Gorky Park

Title:                      Gorky Park

Author:                Martin Cruz Smith

Smith, Martin Cruz (1981). Gorky Park. New York: Random House

LCCN:    80006022

PS3569.M5377 G6


Date Posted:      January 1, 2017

Reviewed by [1]Peter Andrews

Just when I was beginning to worry that the large-scale adventure novel might be suffering from a terminal case of the Folletts, along comes Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, a book that reminds you just how satisfying a smoothly turned thriller can be. Mr. Smith fulfills all of the requirements of the adventure novel and then transcends the genre. Gorky Park is a proper novel, illuminated with fascinating glimpses of contemporary Russian life, a story dappled with flashes of irony.

Arkady Renko, chief police inspector for the People’s Militia, is brought in to investigate the deaths of three people found in the snow of Moscow’s Gorky Park. The three have been shot at close range, the tips of their fingers snipped off with shears, and their “faces skinned, like freshly killed game. A strange case, comrade? Well, yes, because before Renko is finished, he will track a psychopathic killer across two continents, only to find himself hunted in turn by the K.G.B., the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the New York Police Department. Gorky Park covers a lot of territory.

It is difficult to examine a mystery story in detail without giving too much away. But, in essence, Gorky Park is a police procedural of uncommon excellence. Martin Cruz Smith has managed to combine the gritty atmosphere of a Moscow police squad room with a story of detection as neatly done as any English manor-house puzzlement. I have no idea as to the accuracy of Mr. Smith’s descriptions of Russian police operations. But they ring as true as crystal.

I know I first learned about the New York City Police Department from the Ed McBain novels, and that information has held up over the years as well as anything I learned in civics class. Now, Mr. Smith gives us a nicely coarse-grained series of portraits of Russian policemen: the paper shufflers, the time servers, the informers who will squeal on their friends for a promotion, and those dogged men who are trying to do their best at a difficult and dangerous job. A policeman’s lot in Moscow, according to Mr. Smith, can be a particularly unhappy one. The rules of evidence have to yield to the requirements of propaganda. The Soviets, for example, have decreed that prostitution does not exist in Russia. Therefore, women arrested for it must be doing something else. The K.G.B., those defenders of State security, look over the shoulders of every Russian policeman, and are ready to usurp or wreck an investigation at any time, all in the name of the national interest. Although the picture Mr. Smith paints is a thoroughly Russian one, no American who has ever watched our own law enforcement agencies make crime statistics jump through hoops or who recalls an F.B.I. figure slinging important evidence into the Potomac River will be on unfamiliar ground. One of the wonders of Gorky Park is how easily we recognize Renko, the honest Communist policeman. Indeed, he seems in many ways, a spinoff of the American loner-hero.

Chief Inspector Renko is no super sleuth given to brilliant flashes of deduction. He is a cop, whose job is to clean up the bloodstains left by his fellow citizens in moments of rage and madness. Most of his homicide experience has been in the dreary run of domestic crime–a Muscovite brains his spouse with a vodka bottle and wanders off, leaving a trail of gore that Abbott and Costello could follow. But the business in Gorky Park is something else. It is, Renko notes, “a crime of wit.” And for the first time, his skills as an investigator are truly tested. What follows is a model of good detective-story writing. When Renko makes each successive deduction, it is not because he knows anything we do not, but because he has thought more deeply and more interestingly about the information we both have. As Renko unravels the case, suspicion shifts from Renko’s own boss to the K.G.B. and to a villainous American, who is, as my grandmother used to say, “slippery as greased okra.”

When Renko claps his hands in delight at a new revelation, we are just a few steps behind him, which is about the right distance to keep between a professional and an amateur in such matters. And Arkady Renko is a good man to stay close to. Once on the trail of a killer, he will not let go until simple justice has been done. But there is no simple justice in the case of the three murdered people in Gorky Park. There are smugglers’ fortunes to be made, there are scandals that must be suppressed, there are great economic issues and matters of national security, both Russian and American, far more important than a policeman’s duty. And as he pursues a murderer through Russia and on to New York City, it is the policeman who is in the greatest danger.

