This book ends the trilogy featuring the Soviet agent Leo Demidov that began with Child 44 and continued in The Secret Speech. Whereas the first two books could be considered “thrillers,” this last one seems more of an effort to fit in everything the author still wants to say about the pre-dissolution USSR. Leo is almost a bit player in his own book, and in fact hardly appears at all in the first half.
It is now 1965, and Leo is living in a small apartment in Moscow with his wife Raisa and adopted daughters Elena and Zoya. His relationship to the State ebbed as his love for Raisa grew, because he did not want to incur Raisa’s contempt over his being affiliated with the unsavory activities of the secret police. He wanted to be good for her; she became his conscience, and she defined his identity now. As he said to her at one point, “The truth is I’ve never amounted to anything without you. Loving you is the only achievement I’ve ever been proud of.” Leo resigned from the KGB, making himself a political pariah, and got a job as manager of a small factory.
In contrast to (and in spite of) Leo’s fall from grace, Raisa has risen in the system, becoming increasingly prominent as an educator. She helped to plan and develop an “International Students Peace Tour” to New York, and she would be going along with her daughters, although Leo is not allowed to accompany them on their eight-day trip. He is nervous about it however, and with good reason. The Cold War was still raging, and the secret services of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were always jockeying to use any such occasion to their own advantage.
Smith now shifts the action to New York, and to a plot line that includes a thinly-veiled portrait of Paul Robeson, who appears in this book as Jesse Austin. The Jesse Austin plot line not only serves to move the main story forward, but gives Smith the opportunity to show that in the U.S. during the Cold War, the F.B.I. did not behave much better than its Soviet counterpart.
In New York, Raisa’s concert given by the school children and an appearance by Austin merge into a disaster marked by multiple betrayals, with peoples’ lives, including those of the Demidov family, no more than pawns on the Cold War chessboard. The horrific developments during the trip change all of their lives forever.
Most of the second half of the novel takes place fifteen years later, in 1980, and is set in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation there. We see that even away from the motherland, the vindictive habits of the brutal Soviet apparatus die hard. Moreover, the Afghans are no slouches in that department either. It is a harsh environment, and the lifespan of Soviets who serve there is short. The author does an admirable job of portraying both the Soviet and the Afghan situations, as well as the interests of the United States in exploiting them. It is related, but not really central to the story from the first half, so one can only surmise that this is what Smith wants us to know about the U.S.S.R. before he leaves this subject for his next book.
I found the ending melancholy, but ending a trilogy is a tricky business. You can opt to have your characters ride off into the sunset, or you can go for realism. Smith chose the latter.
Evaluation: Smith uses the cruel, merciless activities of the Soviet security apparatus as sharp relief for a story about love and trust and the risks and sacrifices that entails. You don’t have to have read the first two books of this series to read this one. If you’d like a fiction vehicle in order to learn more about life under the Soviets and how the recent wars in Afghanistan began, this is a good choice. (For those willing to read non-fiction, I recommend the brilliant 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for general non-fiction by Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.)
Published by Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2012