Written by Nick Taussig — While reading this novel about life in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, I was reminded very strongly of Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago. This is deliberate, as the author has explained on his blog. As a postgraduate student of Russian literature in London, he himself was tremendously impressed and influenced by Solzhenitsyn’s searingly honest account of life in the work camps of Siberia. Taussig’s latest book is set in those turbulent years following World War II, and it explains how a fundamentally good man can become bad in a country where everything has gone bad.
The assassin of the title is mild-mannered history professor Aleksei Klebnikov. He represents, in fact, Everyman – an educated Soviet citizen, who helped fight agains the Nazis and believed in a better future. Given the increasing drabness, absurd rules and hypocrisy of the Communist regime, he starts to question its fundamental principles. Unsurprisingly, Aleksei is soon accused of anti-Soviet propaganda, banned from his teaching post, torn away from his home and family, tortured and ultimately exiled to the Kolyma camp in Siberia. Isolated from his family, worked and starved nearly to death, he completely loses faith in justice and in the system, especially when he discovers that the prison guards treat violent criminals better than political prisoners. One such criminal is Ivan Ivanovich, who takes Aleksei under his wing to further reinforce his hatred of Communist leaders.
With Ivan’s help, Aleksei escapes from prison, only to find that his wife has betrayed him with the very man who had arrested and humiliated him. Confused and desperate, he accepts a new identity and the mission that Ivan tasks him with: to kill six leading members of the nomenclatura (party leadership) within one year. After all, he tells what remains of his conscience, they are all execrable creatures with blood on their hands, having abused their power and authority. He strikes five times within the next few months, meticulous each time in the preparation and execution of his mission. However, he begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable at taking lives and wonders if he is entitled to play God and judge. Reunited, against all odds, with his wife and daughter in a remote little town on the shores of Lake Baikal, he abandons his killing spree. The consequences, when they do come, are indescribably dire. It becomes obvious that Aleksei has been nothing but a pawn in a cruel game far bigger than his mission.
This is a powerful story of love and betrayal, of friendship and hatred. It introduces crime fiction fans to an unfamiliar world, with what seems to me great insight into that particular historical period. There are just a couple of things which let the book down. The descriptions are pedestrian at times, using cliched language. Secondly, the author moves back and forth in time to reveal Aleksei’s back story gradually. Perhaps this was done in an effort to spare a lengthy description of Gulag horrors, but there are simply too many time perspectives, which ends up causing confusion. However, I am sure readers can forgive such details for the sake of a cracking read with a strong moral message.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars