26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 45

Dirty tricks among the birch woods

Douglas Hurd

ARCHANGEL by Robert Harris Hutchinson, £16.99, pp. 432 They listened on the radio to the news at ten o'clock. The Communists and the National- ists in the Lower Senate, the Duma, were using their majority to block the President's latest measures; another political crisis threatened. The Moscow Stock Exchange was continuing its plunge. A secret report from the Interior Ministry to the President, warning of a danger of armed rebellion, had been leaked and printed in Aurora.

Some authors have all the luck in timing. The good news is that Robert Harris deserves his luck.

A good thriller starts on the ground, firmly based on reality. The passenger feels secure because he is surrounded with familiar objects. The plot begins to move, takes off smoothly, and soon soars high into improbability, without the passenger realising he has left the ground. Robert Harris, before he is through, carries us into stratospheric heights of improbable and indeed savage fancy; but until the last few chapters the view from our seat looks as convincing as that from our bedroom window at home.

An Oxford historian, usually the worse for drink, is despised by priggish fellow academics for falling below his best work and degenerating into a Fleet Street don. (You see what I mean about staying close to reality.) He travels to Moscow for a his- torical symposium but finds himself listen- ing in his hotel room to a scraggy old man who had been Beria's bodyguard on the night of Stalin's death in 1953. The scraggy old man tells an amazing story of Beria hurrying to the Kremlin to steal a secret notebook from Stalin's safe within hours of the dictator's death.

A handsome, thuggish American televi- sion producer comes on the scene and the two men begin to search for the notebook, helped by the scraggy old man's daughter, who plies her trade in a smart Moscow whore-house. It turns out that the note- book was not written by Stalin at all but by the model young communist whom he seduced in his last weeks. That girl was summoned from Archangel in the , north. As the news spreads, rival groups make their way north in search of the notebook — the two Westerners, a ruthless group of Stalin's disciples and the divided, inade- quate security forces of the new Russia. If I went further and explained why the note- book was of such significance and what they found in the wooden shacks among the snow-laden birches I would be letting Robert Harris down — and anyway I could not hope to convey the suspense of the drama. Suffice it to say that we end in a long, slow, awful Russian train, chugging into Moscow from the north, carrying with it the sinister wherewithal for a Stalinist coup. Then a shot rings out . .

Pace and plot are the essential elements of a thriller; subtle characters, convincing atmosphere, stimulating ideas are orna- ments on the tree. Robert Harris has pro- duced a thriller with all of these attributes. The Western characters are less exciting than the Russians. There is nothing partic- ularly wrong with them, but we have met them before and will meet them again. But the scraggy Russian who knew about the notebook but would not give his secret away under torture for the love of a daugh- ter whom he had consistently maltreated, the old crone up in her painted house in grim Archangel, still paying her dues to the local Communist party, still remembering how her daughter was summoned south to do service to the people's great leader, and in particular the soft, struggling modern Russian policeman, trying to do his best by Western rules which find no echo either in Moscow or among the birch woods these are individuals who will stick in the memory.

I have never been to Archangel, but Murmansk, not far away, was the con- stituency of my Russian colleague Andrei Kozyrev. He was friendly and hospitable, but I thought it the least attractive place of human habitation that I have ever visited. Only in a totalitarian state would people have to live in such large numbers at that latitude. Nowadays, as Robert Harris describes, the fear of nuclear radiation is added in those parts to the mean ugliness of Soviet housing and Soviet streets, and the vast unfriendliness of nature.

Moscow has colour and glamour which oterlie the shoddiness, but with that glam- our come crime and corruption. In Moscow, perhaps more than in any other European city, history hangs heavy in the air, the past being more powerful than the present. All this Robert Harris describes with passionate interest through the eyes of his characters. Then he moves from physi- cal description into a debate on ideas. This is not a tedious set-piece dialogue; it crops up at intervals through the book. He gropes for the answer to one of the conun- drums which this blizzard of history leaves half buried below the surface. No one seri- ously doubts now that Stalin was a mass killer on a scale equal to Hitler, yet many Russians look back on him with affection. By contrast, there is no serious nostalgia for Hitler, no lingering desire for his return. Robert Harris describes the affec- tion for Stalin among simple people and among villains, while remaining fierce in his views that such affection is wholly unjustified. He does not exaggerate. I remember late one night the wife of a senior minister in Moscow telling my wife and myself that she was the daughter of a Russian general murdered by Stalin in the 1930s. She and her sister knew perfectly well that her father was innocent and that Stalin had killed him. Yet when Stalin died, she and her sister wept and would not be comforted. Why, we asked? Well, she could not entirely explain, but it was mainly because he had won the war for them and kept the Germans out.

Robert Harris makes the contrast with Hitler, but not the equally testing compari- son with Chairman Mao. With Hitler, everything that he had created died in the same day. The Third Reich perished in the bunker. It was an overthrow, a total dis- grace, a full stop. But the Soviet Union car- ried on beyond Stalin, as the People's Republic carried on beyond Chairman Mao. It suited their immediate successors to continue after death the high praise which these two dictators had exacted from the people during their lives. Only gradual- ly did the horrors of Stalin's massacres and Mao's Great Leap Forward and cultural revolution penetrate fully into the con- sciousness of Russians and Chinese. Per- haps there is also a purely physical point. Unlike Hitler (a runt with an amazing voice, lucky to coincide with the age of radio), the other killers were men of strik- ing appearance, burly, benevolent and strong, the uncle, the grandfather of their people. The squalor and cruelty of their private lives emerged even later than their public crimes, and in the case of Mao this process is far from complete.

If in the coming weeks you begin to feel bored with the manoeuvres in the Duma or the gyrations of the rouble, if the names of that fleeting procession of Russian politi- cians send you to sleep, get hold of Robert Harris's book, and you will never feel quite the same about the news from Russia again.