making another hole and dragging the half-drowned Bora out, pumping his chest to evacuate the water. Bora never actually attacked him and appears to have no weapon so Arkady can’t get him locked up, so makes sure he’s more or less recovered and walks away. This incident will have dire consequences later on.

Kuznetsov murdered In a completely unrelated development a big, stocky middle-aged man named Kuznetsov is found dead in his crappy workers’ apartment with a cleaver embedded in his neck. Arkady is called to the scene to find it being investigated by a pair of detectives we haven’t met before, the dapper Nikolai Isakov and the thuggish Marat Urman. They claim it’s an open and shut case, the wife is covered with blood and hysterical in the next room: she will be charged with the murder.

Comrade Platonov In another strand Arkady is contacted by a certain Platonov, an eighty-year-old chess grand master and unreconstructed communist party member. Platonov has asked for police protection because the communist HQ has been attacked a few times and Platonov has been threatened for speaking out against the current regime.

Tanya the garroter Half way through the novel Arkady is invited to a ‘party’ at this communist party headquarters, a rundown office full of junk equipment. A pretty young woman is there, Tanya, who he had previously seen playing the harp in the bar of the swanky Hotel Metropol. One purpose of the scene is to show how completely collapsed and demoralised the communist party now is, run by a handful of tired old timers.

But there is another purpose: Tanya the harpist drunkenly flirts with Arkady then insists he sees her home. When he is rummaging round in the tatty stationery room looking for their coats he is astonished to feel a piano wire – a wire from her harp! – slipped round his neck and the supposedly drunk Tanya suddenly using all her strength to strangle him. There is a mad struggle in which he pushes backwards, failing to back kick her, but eventually nutting her backwards and, in her temporary loss of grasp, whipping the wire over his head and punching her hard.

Tanya is arrested and Arkady taken to hospital with severe bruising and cutting round his neck. He is startled to learn from his assistant, Viktor Orlov, that Tanya is the girlfriend of the thuggish cop, Urman. Hmmm. Characteristically Arkady’s superior, the prosecutor Zurin, who hates him, prefers Tanya’s version of the story: she is claiming that Arkady tried to rape her. As usual, Arkady finds himself surrounded by enemies and deliberate misunderstanding.

Eva In the previous novel, Arkady had hooked up with a female doctor who was working in the eerie Exclusion Zone around the ruined Chernobyl power station, Dr Eva Kazka. He had ‘taken’ her from her divorced husband (who turns out to be the killer at the core of the novel, Alex Gerasimov) and brought her back to his Moscow flat where they formed an odd household, looking after the street kid Zhenya, who sometimes flops on their sofa, sometimes is absent for long periods.

But early on it becomes clear that their relationship is in trouble. Throughout the novel Arkady is given to playing tapes they made in the happy early months of their relationship, and lamenting the fact that they’ve drifted apart. This mainly seems to be because she’s obscurely re-activated a relationship she had from an earlier part of her career, when she worked in Chechnya during the troubled years of the 1990s, during Russia’s savage wars with the little republic (Chechen population 1.27 million, Russian population 144 million).

In fact, it is a surprise to learn the man who is taking her away from Arkady is his fellow investigator, Nikolai Isakov. Bit by bit we learn that he was a member of the special forces or OMON (also known as the Black Berets) in Chechnya and so was his thuggish sidekick, Urman. This is where he met Eva who was, being a principled rebel, tending Chechen civilians caught in the conflict. She testifies that Nikolai was genuinely brave, a born leader of his men, and went out of his way to be chivalrous to the Chechen population. Doesn’t stop Arkady being upset that she is leaving him.

Isakov’s political ambitions It emerges that Isakov has not only smoothly transitioned from leader of men in Chechnya to Moscow investigator – he also harbours political ambitions. He is the figurehead of a new ‘Patriotic Party’ which will ‘make Russia great again’. To this end he has employed two American political advisers, satirical portraits of two chancers named Wiley and Pacheco. And also the former porn movie director, Zelensky, who we met at the scene of the ‘Stalin sightings’ on the metro.

Arkady feels some kind of pattern emerging from the fog. When the distraught wife of Kuznetsov, the man we met with a meat cleaver in his neck, is found having ‘swallowed her tongue’ and died while in police custody, it prompts Arkady to revisit the morgue to examine the Kuznetsov’s body. Turning him over Arkady and Orlov see the massive tell-tale tattoo of the OMON on his back. Aha.

Isakov, Urman, Bora, Kuznetsov were all in the same OMON unit in Chechnya. Tanya who tried to kill him is linked with Urman. Eva who is dumping him met Isakov in Chechnya. What are they all trying to hide?

The Sunzha Bridge incident Slowly a theme emerges, a central incident on which the plot turns out to hinge: during the Chechen War, Chechen guerrillas attacked a Russian hospital and massacred all the doctors, nurses and patients, then fled in lorries. Nikolai Isakov was leading a group of six OMON troops by a small bridge which the guerrillas were reported to be heading for. Here they intercepted the trucks and engaged in a fierce firefight with the fleeing guerrillas, eventually killing 14 of them and repelling the trucks, with only one wounded on their own side.

Isakov’s American political advisers have made a big deal out of this heroic episode and are using it in their posters and promotional videos to boost Nikolai’s patriotic credentials. ‘What Russia needs is courageous leaders etc’.

Arkady undermines the legend But, typically, Arkady obstinately pokes and enquires and digs deeper and begins to suspect the incident is not all it was painted to be. Through contacts he comes across the alcoholic Jewish hunchback, Ginsberg, who was attached to the OMON as press and PR man. He arrived at the scene of the heroic fight by helicopter only moments after it ended and took photos from the hovering chopper. After building up his trust, Arkady gets Ginsberg to hand over the photos he took from the chopper down onto the scene of the fight, strewn with dead Chechens and heroic OMON forces. Having had time to examine them really closely, Arkady makes an appointment to meet Ginsberg again, but the hunchback fails to turn up and eventually Arkady discovers his body in a nearby street. He appears to have drunk himself insensible in a snowdrift and been run over by a snowplough with gruesome results. And the investigating officer? The thuggish Urman. It really feels like a conspiracy now.

No medal for Nikolai Following up all the leads, Arkady gets a meeting with retired Major Gennady Agronsky who was in charge of allotting medals during the Chechen War. Isakov’s name was put forward for one because of the much-publicised incident, but Agronsky looked into the incident in detail, and eventually refused to grant one. A few weeks later he was forced into retirement. Like Ginsberg he thinks there was in fact no firefight: he thinks the Chechens were hostages or somehow captives of the OMON forces who simply executed them and claimed the glory.

Arkady’s father A completely different thread which runs through the text is a series of vivid memories Arkady has of his father, General Kyril Renko. Kyril was an eminent general during the second world war (which the Russians call the Great Patriotic War). The Russians suffered so badly in the war partly because Stalin, in his paranoia, purged (ie executed) nearly the entire command structure of the Red Army, 1,000s of senior and experienced officers. He also refused to believe all the intelligence telling him Hitler was about to attack, believing all such reports to be Western disinformation, thus giving the Germans all possible advantages.

Arguably it was the weather and nothing to do with Russian leadership which halted then turned the tide of the German advance. If they had attacked 6 weeks earlier they might have taken Moscow and forced the collapse of the Soviet government (as in Robert Harris’s brilliant counter-factual thriller, Fatherland.)

Arkady’s father navigated all these horrors to become one of Stalin’s favourites, managing to survive both the war and the revival of purges in the later 1940s and 1950s (until Stalin’s death in 1953). Throughout the book Arkady meets characters who think his father was a great patriotic hero. But, in line with the book’s general theme of debunking the past, Arkady knows his father was a butcher in his professional work and a bully in his private life.

Arkady repeatedly relives the countless times his father bullied the young boy into stripping down then rebuilding a pistol. If he made any errors his father forced him to stand with his arms outstretched holding the gun, a pose which quickly became a form of torture.

