A riveting thriller about crime and punishment in Soviet-era Moscow.
Like the Arkady Renko novels of Martin Cruz Smith, Robert Littell's masterful Mother Russia transports readers back in time and behind the Iron Curtain to experience the extremes of Soviet society. Robespierre Pravdin is a black marketeer who prowls Moscow's streets and alleys hustling wristwatches. Wishing only to survive in a city suffocated by paranoia and schizophrenia, Robespierre manages to make a tidy profit and stay under the state's radar-until, one day, he meets the woman called "Mother Russia" and becomes ensnared in the Byzantine and profoundly dangerous game of politics. This is another darkly engrossing pageturner from the bestselling author of The Sisters and The Defection of A. J. Lewinter.
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Robert Littell's novels include the New York Times bestseller The Company, The Once and Future Spy, The Amateur, The Debriefing, and An Agent in Place. A former journalist for Newsweek, Littell is an American who makes his home in France.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
For my first readers,
Ben and Norma Barzman
and Jacques Loyseau
“I’ve seen the future and it works.”
Lincoln Steffens, journalist
“I’ve seen the future and it needs work.”
Robespierre Pravdin, Homo Economicus,
hustler, gatecrasher, graffitist.
“Waak, waak, help, help.”
Vladimir Ilyich, one of Mother
Russia’s feathered friends.
pale as death …
Robespierre Pravdin, pale as death, pushes out with the primitively long, broken, badly set thumb of a Cro-Magnon (was he Homo Economicus in some previous incarnation?) the cardboard drawer and salutes the bits of wood lined up like cotton-tipped cartridges in an ammunition box.
Possibilities flicker before his eyes like frames from an old Eisenstein. (Eyeglasses shatter, the baby carriage hurtles down the steps.) He removes one of the sticks and rolls the thin shaft between his deformed thumb and forefinger. Trembling with excitement, he tilts his head and delicately inserts the tip in his ear, extracts it and peers at the orange-brown wax on the cotton. His bloodless lips move, words form but no sound emerges; he is speechless with admiration. The Q-Tip could revolutionize Russia, he feels it in the marrow of his brittle bones. Handled discreetly, it could do for the Russian proletariat what it did for the American proletariat (what it has done for him): stop them from cleaning their ears with their keys!
And he will be the one who did it! Robespierre Isayevich Pravdin, the man who brought the Q-Tip to Mother Russia. Hero of Socialist Labor! The Order of the Red Star!! The Order of the Red Banner!!! The Order of Lenin even!!!! (Pravdin wears all four already but he didn’t earn them, he found them in the melting snow.) He can almost feel Leonid Ilyich gripping his thin shoulders and pecking like a pigeon at the reddish stubble on each cheek.
It’s as plain as the comfortingly long lifeline on his enormous palm: the Q-Tip is an idea whose time has come. Before you can build communism you must construct socialism. Before socialism, an advanced industrial society. And who (the dialogue with himself is becoming animated; he waves the tiny cotton-tipped baton about in the air) ever heard of an advanced industrial society without Q-Tips!
The exquisite logic of it, the scientific inevitability of it, makes Pravdin shudder.
Thesis: hard wood.
Antithesis: soft cotton.
Synthesis: (he shouts it out in a voice raw with lust) “The Q-Tip!”
With her resources Russia could close the Q-Tip gap in a matter of months. If the planet is seven-tenths water, Russia is seven-tenths trees. And in the south, Uzbeki gold; Pravdin saw it with his own eyes when he flew down to Samarkand to pick up some bolts of silk for the wife of the Mexican ambassador and the fermented mare’s milk for the Druse: field upon field piled high with mounds (mounds nothing, mountains!) of cotton.
So what happens to a hustler with an ingenious idea whose time has come? So what happens is he runs smack into the menopausal monstrosity known as the bureaucracy, that’s what happens. Picture it: having dry-cleaned his old Eisenhower jacket for the occasion, Pravdin presents himself at the Ministry of Forestry and pulls from his worn leather briefcase his five-year Q-Tip plan: production statistics (predicated on an increase in consumption of 6 percent a week for the first fifty-two weeks), capital outlay requirements (modest: the wood is there, the cotton is there, it only remains to bring them together), and so forth and so on. Sipping mineral water through glass straws (Pravdin’s palm slaps against his high forehead: Glass straws! Why didn’t I think of that?), the Forestry people play with some figures on a Japanese pocket calculator, double-check the results on a pocket abacus, ask Pravdin if he would mind stepping outside while they kick around the idea. In the end they decide that the Q-Tipsky (as they take to calling it) is essentially a cotton product. (So that the day isn’t a total loss Pravdin sells them two guaranteed seventeen-jewel Swiss watches, with expanding tarnish-proof chrome wristbands, that register seconds, minutes, hours, months and elapsed time under water.)
A week later Pravdin (casually dropping the Druse’s name: I’m a friend of Chuvash) organizes an interview with the All-Party Cotton Combine people at the Ministry of Agriculture.
“And what is this O-shaped letter with the little line through the bottom?” inquires a bureaucrat with eyes like tarnished minors.
“The capitalists call that a Q,” Pravdin replies, pronouncing it as if he were trying to cough up a hair at the back of his throat.
