Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or ‘gulags’. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). As a result he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

Thus the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to fully justify the accusation that he is guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party, guilty of counter-revolutionary thoughts.

And slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

To give an example: in one scene Rubashov is confronted with the son of a former friend who he met when he was posted abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation between all three of them about what they would do if they had the (purely theoretical) opportunity to change the direction of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction.

Rubashov has frequently seen this young man in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance. Now, confronted with him in the interrogation room, Rubashov realises that Harelip has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised into numbly declaring to his face that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1.

Rubashov knows the accusation that there was ever a concrete assassination plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn, they did speculate what would happen if Number 1 could be got rid of. Slowly, through incidents like this, the interrogator brings Rubashov to see that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, Rubashov himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this to leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov haunted by memories like this, some in dreams, some in daylight remembrance, being forced to review his hard-hearted career, analysing his behaviour, and slowly acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. The Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality. He is brought to see that, yes, his own self-sacrifice is the logical step. He must submit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life. By contrast Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career.

Darkness at Noon feels on the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because it covers a longer period and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time is significantly less intense, because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out there in the real world, with all its colour and smells and sights and distractions – whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmarish gaze of the telescreen, Big Brother and his own terrified claustrophobic thoughts.

Dreams and issues

Darkness at Noon also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – all these are recalled in great physical and sensual detail, and recur again and again as in a dream. Sometimes Rubashov has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

For example, at one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present European situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’, the characters sitting in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room of a grand house, swirling brandy round their glasses, puffing on cigars.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

This is typical of the frequent long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play, or maybe a Chekhov story. And it’s what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which rather inevitably refer to the ‘great’ European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixote.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap the reader back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism, to the prison cell and the interrogation room.

In another long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime during the 1930s. Koestler makes it a handy summary of the Soviet Union’s crimes and this long passage must have scandalised loyal Communist Party members and fellow-travellers in the West.

Ivanov explains that the Party has had only decades, only a few years, to try and catch up with the advances the capitalist West has had 150 years to make – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both coming from within the Party, both using the terminology and worldview of the Party – but fundamentally opposed about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

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The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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Related reviews

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

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi (1982)

The Lord our God, the King of the World, had divided the waters of the Red Sea, and the chariots had been engulfed. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them on quails and manna? No manna descended from the black sky, but only pitiless snow. (p.65)

Primo Levi

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919. He was taking his final exams in chemistry as Italy joined Hitler’s war (June 1940), and then pursued a number of job options designed to conceal his Jewish identity. In 1943, when the situation in the civilian world became impossible for Jews, he joined a partisan group in the mountains outside Turin, but was quickly captured by Fascist forces. He was held in an Italian internment camp before being shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Here his chemistry expertise secured him a ‘good’ job and helped him survive a grim and horrifying year, before the camp was liberated in 1945 and he made his way, via a long detour into Russia, back across a ruined Europe and home to Turin.

Levi took up various jobs in post-war Italy while writing short stories and an account of his year in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo. This wasn’t much noticed when first published in 1947, in a country still prostrate with poverty and wanting to forget the war – but had more impact when republished in 1958. It was translated into English as If This Is a Man in 1959. It was followed by a sequel, The Truce (1963/65) describing his long odyssey home after release from Auschwitz, and then by a trickle of short stories, further memoirs, poems and novels. All depict with unsparing accuracy the horrors which he and tens of millions of others, Jewish and Gentile, had to endure as Europe descended into barbarism and anarchy.

The combination of unflinching truthfulness about the horrors he’d witnesses, and the quiet dignity of his civilised worldview and restrained style, led Levi, by the 1980s, to be considered one of Italy’s leading writers and, in some quarters, as a secular saint.

Narrative levels

The novel operates on least three narrative levels:

  1. The present The ‘present’ of the main narrative which moves forward in simple chronological order, the events of one day or night following the others consecutively. The chapters are long and broken up into shorter sub-sections, a flexible technique which allows some scenes to be described in detail while others move swiftly over months of relative inaction.
  2. The remembered past Most of the many characters in the novel has a back story which we learn about at some point or other. In addition, many of them tell anecdotes about the adventures and travels which brought them to join the partisans. Thus, from the level of the Continual Present, the text repeatedly opens doors into events from the past, recalled around a campfire, over a drink, in the safety of the forest or a ruined building – memories which slowly form a mosaic, the remembered fragments of a lost, an exterminated, civilisation.
  3. History The text is divided into 12 chapters and each of them has a formal date stamp, as the present narrative moves slowly from ‘July 1943’ to ‘July-August 1945’. In the early chapters the events seem to take place in a nameless wilderness and the characters have the archetypal power of types – the silent one, the strong one, the lost one, the angry one – like modern equivalents of The Pilgrim’s Progress or extras from Waiting For Godot. But as the novel progresses, the context of the wider world impinges more and more – especially after the partisans hear over a crackly radio that Mussolini’s government has fallen and the Allies have invaded Italy (September 1943) – and the story is pulled out of its timeless allegory and into the orbit of actual history, becoming less mythical, less archetypal, more the story of individuals in recognisable times and places.

If not now, when?

Levi published If Not Now, When? in 1982 under the Italian title Se non ora, quando? It was translated by William Weaver and published in the US in 1985. Some 40 years after the events it purports to describe.

I was expecting it to be about his time in the mountains outside Turin with the Italian partisans, but it isn’t at all. It is set a thousand kilometres away, in the vast empty spaces of south-west Russia and describes the adventures – or bare survival – of several groups of ‘partisans’ – in fact little more than ragtag groups of men, women and children – who’ve somehow escaped the Germans as they swept into Russia in 1942, and have survived to endure an incredibly harsh hand-to-mouth existence in the wild.

The narrative describes their extended trek across the marshland, forests and fields of Russia and Belarus, across the border into Poland, and then on to Germany. It features a host of harrowing and upsetting incidents along the way, as the group joins and splits from other partisan groups, Jewish and Gentile, and struggles to survive, to kill or sabotage German forces where they can, sustained by hatred, revenge, fear, and the dream of one day journeying to Palestine to start a new life.


Plot summary

Mendel and Leonid

The novel opens with two Jewish men meeting in the woods. Mendel ben Nachman, a watchmaker, is 28. He saw the Jews of his village, Strelka, rounded up by the SS, forced to dig a pit, then shot and buried in it, including his wife, Rivke, his ballebusteh, the queen of his house. Throughout the novel her death and his visions of her body, lying cold and lifeless in a pit of lime and mud, haunt his days and especially his nights. Mendel was dragooned into the Red Army artillery and fought numerous battles before being defeated by the Germans and escaping into the forest.

Mendel is talking to Leonid, trained in paratroop school, caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp or Lager (as Levi always calls them) near Smolensk, who has escaped and lived wild. Mendel has made a base of sorts in the forest, near Valuets, a village near Bryansk, and Leonid has just stumbled across it as the novel opens. They eat, smoke, chat. Two Jews with terrible stories to share and a minimal approach to bare survival in the wild. After a few days a little girl, all unwary, stumbles across the base. She’ll tell the local peasants. They must move on. And so begins their epic trek.