But at the heart of his memories is Arkady’s obsessive rerunning of the summer day when his mother took him down to the stream near the family’s dacha, to collect stones, the little boy has no idea why. That night the General holds a massive party for all his Army colleagues and neighbours in the select neighbourhood of dachas. The mother is reported missing and a search party finds her down in the lake. She has filled all her pockets with the stones and drowned herself. The General is furious when he discovers Arkady, the innocent little boy, helped her collect them, and asks his friends to take the boy away before he kills him. Kyril never forgives the boy and is further embittered when he rejects a career in the Army to become a lousy cop.

So when various supporters of the new Patriotic Party tell Arkady how much they admire his ‘heroic’ father, Arkady doesn’t even have to reply. We know his version. By extension, we know how much contemporary myths and legends – and lies – distort the past.

Zhenya’s father Another father looms large in the plot. Zhenya, the runaway street kid we met in the previous novel, flits in and out of Arkady’s life. He is just one of the estimated 50,000 kids living wild on the streets of Moscow. Most of them aren’t abandoned, they’ve run away from abusive alcoholic parents. There are so many of them running wild and committing street crime that Putin himself has declared them a threat to national security (p.54).

Cruz Smith’s novels paint an unremittingly bleak and hopeless picture of contemporary Russia.

Zhenya is 12 now and still the startling chess prodigy we met in the previous novel. He and old comrade Platonov are invited to take part in a TV chess championship. Cruz Smith lets rip in depicting this televised fiasco as a symbol of the collapse of Russian culture: instead of grandmasters spending days in subtle battle as back in the glory years, this is ‘blitz’ chess, a knockout tournament where each player has just five minutes to play all their moves, for the entertainment of the cheering, mindless TV audience.

Cruz Smith describes the chess games of Zhenya and Platonov with characteristic clipped poetry. Despite not describing the actual moves, he vividly conveys the way Zhenya slaughters his opponents to make it to the final. In this Big Match Zhenya is poised to win when someone in the audience coughs, Zhenya glances up, and then to everyone’s amazement, deliberately resigns the game.

Outside the studio, he explains to Arkady and Platonov that he saw his father in the audience. His father? Arkady has been keeping an eye out for Zhenya’s father for several years, under the impression the boy was dying to be reunited with his errant parent. In the event the dad – Osip Lysenko – follows Arkady, Platonov and his son out into the snow where he proceeds to harangue them all, blaming Arkady for abducting him, eventually pulling an old-looking gun out, pointing it at Arkady’s skull and – without any warning – shooting him in the head!

Arkady’s recovery That was unexpected. The whole plot goes on hold while Arkady recovers in a weird and powerful chapter which intertwines status reports on Arkady’s blood pressure, heart rate and so on, with snippets he overhears of the doctors talking about him and vivid memories, especially of the mother drowning incident.

In particular we hear the docs explaining to his on-again, off-again partner, Dr Eva, that the gun was very very old, so old the bullet barely detonated, though it did enter the skull and mash some of the brain. Arkady had been accompanied by the ever-faithful assistant detective Viktor Orlik who promptly shot Osip dead.

The doctors operate to remove the bullet and then cut open the front of Arkady’s skull to relieve pressure on the brain. As the days pass, Arkady comes out from anaesthesia, argues with his nurses and doctors, receives visitors and, with typical obstinacy, insists on checking out before he is fully recovered.

This section contains some weirdly affecting passages where the recovering Arkady realises the extent of his brain damage: he is shown an orange and asked what colour it is, what shape it is. He knows, but can’t formulate the words. It would have been very interesting if he had continued in this slightly brain-damaged state. A brain-damaged investigator would (presumably) be some kind of first in the vast annals of crime fiction. And also Cruz Smith’s style, his approach, is so very alert to language and its manipulation, that it’s a shame he didn’t make more of this opportunity.

2. Tver

Instead, Arkady recovers with disappointing speed and decides he needs to drive to Tver, a town a few hundred kilometres from Moscow. Why? Because all of the OMON group Isakov belonged to come from Tver. The secret of his rise, what his squad got up to in Chechnya, the secret of the Sunzha Bridge, all will be revealed there.

Prosecutor Sarkisian Tver’s town prosecutor has been tipped off by Arkady’s boss that his subversive underling is coming, and organises a Russian welcome, ie the manager of the hotel Arkady’s been booked into shows him up to the room, slips on some knuckle dusters and is about to beat him up, when Arkady sprays fly spray in his face.

Arkady decides it’s safer to take a furnished room and replies to an ad which introduces him to one Sofia Andreyeva Poninski, who rents out to him a rather nice flat, furnished with oil paintings and classy rugs, claiming to do so on behalf of its absent owner, an academic on an overseas posting. Possibly the academic doesn’t even know it’s being let, but Arkady won’t quibble, and he sets about investigating the scene in Tver.

Rudi Rudenko After getting shouted at by angry provincials he realises he’s going to have to ditch his car with its Moscow number plates, and on a whim decides to rent or buy a motorbike. Answering an ad he goes to the beaten-up garage of a pony-tailed hell’s angel, Rudi Rudenko, initially violent (like all the Russians in these novels), who eventually calms down and sells Arkady an ancient motorbike with sidecar. Rudi lets slip that he is one of the ‘diggers’ and Arkady insists on coming on their next dig.

This is the big jamboree I referred to above, where fleets of cars, with families, bikers, history fanatics, treasure seekers with metal detectors, all congregate on likely looking sites to dig up bodies from the Great Patriotic War. For as well as being the home town of Isakov, Urman, Kuznetsov and all six of the Omon troops involved in the Sunzha Bridge incident, Arkady tells us that Tver is also where the German advance into Russia ground to a standstill.

On this rather slender basis, Smith makes Isakov and Urman turn up at this particular dig, accompanied by their Yankee advisors, Wiley and Pacheco, and the camera team directed by the seedy ex-porn director, Zelensky. The idea is that Zendensky is filming Isakov at various ‘patriotic’ events, building up a portfolio which can be edited into TV ads for the forthcoming elections. (Slowly, without us really realising it, Isakov has stopped being a police investigator and morphed into a populist political candidate).

Disaster at the dig This is the long climactic scene which brings together all the novel’s threads and all its key characters. Isakov and Urman are there, along with the creepy director Zelensky who films the activities, and the two American political advisors consulting on how he should behave. Arkady has been joined by Eva (actually now in Isakov’s entourage) and young Zhenya.

The diggers set about digging in the lee of a hilltop crowned with pine trees, Arkady watching fascinated, and little Zhenya with him keen to see old guns and grenades. Soon enough bodies start turning up, garnished with equipment and name tags. The Americans cue the director who positions Isakov to make a grand Patriotic Speech about the patriotic soldiers who gave their lives for the great nation of Russia – ‘Who is willing to make that kind of sacrifice nowadays etc?’

However, the whole plan is seriously scuppered when the woman who rented Arkady the flat turns up on the site as the official pathologist brought in to verify the provenance of the corpses, Dr Poninski. She ruins the mood by examining a series of corpses and announcing that they are indisputably Polish, garnished with Polish name tags, letters, weapons etc – and every one of them has been shot in the back of the head.

Far from being patriotic heroes, these bodies are just some of the victims of one of Stalin’s worst crimes, the execution of the entire officer class of the Polish people which, along with the systematic extermination of all its intelligentsia and managerial classes, was designed to reduce the Poles to eternal slavery to the Great Russian People (this is also the secret at the heart of Robert Harris’s great thriller, Enigma.)

Angry, demoralised, disillusioned, the majority of the diggers pack up and leave. But not Isakov’s sidekick, the volatile thug Urman. He insists on taking a shovel and moving up the slope into the trees and is followed by the boyishly excited Zhenya, so Arkady has to follow them too.

All through this scene there have been alerts about armed ordnance left lying around and references to the steady trickle of diggers who have, in the past, blow their legs off when a spade hit a grenade or landmine. As Arkady tries to reason Zhenya into leaving, Urman suddenly turns violent, knowing Arkady is on their trail about the Bridge incident and blaming him for everything which has gone wrong with Isakov’s campaign. Now he turns his shovel on Arkady, clouting him round the head, knocking him, stunned, into the hole he’s been digging and, madly, impulsively, starting to bury Arkady alive. When he’s shovelled all the loose dirt available onto our hero he starts digging up more, and that’s when he uncovers an anti-personnel mine which springs into the air, loaded with ball bearings and scrap metal, gives a gentle click, and explodes, cutting Urman in half.

