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Novel Regime

Tom Rob Smith's latest explores Krushchev's 1956 speech to the party faithful.

Book Cover To say the dreary miasma of orthodox socialism was additionally burdened with the psychotic tyranny of Josef "Man of Steel" Stalin cannot adequately represent the terrors and horrors of the Stalinist regime. Martin Amis, in his controversial Koba the Dread, drums up Robert Conquest's heuristic device of representing the letters on the page (and then multiplied exponentially) to represent the death toll under Stalin. That and the book's subtitle Laughter and the Twenty Million should remove any illusions of Soviet history as a garden party.

In The Secret Speech (Grand Central), Tom Rob Smith (Child 44), Cambridge graduate and student of that sordid history, fashions a gripping albeit gray narrative around the speech Nikolai Krushchev, survivor of the post-Stalin Machiavellian scrum, gave to the party faithful in 1956. It's hard to know what Krushchev intended by acknowledging Stalin's tyranny and promising change in the U.S.S.R., and in Smith's novel any number of apparatchiks and party henchmen are fearful of what change might mean. Thus, former state security officer Leo Demidov (a man not without past sins) is called to solve the string of murders that targeted complicit Stalinist officials.

Smith spins a well-woven web of crimes and punishments that range from the streets of Moscow to the Siberian gulags to Budapest for the Hungarian Insurrection of 1956 (floating the not-preposterous notion that the uprising was a Soviet-plotted provocation). Smith succeeds on a number of levels, exhibiting a realistic grasp of the dynamics of Soviet society--especially the criminal gangs that were a countervailing element to the state apparatus. The plotline, action, and characters do fine service to a plausible picture of life in the mid-century Soviet Union.
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