The Uzbek and the Heinkel

Mendel and Leonid meet Peiami Nazenovich (p.14), who’s made a base in a crashed German plane, a Heinkel. They warily chat, then they barter salt for some mouthfuls of a rabbit he’s caught and cooking. Food. Hunger. Barter.

They move on, towards Nivnoye marshes, and come across a larger camp with some scores of ‘partisans’ ie men and women who are surviving in the woods, led by Venjamin Ivanovich (p.33) As they approach the camp, the band are celebrating the end of the war, a bit prematurely since in fact it’s only the overthrow of Mussolini (July 1943). Surely the war can’t last much longer, they sing happily. Little do they know. Venjamin is suspicious of them because they are Jews and, after they’ve been with them a few days, advises them to leave, to press on West towards Novoselki, in the midst of the Polessia marshes, where rumour has it there’s an entire village of hiding Jews, the so-called ‘republic of the marshes’.

The republic of the marshes

The first hundred pages or more of the novel refer to place names but I couldn’t find many of them on a map. They appear to be so generic that there are scores of them scattered across the vast empty spaces of western Russia and Belarus. The landscape – frozen marshes, snow-capped forest, secret hideouts – is as stark and primeval as the elementary human relationships it is describing. Men and women are reduced to their basest needs: food, shelter, a smoke, companionship. It is the minimal landscape, the psychological ground zero of Waiting For Godot (1953).

After walking for more than ten days Mendel and Leonid come to the ‘republic of the marshes’, based on an abandoned monastery hidden in the forest and inhabited by a group of armed Jewish survivors. It is ruled by Dov, in his fifties, who comes from faraway Siberia where the comet exploded and destroyed hundreds of miles of trees. The Germans have not got anywhere near Siberia so he’s one of the few characters who can be confident that his native village still exists and the people he knew will still be alive. Almost all the others know their villages have been burned and everyone they knew murdered by the Germans. Mendel and Leonid are welcomed to the ‘republic’ and given tasks  in the routines of chores, foraging, guarding, cooking, as autumn comes on, August and September.

At which point the group get a tip-off that a German force is in the area, trying to track down surviving partisan bands. There is just time to prepare some defences, to build camouflaged trenches, when the Germans attack. There’s a big firefight with machine guns – the heaviest weapons the partisans possess. The fleetest of foot escape out the back while some see the slower members being caught, lined up against a wall and shot by laughing SS officers. Old Adam was wounded in the thigh and bleeds to death a little distance away. His daughter, Sissla, keeps on, weeping. Ten partisans survived the attack.

Ulybin’s partisans

Dov leads the survivors north where, after weeks of travel, they stumble into guards for a larger band led by a tough man named Ulybin. This is based in three wooden barracks hidden in forest near Turov (p.74). These are Russian and Polish partisans, not Jews. They accept the Jews as allies but, in a series of personal encounters, explain that they finds them strange and uncanny. They tell them they had included a group of Jews, led by the eccentric Gedaleh Skidler, but he didn’t get along with Ulybin and, after one almighty argument, Gedaleh had led them off.

Some Red Army officers appear with information and supplies. Dov, injured at the monastery and visibly aged since, reluctantly goes off with them, to what they all refer to as ‘the Great Land’, meaning Russia, free Russia unoccupied by the Germans, but making it sound like a country from an allegory.

In another sequence the partisans discover a handful of Germans have built a triangle of fires a few days march away, which they are lighting to get German planes to drop supplies. Ulybin selects a group of the fittest men to carry out a small mission, to walk across country to the strip, to shoot the handful of Germans who man it, and create an alternative drop zone a mile away, then returning to the barracks with their booty (p.103). All goes according to plan, and the partisans feast their eyes sorting through the food and munitions. But next night the German planes drop bombs fly low over the fake landing zone and drop bombs instead of supplies. Somehow they’ve learned about the partisans’ trick. Several men are killed by the bombs.

The Gedalists go their own way

To everyone’s surprise, twenty or so pages after he went off to ‘the Great Land’, Dov returns with Russians bearing supplies, and accompanied by the troupe of Jewish partisans led by Gedaleh. They had been in Lyubin when the Germans took it and killed all the Jews they could find. They escaped into the woods and here they are. Gedaleh holds a summit meeting with Ulybin. Ulybin’s men have been ordered East to join up with Red Army forces. Gedaleh considers he has different aims, to head West, harass the Germans, and break through the line.

The survivors split into two groups, Gentiles going with Ulybin, all the Jews deciding to follow Gedaleh, plus one token Russian, Piotr, who can’t explain it but feels he’s come to like and respect the Jews. There is a moving scene where he tries to put into words why he likes them, egged on and ridiculed in equal parts by his Jewish audience. It is one of the many scenes where the nature of Jewishness – what is it to be a ‘Jew’ – is discussed, probably the most prominent theme in the book.

The rest of the novel follows the epic trek of Gedaleh and his thirty or so partisans who come, over a period of time, to refer to themselves as the ‘Gedalists’. Gedalah is much more emotional and unpredictable than Ulybin. He used to be a shoe salesman and keeps an old violin with him in homage to the time it stopped a bullet going for his heart, at Luninetz, and which he later ironically decorated with a medal taken from a dead Hungarian. He partners off with one of the five or so women in the group, plain, lazy, bubble-bursting Bella. Gedaleh’s mercurial character, his flashes of humour, his impulsive decisions, his quickness to take up the violin and start playing a Jewish folk tune, are a major flavour in the rest of the book.

In the windmill

After weeks of trekking, the Gedalists hide out in an abandoned windmill miles from anywhere. One of the youngest in the group, Isidor, can’t stop himself paring away the mould from the walls and eating it. He is 17, and hid from the Germans in a hole under a stable with the rest of his Jewish family for four years, until the peasants hiding them had milked them of all their money at which point they betrayed them to the Germans. Isidor, who happened to be taking one of the rare permitted walks into the woods at the time, returned to watch, from hiding, a squad of teenage Nazis beat his mother, sister and father to death. He ran away, survived for weeks in the wild, then stumbled upon the group, but has been mentally disturbed ever since, given to compulsive behaviour and obsessed with fantasies of revenge.

On one of the peaceful evenings, Gedaleh plays folk tunes on his violin and then an arrangement of a long poem by a Jew, Martin Fontasch. Gedaleh tells his story. Martin was a writer who escaped to join a partisan band. When the Germans captured him they gave him thirty minutes to write a last poem, before they shot him.

Do you recognise us? We’re the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight.

If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when? (p.127)

Here, as in scores of other memories and vignettes on almost every page, the novel stuns and appals with the understated way the characters share stories of horror and unendurable suffering. Each of them is a survivor and a witness to barbaric atrocity.

Along the trek, Leonid who we first met in the opening pages, had paired off with Line, a skinny, blonde woman named after the English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. But one night Mendel, overcome by memories of his dead wife and exterminated village and, very characteristically, recalling the women and love affairs of the Patriarchs and Elders from the Old Testament, finds himself seducing Line. They silently climb the stairs to the windmill’s rickety upper floors and make dry, sad (and, one imagines, very dirty) love. But Line was the only thing keeping Leonid together and next morning he is gone, along with a machine gun, to Geladeh’s fury.