Gorky Park depicts a society where it is important to own a washing machine even if it doesn’t work, so that your neighbors know you possess such a wonderful thing. Mr. Smith has fashioned a kind of reverse comedy of manners. One deserving detective is denied advancement because he had a prince for a grandfather, while an incompetent is promoted well beyond his capabilities because he can trace his lineage back to the pure proletariat. Mr. Smith has the genuine novelist’s ability to make us look at familiar surroundings with the insights of his characters. When Renko’s beloved comes to New York, she sees it as a sort of fabulous municipal boutique filled with luxury items you do not need a party card to buy. All you need is money. On the other hand, Renko, a cop with few illusions, drives through the streets in a N.Y.P.D. squad car and sees a filthy city impossible to police or control.

Gorky Park has much to say about the police-state mentality. When Renko compares Russian and American police and security work, each with its own way of ignoring reality, each with its own institutionalized savagery, it takes a true patriot to prefer one to the other. Renko is, of course, a true patriot at heart. Even so, he realizes, “It’s been proved we can’t trust anyone.”

If Gorky Park suffers from a flaw, it is one that is common among even the best examples of the genre. There is a falling-off at the end, when the plot turns about three notches more than my credulity is prepared to be stretched. But the first 340 pages were splendid. Finally, Renko–vulnerable, decent, brave and smart–extracts a measure of honor from a shabby international affair and takes his place alongside the best creations of John Le Carré.

[1] Peter Andrews, “Murder In Moscow, Arkady Renko on The Case,” The New York Times (April 5, 1981, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 1, Column 1; Book Review Desk). Peter Andrews, a contributing editor to Saturday Review, frequently reviews adventure novels.

The Fall of a Titan

Title:                      The Fall of a Titan

Author:                  Igor Gouzenko

Gouzenko, Igor (1954). The Fall of a Titan. New York, Norton

LCCN:    54010351

PZ4.G719 Fal

Date Posted:      December 30, 2016


This has a double claim to special notice, the quality of the book, and the identity of the author, the “cipher clerk” who broke with the Soviet in 1945 and turned over the documentary evidence contributing to the breaking of Canada’s spy ring. Inevitably, one feels that in depicting Novikov, a scholar who molded himself into a “Soviet man”, he has tapped his own knowledge of the techniques used to break down a man’s resistance, to destroy his moral sense, to corrupt wholly. This figure is set in opposition to the “titan”, Mikhail Gorin, a giant literary figure (based, the publishers indicate, on Maxim Gorki), recalled by Stalin to add to the propaganda publishing of the state which he had helped, in earlier years, bring into being. It is a fascinating and horrifying story, with intricate subplots involving insatiable lust for power, petty jockeying for position, ruthless elimination of all who differ from authority, and elimination of any independence even in affairs of the heart. Novikov, really in love with Gorin’s daughter, Nina, is instructed to forget it and turn elsewhere; then when his marriage to Lida brings her momentary happiness, that too is negated by her father’s arrest as “enemy of the people”. The book builds up to an inevitable climax of disaster, as Gorin forcibly recognizes the position into which he has been tricked — and Novikov descends to the depths of infamy. But the final note is one of faint hope, that there is still the spark of faith in man. The story has the sweep and power of Russian classical literature, and despite its length, is a holding and moving reading experience from start to finish. Summer Book-of-the-Month.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded December 30, 2016

Mother Russia

Title:                      Mother Russia

Author:                 Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (1978). Mother Russia. London: Hutchinson

LCCN:    78324392

PZ4.L772 Mo 1978

Date Updated:  April 21, 2016

Littell goes tongue-in-cheek in his fiction on Russia under Soviet rule. He reminds me of Dickens and his discussion of the “Office of Circumlocution.” It gives an “under the skirt” view of life under the Soviet fist.


