Robert Harris spins a great yarn and this political thriller contains all the ingredients needed to keep you glued to the book. He skillfully blends history and fiction and spices his tale with glimpses of modern Russia. Crime, prostitution and corruption in the glittering Moscow as well as the desolation and poverty of the Russian North form the background to this amazing story.
Robert Harris describes 4 days in the life of Fluke Kelso, a once promising historian with a special interest in Stalin, who was invited to a conference in Moscow on the newly opened Soviet Archives. In a seemingly chance meeting with a former NKVD guard, he learns about a mysterious, secret notebook of Josef Stalin. His obsession with Stalin and his somehow desperate personal situation lure him into a hunt for this notebook. He teams up with the daughter of the former NKVD guard and a resourceful, publicity crazed American journalist to find this notebook and unveil its secrets. The search leads them to Archangelsk on the Northern coast and further into remote and hostile areas of the Taiga. Unfortunately they are not alone in this quest, reactionary forces of the communist era as well as the secret police try to get their hands on the book first.
The scariest part of the book are the excerpts of Stalin’s original interrogation transcripts, which make it so hard to believe that Stalin still is a shockingly popular figure in today’s Russia. Unfortunately this fact adds some credibility to the ending of the story, which to some reader appeared to lack plausibility.
The book is a great read and the only little criticism I have, is the overly negative picture Harris draws of today’s Russia. I do not doubt his understanding of the former Soviet Union and the modern Russia, but as far as prostitution and crime are concerned, Moscow is not so much different from other metropolitan areas anymore and while there is still much to do, the situation in remote rural areas is improving slowly. During my numerous trips to Russia I found the authorities and the police in particular, correct and usually very helpful.