The relief of Chmielnik

Having crossed the border from Belarus into Poland, the Gedalists hear from locals about a small concentration camp or Lager at the nearby town of Chmielnik, and go on a mission to liberate it (p.170). There is a great deal of tension on the long walk through the snow to get there and they arrive only to discover they are too late to save most of the inmates, who have been shot and incinerated. The air of the surrounding area is heavy with the ashes of incinerated human beings. Behind the barbed wire fence remain only ten walking skeletons.

The partisans approach carefully, realising the watchtowers are abandoned, their machine guns gone, but there are one or two guards patrolling the perimeter. The terrifying character known as Mottel the throat-cutter silently kills the ones out patrolling, and then the partisans attack the guardhouse with grenades. At least one guard survives and prompts a prolonged firefight, before they storm the building, finish off the wounded and drag the officer outside. The partisans bicker and quarrel about what to do until the German stands to attention and says, ‘Get on with it’, and they shoot him.

In the brief firefight Leonid, who had rejoined them, is shot dead. He had given up the will to live anyway. But not as much as the Lager inmates. Only one will even walk out the gates, and he hasn’t gone far into the woods with the partisans before he asks to go back.

The Free Polish Army

The Gedalists hear that there’s a long goods train in a siding at a town nearby, Tunel, and go to loot it then sabotage it. Here they are unexpectedly surrounded by armed men led by Edek, 23, leader of a squad of the Free Polish Army, the Armia Krajowa, and Marian, his experienced sergeant. The Gedalists are disarmed while Edek seeks guidance from his superiors (p.184). The Gedalists settle into a modus vivendi with the Poles.

In November the Polish Army group picks up a distress call from a group of fellow Poles surrounded by Wehrmacht forces in the nearby Holy Cross mountains (p.196). The Gedalists volunteer to help, and set off accompanying Edek’s Poles to travel across country for several days. When they arrive, the mountain is shrouded in fog. They make their way slowly to the summit, intending to surprise the surrounding Germans, and so help the besieged forces escape. But the firefight which kicks off is very confused, it’s never clear where the enemy actually is, and after chaotic firing and explosions, they appear to disappear altogether into the fog.

As our guys climb the mountain they discover nothing but dead bodies and a fortress at the top completely filled with emaciated corpses. The Germans had starved them to death then left. Once again they are too late. Once again the forces of Death triumph. The Jews lament and Mendel, who has emerged as a moral focus of the text, wonders why, why does evil prevail?

The Russians arrive

Back at the barracks the partisans are celebrating a wedding. A while earlier Gedaleh had suggested that a way to ‘cure’ young Isidor might be to make a man of him, to take his virginity and the woman they call White Rokhele, ten years older, had obliged. Now they are very definitely an item and Rokhele comes to Mendel, who has established a sort of authority, as a man who knows prayers and sprinkles his conversation with Biblical blessings and references, asking him to marry them.

In the middle of the celebrations, a terrifying bombardment kicks off, deafening everything, a monstrous barrage of shells and munitions screaming overhead, some landing terrifyingly close. Initially the Gedalists think it’s a German attack on them, but then realise it’s actually a full scale attack by the nearby Russians on the German lines. The front line of the war in the East has crept up to them and now is passing right over them (p.210).

In the midst of the chaos one of the partisans on guard duty outside crashes through the door, clutching a man they think might be a spy, named Schmulek, who he found prowling round just before the bombardment began. But Schmulek claims to be a partisan like themselves and begs to be allowed to take them to his hideout. Amid the deafening din of the shells, some of the Gedalists follow Schmulek through the woods to a well. In its walls are embedded steps down which they clamber to find the entrance to a cave. In fact to a warren of caves. At one stage, Schmulek tells them, 200 Jews took refuge here. Now all of them are dead except him – in the middle of this chaos more memories of atrocity and murder. Our partisans cower in the dark, listening to the inhuman rage of the guns over their heads.

The schoolhouse at Wolbrom

Next morning, when they emerge from the well-cave into the unnaturally quiet landscape, it is to find the well surrounded by laughing Russian soldiers. A political commissar turns up and the mood changes. He rounds up the other survivors from the Gedalists’ ‘barracks’, and they are disarmed and driven off to the nearby town of Wolbrom. Here the Red Army authorities accommodate them in an abandoned school and feed them, they are treated alright, even though the commissar is sceptical about their story of being real genuine fighting partisans. He thinks Jews can only be helpless victims. But while they await some kind of orders from above about what to do with the Gedalists, and the weeks go by, right-wing Poles start to hassle them. First they daub anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, then chuck a Molotov cocktail through the window. It is time to leave (p.221).

The Lager at Glogau

The Gedalists steal a lorry from a vast vehicle dump near the railway station and head West towards Glogau, just inside Germany (though, after the war, it became part of Poland). The high anxiety of stealing the lorry at night, and then the bickering and arguing about who should drive the truck (since none of them know how to drive) are described with deadpan humour. But some days down the road they run into a platoon of Red Army soldiers under the command of an angry corporal who impounds their vehicle and they are again detained – but this time behind the barbed wire of the former Lager or concentration camp at Glogau (p.230).

But it is not under concentration camp conditions. Once again they are fed and watered by the Red Army. And the officer in charge is a puzzle: he claims to be named Smirnov, Captain Smirnov, but Mendel and the others suspect he is a Jew pretending to be ethnic Russian.

One by one Smirnov calls the partisans in for interviews. To Mendel he explains that he wants them to write their story. He wants a record made of this vast panorama of chaos and destruction and suffering. The Gedalists mingle with other camp inhabitants and hear their – generally horrifying – stories. A French woman in particular recounts her long harrowing journey from Paris high society to the lowest pit of hell in a concentration camp. It is just the latest of the many harrowing accounts which stud the text, which make it not just the story of a handful, but emblematic of an entire generation, of an entire race hunted to near extinction.

Eventually it is May 1945. The Gedalists wake up one day and all the Russians are gone. The camp gates are open. Smirnov leaves a note telling them where to find a stash of machine guns and ammunition. The Gedalists move out, heading west further into Germany.

Vengeance in Neuhaus

The end of May finds them at the German village of Neuhaus, near Dachau. The German army has surrendered. The Americans are in charge. The towns and roads are packed with displaced persons trying to find their way home. In Neuhaus they find themselves among a crowd of Germans, who mutter anti-Semitic insults. Suddenly there’s a shot from somewhere, and the woman they call Black Rokhele slumps to the ground and quickly dies (p.241). The crowd vanishes, it is impossible to tell who did it.

That night the male Gedalists go on a revenge attack, breaking into the local Rathaus or town hall, killing the bodyguards, throwing grenades, executing all the men they find. Ten Germans for one Jew. Exactly as the Germans did in so many of their occupied territories. And, being Jews, they debate it fiercely afterwards: is revenge justified? Bible heroes carry out vengeance, so does God condone or forbid it? If it’s wrong why, as Jozak says, does it feel so right?