Littell’s puckish send-up of modern Russian life rides upon the zig-zagging back of one Robespierre Isayevich Pravdin, a Jewish ex-camper, a cheerful graffiti artist and black-marketeer a hustler who’s got big plans for Russian society, like the introduction of Q-tips, classic comics, Red Army exercises, vaginal deodorant sprays, instant matzos. . . . Living in the last wooden house in Moscow, he has as neighbors an aging general, a weatherman, a hippie named Ophelia, a beautiful mute girl with whom he has an affair, and Mother Russia herself−an old woman named Zoya, conveniently classified by the government as insane and so left alone to send a steady stream of letters to the United Nations, the Kremlin, the White House, even the sewing machine company that won’t send her a badly needed part (“zingers to Singer”). When Pravdin comes into possession of the original manuscripts of a famous Russian novel, proof is served up beyond doubt that the Sholokhov-like author who claimed the book as his−and who won a Nobel for his talent−merely plagiarized. And Pravdin’s crusade to uncover the impostor, now elevated to an Honored Artist of the Soviet Union, lands him in the Lubyanka again, and then the mental hospitals. Littell’s light touch saves all this from grimness: with Pravdin he’s got a holy fool, and the upshot may be loony shading toward fey, but it certainly has its charms.


[1] Kirkus review, downloaded January 5, 2016

The October Circle

Title:                      The October Circle

Author:                  Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (1975). The October Circle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:    75026955

PZ4.L772 Oc3


Date Posted:      March 24, 2016

This novel is not a spy novel, but sheds considerable light on the social/political times of the old Soviet Union. It is amazing, to me at least, that so much changed in Russia in such a short time. Not all of the old is gone, for sure, but a great deal of pent up feelings have been released, and I certainly witnessed that in St. Petersburg in 2015.


Littell (The Defection of A. J. Lewinter[2]) is our best exponent of the real Realpolitikal thriller—this one taking place in Sofia in 1968, in a thin, gray “present ridiculous” after the Russians impose their so-called peaceful counterrevolution on Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. The October Circle, a group of old-line, ’30s-style Communists who will remind you of the worn idealists of La Guerre est Finie[3], sit around coffee-housing about Malraux and Sartre and the better old days when you could still distinguish right from wrong and retain some hope for a humanity without checkpoints. They polarize around the Flag Holder, a once-writing writer with no fingernails, who keeps everyone at a distance except his son Georgi; a mistress; a magician; and the young bicycle racer who will pick up the “flag” after the dreadful cycle of arrests, mutilation (Georgi) and terrorism is generated. In a desperate protest—perhaps only “theater” will be effective—the Flag Holder sets himself on fire. His suicide is dismissed summarily with his burial as a nonperson. This leaves only the young legatee Tacho to make the ride across the border and choose between freedom—or another unremembered martyr’s death. Littell has a graphic command of the “present ridiculous” while lending here and there, through assorted characters, an inventive sense of the absurd—but then can we quite demarcate the absurd from the heroic? He’s also a fine ironist, with lines like “A Communist is someone who, when he smells roses, looks around for a coffin” branded on the pages of his intensive, involving novel. Littell writes not only above the genre but beyond it—with smoke rings of conjecture and a striking show of courage.

[1] A Kirkus Review, downloaded January 29, 2016

[2] Littell, Robert (1973). The Defection of A. J. Lewinter. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin

[3] A 1966 French film (The War is Over)

The Stalin Epigram

Title:                      The Stalin Epigram

Author:                 Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (2009). The Stalin Epigram. New York: Simon & Schuster

LCCN:    2008052277

PS3562.I7827 S73 2009


Date Posted:      December 11, 2015


Littell adapts the unhappy story of iconic Russian poet Osip Mandelstam to deliver another of his chilling portraits of bureaucracy gone mad.

