Review of “The Secret Speech” by Tom Rob Smith

On February 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, delivered a so-called “Secret Speech” to an unofficial, closed session of the Twentieth Party Communist Party Congress. The contents of the speech were leaked – some say by Khrushchev himself, and the repercussions both within and outside the USSR were monumental.

Nikita Khrushchev, February 24, 1956

In the speech, Khrushchev enumerated and denounced Stalin’s crimes and the “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin. [Even calling Stalin’s policies “crimes” was a radical departure from the past.] Khrushchev had several aims in making this speech, one of which was the ironic goal of saving Communism by blaming its failings primarily on a particular individual (who was now safely dead). But the fallout rocked the very foundation of the USSR.

A “thaw” was initiated inside the Soviet Union, and tens of thousands of political prisoners were set free. The speech also laid the groundwork for piecemeal reforms, paving the way for Gorbachev’s perestroika (the restructuring of the Soviet economy and bureaucracy that began in the mid 1980s).

In Eastern Europe, the revelations ignited stirrings for self-determination. But Khrushchev had no intention of diminishing the might of the Soviet Union, or of liberating its satellite states. Those in the East Communist countries thinking otherwise were quickly disabused of this impression. In Poland, Russian troops were dispatched to put down a labor strike, and in Hungary, where the dream of freedom quickly turned into an uprising, Khrushchev had to resort to even more force. He could not afford for the West to perceive him as weak, and the Soviets brutally suppressed the revolution. According to political scientist William Taubman in his Pulitizer Prize winning biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, “Soviet tanks and troops crushed the Hungarian Revolution at a cost of some twenty thousand Hungarian and fifteen hundred Soviet casualties.”

Inside the USSR, many were suffering guilt – even Khrushchev, for whom the speech was also an act of repentance, again according to Taubman. He reports that when Khrushchev was asked late in life what he most regretted, he said, “The blood. My arms are up to the elbows in blood. That is the most terrible thing that lies in my soul.”

In Tom Rob Smith’s novel The Secret Speech, copies of Khrushchev’s speech begin appearing mysteriously on the doorsteps of some former members of the secret police, who carried out many of the unsavory policies (e.g., arrests, torture, and murder) mandated by Stalin. Reprisals against the speech recipients follow the deliveries. We soon learn that vory, or criminal gangs, are responsible for these murders, although we have yet to learn why only certain agents are among the targeted.

One of those who receives the manuscript, Leo Demidov, is the hero of this book and also Smith’s preceding work, Child 44. Leo and his wife Raisa now live in Moscow, where Leo works for the city homicide department. With them are living the two girls – Zoya and Elena – they adopted after the girls’ parents were killed by men directed by Leo. In the three years since the girls have come to live with them, Elena has adapted well, but Zoya still burns with hatred and resentment toward Leo.

Zoya isn’t the only member of the I Hate Leo Club. Fraera is a woman who was betrayed by Leo seven years earlier. Her plans for revenge occupy the rest of this suspenseful novel, and take us from Moscow, to the Gulags in far Siberia, to the brief revolution in Hungary.

Discussion: One could describe the main theme of this book by using only one word: betrayal. It is all about betrayal on every level by practically every character. I suppose it’s an apt metaphorical treatment of the Stalin era, but I think it ignores the positive winds of change that were blowing through the USSR at this time. After all, the instinct of modernity swept the globe after World War II just as the instincts of nationalism and totalitarianism swept it before the war. Still, I’ll go with the trope – it has pedagogical value. And I’m sure it’s true that to some extent, as one of the characters told Leo, “[Stalin’s] spirit lives on, not in one person, but diffused, in many people. It’s harder to see but make no mistake: it is there.”

What is more difficult to accept is the way Leo has the seemingly supernatural (or Hollywood-esque) ability to overcome every threat to his mortality and come out relatively unscathed. Over and over, he encounters some very nasty people not apt to feel merciful, in light of having gone through torture and imprisonment. And yet, each time you think he’s going to get shot in the head, he lives for another day. (Or another volume – apparently this is to be a trilogy.)

Evaluation: I liked the book as a page-turner, and I liked all the twists, but after a while I was feeling that Leo should get killed, just so I didn’t have to think I had stumbled upon a script for “The Borscht Ultimatum.”