A dazed Arkady slowly excavates himself from his grave, picks up Zhenya and staggers back to the dig headquarters, mounts his bike and drives back into Tver.

Isakov’s father Cruising along the high street he sees two figures outside the local security services (FSB) headquarters. It is Isakov and Eva, pacing up and down, deep in conversation.

When he joins them Arkady finds Isakov agonising about his father, formerly a senior figure in the Tver NKVD, predecessor to the KGB. Like Arkady, he had a powerful dominating father, but this one was an alcoholic. Just like Arkady’s, all his colleagues said Isakov’s father was a great ‘hero’ during the war – in which case, why did he become obsessed in later years with washing his hands and end up drink himself to death?

After the revelation of the Polish genocide at the dig, Isakov thinks he finally understands. Now for the first time he is inclined to believe the rumours he heard about his father that he was not some hero, he was actually the KGB executioner – locked into a room with a pistol, boxes of ammunition and a bottle of vodka – night after night he got drunk and shot in the nape of the neck hundreds, then thousands, of Polish army officers who were corraled into his underground cell, until he was ankle deep in blood and covered in human gore.

Isakov’s confession In this febrile mood, Arkady confronts Isakov with his theory about what happened at Sunzha Bridge and Isakov suddenly confesses. He reveals he wasn’t even there, he was off driving round with Eva. The unpredictable Urman was in charge. And they were doing quiet peaceful trading with local Chechen merchants. They were buying Chechen carpets, one of Chechnya’s cultural exports, which fetch a fortune in Moscow, let alone in the West, in Paris or New York.

They were all sitting round, having concluded the deal and sharing a civilised cup of tea, when news came through on the radio of the guerrilla massacre of the Russian hospital and – crucially – that an armed convoy of Russian troops was heading their way. Did they want to be found by their infuriated comrades sitting round sipping tea with the enemy? No. On the spur of the moment, Urman executed all the unarmed Chechens where they sat, and was arranging their bodies in likely postures of battle when the helicopter with Ginsberg the hunchback arrived. This explains why the latter’s photos show the scene below being dramatically altered over the course of just a few minutes, as Urman and the other boys from Tver tried to rearrange it to look like a violent battle scene.

Isakov confesses it all then takes out his pistol and points it at Arkady’s head. Yes, he admits, that’s why Kuznetsov and Ginsberg had to die – they were about to reveal everything and ruin Isakov’s political ambitions – and now it’s why Arkady has to die.

But at this dramatic moment Eva, who has listened to everything, puts her hand in her pocket and presses play on the little tape recorder she’s got hidden there, and it plays back part of Isakov’s confession. As he turns towards her she takes the tape cassette and throws it over the barbed wire gates into the FSB compound. There is no way any of them can get in to retrieve it. And it will inevitably be found whatever happens to them. Isakov stands open-mouthed, completely non-plussed what to do. Eva and Arkady walk away.

Arkady makes a call on his cell phone to his long-suffering boss, prosecutor Zurin, explaining how the chain of murders all go back to Isakov and Urman’s illegal carpet-smuggling racket in Chechnya, and how Isakov’s political ambitions now lie in tatters.

Final assault In the last few pages, Arkady, Eva and the reader think it’s all over and the couple are reunited again (though how their relationship will feel after her defection back to Isakov remains to be seen). So it is all the more shocking when they climb the stairs to the apartment Arkady had rented, push open the door – only to be confronted by the killer Bora from the opening scenes. He has already murdered Sofia Poninski – a traitor to Holy Russia for revealing the dig’s corpses to be Polish, half cutting her head off – whose bloody corpse is lying in the corner. For Bora is carrying a razor sharp knife which Arkady tries to seize – badly slicing the palm of his hand – before Bora sinks it into the side of Eva, and rams it upwards, as she gasps and is pushed back against the wall.

The street kid Zhenya is also there, barricaded behind a pile of chairs and furniture, somehow surviving the madman, and holding Arkady’s ancient pistol, the gun he owns but rarely carries. As Bora turns to Arkady knife in hand, Zhenya shoots him through the head. God, what horror.

Arkady runs for the phone and rings an ambulance and all the way to the hospital holds Eva’s hand as she goes in and out of consciousness. The nurse comes out of the operating theatre a few hours later and says it’s touch and go whether she will survive.

And on this bombshell the novel ends.

Dramatis personae

Moscow

Arkady Renko – tall, rather gangling everyman hero, who wanders bemused through the crime-infested landscape of post-communist Russia
Nikolai Isakov – hero of the OMON / Black Beret forces in Chechnya, not least for his heroic stand at the battle of Sunzha Bridge, currently working as a fellow investigating detective of the Moscow militia but who is standing for election to the Russian Senate, partnered by –
Marat Urman – his unpredictably violent sidekick
Dr Eva Kazka – the doctor Arkady brought back from Chernobyl in the previous novel, but who is now reviving her old love affair with Isakov
Zhenya – the twelve-year-old street kid and chess genius who drifts in and out of Arkady and Eva’s lives
Grandmaster Platonov – dyed-in-the-wool communist and one-time chess legend, now asking Arkady for protection from Russian ‘patriots’
Zelensky – former independent film director, now reduced to making porno movies, who’s hoping to step back into the world by directing election ads for Isakov
Boris Bogolovo aka Bora – former OMON fighter, hired to mind Zelensky and crew as they do promotional shoots for Isakov; humiliated by Arkady he takes his violent revenge at the end of the novel

Tver

Rudi Rudenko – pony-tailed biker who sells Arkady a knackered motorbike and through whom he gets to know about the ‘diggers’
Big Rudi – Rudi’s gaga grand-dad who remembers Stalin and the ‘good old days’ – when you could exterminate the intelligentsia of a whole nation and nobody made all this fuss!
Prosecutor Sarkisian – Tver prosecutor, tipped off by Arkady’s boss Zurin, who plans to get Arkady beaten up
Sofia Andreyeva Poninski – forensic scientist of Polish extraction who identifies the bodies dug up by the diggers as Polish officers who had been systematically massacred by Stalin’s secret police / NKVD.


Thoughts

This is the third of the novels to centre round illegal smuggling – of sables in Gorky Park, art works in Red Square, Chechen carpets here. The criminal activities at the core of each novel rarely justify the convoluted webs of mayhem they seem to set in motion. To do that, Cruz Smith has to deploy some occasionally far-fetched plot twists and coincidences which aren’t always believable. In this one I never really believed in Isakov’s political ambitions, the central thread in the plot.

For a start, this would surely have been the very first thing Arkady would have had in mind about Isakov when we met him – a fellow investigator standing for the Senate would have been pretty big news in any office.

Then Isakov’s campaign itself seems oddly flaky and amateurish. There don’t appear to be any of the staff and volunteers you expect of such a campaign, with the exception of the not very believable American campaign advisers. And they advise their candidate to come up with a crude publicity stunt about Stalin and then go to the site of a mass grave and the exhumation of hundreds of dead bodies. Not classic feel-good photo opportunities, are they?

Similarly, the presence of Zelensky the ex-porn movie director allows Cruz Smith to make salient points about Russia’s thriving porn and prostitution industries (including a harrowing scene where Arkady gets to view footage he and friends shot of them gang raping a naive volunteer who wants to break into the movies). But it was never really clear how the footage he was shooting either in the Moscow underground or at the grim dig was going to be used in campaign ads.

Finally, the freakish story which starts the book, the supposed appearances of Stalin on the Moscow metro, are initially mystifying and eerie, so it is disappointing when they end up being explained away as mass hysteria sparked off by a few agents provocateurs who Zelensky and his people have planted on the trains. Once they start shouting ‘Stalin Stalin!’ it’s easy for the raddled drunks and ancient baboushkas on the late night tube to catch the fever, and think they saw something too. Was that all there was to it? And what a peculiar idea for a publicity stunt?

Then again, questioning the plausibility of some of these storylines is to misunderstand how Cruz Smith’s novels work. These rather eccentric plot lines are a) colourful in themselves but b) really serve as emanations of the commanding vision of the book – the dominance of the Present by the horrors of the Past. Their function is not to be plausible, but to be illustrative.

