Yesterday, May Day, was International Workers Day. Although it’s celebrated in over 80 countries, it’s perhaps most closely associated with the former Soviet Union. From 1922 to 1993, the Soviet Union was a major world political and military power and was certainly the dominant force in Eastern Europe. Given how important the Soviet Union was for so long, it’s no surprise that we see a lot of crime fiction that takes a look at life within the Soviet Union during its existence. I’ve only space in this one post for a few examples, but hopefully they’ll be enough to show you what I mean.
Ivy Litvinov’s His Master’s Voice tells the story of the murder of Arkady Petrovich Pavlov. Pavlov is a Moscow-based representative for an Odessa timber company who is found stabbed, his body found slumped over one of Feodor Chalyapin’s opera recordings. The case is assigned to District Procurator Nikulin and his assistant, who begin with the most likely suspect, Georgian ballerina Tamara Dolidzey, the last person known to have been with the victim. Pavlov was a ballet enthusiast and particularly fond of Dolidzey so she might have had any number of motives. But as Nikulin looks into the case, it’s soon clear that there are other possibilities. Pavlov was also a businessman who, it turns out, might have been involved in the ‘black market.’ And there is a possibility he was taking part in an anti-Soviet conspiracy. So Nikulin has to negotiate some proverbially shark-infested waters as he searches for the killer.
One of the series for which Stuart Kaminsky was famous is his Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series. This series takes place in Moscow and features Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, who’s been on the police force for thirty years and has learned how to navigate its treacherous political landscape. In the first of this series Death of a Dissident (AKA Rostnikov’s Corpse), Soviet dissident Aleksandr Granovsky is about to go on trial. He’s preparing his trial speech, which he hopes will gain Western attention and perhaps even his freedom. In the midst of his preparations he’s murdered with a rusty sickle. The case is heavily politically charged, as Granovsky is a known dissident. So when Rostnikov gets the case, he has the thankless task of trying to investigate whether the KGB might have been involved in the murder without running afoul of that agency himself.
Martin Cruz Smith created a series featuring Arkady Renko, who in the first novel (Gorky Park) is a chief homicide investigator for the Soviet militsiya – the civilian police. As the series goes on he takes on other professional roles, but throughout all seven novels he digs for the truth about cases regardless of how powerful or well-connected the guilty people are. In fact his experience has made Renko quite suspicious of anyone in power and he is very much aware of the corruption that exists at the ‘top of the tree.’ In Polar Star for instance, Renko has paid a heavy price for his willingness to suspect and go after even the highest-placed and most powerful. He’s been exiled to the fishing ship Polar Star, where he’s a worker like everyone else on the ship. One day, the body of fellow crew member Zina Patiashvili is pulled in along with the rest of the day’s catch. Renko has investigative experience so he’s asked to look into the matter. He’s unwilling at first, but is eventually persuaded to investigate. At first there doesn’t seem to be much motive for the murder; Zina Patiashvili was a simple galley worker who did her job. But soon enough Renko finds out that she was also involved in a smuggling operation and did her share of blackmailing as well. Now it’s clear that her death can be traced to some dangerous and influential people. But as Renko fans know, this doesn’t stop him…
William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series takes place in Moscow in the years leading up to World War II. As we learn in The Holy Thief, Korolev is a member of the Moscow CID. So he and his team are assigned to investigate the murder of Maria Ivanovna Kuznetsova, whose brutally murdered body is found in a former church that is now used for political rallies and meetings. As Korolev and his team begin to investigate, they discover that this murder may be related to the activities of the notorious Moscow Thieves, members of Moscow’s criminal underworld. Those people are at least as dangerous as the NKVD, which everyone knows better than to cross. Korolev is working on this murder when another occurs. When the NKVD takes an interest in these cases Korolev knows that he’s going to need to tread very carefully if he’s going to catch the killer (thus saving his own job if not his own life) without running afoul of the Thieves or the NKVD.
And then there’s Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44. In that novel, we meet Leo Stepanovich Demidov, an officer in the MGB, the precursor to the Soviet Union’s KGB. Demidov and his wife Raisa live a comfortable life in the post-World War II Stalinist Soviet Union. That changes though when a low-ranking colleague Fyodor Andreev loses his son Arkady in what everyone says was a terrible accident. In the Soviet Union of this time, the official credo is that Soviet society is a paradise in which there is no crime and any hints that a murder could have been committed are considered threats to state security. So at first Demidov’s goal is to quell the rumour of murder and bring Andreev ‘back into line.’ But Demidov is soon convinced that Arkady was murdered. Then there’s another murder. Before long, Demidov is faced with an untenable situation: there is a murderer on the loose in a society in which there is officially ‘no crime.’ To pursue the murderer is to commit treason. Not to pursue the murderer is to put his own life at risk. In the end Demidov does discover who the killer is and what the motive is, but not before he loses his position, his friends and very nearly his life.
There are of course a lot of other novels that take place in the former Soviet Union. And there are dozens of excellent spy thrillers that focus on the Cold War between the Soviet Union and its allies and the US, the UK and their allies. All of those novels reflect the profound influence the Soviet Union had in real life. Have you read any USSR-based novels? Which ones have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song.