Mendel, who has emerged as the reader’s representative in the text, simultaneously the most Jewish (the most learned in Bible teaching and Talmudic law) and the most sceptical of the group, can’t decide. To be a Jew seems to involve being endlessly plagued with questions and anxieties.

But mostly, the Gedalists just want to get out of Europe, out of this place where there is no safety and no escape from endless persecution and contempt.

They hand themselves into the American authorities, who note their names, then let them go on their way, in their easygoing  Yankee manner – so unlike the murderous Germans or suspicious Poles or unreliable Russians. They walk on to Plauen, to the big railway station here, on the main Berlin to Italy line (p.246).

Train to Italy

The Geladists find a derelict house in the town to make a base and set about bartering for food. Over the next few days Geladeh chats up one of the men who works on the German railroad, who plays the flute. They are to be seen playing flute and violin duets. Abruptly, one night, Geladeh announces he’s got his railway friend to arrange for an entire carriage on the next train heading south to be made available to them. It’s a hush hush operation and in the middle of the night the surviving 31 Geladists pack their few belongings into the carriage, which the railroad man attaches to the long locomotive. The whistle blows and it sets off chuntering slowly south towards Italy.

The British Army Jews

At the border of the Brenner Pass, the train is stopped and the carriage opened by British Palestine Jews, operating with the British Army but licensed to help and rescue surviving Jews (p.256). There follows a long discussion about whether to accept their help or not during which their spokesman, Chaim, lays out the merits of going to Palestine but on condition they hand over their weapons at the border to the Allied border guards and declare themselves stateless persons. After much debate among the group, they agree.

Milan

The train rumbles into the bombed-out central station at Milan. The British Army Jews had given them the address of the Assistance Centre for Jews in the city. Processed through here, they are sent out of the city to a farm in the countryside, where the Geladists are housed in peace and comfort, where there is regular food, all they have to do is help with the farm work, sometimes loading rather heavy crates, which they suspect are full of weapons, onto trucks (p.266). All of them now want to leave Europe and make their way to Palestine to found a new state, a state where Jews won’t live in fear.

They are surprised to be invited to a party in the city, given by a very swanky fashionable couple. Four or five go and find themselves completely ill at ease among city dwellers, a type none of them have ever known, and who poke and prod them like zoo animals. ‘If they knew everything we’d done, they’d be scared of us,’ says Mendel (p.269). And the reader has become so inured to the hardships and horrors of their journey, that we too feel uncomfortable – we resent the tourist superficiality of the well-heeled Milanese who seem to have come through the war unscathed and enjoy the frisson of talking to real genuine partisans!

In the middle of their embarrassment, there’s a phone call from the farm. Their comrade, the one they call White Rokhele who Mendel married to Isidor on the night of the great bombardment, and who the text has recorded becoming more and more heavily pregnant over the past few months, has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital.

With relief the Gedalists exit the party and catch a taxi to the maternity hospital, there to meet with their comrades, Izu, Bella, and the baby’s father, Isidor, the one who saw his own family beaten to death by the SS, the one who Rokhele ‘healed’ with love and sex, now pacing the room like any expectant father.

It is a painful labour, there are complications, doctors and nurses rush in and out and tell our guys to be patient, while all along I had a bad feeling that God (and the author) might pull one more brutal hurt from his bag.

But no – Rokhele is safely delivered of a baby boy. And as the small group huddle round laughing and celebrating, another group, of nurses and doctors, is huddled round a newspaper that’s just been brought in, with an enormous headline. A new kind of weapon, an atomic bomb, has been detonated at a place in Japan named Hiroshima. And on this ominous, on this world-threatening note, the novel ends.

New life has come into the world. The mother’s friends celebrate. But a new technology which could end the entire world and place all previous barbarity in the shade, has entered at the same moment. God and the author have left a bitter blow to the end, not the one I expected, one much bigger and which shadows our lives to this day.


Jewish

‘A dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent’ (p.5)

The book is saturated in Jewish traditions, Jewish proverbs, Jewish stories, Jewish music and humour, rabbinical teachings, with numerous characters referring to (what we Gentiles call) ‘Old Testament’ characters, as if they lived only recently, as if their lives provide useful examples of how to behave now, people to compare ourselves against, here in the midst of the worst calamity humankind has ever known.

He, Mendel, if they were to ask him his age, and he decided to answer sincerely, what would he say? Twenty-eight, according to his papers, a bit older when it came to his joints, his lungs and heart; and on his back a mountain of years, more than Noah and Methuselah. Yes, more than they, since Methuselah begot Lamech at the ripe old age of one hundred eighty-seven, and Noah was five hundred when he brought Shem, Ham and Japheth into the world, six hundred when he built the ark, and a little older when he got drunk for the first time… No, he, Mendel the watchmender, roaming about the woods, was older than they. (p.23)

Many of the characters speak only Yiddish, and the book is alive with the language itself, and its traditions, stories, jokes and riddles, with its peculiar kind of argumentative wisdom, with its vivid words and phrases.

‘You’re a nebbish, a loser, a meshuggener.’ (p.30)

And also rings with the prayers and blessings and the age-old laments of persecuted Jews, updated to reference all the innovations of modern evil:

The Holy One, blessed be He, why was he hiding behind the grey clouds of Polessia instead of succouring his people? ‘You have chosen us among the nations’: why us exactly? Why do the wicked prosper, why are the helpless slaughtered, why bare their hunger, mass graves, typhus, and SS flamethrowers into holes crammed with terrified children? (p.61)

Why indeed? And why – everywhere they go – the unremitting hostility, anger and hatred of almost all the Gentiles, the contempt, suspicion, spitting, threats and violence, the Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred, why the virulent genocidal anti-Semitism which the characters experience or recall on almost every page?

The novel offers no answers, no redemption, except for the vitality of the text itself and the words and memories and lives and consciousnesses of the characters it creates. Implicitly, its message is that People are our salvation. There is no God. There is no Heaven. Life. Being alive. Living, breathing, thinking, are the greatest, the deepest, the fathomlessly profoundest gift. Everyone who spits on Life, holds Life cheap, who kills, alienates himself from the God who made us.

The story is its own justification. It bears witness to atrocities and suffering beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine. Yet it pulls and gathers this unspeakable horror into the great European art form, the novel, which proves able to takes all the abuse which can be hurled at it, only to emerge stronger and more powerful.

Not many writers can really be called ‘wise’. Many, especially many British and American writers, are merely provocative – creators of brands and personas which are good for a quote or a facile phrase, poolside entertainers, producers of fictions which morph seamlessly into TV dramas or Hollywood movies.

Levi is different. Even translated into another language, his books have a depth and dignity in their phrasing and rhythm, a restraint which accepts the full depths of horror but doesn’t give in to hysteria or despair, effortless insight into extremes of human psychology, which lift him onto another plane.

This is an astonishing novel, resonating on countless levels, which deserves to be read and reread and reread, to appal, to terrify, to teach and to inspire.


Credit

Se non ora, quando? by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi Editore, Turin in 1982; in English translation by Simon and Schuster in 1985; by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1985. All references are to the Abacus paperback edition of 1987.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/ 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)

Related reviews

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’.