They should be seen less as storylines which have documentary verisimilitude, than as poetic embodiments of the novels’ themes and ideas.

And, of course, they act as opportunities for Cruz Smith to deploy his wonderfully spare, poetic prose.

Style

Cruz Smith is a great prose poet. He combines tremendous perception and acuity of observation with a dazzling ability to shape and turn a phrase.

She had long red fingernails and as she turned a cigarette pack over and over Arkady was put in mind of a crab inspecting dinner. (p.3)

Antipenko and Mendeleyev sat side by side, like the stones of a slumping wall. (p.35)

Outside the day faded, the sun a bonfire in the snow. (p.53)

Of the rackety Moscow metro:

The others gasped when the lights of the car flickered and sparks shot up between the tunnel and the train. This was the oldest section of the entire system. Rails were worn. Insulation frayed. Blue imps danced around the switches. (p.69)

Viktor took a first sip of vodka like a butcher whetting his knife. (p.231)

Not on every page, but regularly enough to have your breath taken away, the reader is dazzled and grateful for Cruz Smith’s ability as a writer, as a shaper and moulder of the English language.


Credit

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Macmillan in 2007. All quotes and references to the 2008 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith (1992)

Sometimes Arkady had the feeling that while he was away, God had lifted Moscow and turned it upside down. It was a nether-Moscow he had returned to, no longer under the grey hand of the Party. (p.41)

The third in the Arkady Renko series is the longest so far, at 472 pages. Like the first two, it is kicked off by a murder which sets the investigator off on a long and tortuous investigation, and there are other structural echoes of the first two books, too.

But the first and most remarkable thing about the story is the way Arkady has miraculously returned to Moscow and been restored to his old job and rank. In its predecessor, Polar Star, we had seen Arkady on the run from KGB agents and the forces he’d stirred up in his unbending investigation of the murders and the smuggling ring in Gorky Park, forced to flee eastwards from one crappy job to another across Siberia until he reached the end of Russia, Vladivistok, and signed up for a life of misery on the ‘slime line’ of a fishing factory ship.

Psychologically, this felt like the natural culmination of the cynical insubordination, of the outsider mentality, we saw in Gorky Park and when, in the penultimate scene, he goes for a walk on the Arctic ice in the fog, it seems like he really has reached the edge of the world, the uttermost rim of human experience.

To find him back in his Moscow job with all its perks and privileges as if nothing had happened is quite a surprise and pretty jarring. It’s explained away by the fact that he did good service for the State in the previous book, not only solving the murder at the heart of Polar Star, but revealing important American espionage secrets. Psychologically, however, at least to start with, it feels like a retread for him to be back in the capital; but then it slowly unfurls that Moscow is now the capital of an empire on the brink of dissolution, and the story does go on to take him into a series of new and exotic (German) locations. By which time the initial impression is long forgotten.

Red Square

Rudy Rosen The novel starts with Arkady in the Audi of an informant, an underworld fixer and money changer, Rudy Rosen, parked in a kind of underworld fair outside Moscow, surrounded by Chechens, gypsies, mafia, all selling and buying knocked-off goods. Arkady has persuaded Rudy to be a militia informant, and is fixing up the hidden recording equipment he has got Rudy to hide in his car to record his dodgy deals. Arkady gets casually out of the car but has only walked a few yards when it spectacularly blows up. Rudy is burnt to death, along with all his money and the computer disks he’d been proudly showing Arkady, which recorded all his transactions. Like the three faceless bodies in Gorky Park, like the corpse of Zina the fisherwoman in Polar Star, this car bomb is the spark which initiates the entire plot.

Part One – Moscow 6 August – 12 August 1991 (175 pages)

Makhmud and the Chechens Like its predecessor this novel is divided into distinct parts, in this case four. Part one follows Arkady and his team as they go over the crime and ask, Who wanted Rudy dead? Arkady is intrigued by the pretty young forensics woman Polina who, in a great scene, shows him her experiments with home made explosives on a series of cars in a junk yard. Ostensibly the main suspect is one Kim, a Russified Korean who was Rudy’s bodyguard. Arkady’s search for him takes him to lowlife settings and slums around Moscow, and to a meeting with the aged and venerable head of the Chechen mafia, Makhmud, and his scary sons and grandsons.

Boris Benz Arkady quickly comes across the existence of one Boris Benz, a German. In Rudy’s office he discovers a fax machine which keeps sending the same message, ‘Where is Red Square?’ In one of the VHS tapes in Rudy’s flat is a shot which has been spliced into a travelogue of Munich, in which a good-looking Russian woman blows a kiss and mouths ‘I love you’ at the camera. Who is she? Why has the shot been spliced in?

[Tapes play a part in all three novels: in Gorky Park Arkady receives packs of tapes from the KGB which help him piece together connections between the smugglers; in Polar Star the murdered Zina leaves behind a box of cassettes on which she has usefully recorded interviews with her various lovers; here these VHS tapes provide clues to the identities of some of the key players.]

Irina As in the previous novels there is a great deal of threat, atmosphere and tension – but little actual violence. Instead, there is a running thread concerning Irina, the imperious, beautiful young woman he fell in love with during the course of Gorky Park and who he came to a deal about with the authorities – namely, his return to Russia was the price for her freedom in the west. Arkady discovers she has a job reading the news on Radio Liberty, based in Munich, and so his new daily rhythm is to make sure he is by a radio at 8pm to hear her voice, if only for a few minutes. He was interrogated and tortured to reveal her whereabouts but refused to say, not least because he didn’t exactly know – somewhere in America – he carried a torch for her all across Siberia, he is still totally in love with her.

Jaak As previously Arkady has a loyal lieutenant, this time it’s an Estonian, Jaak who, as in Gorky Park, ends up dead. After 100 or more pages of routine investigations Arkady finds Jaak shot through the head in a car which has been driven into the deep pond of swill at a farm, the Lenin’s Path Collective Farm. As in Gorky Park a senior figure in the police is implicated, this time Chief of Criminal Investigation Penyagin, but in a variation his corpse is also in the sunken car (p.155). Why?

Minin As before, Arkady’s steps are dogged by a less experienced detective who is a lickspittle of the higher ups, in this case Minin and, as before, he is surprised when the higher ups in the shape of City Prosecutor Rodionov announce that he is being taken off the case. As before, it seems he is getting too close to a secret which implicates his bosses.

Collapse BUT the big difference between this and the previous two novels is that it is 1991 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies – greater openness (glaznost) and economic reform (perestroika) – have led the Soviet Union to the brink of collapse. Democratic elections have resulted in victory for non communist parties, laws are being passed every day dismantling all aspects of the communist system. But instead of releasing a nation of poets and liberal democrats, as some fondly imagined, the slackening of power has led to the rise of virulent nationalist parties in all the satellite nations of the USSR – most of which have declared independence by August 1991 – and within Russia itself has led to the explosion of black markets run by super-violent and unscrupulous gangsters.

Exactly the kind of market Arkady was attending when he saw his informant’s car blown up in front of his eyes and Rudy burned to death. Hence the quote at the top of this blog post and the dominant air of the novel -which is Arkady’s bewilderment at returning to a Moscow transformed from the grey, buttoned-down, morgue-like city of the Cold War, of Gorky Park, to the criminal anarchy of the post-Soviet era.

Arkady was constantly amazed at people’s faith in lies. As if words had the remotest relationship to the truth. (p.139)

Borya Gubenko A typical player in this new capitalist world is Borya Gubenko who makes a living running prostitutes and slot machines in central Moscow hotels. Arkady meets him at the indoor golf range he’s set up to cater to Japanese tourists. It is the brave new world of capitalism and crime.

Max Albov Part of this new situation is ease of travel. In fact, when he meets his bosses, it is a sign of the times that the creepiest person present isn’t KGB or state security, but a figure dressed in an expensive suit and smoothly spoken, who turns out to be a journalist, Max Albov. Back in the day Max defected to the West and made a career there as a commentator on Soviet affairs, not least for Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. Now he has returned and, instead of being immediately imprisoned and interrogated – as in the bad old days – is somehow ordering around Arkady’s own boss, the chief prosecutor Rodionov. Max is a symbol of the way money and shady international deals now trump everything.

