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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Thriller on Stalin Not So Thrilling




I could not wait to read Archangel by Robert Harris. The story is set in modern day Russia and, like most foreigners who live in Moscow, I am eager for a novelist's insight into the machinations of the country described by Winston Churchill as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."


Unfortunately, Harris' book has left me none the wiser. It is a thriller, and a disappointingly crude one at that, well below the standard of Harris' first two bestsellers, "Fatherland" and "Enigma."


I am no literary snob. I love a good page-turner, but the masters of the genre, from the founding father Raymond Chandler to John Le Carre, have transformed thriller writing into an art. A well-crafted plot, which Harris undoubtedly provides, is simply not enough; there have to be fleshed-out characters and descriptions that ooze atmosphere, none of which I found here.


And yet the subject matter f Josef Stalin and his extraordinary hold over the Russian people then and now f is vintage thriller material.


"Archangel" tells the story of four days in the life of Fluke Kelso, an alcoholic ex-Oxford don who comes to Moscow for a conference on the newly opened Soviet archives. One night Kelso is visited in his hotel room by an old NKVD officer, a former bodyguard of Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria. The old man claims to have been at Stalin's dacha on the night the old dictator had his fatal stroke and to have helped Beria steal Stalin's private papers, among them a black oilskin notebook.


To find Stalin's notebook would not only be the historical coup of the century, it would vastly enhance our hero's shaky reputation and keep him in Veuve Clicquot for the rest of his life.


But Kelso, along with his greed for fame and fortune, is motivated by something purer: the quest for historical truth. Who was Stalin, and how did such a paranoid megalomaniac come to wield such awesome power?


More disturbingly, how is it possible that even today huge numbers of Russians still venerate the merciless dictator who sent millions of men, women and children to their deaths? As Osip Mandelstam wrote in a poem that cost him his life, for Stalin every killing was a treat.


The last question is of course by far the most interesting.


The obvious answer is that Stalin is still admired because he saved Russia from the Nazi invasion and led the country to victory in World War II. But Harris is convinced that Russians have not, and will not, face up to their past. Stalin, unlike Hitler, has not been exorcised; his frightful criminality is not really believed by millions of ordinary Russians and, therefore, it could happen again. The whole purpose of this book is to warn the reader about this ghastly possibility. But whereas Harris (who used to be political editor of The Observer) packs a powerful punch in newspaper articles, in fiction his message falls flat. In the first place, his knowledge of present day Russia is painfully superficial and cliched, and his characters are simply too crude to be credible.


Take Kelso himself. Apart from lusting after a part-time prostitute (with a heart of gold, of course) and getting irritated with an entirely improbable American journalist called O'Brien, our hero is made of the thinnest plywood: His emotions run skin deep, even when he is supposed to be sick with fear inside a Moscow prison or running for his life in the forests of Archangel. Kelso does not really exist except as a mouthpiece for Harris' political message, which he delivers in the form of a lecture to Russian academics.


This is not a debate but a polemic: Stalin may be dead, but Stalinism lives on; scratch the surface and you will find the same bloodthirsty brutal mentality stalking the streets of present day Russia.


But where is the surface to scratch?


"Archangel" is like a Potemkin village: a cardboard front with nothing behind. Whether it is an Arbat casino or an Archangel forest, a Moscow nightclub or a prison, the Ukraine Hotel or a dingy Moscow flat, details are sparse and bland and with little or no Russian texture.


The Russian characters speak and even swear like American cops from the Bronx. Mamantov, ex-KGB and manic neo-Stalinist, and Suvurov, the head of the newly created SVR spy service, might as well be tin pot dictators in Haiti or some obscure African republic; the only time I felt even remotely in the presence of a Russian was in the opening chapter when we meet Papu Rapafava, the gulag survivor, who tells Kelso about Stalin's notebook.


It would be churlish not to admire Harris. He has produced a tight plot that moves steadily from one dramatic event to another. The notebook is found and read, and at last Stalin's dark secret is revealed.


More I cannot tell you without spoiling the story.


Harris does a much better job inventing Russia's past than conjuring up the present. By far the best chapter is the first, a flashback to Stalin's last moments, with Beria in attendance. The details and the accuracy of Stalin's atrocities are admirably recorded, both on the macro scale and the micro: He managed to kill, torture or drive insane every single member of his immediate family with the exception of his daughter, Svetlana, which puts him in a class of his own, as monsters go, with Ivan the Terrible just a runner up.


Also, I have to admit that although I did not enjoy this book it did make me think. If present day Russia is such a hellish place, what am I doing here? The answer, from where I sit, is that it isn't.


Of course we are shocked by the violence and the corruption, but we are moved, often to tears, by the humanity and the kindness, by the self sacrifice and the artistic vision of a great people. This side of the Russian character is completely ignored by Harris, largely because, I suspect, he is unaware of its existence.


In a BBC television interview the author said that the inspiration for this book came to him in a dream, or rather a nightmare: Stalin was trying to murder him. It's time to wake up, Mr. Harris. Spend a little longer in Russia and you will see that times have changed.


"Archangel" by Robert Harris. Hutchinson. 388 pages. pounds 16.99 ($28.50).