In this interview with Russia Beyond The Headlines, the English-language supplement to the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, I was asked why I write about Russia, why my characters are “two-sided,” and what interests me about the KGB.
RUSSIA BEYOND THE HEADLINES
Writing about a country you’ve never visited
British journalist and author Patricia le Roy discusses her inspiration.
Ksenia Khrustaleva, special to RBTH
Patricia le Roy is known for writing novels that range widely in time and space, from Burma at the height of the drug trade to France just after the war to Soviet-era Leningrad. Her heroes move cities and countries in search of love and liberty, facing the Gordian knot of parting and betrayal on their way.
A native of Liverpool, le Roy studied French at university and lived in Paris for a number of years working as a translator, editor and journalist. Eventually she joined Radio Liberty and served as a research editor from 1974 to 1991. Le Roy spoke to RBTH about how this experience inspired her to write about Soviet realities.
RBTH: As many as four of your novels relate directly to Russia in different periods of its history. Compassion spans three generations, starting from the Great October Socialist Revolution; three other novels take place in the Soviet Union heading for its decay. What inspired you to write about Russia?
Patricia le Roy: After spending 17 years working for Radio Liberty, immersed in a kind of semi-Russian atmosphere, with every hour in the working day focused on Russia or the other Soviet republics, it was unthinkable to write about anything else!
I wrote the first three books between about 1985 and 2000. Compassion came later. Reading Anna Akhmatova’s poem Requiem, I was fascinated by her themes of time and memory and loss and survival. Digging into her biography, I found the story of her affair with the artist Boris Anrep, who moved to England after the Revolution. Akhmatova never forgot him, and they were reunited briefly in London in 1966. The love that defied space and time gave me the idea for Compassion. My protagonists Andrei and Nina were inspired by Anrep and Akhmatova, even though I had to take extensive biographical liberties to make the project work. The title of the book came from Anrep. One of the mosaics he created for the vestibule of the National Gallery in London represents Akhmatova, and he called it “Compassion.”
RBTH: Did you transfer the real stories you came across at Radio Liberty to your novels?
PLR.: At Radio Liberty, I worked in the Audience Research department. Our job was to find out who listened to Western radio broadcasts in the Soviet Union (not just RL, but also Voice of America, BBC, Radio Sweden, etc.), why they listened, and what they heard. To do this, we conducted interviews with Soviet citizens traveling in the West, using Russian-speaking interviewers who were able to make contact with the travelers and inquire after their radio-listening habits in the course of a seemingly casual conversation. In the climate of the Cold War, conducting open interviews was out of the question.
Sometimes respondents talked about their lives, and we heard some terrible stories. People who lost their jobs because they had applied to emigrate, people who couldn’t study because their parents were intellectuals, people who couldn’t get medical treatment because they couldn’t afford to bribe the doctor — the tales of petty tragedy and daily humiliation flowed endlessly across my desk. I didn’t use this material directly, but my novels were inevitably colored by what I had learned.
RBTH: You mentioned in your blog https://www.patricialeroy.com/timeline/ that employees of Radio Liberty were barred from visiting the Soviet Union until 1990. When you first visited the country you had been studying carefully for many years, did your view change?
PLR: In 1990, I traveled with a French tour group to Leningrad and Moscow. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Travelers to the Soviet Union during the Cold War had described Russia as a gray, repressive country of frightened people. Maybe parts of it were still like that, but that wasn’t what I saw. What struck me most in the two major cities was the way Russia was opening up. In Leningrad, we attended a packed church service in the Alexander Nevsky monastery; on the Arbat [Street] in Moscow we bargained in dollars for matryoshkas of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. I left the group and wandered off on my own once or twice, checking out locations that I had chosen sight unseen for The Angels of Russia.
RBTH: In your Soviet-era trilogy, the protagonists are not what they seem to others. A dissident in The Angels of Russia turns out to be a KGB agent; a Soviet re-defector in Café Maracanda publicly denigrates his Western friends and starts his life anew as a broker in Central Asia. What is behind such “two-sidedness” of Soviet people in your opinion?
PLR.: The Soviet regime was based on coercion, which forced many people (of course, not all) to say one thing in public and think another in private. One of the attractions of Western radio was that the “voices” said what many people thought or suspected but did not dare say aloud. If Pravda [newspaper] was telling you that the harvest had been bountiful and the shops were full of bread, but you could see with your own eyes that there was no bread on the shelves, it was unwise to point out the discrepancy at a Party meeting. Instead you were forced into a kind of doublethink. This is one reason why my characters are two-sided.
In the three books of the Soviet trilogy, the principal male protagonist is not what he seems. In each case, he has hidden links to the KGB. This was a deliberate choice, not because I was writing action thrillers, but because I wanted to explore the psychology of repression. By the 1980s, the KGB was no longer ideological — they left that to the Party. They were pragmatists (which is why they proved better at surviving in post-Soviet Russia). The role of the KGB was to preserve the system, but its members had access to information that showed the system was failing. I wanted to explore how they dealt with that. What interests me as a writer is people who doubt.
My three protagonists all doubt the rightness of what they do, but their paths are different. Sergei in The Angels of Russia knows from the beginning that what he is doing is wrong, but he didn’t choose to work for the KGB, he’s being pressured to do so, and he follows orders until he can no longer bear the weight of his betrayals. Axel in Music at the Garden House starts out believing in his cause, but then has a crise de conscience, breaks with the KGB, and does what he feels is right. Igor, the most complex of the three, knows that what he is doing is wrong, but goes on doing it (Café Maracanda). The theme is the same: how do you live with the choices you made when you had no choice but to make them?