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (2004)

Fifth in the addictive series of novels about former Soviet (and now plain Russian) homicide investigator, Arkady Renko, who we first met in Cruz Smith’s 1981 international bestseller, Gorky Park. It’s 23 years later and a lot has happened in that time, namely the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bewilderingly quick transformation of Russia into a criminal society, dominated by billionaire oligarchs and a ferocious mafia, just about held in place by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian state.

Cruz Smith/Renko’s unique selling point is the way he uses routine police procedurals to delve into this murky society. (In fact, its two predecessors had varied the scene by being set in Germany and Cuba, respectively.) This one marks a return to Mother Russia for its beginning, before shifting scene to become a wonderfully haunting evocation of the devastated towns and villages around the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine.

The corpse

Millionaire Pasha Ivanov has apparently killed himself by jumping out the tenth floor of his luxury apartment block. He was the president of a typical new Russian enterprise, NoviRus. The novel opens like a scene from Colombo or a thousand other American cop dramas with all the dead man’s business partners, mistresses etc gathered tearfully in the apartment as Arkady assesses them and asks the time-honoured question: Did he jump or was he pushed?

Assembled are Arkady’s boss, angry prosecutor Zurin; Arkady’s assistant, the burly alcoholic Victor; the dead man’s girlfriend-cum-interior designer Rina Shevchenko; a NoviRus vice-president Lev Timofeyev; and Ivanov’s fat American fixer, Bobby Hoffman. Not physically present, but looming in the background is the head of NoviRus security, the feared Colonel Ozhogin.

Arkady and co had in fact already been investigating Ivanov’s affairs but, with his death, Zurin is keen to get a quick decision that it was suicide and so close the case. The official reason is that we Zurin and his superiors don’t want to do anything which will spook foreign investors any more than necessary, Moscow has a bad enough reputation anyway, etc.

But Arkady, as is his way, refuses to move quickly. He ponders. Does Zurin has darker motives for his hurry to shut it down? Did their investigation prompt the suicide? Why, though – they hadn’t turned up anything incriminating – or were they on the verge of doing so… questions, questions.

The milieu the dead man moved in, the circle of Russia’s new super-rich, is vividly depicted when Arkady, in a later scene, crashes a party of the New Rich and is quietly appalled:

They saw themselves as the robber barons of the American Wild West, and didn’t someone say that every great fortune started with a crime? Russia already had over thirty billionaires, more than any other country. That was a lot of crime. (p.81)

A search of Ivanov’s apartment had turned up one standout peculiarity: his wardrobe was found to be full of salt, there was salt in several drawers and cupboards, there turns out to be salt in his gut and he was clutching a salt shaker when he jumped. Why?

Zhenya

In a separate strand, Arkady has been inveigled by a lady friend into visiting an orphanage and cheering up the kids, so that they end up taking one of them out for the day, the silent, traumatised 11-year-old Evgeny Lysenko aka ‘Zhenya’.

Next time Arkady turns up at the orphanage to discover the lady journalist hasn’t, and so Arkady finds himself, reluctantly, taking the totally silent boy out for another outing and then, despite himself, drawn into taking him on regular Sunday outings, the boy permanently silent and clutching his chess set and book of fairy tales while Arkady, as so often, questions himself, his action and his motives.

Moscow

The first hundred pages of this 400-page novel are set in Moscow, as Arkady pursues various leads in the Ivanov case, viewing and reviewing the CCTV footage from the dead man’s apartment building, meeting a notorious Mafia hardman, Anton Obodovsky, who phoned Ivanov in his last hours (Arkady has the ‘lucky’ break of finding the dead man’s phone kicked under his bed), wondering if there’s some underworld connection…

These scenes emphasise the thing about Arkady’s character which makes him so appealing. He is not stupid – he is honest, thorough, diligent. But most of the time he doesn’t know what is going on and is as puzzled as the reader. Which is what makes him so likeable.

Towards the end of this section he is searching Ivanov’s apartment for the umpteenth time when he comes across, right at the back of some drawers, more salt and then a dosimeter wrapped in a hankie. Arkady recognises it from his military training a long time ago, as the device you measure radiation with. ‘100’ is about a normal background measure. Arkady turns it on and pokes round the flat and in the wardrobe covered with salt, the reading is 50,000. Arkady’s mouth turns dry, his heart races. Someone was poisoning Ivanov with radioactivity – God, has he, Arkady, also received a fatal dose? (p.106)

Chernobyl

With no warning, without even the opening of a new ‘part’, the next chapter cuts to the abandoned towns and villages around the gutted Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. What? Why did that happen? And it turns out the rest of the novel is devoted to describing the scenery, atmosphere and mood of this strange abandoned place, while Arkady gets to know the handful of locals who still live there and the scientists who are studying the disaster’s impact. How? Why?

Because NoviRus vice-president, Lev Timofeyev, who we met in the opening scene, has been found dead, murdered, in a graveyard in a village in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Arkady’s boss, the prosecutor Zurov, angry at Arkady’s obstinate refusal to confirm Ivanov’s death as suicide, uses the mysterious death to get Arkady out of Moscow and far away from the Ivanov case.

Once again (as in the stunningly good Polar Star) Cruz Smith has come up with a brilliantly imaginative setting for his roaming, endlessly inquisitive hero to explore and investigate, and for his wonderfully evocative prose to paint.

Arkady is shown round the Zone by head of the local militia, Captain Marchenko, upset that his unblemished record has now been blotted with a murder. He introduces Arkady to denizens of the Dead Zone, including environmental scientists led by Alex Gerasimov and his estranged, intense, wife, Eva Kazka. It takes Arkady a long time to realise the odd love-hate relationship between them and only at the end is Alex revealed as a psychopath. Initially he had been courtesy itself, showing Arkady round the zone, introducing him to his fellow research scientists, and in one hair-raising scene, giving his own detailed account of the sequence of events which led to the nuclear disaster (p.214).

In fact Cruz Smith gives Alex a speech conveying a messianic vision of nature returning to claim its own, at a little party given by two old peasants who refuse to leave their village home, Roman and Maria Panasenko (p.219). Alex drunkenly shouts that it’s ‘normal human life’ which is killing nature – if only we could create Zones excluding human beings around the world – maybe every country should have a nuclear catastrophe! (p.164)

Arkady slowly pieces bits of a very confusing jigsaw together, tangling several times with the psychotic Woropay twins, Dymtrus and Taras, who patrol the streets of the ghost city, Pripyat, on roller skates armed with ice hockey bats and night vision goggles (!)

