The Angels of Russia is the story of a Soviet dissident who meets a French student in Leningrad, and persuades her to marry him so he can leave the country and escape KGB harrassment.
The year is 1986. Arriving in Paris with his new wife, Sergei meets Stéphanie’s family, including her Russian aunt Marina, who, he learns, defected from the USSR twenty years earlier. Sergei is stunned. His KGB controllers never mentioned that when they briefed him for his mission. Why is he here? What do they have in mind?
The Angels of Russia has been described as part history, part spy-thriller, and part love story. A review by John Sutherland in the Times Literary Supplement called it “a sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika. The story,” said Sutherland, “is … gripping and finally surprising; what, in other contexts, would be called a page-turner.”
Gradually the reader discovers that Sergei is being pressured by the KGB, and that his “chance” meeting with Stéphanie was choreographed from above. The real target is Marina. When she defected, she destroyed the careers of her father, an aide to Khrushchev, and her brother, a high-ranking official in the KGB. Twenty years later, it’s time to settle the score.
Originally published on the internet, The Angels of Russia was the first e-book to be submitted for the Booker Prize in 1998, generating a lot of media controversy about what-is-a-book? and a lot of silly definitions about paper and binding. I was interviewed by Time and The Los Angeles Times, and I even got a mention in Izvestiya. Poetic justice?
I became interested in Russia entirely by chance. In 1974, I needed a job and went for an interview in a small office on the top floor of a building on the Boulevard Saint Germain that apparently had something to do with radios. In my ignorance, I took this to be one of the pirate stations then in vogue on the North Sea. Not quite. My new employer was a US-funded radio station broadcasting in twenty or so languages to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. I had never heard of such a thing. I was hooked right away.
I spent the next seventeen years working for the Audience Research department of Radio Liberty. Our job was to ascertain who listened to Western radio broadcasts in the Soviet Union, how they listened, what programmes they listened to, which stations they favoured, and what they thought of it all. Back then, this was not easy to do. Western radio listening was technically not illegal in the Soviet Union, but in practice it was frowned upon, and the stations were jammed. In the Cold War climate of the 1970s, polling inside the USSR was unthinkable, and nor could we conduct open interviews with Soviet travellers to the West.
We solved the problem by using Russian-speaking interviewers who had a plausible reason for making contact with Soviet tourist groups in Western Europe. One worked for Radio Finland, one was interested in ham radio, one was a journalist… All were adept at striking up conversations with individual members of the group (Soviets always travelled in a group), and extracting information on radio listening in the course of a seemingly casual discussion. The identity of our interviewers was a closely guarded secret, and the names of the people they talked to were not passed on. Using methodological safeguards to verify the data, we worked like this for twenty years, until things began to loosen up and perestroika made it possible to gather information in a more orthodox way.
Emigrants from the Soviet Union were a parallel source of information. Some were defectors, some were Jews, some were dissidents. In the 1970s, emigration, voluntary or otherwise, was the regime’s way of getting rid of undesirable citizens. Many of those who ended up in Paris found their way to our office. There was Jonas, a Lithuanian sailor who jumped ship in Sweden, with whom we went out for herrings and vodka at the Brasserie Lipp; Sergei, a cartoonist for the satirical magazine Krokodil, who literally ran away from his tourist group in Nice; Efim, the teenage son of a Russian poet, who gave me my first lessons in Russian conversation. Eminent visitors included writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Viktor Nekrasov (who became the model for Kazakov in The Angels of Russia), along with Noe Tsintsadze, Foreign Minister of the short-lived independent Republic of Georgia in the 1920s, a delightful old man with courtly manners but rather short sight, who never failed to greet me with a cheerful “Bonjour, Mademoiselle, comment allez-vous?” even when I was eight months pregnant and forced to take a step backwards so we could comfortably converse.
And then there were all those that I never actually met, all the hundreds of people who told their stories to our interviewers, often in such detail that I felt as if I had known them intimately for years. People who lost their jobs because they applied to emigrate, people who couldn’t study because their parents were intellectuals – the tales of petty tragedy and daily humiliation flowed endlessly across my desk. Careers blocked, residence permits refused, families split asunder. Family reunions that consisted of an American citizen and his Soviet cousin standing a few yards apart on a station platform in Ukraine simply looking at each other. Before joining Radio Liberty, I had no strong views about communism, but a couple of years in the company of my Soviet acquaintances, the present and the anonymous, cured me of that.
Our unconventional research methods, combined with occasional privileged access to highly-placed sources, enabled us to accumulate a vast amount of information about what Soviet people really thought, and what their lives were really like behind the bland, shameless prose of official propaganda. We knew how they struggled to find food in the shops, what they thought of the war in Afghanistan, how they viewed their own leadership. Not everything they told us was reliable, mind you. We heard about rising stars in the Politburo whose careers went nowhere, we were assured that lifeguards occasionally drowned the people they were supposed to be rescuing in order to collect a bonus, we got the scoop on a mansion with several underground floors of torture chambers allegedly owned by the First Secretary of one of the non-Russian republics (that one turned out to be true).
None of this was viewed with pleasure by the KGB, though in general they kept their distance. There was a bomb attack on Radio Liberty’s Munich headquarters in 1981, but our office on Boulevard Saint Germain remained unscathed. The truth was that we were probably useful to them. We published the kind of insights into Soviet attitudes and opinions that were obtainable nowhere else. (Opinion polls were not taken in the USSR: regarded as a bourgeois science, they were replaced by the Party line.) Concrete sightings were relatively few, although one of our interviewers was once beaten up in the street, but the KGB were a constant, lurking presence. They hovered at the back of our minds, they coloured the way we worked. Certain people were kept away from the office, others refused flatly to set foot there.
The idea for The Angels of Russia originally grew out of the cloak and dagger meetings held by our staff with Russians in obscure cafés around town, where no one quite knew who was telling the truth, who was being pressured, who was vulnerable because they had family in the Soviet Union, and who was not what they seemed. What would happen, I wondered, if a Russian who was ostensibly a dissident turned out to be a KGB agent?
I made my first trip to the Soviet Union in 1990. Until then Radio Liberty employees had been barred from visiting Eastern Europe and the USSR, but perestroika had advanced to the point where the ban could be lifted. I traveled with a group of mainly French tourists to Leningrad and Moscow. Whenever possible I peeled away from the group to take a look at the settings I had used, sight unseen, for the first draft of The Angels of Russia. It was all oddly familiar. I inspected the Philharmonia Theatre where Stéphanie first meets Sergei, walked along the Moika canal where he lives with his mother, and explored the Writers’ Graveyard in the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery where Stéphanie agrees to engage in a fiktivny brak.
(Meanwhile a woman speaking perfect French, who said she was in Leningrad with her engineer husband, attached herself to our group. She claimed to be at a loose end while her husband was working. Nobody seemed to notice how she worked her way round the group and talked to us all, that the husband never made an appearance, and that she chatted to our tour guide in fluent Russian at mealtimes. They all took her at face value. That was the scary part.)
The Angels of Russia is a tragedy of perestroika. No one escapes unscathed from the drama that begins in Leningrad and ends in Paris, but when the conspiracy against Marina comes to light, the one who suffers most is Sergei. The title of the book comes from a 1984 poem by the dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya that runs like this:
…the angels of Russia/Freeze to death towards morning/Like sparrows in the frost/Falling from their wires into the snow.
Sergei was my sparrow in the frost. Some of the snow has melted since then, but far from all.