Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

stalinsghost3.jpgIt’s winter in Moscow, and Stalin is appearing on Metro station platforms, waving genially to commuters , making many of them nostalgic for a simpler time. Stalin’s appearances are embarrassing for the authorities. When Arkady Renko investigates, he finds two American marketing specialists are on hand to film a well-rehearsed spontaneous demonstration honoring Uncle Joe. The Americans are employed as consultants by a hero of the war in Chechnya who is now the charismatic leader of a newly hatched nationalistic political party.

Renko learns the hero’s actions in Chechnya may not be so heroic after all, and the hero’s comrades are disappearing, one by one, along with any other evidence of what really happened. History rubs up against the present throughout the story as we learn more about Renko’s father, a general close to Stalin, and as the people of Tver dig up a battlefield seeking their patriotic past. It’s not just the Metro that is being visited by ghosts.

This book, like others in this excellent series, is a brilliant picture of contemporary Russia, contrasting the flash and dazzle of money in Moscow with the depopulated countryside and the sullen decay of smaller cities. Renko’s semi-adopted twelve-year old son plays a significant role in the story, as does the ambiguous Eva from Wolves Eat Dogs. As usual, Renko doesn’t investigate in a straight line, but rather slips through the gaps sideways, leading the reader through a tangled mix of history laced with irony, told with a finely-tuned and poetic voice. This will be one of my top books of the year.

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