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Down Moscow's mean streets

Surviving on the Stalin treadmill

Stalin Associated Press

Down Moscow's mean streets
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In “Down Berlin’s mean streets” (May 17, 2014), I reviewed three fine authors—David Downing, Philip Kerr, and Alan Furst—who wrote detective or spy stories set in and around 1930s Germany. Three more excellent writers—Alex Dryden, Martin Cruz Smith, and William Ryan—set their characters in Russia, and Ryan’s The Twelfth Department (Minotaur, 2013) is a superb example of how to portray a protagonist with a biblical ethic inside a culture where Truth has become truth.

Almost all of these novels’ flawed heroes believed in some revolution at some point: That makes them relevant to those of us who once thought Communism, or the “Republican revolution” of 1995, or Obama hope and change in 2008, could make a difference. Here’s how Ryan’s 1930s detective sees it: “Korolev thought back—it had been different once, hadn’t it? Back at the time of the Revolution, there’d been people who’d pushed their weight around, but you could just push back—and if your heart was in the right place, it all worked out. How had this mess come about? Here he was, an honest-enough policeman, doing his job, and being followed around Moscow by a couple of State Security bruisers for no good reason other than simply that—he was doing his job.”

Ryan has one of his characters offer an opposite view as she summarized the view of her evil and providentially murdered husband: “Everything Boris did, every hard decision he made, every necessary brutality, they were all done with the best interest of the State as their basis. We’re a country of two hundred million—a few convicted criminals don’t count for anything against that. He had to make progress—and quickly. We’re in a war already, Korolev. [We must] become fully one with the Revolution, completely loyal, completely dedicated. There would have been no more doubt, no more backsliding—we would all be perfect citizens of a socialist utopia built in Lenin’s image.”

But Korolev comes to a different conclusion when he finds that Communist psychological torture tries to make those on the receiving end “all think the same, feel the same, chant the same name at the same time—Stalin’s name, no doubt. How had it happened? He’d thought the Revolution had been intended to give the people freedom from oppression, not build establish-ments like the institute. Sometimes it was hard to believe that there was any good left in Soviet power, and that was the truth of it.”

So why does Korolev solve the crimes when he knows success could send him and his family to the Siberian camps from which few returned? It’s not existentialist philosophy: Ryan writes that Korolev in his bedroom pulled the curtains shut and “pushed the blade of the knife into the crack between two boards and levered up one of them to reveal a small cavity. There it was, sitting there, the Bible he kept for the insane reason that he believed it protected him—when the opposite was almost certainly the case.”

Short stops

Former British spy Charles Cumming is a fine writer (note occasional bad language) and plotter. Some detective or spy fiction features a superhuman good guy killing machine, but I prefer ones with fallible men and women. Charles Cumming’s A Colder War (St. Martin’s, 2014) is a well-written example of that subgenre, as are earlier books by Cumming: A Spy by Nature (2001), The Spanish Game (2006), A Foreign Country (2012), and The Trinity Six (2011).

Robert K. Tanenbaum is a not-so-fine writer, but conservatives tired of reading liberalism-infused novels will like Fatal Conceit (Gallery, 2014), a page-turner based on the Benghazi cover-up. (One reader wrote, “If you are a Democrat or member of the always-cooperating media you will hate this book! All others ENJOY.”) Two caveats: Some bad language, and an admirable character commits adultery (he does come to see his action as wrong). —M.O.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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