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.
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.”
Published by Grand Central Publishing, 2009