Rodionov is warning Arkady off the case (just as his boss Iamskoy did in Gorky Park) but Arkady, typically, refuses to back down. It is Max who suggests a compromise: why not give Arkady some money and a passport to travel to Munich. The mysterious Boris Benz whose name keeps cropping up is German, the fax asking about red square which keeps being sent to Rudy’s flat comes from a Munich number. (And, Arkady thinks, Munich is the base of Radio Free Europe: maybe he can track down Irina. Maybe he can see the woman whose memory kept him going in the darkest days of his exile.) Arkady accepts the offer.

Part two – Munich 12 – 18 August 1991 (162 pages)

So he flies to Munich, is met by the Russian consul Federov who is extremely displeased to see him. Russia has only just opened a consulate here, in the heartland of German business, and is keen to create the right impression. Scruffy, cynical, rule-breaking Arkady is the opposite of that impression.

Here Arkady visits Radio Free Europe and finally meets Irina. To cut a long story short she is initially extremely stand-offish, full of anger that he never emigrated, defected or escaped as so many of the other writers and journalists at RFE had. During these days of misery and rejection, Arkady is helped a lot by a loveable emigre, Stas, who puts him up,  gives him money and support. But Arkady’s persistence and obvious devotion eventually wear Irina down until, in a moving scene, they finally make love in his empty apartment.

As to the investigation, Arkady tracks down the address of the mysterious Benz but never sees him. Instead he bluffs his way into meeting the head of a Munich bank whose letterhead he sees on a letter addressed to Benz. He tries to bluff the old banker into revealing secrets but only succeeds in getting the old man’s son called in, Peter Schiller who turns out to be a detective in the Bavarian police. Oh. After some initial unpleasantness, however, Schiller turns into a valuable ally. Not least after Tommy, one of the emigres at RFE, takes Arkady out to whorehouse on the edge of town where he’s heard tell of Benz. Benz isn’t there and Schiller detains Arkady and, when they head back into town they both discover Tommy’s old Trabant shunted off the motorway into a concrete stanchion and blazing alight. Tommy is dead and burning to a crisp like Rudy.

In Munich Arkady finds the woman depicted blowing a kiss on Rudy’s VHS tape. She is Rita Benz, a Russian prostitute who married a Jew but came to Munich instead of Israel. Here she has reinvented herself as the owner of an upmarket art gallery. Turns out Irina, who Arkady had set free in New York, drifted into the NY art world, working at various art galleries. It was in this cosmopolitan milieu that Max found her and brought her to Germany to work on the radio – but she also kept up her gallery work and helps Rita with her gallery. In fact, there is a big show about to be launched at her Berlin branch. ‘Why not come along?’ asks the ever-slippery Max Albov.

Part three – Berlin 18 – 20 August 1991 (83 pages)

The gritty, well-informed, well-researched male narrator describing the streets and history of Berlin unavoidably reminded me of Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels. Here, in this novel, 1990s Berlin, less than a year after the fall of the wall, has an unreal air, especially as Renko recognises Russian, Chechen and Uzbek mafia, new, anarchic threats the local police don’t know how to manage.

At Rita Benz’s art gallery a number of things fall into place. As I had begun to suspect, the entire novel is about modern art, specifically about the red square painted by the Russian modernist painter Malevich. Since I happen to have been to two exhibitions about Malevich in the last six months, as soon as Modern Art began to be mentioned I put 2 and 2 together.

The red square is the centrepiece of Rita Benz’s exhibition. Now Arkady realises Rudy, the low level crook in Moscow, had stumbled on a conspiracy to smuggle modernist art treasures out of the USSR – this red square was the first to be smuggled out and was being exhibited before being sold in a set of galleries established purely to give the operation credibility and respectability. Arkady realises there is no Boris Benz: it is a fake name invented by Borya Gubenko, one of the smugglers.

In a scary sequence Arkady encounters Borya at the Brandenburg gate, thinking they’re going to talk about the smuggling, but Borya clobbers him and loads him into a car. Wondering why he isn’t being shot straight away, Arkady finds himself hussled into a stylish German sauna. Here he is ushered into the steam room being used by Chechen mafia leader Makhmud and, again, Arkady thinks he’s been brought as some kind of go-between between Borya’s mob and the Chechens, only to be brutally knocked unconscious.

When he awakes it is to find a knife in his hands and Makhmud’s slaughtered body leaking blood everywhere. Makhmud’s son enters the steamed-up steam room and there is a hair-raising scene as Arkady tries to make his way to the door in the dense fog silently. Doesn’t work and there is a vicious fight in which Arkady manages to kill the son, not without being badly cut himself (echoes of the steam room scene in Gorky Park and the desperate knife fight in the university pool.)

Arkady makes it back to the apartment Max fixed him up with. He has the sub-machinegun he took from the Chechens. He lies on the floor opposite the door waiting for an attack. Instead Irina enters. This is the reconciliation scene which leads to them making love. Later there’s more movement outside the door but it is Peter Schiller, the dependable Munich policeman. In a scene designed for the movies, he hears movement outside and empties four magazines of machine gun through the wall. When they go outside four Chechens are lying dead. Time to get out of town, says Peter. And flights will be easy.

Why? asks Irina. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ says Peter. ‘There’s been a coup in Moscow. People are leaving not going back.’ Arkady has one last piece of business which is to stake out Rita’s apartment. When she leaves she is carrying a big bag. It contains Malevich’s red square rolled up. Arkady points a gun at her and relieves her of the painting. Arkady knows she will tell Max and Borya he’s returning to Moscow with the painting. He wants them to be waiting.

Part 4 – Moscow 21 August 1991 (35 pages)

Irina, Arkady and the loyal Stas take a charter flight packed with journalists and emigre Russians to Moscow arriving on the decisive night of the three-day coup against Mikhael Gorbachev. He is picked up almost immediately by his subordinate Minin, now definitely working for the bad guys, for he is accompanied by Kim who – Arkady confirms – helped murder Rudy in the opening scene.

In a thrilling sequence Arkady, before they collar him, fixes up a primitive bomb in the exhaust of Kim’s motorbike. He is driving his car on the motorway at Minin’s gunpoint when they see Kim’s bike begin to erupt in flames. Arkady kicks open the passenger door and kicks Minin out, not without a few shots being wildly fired at him.

Arkady heads out to the Lenin’s Path Collective Farm. Here he finds the ever-smooth Max Albov supervising the fed-up Borya to load up a lorry with … well, with a huge horde of avant-garde art. Seems they collaborated with Chief of Criminal Investigation Penyagin to steal these long-hidden art treasures and stash them here in the improbable setting of nuclear fallout shelters hidden in the innocent-looking farm. Fittingly, since this is where they killed Jaak and Penyagin who objected to Jaak’s murder, it is here there is a big shootout. Arkady manages to shoot Borya dead, after the former has kicked and crippled him and just missed with his own gun. During this excitement Max makes it to his Merc and gets away.

Arkady follows him into the heart of Moscow on the historic evening when the Russian parliament – holding out against the plotters of the military coup – is surrounded by a people’s cordon of the Russian masses, for once awakened from their torpor and shame to act decisively for freedom. Among the vast crowds Arkady sees people he knows and loves – Polina, Stas and Irina high up in the barricades. Things take a turn for the worse when Max, ahead of him, tells a couple of balaclava-wearing militiamen with machine guns that Arkady is a murderer. Unfortunately for Max, they turn out to be the Chechen mafia boss Makhmud’s grandsons, well aware that their leader was murdered by Max’s associate, Borya. Screaming for help, smooth-talking Max is carried away by the two heavies to meet his doom which will not be pleasant. [It feels like sleight of hand that Arkady, who was so successfully framed by Borya, has somehow  now slipped free of their vendetta.] Who cares? On the last page Arkady is reunited with Irina on the barricades on this day of jubilation and celebration for all Russia.


Father

No fictional detective is without his secret sorrows. Apart from the obvious one of his long-cherished, long frustrated love for Irina, the other one is Arkady’s relationship with his father, former General Kyril Ilyich Renko (p.136). The general was a much-decorated hero of ‘the Great Patriotic War’. His tank command was overrun and surrounded by the German Blitzkrieg invasion of the USSR in June 1941. But did he surrender? No, he organised his command into a guerrilla force marauding behind the German lines and fighting his way back to the front. He became Stalin’s favourite general, leading the fightback against the Germans, seeing action in the Ukraine and on the long haul to Berlin.