The novel raises and explores numerous dead-ends:

  • A shadowy figure, Hulak, phones Arkady requesting a rendezvous at the vast and eerie cooling lake in the shadow of the abandoned reactor. But when Arkady arrives it is to find locals pulling  his body out of the water, where they found it, shot through the head.
  • Lev Timofeyev’s body was found by a certain officer Karel Katamay, who has since gone missing. Arkady goes to visit Katamay’s father, a tough old construction worker in the city which was built to house evacuees from irradiated Pripyat after the disaster, Slavutych. Confined to a wheelchair by an accident, the angry old man stuffs wild animals and has taught his daughter, Katamay’s sister, Oksanato to hunt and shoot them for him.
  • Arkady is surprised to discover his ‘assistant’ Victor Orlov, is in Kiev (capital of the Ukraine, 140 km due south). He has been sent by Prosecutor Zurin to tail Anton Obodovsky – the hard man Arkady spoke to early on in the book – who now appears to be creating a new identity – new teeth, clothes and haircut, as if about to flee the country. Did he have something to do with Ivanov’s death? Why is he fleeing?
  • Arkady sees a hooded motorcyclist riding out of one of the abandoned villages with a sidecar stuffed with icons from the peasants’ houses. Next time he disturbs the motorcyclist in mid-theft and gives chase on his own motorbike, in an exciting ride through overgrown fields, across streams and swamps.
  • In the event, the phantom thief turns out to be Eva Kazka, Alex’s neurotic, chain-smoking ex-wife, a doctor who spent some time in Chechnya so has seen a lot of brutality, and hides the scar of an operation on her thyroid gland under the scarf. Arkady finds himself lured into an uncomfortable love triangle, not least as Eva tends to make love with a loaded gun either pointed at or alongside her lover. Alex ambushes Arkady and beats him up, a fight which also ends with Arkady having a loaded gun pointed at him. Tough loving.

As mentioned, what makes the Arkady character so attractive is the way he is caught up in situations he only partly understands. He is a sort of everyman figure, wandering through the chaos of post-communist Russia, clever, fit enough, curious, but endlessly on the back foot.

There is a powerful, random scene where Arkady is driving somewhere in Moscow and suddenly comes across rival gangs of skinheads and neo-fascists (supporting Spartak and Dynamo football clubs, respectively) having a riot at a traffic jam on the highway. Tattooed thugs are simply smashing the windscreens of stationary cars, dragging out their terrified occupants, and kicking seven bells out of anyone foreign-looking. Arkady weighs in to save a Vietnamese couple (who it turns out he knows), waving his police badge and pistol around. Only when he’s well into the melee of thugs does Arkady realise that he has in fact removed the bullets from the gun to make it safe for the occasions when he takes young Zhenya out. At which point he feels the sweat breaking on his skin, continuing to threaten the hordes of tattooed hooligans, but knowing any of them could call his bluff at any moment.

It’s a very Arkady scene, our hero a) well-intentioned but b) somehow cocking things up and c) beneath his personal plight, a deeper insight into, a snapshot of, the violent car crash which is contemporary Russian society.

The Jewish connection

Arkady is very surprised when the dead Ivanov’s fat American fixer Hoffman arrives in Chernobly, especially as he is accompanied by a short, but very tough Jewish security man, Yakov, ‘the oldest Jew in the Ukraine’ (p.230), who remembers the famine in the Ukraine, the Red Army and the Nazis – and survived them all.

There emerges a strong Jewish thread to the novel, which brings out the disastrous fate of the Jews of the region. When the Germans invaded in 1942 the people of Pripyat enthusiastically rounded up all their Jews, forced them into boats on the river and shot them up, picking off anyone who tried to swim to safety. (All this reminds me sickeningly of Tom Snyder’s horrifying history book, The Bloodlands.)

In Moscow Hoffman had tried to buy Arkady’s support. Now he has followed him to Chernobyl – but why? As the formal investigation dwindles down to a trickle and then sputters out amid the haunted scenery and strange post-apocalyptic characters of the Zone, Arkady finds himself drawn to Hoffman and Yakov. There are several weird evocative scenes at their camp out by the abandoned Chernobyl Yacht Club, a rusting quay with abandoned boats lining the muddy river.

When Arkady hears that hard-man Colonel Ozhogin is on his way south, he goes out of his way to persuade one of the Zone characters – Bela, a crook who owns a vast boneyard of radioactive cars, trucks, military vehicles and cuts them up and flogs them in the markets of Kiev and Moscow to unsuspecting punters – to smuggle the two Jews out of the dead lands.

It is entirely in keeping with the weird, static, trapped feel of the place and the novel that Arkady then discovers the two Jews changed his instructions and bribed Bela to drive in completely the wrong direction, right to the gates of the nuclear reactor, where Arkady discovers them bobbing their heads as they repeat the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Only now does it emerge that Ivanov, himself a Jew, had sent Hoffman down here the previous year to pray for him, to seek forgiveness, to beg God’s mercy on his soul, but Hoffman was too sceptical, shy, too American and resistant, to do it. But after the poisoning and suicide of his boss he is at last prepared to make his small supplication in front of the looming concrete ‘sarcophagus’ built over the fatal reactor.

It doesn’t quite make sense as a storyline – like a lot of the plot – but its slight implausibility is dwarfed by the poetry and the imaginative power of the scenes it leads to.

Officer Katamay

Finally Arkady tracks down the security guard who found the body of Timofeyev at the remote graveyard, one Officer Karol Katamay (p.177). He had, suspiciously, gone missing immediately afterwards. Through a sequence of contacts Arkady tracks him down to the baroque setting of the abandoned theatre in the empty ghost town of Pripyat (p.309). Here, Katamay is revealed lying on a divan on the empty stage, his hair carefully beaded and tended, a blanket over him supported by comfy pillows but guarded and patrolled by the two psychotic ice skating twins. Like Pavov and Timofeyev before him, he is obviously stricken by severe radiation sickness, almost continuously bleeding from the nose. Arkady finds out that Alex the research scientist got to know Katamay and asked him to do a job in Moscow.

He was paid to sneak into Ivanov’s apartment, when Alex created a little outage in the security system, with lead-lined boxes, and to wear gloves as he scattered radioactive salt through the apartment. But it seems he wasn’t careful enough and himself became contaminated.

Shootout in Pripyat

The narrative takes Arkady away for further meetings with Eva, phone calls to Victor and so on, before being called back to visit Katamay again. This time he finds the sofa and the recumbent Katamay in the surreal setting of Pripyat’s abandoned funfair. But to Arkady’s disappointment, he has only very recently been stifled with a pillow which, as a result, is soaked in arterial blood. Arkady is holding the murder weapon looking down at the freshly dead man when a swishing sound announces the return of his friends and protectors, the Woropay brothers. They cry out in anguish at the death of their friend and Arkady can only run run run through the deserted streets and into a derelict building, up the stairs, throwing himself out the first floor window onto detritus below and running running running for his life until the brothers catch him, pummeling him to the ground and telling him they’re going to enjoy this as they start to hit him. Bang! One brother falls dead. The other turns to look around and bang! He is dead, too.

Groggily, Arkady looks up to see the blazing-eyed Alex, the visionary scientist who wants the whole world to be irradiated to save it for nature. He makes Arkady pick up one twin while he shoulders the other and they stagger back to the body of Katamay on the sofa. Here Alex turns and finally reveals the whole story.

