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The Angels of Russia


Originally published on the internet, back in olden times when e-books were new and shocking, The Angels of Russia was the first e-book to be submitted for the prestigious Booker Prize. It’s the story of Sergei, a Soviet dissident, who meets Stéphanie, a French student, in Leningrad, and persuades her to marry him so he can leave the country. But Sergei is not all he seems, and his real target is a woman who defected to France twenty years earlier. A review in the Times Literary Supplement described the book as a “sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika.”

Here’s a short excerpt:

My cousin Stéphanie arrived in Leningrad in February 1986. It was her first trip to the Soviet Union. Russia had possessed her since she was a child, not the grey utilitarian empire of Lenin and Stalin, but a romantic fairytale Russia of izbas and palaces, haunted aristocrats and mad gamblers, golden domes and white nights. For nearly all her life, Russia had been the meeting point of her mind and her emotions, as she waited steadfastly to make the journey in the flesh. But during that brief six-month stay in the USSR, the poetic soul of Russia eluded her: what she encountered instead was Lenin’s ghost.

In February 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just under twelve months. Gorbachev was the first General Secretary for years who could walk unsupported and talk in coherent sentences: the knight on the white charger come to save the system. Fortress USSR, though still outwardly imposing, was mined on the inside by mould and dry rot, over-centralization and inertia. Gorbachev’s first twelve months in office had been spent cleaning house: clearing the old, dead-wood Brezhnevite officials out of the Party lumber room, urging the population at large to drink less, work more, and to speak out openly about any societal shortcomings that had caught their attention.

Stéphanie had not paid attention to any of this.   She was not in the habit of taking notice of trivial things like the deficiencies of the Soviet economy, nor was she going to get excited over a bout of hiring and firing in the Central Committee. Stéphanie had come to Leningrad to research her master’s thesis on Pushkin, and she spent most of her time in the nineteenth century. Gorbachev’s attempts to mobilize the masses passed her by completely. Glasnost and perestroika left her unmoved. Even the explosion of Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant failed to make much impact on her — a triumph, of course, for Soviet media coverage of the event, which had been designed with precisely that in mind. It was three days before the television news got around to mentioning that a reactor had been “damaged” and that measures were being taken to “eliminate” the consequences of the accident. Why alarm people by telling them that fifty tons of radioactive fallout have been released into the atmosphere and that the fire is still burning?

The wind blows north from Chernobyl towards Sweden, passing not far from Leningrad on its way, but it was several months before Stéphanie discovered that the reactor had burned for five days and that thousands of people had been irradiated.   Foreign newspapers were hard to come by in 1986 in Leningrad, and she had no radio set on which to tune in non-Soviet radio stations. In any case, she lived in a pre-nuclear age. Nothing that happened after World War I held any importance for her. This was a recurring source of aggravation at family dinners, and my father, Stéphanie’s uncle, sometimes got quite annoyed about it. But Stéphanie was nothing if not obstinate. The books she read were by nineteenth-century authors, the concerts she attended were by nineteenth-century composers — in both cases, preferably Russian.   When Sergei saw her for the first time, standing alone in front of the Philharmonia Theatre in Leningrad,   she was waiting to hear the Symphonie Pathétique.  

It was a Sunday evening in May. On Arts Square, next to the Philharmonia, the tulips were in bloom. Sergei could tell she was a foreigner just by looking at her. The clothes, of course, were an immediate giveaway. The pullover was cashmere, not acrylic, and the trousers were of a cut and shape never beheld in local emporia. But more than that, there was something about the way she held herself, and her skin too had some kind of inner glow that Soviet faces didn’t have.

He went on watching her. The pavement around her was emptying, the concert was about to start. She was looking around, biting her lip, craning her neck for a glimpse of the friends who had failed to show up, casting occasional irritated glances at her watch.   The latter looked expensive, even from a distance. Probably Swiss, thought Sergei, glancing at his own battered Soviet model.   Five minutes to eight. The concert was about to start.   Time to make his move.   He left his observation post by the statue of Pushkin in the middle of the square, and sauntered towards her. She was searching for something in a capacious leather bag. By now the pavement was deserted. She caught sight of him and, to his astonishment, marched decisively towards him.

“Excuse me, do you have a dvushka?”

In 1986, dvushki were like gold dust in Leningrad.   They were the two-kopek coins that you needed to operate public phone boxes, and people hoarded them jealously. In spite of himself, Sergei hesitated before digging in his pocket and reluctantly handing one over.

“Here you are.” He managed a smile, and she smiled back. Her long dark hair fell like a curtain round her face, her features were perfect, her cheeks were smooth. There was something luminous about her. None of this had been evident on the photo they had shown him. Sergei watched her walk over to the phone box with a distinct feeling of dismay.





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