He survived the war to become an honoured guest at Stalin’s dacha, where scared men stayed up all night drinking and singing with the terrible dictator, sometimes assisting him to draw up the long lists of people scheduled for liquidation. Arkady (44 in 1981, born in 1937? 16 when Stalin died in 1953?) remembers the stories of the Great Leader, and remembers with searing bitterness growing up kicked, beaten and abused by a father for whom he was a miserable failure and disappointment. And – most scathing of all – he remembers as a boy seeing the body of his mother, who killed herself in a lake near their home – floating just under the surface of the water. For Arkady, his bullying abusive father killed her as surely as if he’d shot her.

In the Moscow section, his father dies and he is press-ganged into attending the funeral where one old general after another steps forward to praise the deceased who Arkady can only think of as a murderer. And yet, throughout the text, random characters are likely to hear his family name and associate him with the heroic general, and always draw the same conclusion – ‘Oh dear… and you’re his son. He must be disappointed.’ Arkady can’t escape the long shadow of the past just as the Soviet Union can’t escape the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, and the bloodbath of the war.


Poetry

The depth and thoroughness of Cruz Smith’s cultural and historical research is one element which gives the book a deeply satisfying intellectual depth. But over and above that, Smith is a poet in prose. Beautifully turned phrases escape his pen at will and scatter across the text making the book an almost physical joy to read.

From the back of the shop, his cigarette still in his left hand, Arkady walked across a yard seeded with broken glass to the main street. On it, apartment buildings rusted in seams along drainpipes and window casings. Cars had the creased and rusted look of wrecks. (p.33)

Jaak drove, skipping lanes in the manner of a virtuoso pianist going up and down a keyboard. (p.58)

A far longer queue, all male, stretched from a vodka shop at the corner. Drunks sagged and leaned like broken pickets on a fence. (p.60)

Arkady had seen pictures of mummified figures dug from the ashes of Pompeii. They looked like Makhmud, bent and gaunt, no lashes or eyebrows, skin a parchment grey. Even his voice sounded burned. (p.68)

‘They deserve everything that’s happening to them. They deserve us.’ Makhmud’s eyes became their most intense, dead coals come alive, and then dimmed. His fingers unclenched and released Arkady’s lapel. Fatigue folded into a smile across his face. (p.72)

Out on the river, the last hydrofoil slid by like a snake of lights. (p.106)

[The old men’s] voices had the hollow tremor of busted cellos. (p.140)

‘That’s all,’ he said to Federov, who could have been smoke he was gone so fast. (p.187)

Benz’s address was between two enormous houses done in coquettish Jugendstil, the German answer to Art Nouveau. They looked like a pair of matrons peeping over fans. (p.204)

He noticed a black and white photograph of rubble and burned walls. A roof had collapsed like a tent on a skirt of bricks. (p.254)

An electrically controlled window slid down, revealing the driver wearing dark sailing glasses with a red cord. His smile seemed to have more than two rows of teeth. (p.285)

Birds collected. The park was rich in them; velvet-headed mallards, wood ducks, wigeons and teal appeared out of the mist, breaking the surface of the water into spoons of light. Shearwaters flew as acrobatically as signatures; geese dropped like sacks. (p.338)

The most casual scenes or moments come alive in his imagination. This is why I read fiction but not much fiction is as uplifting as Cruz Smith’s.

A cycle path had been laid out; cyclists in helmets and skin-tight outfits rode in single file, flying like flags on a motorcade. (p.363)

Soviet

All three novels bespeak an astonishing amount of research into all aspects of Russian life, culture and history. What is it that makes you so convinced Arkady is Russian and that your are in Moscow? Half way through Polar Star I realised part of the way Smith conveys the sense of the Soviet Union, of Russian-ness, is by the simple expedient of having a sentence or paragraph describing an aspect of Soviet life on almost every page. The repetition soon creates the impression that you know Russian-ness, that you inhabit this country and its troubled psyche.

Soviet garages were mysteries because steel siding was not legally for sale to private citizens, yet garages constructed of such siding continued to appear magically in courtyards and multiply in rows down backstreets. (p.25)

‘Russians? I feel sorry for Russian men. They’re lazy, useless, drunk.’
‘But in bed?’ Jaak asked.
‘That’s what I was talking about,’ Julya said. (p.28)

Other models [in the museum] continued the historical survey of Soviet crime. Not a tradition of subtlety, Arkady thought. (p.52)

‘You mean a war between Moscow businessmen and bloodthirsty Chechens? We’re always the mad dogs; Russians are always the victims.’ (p.71)

The militia had invested in German and Swedish gear, spectrographs and haemotypes, which lay unused for lack of parts or dearth of funds. There was no computer of matching of blood or numberplates, let alone of something so laughably out of reach as ‘genetic fingerprints’. What Soviet forensic labs possessed were archaic chemistry sets of blackened test tubes, gas burners and curlicues of glass piping that the West hadn’t seen in fifty years. (p.125)

The Russia of 1991 is a place of almost complete economic collapse, no food anywhere, long queues of miserable people waiting to be doled out globs of grey dough fried in old oil or diseased cabbages, the squalor and the daily struggle to survive everywhere are evinced in even the smallest details. Arkady meets a state official:

Bureaucrats survived on the butter, bread and sausage they took home from cafeterias. [His] jacket was loose and its pockets were jowls dappled with grease. (p.135)

There was an expression: a Russian is not drunk while there is a single blade of grass to hold on to. (p.168)

‘You know you’re such a typical Soviet cripple. You’re so unused to food that you can’t even buy it when it’s all around you.’ (p.207)

In Moscow, public booths were gutted or out of order. Phones, when they rang, were usually ignored. (p.209)

In Moscow, he could pass as one scarecrow among many; among the robust sausage-eaters of Munich, he was frighteningly unique. (p.212)

‘I don’t want to put Irina in the position of telling the Russian people that their country is a rotting corpse, a Lazarus beyond resurrection, and that they should lie down and not even try to get up.’ (p.222)

Arkady took small, reverent sips because it was so different from sour, muddy Soviet beer. (p.224)

At any decent Russian party there were arguments and a girl crying at the bottom of the stairs. (p.246)

On the walls were photographs of the famous poet Tsvetayeva, who had emigrated to Paris with her husband, an assassin. Even by Russian standards it had been a troubled marriage. (p.312)

In 1991 the fourteen other nations which made up the USSR had mostly declared their independence and this allowed more free travel than ever before with the result that Moscow is pullulating with not only the Chechen mafia who play a role in the novel, but with Uzbeks, Tartars, Georgians, Ukrainians, Jaak the Estonian and so on. Smith reminds you again and again of the sheer scale and scope of Russia, the size of the country, the complexity of its history, the misery of its plight. One short scene in particular, one pair of sentences, took my breath away. Arkady interviews an Uzbek prostitute working by the roadside in Munich, until she gets fed up:

She set her face and started walking again, wobbling on her heels. Uzbeks had once been the Golden Horde of Tamerlane that had swept from Mongolia to Moscow. This was the end, [a prostitute] stumbling along the autobahn. (p.324)

An example of the way Smith’s mind works all the angles, in even the most banal scene finding the historical, the poetic perspective, dazzling with the depth of his knowledge and the dexterous way he deploys it in scintillating sentences.

This is a really cracking, deeply informative, entertaining, exciting and beautifully written book.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

Moscow was a low city. From the river it almost disappeared into its own somnolent ether. (p.65)

Tall, gaunt Moscow criminal investigator Arkady Renko is a disappointment to his father, the cranky old war-hero general; a disappointment to his bitch of a wife, Zoya, who is openly having an affair with a colleague and trying to divorce him; and a disappointment to his friends, who don’t understand his lack of ambition.

Three bodies are found dead in Gorky Park, the pleasure park complete with funfair and ice-skating ponds which borders the river Moskva in central Moscow. They have been shot at close range, then had their faces removed with a skinning knife and the tips of their fingers cut off to prevent identification. The three had been skating and are still wearing their skates.

