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A year ago I published a post on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I doubt few expected we’d be here a year later, still with no end in sight. The spirit and resilience of the Ukrainian people can only be admired and applauded.
Now that February – cold, wet and grey (at least on the west coast) – is upon us, summer seems far away, a distant memory of glorious sunshine, blue skies and bountiful harvest. And speaking of bounty, last summer, we were frequent visitors to the local university’s Saturday morning farmers’ market. For me, beyond the fresh produce, one of the attractions of participating was the added presence of a book exchange (you know, take a book, leave a book).
Over the course of the season, the conversation at this table provided us with the opportunity to meet several of the volunteer staff, especially one young lady whose mother had written one of the books available for pick up (which we did take and read to our great delight).
Among the books we chose, one book that appeared later on in the season was just my cup of tea: a well-reviewed thriller based on real history: Archangel by British author, Robert Harris.
The moment is late October in the late-1990’s; the place is Moscow: “the air tasted of Asia – of dust and soot and eastern spices, cheap petrol, black tobacco, sweat.” (p.53) The Soviet empire has cracked open; Gorbachev is long gone; Boris Yeltsin’s still in power; the 1993 attempted coup by Communist hard-liners has failed. Intrigue, corruption and decadence are the order of the day. Archangel is the story of an historian (the historian as a hero protagonist – now there’s an idea!) who has come across a lead to a long-forgotten secret while at a symposium of archival researchers: Stalin’s notebook, lost at the time of his death in 1953. The trail takes him into danger and all the way to the northern White Sea port of Archangel.
Harris is no slouch and no ordinary writer. He was a reporter for the BBC and journalist for two major British newspapers (political editor for the London Observer and columnist for the London Sunday Times). He wrote several well-regarded non-fiction books (history, biography) before turning to works of historical fiction, all noteworthy for their period accuracy.
His first book (1992), Fatherland, an alternative history where Nazi Germany had conquered England, was a runaway success and short-listed for the Whitbread First Novel prize. It was followed by works on the Roman Empire (Imperium, 2006; Pompeii, 2003; Lustrum, 2009; Dictator, 2006), the role of AI (The Fear Index, 2011), the Vatican (Conclave, 2016), World War 2 (Enigma, 1995; Munich, 2017; V2, 2020), present day politics (The Ghost, 2020), the Dreyfus affair (An Officer and A Spy, 2013) and even the future (The Second Sleep, 2019). His last book (Act of Oblivion, 2022) was the first one based on American history. Several have already been made into films.
Needless to say, Harris, a terrific writer, prolific and immensely popular, has joined that pantheon of great thriller series authors: Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean and (of an earlier generation) John Buchan. Although I’m a big fan of the genre, I’d only read one of Harris’s books (having – more than not – sacrificed the pleasure of reading for that of writing since I began The Ravenstones series). Next to detective and police procedurals, they are my favorite books to read for sheer pleasure.
As for Archangel, not only did the book live up to its many accolades, it was amazingly prescient in describing the situation in Russia and what eventually transpired, especially over the last year. I will quote from pp. 127-8 – our hero, the historian Kelso, meets a fast-talking, know-it-all journalist, O’Brian, in a noisy dive, in a less than reputable part of Moscow:
“O’Brian raised his bottle and took a swig, then he leaned over and shouted in Kelso’s ear. ‘Weimar Republic, that’s how I see it. Like you see it. Six things the same, okay? One: you have a big country, proud country, lost its empire, really lost a war, but can’t figure out how – figures it must’ve been stabbed in the back, so there’s lots of resentment, right? Two: democracy in a country with no tradition of democracy – Russia doesn’t know democracy from a hole in the ground, frankly – people don’t like it, sick of all the arguing, they want a strong line, any line. Three: border trouble – lots of your own ethnic nationals suddenly stuck in other countries, saying they’re getting picked on. Four: anti-semitism – you can buy SS marchin’ songs on the street corners, for Christ’s sake. That leaves two.’
‘All right.’ It was disconcerting, hearing your own views so crudely parroted: like an Oxford tutorial –
‘Economic crash, and that’s coming, don’t you think?’
‘Isn’t it obvious? Hitler. They haven’t found their Hitler yet. But when they do, it’s watch out, world, I reckon.’”
Although this excerpt presents a horrendous picture of Russia, I’d say that Harris has accurately encapsulated what’s occurred and what we’ve witnessed over the last year.
Having left you with such a depressing portrait of the situation in Russia, let me return to the abundance of summertime. Hopefully some of my photos from the aforementioned UBC farm visit will bring some cheer:
Ah, now, that feels better.
Many ways to support Ukraine exist: here is a direct link to UNHCR Canada and here are several other charities, courtesy of Forbes magazine.
Cover Photo by Daniele Franchi on Unsplash