It’s 1934, and Stalin’s secret police are on a tear in Moscow. No one, no matter how intrinsically law-abiding, is arrest-proof. That’s because it’s hard to abide by laws that can change in a blink and often as not turn out to be state secrets anyway. “Is there anything that’s not a state secret?” the poet Anna Akhmatova asks an agent of the dreaded Cheka. Most assuredly, comes the ready reply, “But what’s not a state secret is a state secret.” Plunged deep into this bureaucratic nightmare, the artistically brilliant, politically naïve Mandelstam at first tries to cope. But the fact that he’s now forbidden to publish torments him; it’s a hammer blow to the poet’s very reason for being. Against the advice—more accurately, the pleading—of his wife, friends and colleagues, he composes and publicly declaims an inflammatory, eventually infamous 16-line epigram that characterizes Stalin as a murderer, then describes the Soviet leader’s “cockroach whiskers” and fingers “fat as grubs.” Mandelstam might as well have requested a summons to Lubyanka Prison, of course, and in short order that’s where he finds himself residing. Not surprisingly, unrelenting assaults on the poet’s body and spirit break him. Convinced on a daily basis that a bullet to the back of his head must be his fate, Mandelstam somehow manages to escape actual execution, but the poet in him is less fortunate. In the meantime, Stalin’s dictum that everyone is guilty of something remains in force, packing the prisons while thinning the post-Revolution population.

Firmly in the tradition of Orwell, Kafka and Koestler—and equally harrowing.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Title:                      The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Author:                Victor Serge

Serge, Victor (1968). The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin,

LCCN:    70361883

PZ3.S4838 Cas10

Date Updated:  June 23, 2015

Review by Nicholas Lezard.[1]

Why, asks Susan Sontag in her first-rate introduction to this first-rate novel, isn’t Victor Serge more acclaimed these days? Perhaps it is because there is too much to grasp at once.

To start with Serge: born in Brussels in 1890 to émigré Russians, he became a political activist in Paris and landed in prison for five years. Arriving in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevist revolution, he rose high in the Comintern before becoming increasingly disturbed by the emergence of Stalin and the brutal repression of dissent. Serge was expelled from the party in 1928, and arrested shortly afterwards. He was released and turned to writing fiction and history. Not writing the kind of fiction or history that appealed to the censors, he was arrested again in 1933. André Gide, who had once said he would sacrifice his life for the Soviet Union, was one eminent figure who campaigned for his release, and, amazingly, Serge was released.

As you can see, it’s a rather incident-filled life so far, and it remained so: you can find out the rest when you buy the book. History has treated him shabbily because he was denouncing Stalin at a time when bien-pensant intellectuals outside the USSR were disposed to ignore such criticisms (and a good many anti-communists at the time were, it must be remembered, strikingly unlovely people); afterwards, it was too late. Serge died in 1947. As he himself wrote, in another context: “History can only impose its solutions by running people over.”

But The Case of Comrade Tulayev is one of the great 20th-century Russian novels, important not only in its subject matter but in its style. Serge may have been a man of extremely uncommon principle, and a fully-fledged man of action, but he was also a sensitive and well-read literary man, alive not only to Russian literary heritage but to contemporary international stylistic developments.

Tulayev begins in an almost classic Russian fashion, as two lowly clerks, Romachkin and Kostia, neighbors on either side of a flimsy partition (which even manages to divide their fireplace in two), cope with grinding poverty. We are firmly in the land of Gogolian absurdity, but the absurdity here is realized by the pronouncements of officialdom. “What—you really believe that the day will come when men won’t have lice? True Socialism—eh?—with butter and sugar for everybody? Maybe, to increase human happiness, there’ll be soft, perfumed lice that caress you?”

