Stalin’s Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith  

Reviewed by Rima Walker

Picture7Russian novels of the past open to us a world we never really knew. But the cold war novels are particularly fascinating since they deal with our own time, especially those by John Le Carré. Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park was an all time favorite, and now Smith has done it again. It isn’t the cold war, though. It’s the New Russia with the leftovers of politics and the war in Chechnya.

The important characters in Stalin’s Ghost are familiar to anyone who has read Smith’s Renko novels: Arkady himself, a renegade police detective; Eva, the woman Renko fell in love with in Chernobyl (Wolves Eat Dogs); and Zhenya, the silent boy who plays chess in his head and whom Renko has taken under his wing.

Taking place in the “New Russia” where gangsters rule, where capitalism and corruption are the order of the day and the authorities are casual about crime, Renko stands out as a man who wants to survive with integrity despite his cynicism. Around him strange things are brewing in Moscow: murder-for-hire killings, a mass grave uncovered by excavators and sightings of long-dead Stalin on a subway platform late at night—a case turned over to Renko by Prosecutor Zurin who is more Renko’s persecutor than his boss. Renko doesn’t want this job: it’s too close to home, his father having been one of Stalin’s brutal generals and a not-so-wonderful father. The worrisome thing about the sightings is that a filmmaker appears to create the belief that Stalin’s ghost hovers in his old place of safety during WW II air raid drills, and many people begin to believe he has returned, looking upon him with approval. What has this to do with a right-wing political candidate named Nikolai Isakov, a hero of the Chechen war, a detective, and the seducer of Renko’s beloved Eva?

Although attacked and nearly killed more than once in the course of his relentless investigation, Renko perseveres, seeking the puzzle pieces that connect all three cases together into an unholy complete picture. And Renko, being Renko, does, of course. But his trip through the maze that lead to his conclusions is fraught with danger, just as his relationship with Eva is fraught with jealousy since she has abandoned him for Isakov. Still ensorcelled by her, he wants her back despite the damage done to her by the Chechen war and the horrors of Chernobyl where Renko first met her.

Stylistically, Smith is a joy to read. His books are filled with straightforward language, and he writes of a world-weary Renko with such great sympathy that readers feel they know and understand him. Renko’s cynical observations and descriptive metaphors are also filled with a damning wit. Smith’s powers are strong as he describes a Moscow so deeply ingrained in corruption that people remember Stalin with longing.

Thematically, the novel is about a Russia trying to survive the new type of corruption that came after the abrupt change to capitalism from communism that had corruption and horrors of its own. It is also about a kind of honor personified by Renko that stands out against a backdrop of dishonesty. On Renko’s personal level are the themes about his obsession for Eva although he knows how damaged she is, and for his new feelings for Zhenya, who seems to be a silent but surrogate son. Hopefully there will be another book that continues Renko’s professional and private life.  ~