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Grand Central Publishing, 2009

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20 Responses to Review of “The Secret Speech” by Tom Rob Smith

  1. I like the idea of using the Secret Speech as motivation for reasons to carry out vengeance of some sort — certainly a piece of history that has captivated the masses. Too bad it didn’t turn out as well as it could have, unfortunately — I have yet to read Child 44, but maybe it is going to be an “Ultimatum” type of plan for the character, huh?! 🙂

  2. Trisha says:

    I think I want to read the biography or some other nonfiction work now. You do have a way of making me add multiple books on a historical event/time period to my list.

  3. Sandy says:

    The idea of The Secret Speech itself was interesting, but I felt that this book suffered from a massive identity crisis. I loved Child 44, but I wanted to cry from the disappointment of this one.

  4. haven’t read this one–it sounds like a real history lesson. i’m not a fan of the thriller genre and have only seen the matt damon movies in bits and pieces, but i loved your humor with the reference!

  5. zibilee says:

    You know, normally I would say that this wasn’t my type of book, but being that you included so much interesting information on Russian history and how it relates to the story, I have to admit that this does sound like a very cool book. I am going to have to try to check both this one and Child 44 out. Thanks for the awesome review!

  6. bermudaonion says:

    The book sounds like one you’d have to suspend disbelief for, but since it’s a page turner, I’ll probably give it a try.

  7. J.C. says:

    I liked this book as I felt it to be just what I thought it would be – a page turning thriller. However, you make good points about several aspects of the book, which does require the reader to get beyond Leo’s propensity to always get out of a tough fix.

    There is a third book coming out with Leo as the protagonist. It will be interesting to see if Smith continues to keep him as “bullet” proof as he has in the first two books.

  8. Barbara says:

    I love the history in the book and would be inclined to read it except that it sounds more like a TV show – with the hero escaping danger every week to be back again next Tuesday or whenever for another escape.

  9. JoV says:

    You do have a great knack in putting historical perspective in every novel that you review. I learnt so much and thank you for enriching me, although I might not be inspired to read this book!

  10. EL Fay says:

    Meh. Not into thrillers, although the background to this one certainly sounds fascinating.

    BTW, you must watch this!

  11. Jenners says:

    For a second here, I forgot I was reading a book review. I was thinking it was one of your history posts! I do admire your knack to put perspective on all these types of books. I just rush in cold and with almost no context.

  12. Belle says:

    LOL “just so I didn’t have to think I had stumbled upon a script for “The Borscht Ultimatum.”” – you are so funny, Jill! This does sound like quite the page turner.

  13. Margot says:

    I like it when you touch on historical subjects that I actually remember. Khruschev was quite the character but I don’t remember liking him very much. I think it was the shoe pounding at the UN image. This book sounds like it would make for frustrating reading.

  14. Julie P. says:

    I think I have this one. I might like it okay but it would probably be better to pass it along to my dad.

    Very interesting post!

  15. Alyce says:

    I read this review last night and then got so busy I didn’t have time to leave a comment. Your parting remark about the “Borscht Ultimatum” had me chuckling off and on throughout the evening.

  16. Lisa says:

    It’s funny the way you ended the post because I was thinking the book sounded a lot like the Jason Bourne books. They have some entertainment value but at a certain point, it’s just too much.

  17. stacybuckeye says:

    LOL! I’ve read a few books and seen more movies where I really thought the main character needed to die just to maintain some credibility. I liked the history lesson. Some I knew, but I learned more 🙂

  18. I know this is not my type of book, however your history review of this speech mad by Khruschev and the climate of this period does interest me. I do remember Khruschev and the political waves of change even as a small child. I suppose much of my information was gleaned from the conversations overheard from my parents and the nightly news shows. I do want to read more non-fiction about the USSR and the global community at that time. Thanks for the nudge.

  19. The premise of this book sounds intriguing, and I loved the historical and political information you discussed in your post.

    I do have a hard time with the preternatural ability characters in thrillers have for evading death. 🙂

  20. sagustocox says:

    This sounds like an excellent suspenseful thriller even if it does ignore the winds of change.

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