Gorky Park is the long, densely written, fiercely imagined account of Arkady’s investigation into the bizarre murders, a thread which – in the best thriller tradition – leads to the unravelling of a bigger conspiracy which draws in the KGB and CIA. Along the way we are introduced to a large number of colourful and persuasive secondary characters, but the book’s main achievement is to take you right inside a brilliant depiction of Cold War Soviet Russian society. (It is set in the spring and early summer of 1977.)

The Russian background

is stunningly authoritative, deeply researched, totally convincing. It is not just the organisational structure of the KGB or Moscow militia, the relationship with the Ethnographical Institute or city prosecutors and lawyers – the kind of organisational knowledge an author like Len Deighton is so expert at – It is the way Smith inhabits the tired, jaded, everyday relationships between the workers in all these places, captures the mundane routines and tips and tricks and bypaths of such a society. It takes the kind of repartee you get in familiar American cop shows and sets it in a completely alien environment, utterly there.

I don’t know whether ‘Fuck your mother!’ is a common Russian expletive or whether there really is a ‘Siberian Dilemma’ (You are in Siberia fishing on a lake through a hole in the ice -the ice breaks and you fall in – do you stay in the water and freeze to death in a few minutes or get out into the -40 degree air and freeze to death immediately? p.214) or whether urka is the name for Russia’s tattoo-covered professional criminal class (p.75) – but every aspect of the novel’s Russianness – from the street layout of Moscow, the description and feel of different parts of the city at different times of day and night, the crunch of the snow and then the spring flowers breaking through, the taste of the cheap vodka, the squalor of state apartments, the constant bugging and surveillance, the horrible food in the cheap cafes, the fear and tension surrounding the presence of KGB officers, above all the Russian repartee of all the characters – all of it is thoroughly persuasive.

Characters

Arkady is a sort of hero: but although as honest and upstanding as Philip Marlowe, he is also cold as a fish, continually calculating, trying to read the runes and uncover the true murderer. In the early part of the novel Smith artfully surrounds Arkady with a penumbra of related characters:

  • Zoya, his cold wife, full of hatred for him, openly having an affair with a colleague, Schmidt, then later interrupting tense moments in the narrative to bother him about the divorce she is instituting
  • Pasha, his foul-mouthed competent assistant investigator
  • Flet, another investigator imposed on him and pretty obviously a KGB stooge reporting back to…
  • Major Pribluda, the stocky, aggressive KGB man who hates Arkady from when the latter correctly accused him of murdering a pair of dissidents two years earlier, as a result of which Arkady was beaten up by mysterious assailants, and the case quashed.

The plot – part one

Arkady gets little Professor Andreev, so short he compares himself to a dwarf, head of Moscow’s Ethnographic Institute, to reconstruct the face of one of the victims, a ticking process which accompanies the early investigation and promises much. Meanwhile, forensics show that a) one of the corpses had dental work of a type only done in America b) the corpses’ clothes carried traces of gold and gesso associated with religious paintings and icons, as well as specks of chicken blood and meat.

When Arkady puts out an all-Russia alert for missing persons a call comes through from distant Siberia that a local hoodlum, Kostia, and his moll, Valerya Davidova, have been missing for a while. Meanwhile, the female corpse’s skates have a name inside, that of Irina Asanova, who reported the skates stolen a few months earlier and works on the set of the Moscow film studios. In a separate strand, Arkady is taken by his boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, to an elite sauna and steam-room for the exclusive use of KGB and senior officials. Here he is introduced to the smooth, suave John Osborne, a tanned, silver-haired American, who swaps barbed comments with him.

As he delves deeper he discovers Osborne has been in and out of Russia since the War when, as a young man, he was involved in channeling support to America’s brave ally against the Nazis. Even in those early days he was making important contacts with influential Russians, especially in law enforcement and the KGB. Things begin to come together when photos emerge of Osborne in Siberia at a farm for sables, the slinky wild mammals whose fur is tremendously valuable. Then the police in Siberia reveal that Kostia and girlfriend at one time worked in a local sable farm.

Via his underworld contacts Arkady finds black marketeer, Golodkin, who complains that John Osborne commissioned him to find an icon chest, an antique covered in religious imagery and containing distinct drawers, only to dump him at the last minute and not buy it. Does Arkady want to buy an antique icon chest? No. But when Arkady orders his colleague Pasha to go with Golodkin to his apartment, they are both shot dead. Arkady is clearly on the right track…

The plot is complicated (very complicated) by an unprovoked attack on Arkady while he is back in Gorky Park one night, re-imagining the murders. He is badly beaten then narrowly escapes being shot by a well-disguised assailant. KGB? Underworld mobster? Foreign agent? Takes a number of further twists before Arkady discovers it is one William Kirwill, a New York detective. He has traveled from the States to investigate the murder of his younger brother, James.

A further distraction/complication is the way Arkady finds himself – upset and hurt by his wife’s abandonment – falling for the angry but vulnerable Irina – and then discovering she has some kind of relationship with the sleek American Osborne.

Through the mesh of numerous further twists, turns and nailbitingly intense scenes Arkady pieces together the story.

Memorable scenes

include:

  • Irina being mugged in the Moscow underground and placed on the railway lines with 2 minutes till the next train as Arkady does battle with her two assassins
  • Arkady driving out to meet his father, the General, old and frail but still seething with anger
  • Arkady smuggling himself out of Moscow on a train north packed like a cattle truck with stinking, smoking, leering convicts heading for Siberia (pp.256-249)
  • His convalescent home is threatened by a sudden forest fire and Arkady finds himself thrown into the chaotic fiery confusion of trying to fight the flames (pp.282-285)
  • Kirwill killing a KGB agent with his bare hands by battering his skull to pulp (p.229) The book is not for the squeamish

The story is

American John Osborne has made a lot of money using his important contacts stretching back to the war to conduct various import-export deals to Russia. But his secret plan has been to get hold of and smuggle live sables out of Russia – the fur-exporting capital of the world – and set up his own breeding programme in the States. Given how quickly sables breed, and how much their pelts are worth, within five years he will have a sustainable multi-million dollar business.

Kostia and Valerya brought him the live sables stolen from a Siberian farm, but they wanted more. In exchange for supplying an icon chest big enough to smuggle the sables in, they also wanted to be smuggled to the west, to freedom. James Kirwell was a young born-again Christian Osborne came across in his travels and brought to Moscow to show Kostia and Valerya how easily he could move people in and out of the USSR. Thus assured they gave him the sables and the chest and set off with James for a happy afternoon skating, before a rendezvous when Osborne was to meet them with vodka, sausage and details of their escape route. Instead, he shot all three of them quickly, with a gun hidden inside the bag of food and drink, the final victim, Valerya, so paralysed by fear she couldn’t run.

But Arkady’s unravelling of the mystery is hampered throughout by the heavy-handed interventions of the KGB. His boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, is fully supportive of him and invites Arkady out to his dacha in the country where, in a vivid scene, we watch him call eider ducks across the frozen lake and feed them while pledging Arkady his support. Later, as the net tightens, Iamskoy calls him in and reprimands him for the increasing number of corpses (Pasha and Golodkin, his childhood friend Misha) he’s leaving in his wake and tells him to hand over the case. Arkady refuses and, in the climactic scene of part one, he is ambushed by Osborne’s sidekick, the German Unmann, and badly stabbed in the gut before himself stabbing Unmann then drowning him as they both fall into and struggle in a pool in the grounds of Moscow University where Osborne has lured him.

Unable to break free, Unmann tried to bite, and Arkady fell back, carrying the man down into the water with him. There the German sat on top, squeezing Arkady’s throat. He looked up from the bottom of the pool. Unmann’s face grimaced, fluttered, divided, ran back together and split apart like quicksilver, each time less coherently. It broke into moons and the moons broke into petals. Then a dark cloud of red obscured Unmann, his hands went slack and he slid out of view. (p.260)

With Unmann dead, Arkady, bleeding badly, surfaces from the pool only to find his superior, the man who has backed him without hesitation, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, pointing a gun at him. Goodbye Arkady, he says, you were always my best investigator: there is the bang of a gunshot but it is Iamskoy who collapses, the top of his head blown off. It is Irina who has shot him. Run, says Arkady – and collapses…

Part two

The 70 pages of part two take the novel beyond ordinary intense, fast-paced thriller territory into a strange place, for Arkady takes a long time to recover from his severe belly wound and this section follows his recuperation in tremendous detail, the days and nights watching the ceiling of his hospital room as he drifts in and out of drugged sleep; then the increasingly aggressive visits of various KGB agents to question him.