Kostia gets hold of a revolver and, one night, on an impulsive whim, shoots Tulayev, a high-ranking official he believes responsible for numerous injustices. The machinery of the state then wheels into action, trying to find the killer, and the novel suddenly opens up its vistas, as more and more people—though never Kostia himself—are drawn into the net of suspicion, accusation, terror and false confession which characterized the Soviet Union at the time. The action moves from Moscow to Barcelona to Paris—but above all, to the far-flung gulags and prisons where the non-conspirators are sent.

Were that all, the novel would still be an important testament, for Serge knew whereof he spoke. But it isn’t all. Serge could not silence the poetry within him. There may be clusters of official acronyms throughout the novel—ineluctably so, given the setting—but there are extraordinary passages of natural description, a beauty that defies what takes place within it, and, more importantly perhaps, the sense that no single person in the novel is less than a true character, as opposed to an abstraction or caricature. Even Stalin, who makes a couple of appearances, is no monster. Neither is he a cuddly Uncle Joe. But was ever a dictator portrayed with more convincing restraint than when an investigator reports to him that someone has “confessed” to sabotage? “The word confessed produced a distinct feeling of discomfort between them.”

And that is just one of many reasons why the novel is still well worth reading now.




[1]Nicholas Lezard, Run Over by History,” The Guardian (Friday 17 September 2004)


Iron Curtain

Title:                      Iron Curtain

Author:                  Anne Applebaum

Applebaum, Anne (2012). Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. New York: Doubleday

LOC:       2012022086

DJK45.S65 A67 2012

Date Posted:      April 15, 2013

This is one of the books picked by the readers and editors of Newsweek as their favorite books of 2012. Anyone who has said or written anything these past four years about the “loss of our freedom” should rad Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, a tragically intimate account of the imposition of communism in Central Europe. The story is told with both artistry and scholarship.

Max Frankel reviewed this book in the New York Times.[1]

NYT (November 21, 2012 p. BR16) of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Stalin’s Shadow.

Having brilliantly documented the horror of Stalin’s Soviet terror machine in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, Anne Applebaum now offers a bulky sequel, Iron Curtain, about the brutal effort of that same machine to crush and colonize Eastern Europe in the first decade after World War II. Her evidence, once again drawn from archival research and some survivor interviews, is overwhelming and convincing. But the heart of her story is hardly news.

That Soviet tanks carried Moscow-trained agents into Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany was known in the West at the time and has been well documented since. When those agents set out to produce not only a friendly sphere of Soviet influence but also a cordon of dictatorships reliably responsive to Russian orders, Winston Churchill was moved to warn, just days after the Nazis’ surrender in 1945, that an Iron Curtain was being drawn through the heart of Europe. (He coined the metaphor in a message to President Truman a full year before he used it in public in Fulton, Mo.) And Matyas Rakosi, the “little Stalin” of Hungary, was well known for another apt metaphor, describing how the region’s political, economic, cultural and social oppositions were to be destroyed by “cutting them off like slices of salami.”

Applebaum tracks the salami slicing as typically practiced in Poland, Hungary and Germany, and serves up not only the beef but also the fat, vinegar and garlic in exhausting detail. She shows how the knives were sharpened before the war’s end in Soviet training camps for East European Communists, so that trusted agents could create and control secret police forces in each of the “liberated” nations. She shows how reliable operatives then took charge of all radio broadcasting, the era’s most powerful mass medium. And she demonstrates how the Soviet stooges could then, with surprising speed, harass, persecute and finally ban all independent institutions, from youth groups and welfare agencies to schools, churches and rival political parties.

Along the way, millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians were ruthlessly driven from their historic homes to satisfy Soviet territorial ambitions. Millions more were deemed opponents and beaten, imprisoned or hauled off to hard labor in Siberia. In Stalin’s paranoid sphere, not even total control of economic and cultural life was sufficient. To complete the terror, he purged even the Communist leaders of each satellite regime, accusing them of treason and parading them as they made humiliating confessions.

It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror. Still, why should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?