Ivanov and Timofeyev were assistants at the Institute of Physics in Moscow, assisting Alex’s father, esteemed academician Felix Gerasimov (p.139). On the night of the disaster (26 April 1986) Gerasimov senior had drunk himself unconscious and so when the call came through to the Institute from the Chernobyl reactor, and then from the local authorities, asking what to do – it was Ivanov and Timofeyev who advised them to hush it up and do nothing. Thus poisoning maybe millions of local inhabitants unnecessarily, including the hundreds of thousands who turned out for the May Day parades in all the nearby towns and cities five days later. Including Eva, who had patiently explained to Arkady that her bitterness and anger stem from being irradiated as a teenager, by the stupidity of the authorities. All caused by the craven cowardice of Ivanov and Timofeyev.

On a personal level, when Gerasimov sobered up and realised the bad advice his underlings had given, he immediately ordered an evacuation, but it was this chopping and changing of scientific advice which fatally added to the administrative delays, exposing hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, to contamination. Gerasimov had been haunted for years and years by his personal failure, until he finally shot himself.

And his son, Alex, was consumed by bitterness at the whole shambles – the drunken father who eventually kills himself, the irradiated lover, the poisoned population. No wonder he had such edge and nerviness in him from the moment Arkady met him, no wonder he was ready to explode into a fierce fist fight when he found Arkady at Eva’s cottage (see above). No wonder he turns out to be an embittered killer.

The big reveal

Now, as he and Arkady drop the bodies of the Woropay twins by the body of the dead security guard Katamay, Alex does what all baddies do in standard crime and thriller novels – he explains the mystery. It was he, Alex, who began to persecute Ivanov and Timofeyev as punishment for that awful night. It was he who secured supplies of difficult-to-access radioactive Cesium 137, indistinguishable from the common or garden salt which he mixed it with and which he had delivered to Ivanov’s apartment, along with the dosimeter, so that Ivanov would realise what had been done to him, and why. By the time Ivanov figured out what was going on it was too late, he’d been too exposed and even eaten some of the radioactive salt.

Alex had arranged for the delivery to be made by a gullible security guard, Katamay, who he’d befriended in the Exclusion Zone and paid to go to Moscow – but the fool was careless and contaminated himself as much as the victims. Alex realised that the dying Katamay was on the verge of revealing everything to Arkady and so, just half an hour earlier, smothered him with his pillow. And now has killed the only other people who Katamay might have told, the Woropay twins.

All through this explanation Alex has been pointing his gun at Arkady. He explains that he’s going to arrange the bodies in just such a layout that it looks like they’ve all shot each other – and shot the intrusive Moscow investigator, too.

The local investigators are not up to Moscow standards (as the way they botched the investigation into Timofeyev’s death demonstrated) so it will be easy enough to fake the scene and make it look like they all shot each other. So he asks Arkady to move just a bit to his left, yes, this should be about the right angle, just about – BANG!

Arkady barely hears the shot before he realises Alex is crumpling to the ground. Out of the shadows emerges Katamay’s sister, Oksana, who we met in the apartment of her overbearing father in Slavutych, and who we now remember was taught how to use a hunting rifle since she was a little girl. She had come to see her brother. She found him dead. Then she overheard Alex’s admission of his murder. Now the rather simple girl asks, ‘Did I do right?’ Arkady, his heart barely pumping at his sudden reprieve, reassures her that yes she did, then tiptoes away from the scene of these multiple crimes, leaving her cradling the head of her dead brother…

Epilogue

It is some months later. Eva is living with Arkady in Moscow and they both now regularly take the silent orphan Zhenya for outings.

They get a post card from the ancient peasants Eva had introduced him to in the Exclusion Zone, Roman and Maria, inviting them back for a small village feast and and decide to drive back to the blighted land for a visit.

Here, in an unexpectedly moving conclusion, Eva and Arkady assist with the ritual slaughter of the village pig and – to everyone’s amazement – Zhenya talks, enthusiastically throwing himself into this gross, pagan, primitive action, something in it releasing his spring.

After the butchering and the ritual feast for the small number of locals, Zhenya, Eva and Arkady motor back to Moscow with hope in their hearts for the future.

While some of the plot devices are hackneyed or convenient, over-riding them is the attractiveness of the Arkady character, the inventiveness of the situations he finds himself, the sheer imaginative otherness which Cruz Smith captures so brilliantly. This is a fabulous marvellous book.


Wonderful prose style

Cruz Smith is a pleasure to read, not only because of the intelligent plots, and the winning character of Renko himself, but also because of his magic turns of phrase. Admittedly not on every page, rationed to a handful per chapter – but when they come they set the language alight.

The marble lobby was so brightly lit that everyone wore halos. (p.38)

Of the suicide’s body, as captured on CCTV:

Upper and lower body collapsed into a ring of dust that exploded from the pavement. (p.40)

Colonel Ozhogin menaces Arkady at NoviRus HQ:

Ozhogin leaned closer, a hammer taking aim on a nail. (p.56)

And generally, he has a way of making the language dance.

Evgeny Lysenko, nickname Zhenya, age eleven, looked like an old man waiting at a bus stop. (p.17)

There was something smug and miserly about Victor when he drove, as if he had figured out one bare-bones sexual position. (p.63)

The Chernobyl militia station was a brick building with a linden tree sprouting from a corner like a feather in a cap. (p.145)

Black smoke poured out of the tailpipe of the Moskvich like a bad temper. (p.154)

Bela picked a hair off his shoulder. In his dirty white suit he looked like a lily beginning to rot. (p.305)

When Eva and Arkady finally make love, it is described in spare clipped sentences and then an extraordinary image.

They were two starving people feeding from the same spoon. (p.279)

Cruz Smith is one of the best poets in prose I know of writing today.


Dramatis personae

Moscow

Arkady Renko – Tall, skinny hangdog Russian homicide detective, who starts out investigating the mysterious death of multi-millionaire Pasha Ivanov, but ends up exploring the eerily devastated landscape around Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
Prosecutor Zurin – Arkady’s boss who gets cross with him – like all his bosses do – for persisting with his questioning even after being told to stop.
Victor Orlov – Arkady’s alcoholic assistant detective.
Pasha Ivanov – New Russian multi-millionaire CEO of NoviRus whose apparent suicide kick starts the plot. Turns out he was dying of radiation poisoning, sent him in revenge for the role he played in the Chernobyl disaster.
Rina Shevchenko – Ivanov’s girlfriend-cum-interior designer.
Lev Timofeyev – NoviRus vice-president, also poisoned with radiation.
Colonel Ozhogi – head of NoviRus security, who comes gunning for Arkady in Chernobyl.
Bobby Hoffman – Ivanov’s fat Jewish assistant.
Yakov – The tough Jewish hired gun Hoffman picks up to protect him when he comes to the Ukraine.
Evgeny Lysenko aka ‘Zhenya’ – 11-year-old orphan who Arkady finds himself looking after.
Anton Obodovsky – Mafia hardman who phoned Ivanov hours before his death but has the excuse that he was in prison at the time. But when Victor reports seeing him in Kiev, apparently undergoing a change of identity, Arkady wonders if he somehow killed the millionaire and is now about to flee.