And then he is moved out to a rest home in the country where, of all people, Major Pribluda is assigned to stay with him. Slowly the two men, while continuing to hate each other, form an edgy respect. When Arkady is well enough to walk he accompanies Pribluda, who is of true peasant stock, down to the garden of the house where the Major sets about creating a vegetable garden, taking off jacket and tie to labour long and hard for days on end to prepare the soil, hoe and turn it, before planting seeds of radish and lettuce, then creating an elaborate irrigation system and weeding his plot. All the time the pair exchange memories of life in Soviet Russia, clash over the pair of dissidents Arkady knows Pribluda murdered, discuss the details of the Gorky Park case.

Throughout this section Arakdy overhears nurses, KGB men smoking and playing cards, and even Pribluda saying – it doesn’t matter what you do or think, Renko. You are going to be shot.

Part three

Except he isn’t shot. To his (and the reader’s) surprise he finds himself on a plane to New York. The KGB have spared his life so he can do a deal with Osborne, now safely back in the States. I must admit, at this stage I stopped understanding what was going on. What deal? Osborne is safe in his own country with the sables, he doesn’t need anything. It emerges that Irina is with him; they let her go; she has been sleeping with Osborne all along and she ‘made’ them let Arkady come to her. Why? So they can be together because she loves him. OK. But why is Osborne letting her have Arkady? And why are the KGB letting Arkady go to the States? So he can track down the sables and kill them?

And why, then, do the KGB hand Arkady over to the CIA who set him up in a cheap whore’s hotel and follow him about, while they figure out what their deal is with Osborne.

Free to come and go as long as he returns to the hotel, Arkady meets up again with Kirwill who squires him around the Big Apple. In a bit of a plot hole, out of the entire vast pullulating city, it is rather a stroke of luck that a drunk lowlife trying to sell a black polecat he trapped in a remote part of Staten Island comes to Kirwill’s attention. It is a sable and Kirwill immediately realises Osborne must have set up his sable farm not far away.

It is the CIA operatives – Wesley, George and Ray – who take Arkady out to Osborne’s sable farm the next day. Here, at the sable farm on Staten Island, there is a bloody shootout.

For a start the arriving CIA and Arkady find Kirwill’s body bound to a tree and eviscerated, his guts hanging out his belly (p.357). Osborne did it. ‘He shot my dogs,’ he yells, more than a little demented on his home turf. A little later Arkady finds the crook who was trying to sell the sable, himself shot through the head. But as they approach Osborne over the snow, with no warning he shoots dead two of the CIA agents, one flees, Arkady throws Irina to the ground and runs off into the farm buildings.

Thus begins a deadly cat and mouse game between Arkady and Osborne between the cages of the mewing, screaming sables. George, the remaining CIA agent, pops up to try and shoot Arkady but Osborne shoots him. Then – in a wild surprise – one of the more friendly KGB agents, Rurik, appears looming over Arkady with a gun. He, too, is shot dead by Osborne who is using a hunting rifle with a scope. Nobody who knows about the sables is going to be allowed to escape alive.

Except that, although shot himself, Arkady manages – like all thriller heroes – to have the luck, energy, stamina – and the author’s helping hand – to nail Osborne, by this stage epitome of decadent, capitalist greed and evil. He uncages the sables and as Osborne shouts ‘No’, flings one of the creatures at him and in that moment drops to his knees and fills Osborne full of lead. How very OK Corral the whole scene has been. How very American.

In the final pages Irina pleads with Arkady for him to stay in the Free World she has always dreamed about. No. I am a Russian. I am going home, says Arkady. Home to star in the five sequels Smith wrote to this classic, long, involving and thoroughly imagined masterpiece.

Style

American prose is quicker, American writers pack more information into their sentences and paragraphs. At its worst – as in a lot of contemporary US fiction – this means depth or resonance of language or psychology disappear from the texts which become, as a result, worthless. But, at their best, American writers are confident to skip, jump and compress language to get to the nub of the matter without a lot of the preliminary throat-clearing and harumphing which (older) British writers mistakenly think of as ‘fine writing’.

In this respect Smith is a poet. He continually reminded me of the English poet WH Auden for the insouciance with which he throws off casually striking metaphors and imagery in snappy sentences, dense with charged similes and metaphors.

Levin caught up at the elevator and slipped into the car with Arkady. He had been a chief surgeon in Moscow until Stalin shook Jewish doctors out of the trees. He held his emotions like gold in a fist. (p.13)

Almost all Russia is old, graded by glaciers that left a landscape of low hills, lakes and rivers that wander like the trails of worms in soft wood. (p.120)

After Kirwill beats Arkady up in the park –

Arkady pulled himself out of a drift and staggered, holding  his chest. Trees and snow sucked him down to a stone wall… Truck lights sailed along the sweep of the quay road. He could see no one walking. No militiamen. Streetlamps were furry balls, like the bubbles of air he gagged down. (p.64)

Sometimes a wind catches a parade banner and the face painted on the banner, with no change in expression, shivers. In Osborne’s eyes Arkady saw such a tremor. (p.148)

In the communications room, two sergeants with loosened collars typed out radio messages that came in snatches, bits and ends, invisible litter from the outside world. (p.178)

By about half way through (in an evolution which reminded me of something similar which happens, as the tension builds up, in Ira Levin’s thrillers) Smith’s style allows itself to become more and more impressionistic and poetic. Frederick Forsyth, say, remains journalistic to the end, reporting clinically, factually, accurately. But in the fight in the bloody pond which ends part one, throughout the dazed diary entries of Arkady’s long painful recovery in part two, and then in the intense final scenes set in a New York as seen by a complete outsider to everything western or American, Smith’s prose is liable to splinter into intensely imagined, hallucinatory fragments.

Pribluda was the one man who didn’t speak, the one who was content with silent menace, a warted brooding under wetted hair. (p.266)

Arkady said nothing. Over the field were the triumphant screams of small birds mobbing a crow; they were like a bar of music moving through the air. (p.277)

The fire was unpredictable. One bush would catch slowly like a biscuit of fuses. (p.283)

The density of a lot of the language, its charge and intensity, the clipped brevity with which it throws out drastic insights, radical perceptions, added to the complexity of the plot, make for an intense and – unusually for a thriller – sometimes quite a difficult read. Difficult to read at speed. And worth rereading whole sections, maybe in a year or two, the whole book.

The movie

The book was quickly turned into a movie (1983), directed by Michael Apted with a screenplay by Dennis Potter. William Hurt is well-cast as the flat, unemotional Arkady, Lee Marvin is charismatic as the rich killer Jack Osborne, Brian Dennehy is big and mean as William Kirwill and Joanna Pacuła is pretty but unconvincing as Irina Asanova. There is an enjoyable supporting cast of British character actors including Ian McDiarmid, Michael Elphick and Ian Bannen.

Like all movies, this one massacres the plot of its source novel, completely deleting part two where Arkady recovers from his knife wound – there is no fight in the university pool and no wound -and transferring the final section from New York – where Kirwill is at home and shows Arkady round, which thus balances the Kirwill-in-Moscow scenes – to the much cheaper and easier-to-film-in countryside around Stockholm. The whole thing screams ‘limited budget’.

The direction is flat, not one frame stands out for beauty or care of composition, it often has the rough ‘that’s good enough’ feel of a TV adaptation. The music, by James Horner, starts with an effective and chilling set of stabbing rattles on some kind of bamboo-sounding percussion, but the majority of the film is disfigured by the fashionable 1980s sound of thumping synthesised drums and banal one-note synthesiser rock, until the final ‘heartbreaking’ scenes of Arkady parting from Irina are served up in a syrup of sub-Doctor Zhivago strings. Judge for yourself.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

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