In her introduction Applebaum says it is important to remember that “historically, there were regimes that aspired to total control,” not only of the organs of state but also of human nature itself. We should be studying how totalitarianism worked, she maintains, because “we can’t be certain that mobile phones, the Internet and satellite photographs won’t eventually become tools of control” in other places. Well, Vladimir Putin may yet make her a prophet, but so far this century, technology has become a welcome defense against tyranny.

More relevant to contemporary discussion are some themes Applebaum evokes along the way but never develops. She begins her tale by insisting that the United States and Britain, having promised the East Europeans a democratic future, quickly abandoned them to Soviet domination. True enough. Yet what were the West’s alternatives? The door to Europe was left open for Stalin in 1945 because the Americans were rapidly redeploying to fight Japan and eager to enlist Stalin in the Pacific war. Applebaum does not speculate about how Soviet colonization might have been forestalled or what methods of intervention for freedom we should be applying now in Cuba or North Korea, Syria or China.

Similarly, she barely touches on the contrary claims of some historians that it was not the West’s appeasement but rather hostility against the Soviet Union that provoked Stalin’s aggressive responses. These scholars accuse the United States of having triggered the cold war, thus baiting Stalin into taking crude defensive countermeasures. Applebaum’s evidence provides a telling rebuttal to those “revisionist” theories, but she never really engages them.

Most conspicuously missing is any sustained examination of Soviet motives for the rape of Eastern Europe. What did the Russians want? Revenge against Germany and its allies? Compensation for their enormous loss of life and suffering in the war and the spoils due a victor? Was the domination of neighboring states a wildly arrogant policy of defense so that no conqueror could ever again follow Napoleon and Hitler to Moscow? Or was it a revival of Russia’s imperial desire to annex at least half of Poland, to secure a rebellious Ukraine and to incorporate the Baltic States and various adjacent Balkan lands?

Applebaum’s overriding interest is in Stalin’s deranged tyranny, which aggravated the postwar horror inside the Soviet Union at the same time that it was being slavishly imitated by his East European henchmen until his death in 1953. Yet Stalin’s successors were just as intent on preserving their dominion. Why? Applebaum contends that Stalin, having once postponed the Soviet dream of igniting an international Communist revolution, “was preparing to relaunch it” in 1944 as the Red Army rolled westward. But that passing comment — and debatable premise — is all she offers to explain Soviet policy.

While her documentation of the Soviet takeover is impressive, at this late date fewer facts and more analysis would have been welcome. The seeds of the Communists’ ultimate failure in East Europe are strewed throughout her book, but with little explanation. She shows how poorly the Communist regimes provided for their consumers and how they alienated the workers in whose name they governed. Why? And does not this subject require lengthy discussion of how Communism collided with the deeply rooted nationalisms of the region? Applebaum incisively demonstrates the moral confusion that haunted Roman Catholic leaders and other opponents of the Communist regimes, some openly hostile, some reluctantly cooperative, many simply passive. But how should we evaluate their choices?

Iron Curtain is not a full history of the Iron Curtain because of Applebaum’s decision to end her history in 1956, just as Poles and Hungarians openly rebelled against Soviet control. There then followed a 30-year effort in the Kremlin to stabilize and reform all Communist societies, but the East Europeans remained restive, held captive only by Soviet armed might. The colonization became a huge burden on the Soviet economy, and the lures of Western democracy and economic achievement produced corrosive holes in that curtain. Finally, when Mikhail Gorbachev refused to shoot to preserve his costly empire, the curtain collapsed altogether and dragged down the Soviet center as well.

Applebaum rightly concludes, long before that climax, that the totalitarian spell could never be sustained for long. But she declines to generalize about the reasons or the defenses we all may need against other totalitarian threats. Instead, what she has given us is a concrete and sad record that honors the memory of the millions who were slaughtered, tortured and suppressed in the mad pursuit of totality.

[1] NYT (November 21, 2012 p. BR16) of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Stalin’s Shadow. Max Frankel, former executive editor of The Times, reported for many years from Moscow and Eastern Europe.