Chernobyl

Captain Marchenko – head of the local militia in the Excluded Zone around the abandoned Chernobyl power station, initially friendly to Arkady who manages to alienate him by disobeying advice and accumulating dead bodies wherever he goes, as usual.
Alex Gerasimov – chief environmental scientist in the Exclusion Zone, starts off courteous and considerate, but reveals his nutty side when he explains that there should be more nuclear accidents so that nature can return to the devastated zones, and beats Arkady up when the latter begins an affair with Eva, his ex-wife, before finally emerging as the murderer.
Eva Kazka – Alex’s estranged wife, a doctor, bitter at being unnecessarily irradiated because the authorities didn’t evacuate local inhabitants in time, she has served in Chechnya ie seen many horrors. She and Arkady end up having an edgy affair during which she more than once threatens him with a gun.
Felix Gerasimov – Alex’s father and one-time head of the Institute of Physics in Moscow, who was drunk and unconscious when news came through of the Chernobyl disaster, thus allowing his two subordinates Ivanov and Timofeyev to give the bad advice to the authorities to do nothing.
Roman and Maria Panasenko – two ancient peasants who’ve refused to leave the Zone and live in in their one-bedroom hovel, raising vegetables and livestock. It’s at a small party at their house that Alex makes his big speech about how nature would benefit from more nuclear disasters. And the novel closes with a moving account of Eva, Zhenya and Arkady invited back to their house to take part in the slaughter of their pig and accompanying fiesta.
Officer Karol Katamay – of the Chernobyl militia, Katamay finds the body of Timofeyev in the cemetery in the Excluded Zone with his throat cut. Turns out he was persuaded by Alex to deliver radioactive cesium mixed in with salt to Ivanov’s luxury apartment to poison him, but in the process Katamay contaminated himself and is now close to death.
Katamay senior – Katamay’s father, an overbearing construction worker, injured in an accident and now wheelchair-bound, assisted by his daughter, Katamay’s sister, Oksanato, who he has taught to hunt and shoot wild animals from an early age.
Oksanato Katamay – Karel Katamay’s sister, a rather simple-minded young woman, totally bald from radiation poisoning, who turns out to be the deus ex machina when she shoots and kills Alex Gerasimov just as he was about to murder Arkady. Phew.
The Woropay twins, Dymtrus and Taras – simple, stupid and very violent young men, good friends of the dying Katamay, they like skating round the empty streets of the ghost city of Pripyat brandishing ice hockey sticks and wearing night vision goggles. When the twins discover Arkady apparently red-handed in the act of smothering their friend at the climax of the novel, the twins chase him through the empty streets of the ghost town, catch and are about to finish him off, when they are both expertly shot by the psycho Alex Gerasimov.
Bela – Dodgy businessman who runs a huge scrapyard full of the vehicles abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster, who makes money by breaking them up for parts which he sells in Kiev and Moscow. Arkady persuades him to pack up and leave, taking Bobby and Yakov with him before the fearsome Colonel Ozhogin arrives to wreak havoc on anybody he thinks is threatening NoviRus. Bobby in fact pays Bela to drive them to the very gates of Chernobyl where Arkady finds him and Yakov, in a weirdly powerful scene, offering Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the dead, to the vast radioactive sarcophagus.


Credit

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Simon & Schuster in 2004. All quotes and references to the 2005 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’.

Russia and the Arts @ National Portrait Gallery

Textile industrialist Pavel Tretyakov started collecting Russian paintings in the 1850s and continued until 1892, when he donated his collection of over 2,000 works to form the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s national gallery.

He not only collected but commissioned works, especially portraits of contemporary artists and musicians. This small but beautifully formed exhibition brings together 26 masterpieces of portraiture from the Tretyakov collection, covering the period 1867 to 1914, arguably the high point of Russia’s cultural history, a golden era in literature, music and the performing arts.

It is divided into themed areas: poets, patrons, composers and musicians, critics and writers, three great novelists and so on. Each theme is separately introduced and then each portrait has a lengthy wall label explaining who the subject is and their significance. In the 40 or so minutes it takes to read everything and look at the pictures carefully, you get a good sense of the extraordinary achievements of this culture over this special period.

Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin (1881) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin (1881) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

This classic portrait of Mussorgsky was painted by Ilia Repin just days before the composer’s death in hospital, brought on by excessive alcohol consumption, at the age of just 42, a patron saint of the social disease which still plagues Russia.

As well as musicians like Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, the show features portraits of well-known writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and, from the Revolutionary generation, the ill-fated poet Anna Akhmatova, alongside quite a few less well-known figures, actors such as Pelageia Strepetova, opera singers such as Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel, and patrons of the arts such as Ivan Morozov.

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov (1910) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov (1910) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The portrait of Morozov is by Valentin Serov, painted in 1910, towards the end of the period. Morozov came from a family famous for its patronage of the theatre and the arts. He personally built up a collection of post-impressionist painters which was big enough to influence the style of contemporary Russian artists, especially the 10 or so Matisses he owned, one of which – Fruit and Bronze – is brightly painted into the background here.

My favourite was Lensky as Shakespeare’s Petruchio by Ivan Kramskoy. It has an oddity, a realism and intensity, the realism of the face set off by the gorgeousness of the velvet costume and the chain studded with jewels.

The Actor Aleksander Lensky in the role of Petruchio in Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew’ by Ivan Kramskoi (1883) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The Actor Aleksander Lensky in the role of Petruchio in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by Ivan Kramskoi (1883) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

One painter emerged as especially prolific, Ilia Repin. I counted 8 paintings by him out of the 26, of which the most striking were Mussorgsky the alcoholic showing off his proud Russian roots in dishevelled dressing gown and, at the opposite end of the scale of chic, the astonishing figure of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt.

Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt by Ilia Repin (1889) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt by Ilia Repin (1889) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

I happen to be reading the historical novels of Alan Furst, set in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, and so am soaked in the atmosphere of violence spawned by the Russian Revolution and Civil War, followed by Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s – an irredeemably wicked unleashing of humanity’s most bestial urges which destroyed hundreds of millions of lives.

The seeds of all that were sown in the period covered by this exhibition, and it’s hard not to look for signs of it, especially in the troubled relationship so many of these figures had with ‘the West’ and/or with their own Russian tradition; simultaneously criticising the political and economic backwardness of their own society and yet despising the ‘decadent’ West for its superficiality and frivolity, for its ‘liberalism’, as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy so fervently did.

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov (1872) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Fedor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872) © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Dostoyevsky served 10 years of penal servitude in Siberia, an experience which is said to underpin the spiritual and psychological intensity of his novels. This portrait, painted by Vasily Perov in 1872, is the only one of Dostoyevsky painted from life. According to the commentary, Dostoyevsky became a figure of immense moral authority with the Russian public and the painting has, apparently, been reproduced on everything from stamps to biscuit tins. But for me he is an advocate of the glorification of suffering and a full-throated contempt for western ‘comfort’, which was to have such catastrophic consequences in Russia and then in Eastern Europe in the generations to come.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to see a group of masterpieces from one of painting’s golden ages, to revel in the range and depths of its achievements, and to ponder anew the depth of the tragedy which so quickly swept it all away.

Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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