“This Q,” another bureaucrat comes back to it a few minutes later, “what does it represent?” He absently explores his ear with a used Q-Tip. (Pravdin never discards.)
Pravdin’s bruised eyes (an impressionistic, not a literal, description; he has seen more than most) flicker uncertainly for an instant. “Because,” he explains, appropriately deferential, “in American, cotton begins with Q.”
Nodding noncommittally, sipping lemonade, the cotton people ask Pravdin if he objects to stepping outside while they analyze the proposal. After a while they summon him back to tell him that the cotton toothpick (as they take to calling it) is at heart a wood product.
It’s the classic comic all over again! From God knows what obscure reach of his jackpot mentality Pravdin had summoned up this brilliant idea (Hero of Socialist Labor! The Order of the Red Star!! And so forth and so on) to lure youngsters to the Russian classics. The Brothers Karamazov. Eugene Onegin. War and Peace. Doctor Zhivago even. (On second thought scratch Zhivago.) He turned up at the Artists’ Union with an eight-page, four-color pilot of Frolov’s Civil War epic, The Deep Don. Over glasses of Polish vodka, the bureaucrats pulled on Lenin-like beards and whispered among themselves and decided that the classic comic clearly came under the jurisdiction of the Writers’ Union. Over three-star Bulgarian cognac (Pravdin claims to discern a hierarchy based on what bureaucrats drink), the Writers’ Union people hemmed and hawed and blew their Roman noses into colorful Italian handkerchiefs and decided that the classic comic would more properly come under the authority of the Artists.
Contrary to published reports (see Harold Truman; Pravdin is steeped in history!), the buck never stops.
But Graffiti Pravdin (as he was known before he was expelled from Lomonosov University for antisocialist onanism) is nothing if not tenacious. (Once, in a prison camp near Moscow, he came up with an idea for making shoes from confiscated leather wristwatch straps. They said it couldn’t be done but Pravdin collected straps for two and a half years to produce a prototype.) He has a sharpness of mind that pares away extraneous facts; the more he thinks about something the purer it becomes; the purer it becomes the more persistent his pursuit. Acquaintances mistake this persistence for an obsession, especially if they should discover that the project that Pravdin is working on at any given moment has wormed its way, as it often does, into his dreams. The Q-Tips have reached this stage now. For several nights in a row he has had a recurring dream: wearing a chain-mail Eisenhower jacket with medals rattling noisily on the breast, astride an animal he is afraid to identify, he levels his long cotton-tipped lance and charges walls, windmills and in one sequence that left him sweaty and weak and wide awake, Lenin’s Tomb! Well, at least I’m a dreamer, Pravdin consoles himself as he remembers the numb feeling in the pit of his stomach when he found himself sighting on that holy of holies; most people are just sleepers.
Yawning (the result of a late night in the hard currency bar of the Hotel Moskva with two English computer technicians), Pravdin looks at his watches (Japanese, self-winding, they register seconds, minutes, hours, months, fiscal years and diurnal tides in the Philippine Sea) that he wears on top of his cuff because the expanding bands snag the hairs on his wrist. The one set to Moscow time, which has water vapor under the crystal, registers half past. (The other, which has no crystal at all, is set to Greenwich Mean Time; Pravdin feels the need for a standard in his life.) He ransacks the room for his appointment calendar, finds it under a pile of old Reader’s Digests, confirms the luncheon for the East German editors at the Slaviansky Bazaar. (Pravdin never misses an affair at the Slaviansky if he can help it; they serve Polish, not Russian, vodka, and Georgian sausages that are better than sex.) He pulls on his Eisenhower jacket and basketball sneakers, stuffs his briefcase with Swiss watches, Deutsche Grammophon LP’s, American flame-thrower cigarette lighters, Bolshoi tickets, lubricated Swedish condoms, double locks the door of his flat and starts down the wide staircase. The wooden steps creak agreeably under his feet. Count your blessings, Pravdin tells himself in what has become a morning ritual. You’re reasonably healthy, relatively wealthy and you live in the next to last wooden house in central Moscow. Touch wood. (His bony knuckles rap on the polished banister.)
Outside a crowd has gathered around a notice tacked to a tree. (A tree! Lately Pravdin has taken to looking at trees in terms of their component parts: Q-Tips.)
“Come quickly, Robespierre Isayevich,” an old woman cries tearfully, “it is the end of the world.”
(“At the end of the world, go to Bukhara,” the Druse once seriously advised him. “Everything happens fifty years later there.”)
“How is it they can do this thing?” an elderly man moans. “It is not correct.”
The old woman clutches Pravdin’s lapels in her bony fingers. “Where will I go?” she croaks. “I’ve been twenty-seven years here. I shook hands once with Stalin. Tell me, Robespierre Isayevich, what will become of me?”
“What’s all the commotion?” demands a bulky lady on her way to the store with a sack of empties.
Pravdin pushes through the crowd to read the notice. His face darkens. “Why, the sons of bitches are tearing down our house,” he groans. Everyone turns to stare at the ramshackle wooden structure sandwiched between two concrete apartment buildings.
“To construct what?” the bulky lady inquires.
“What else, to construct Socialism,” Pravdin fires back. He pulls a Western felt-tipped pen from his breast pocket and scrawls across the notice:
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Setting her mouth into a tight line, the bulky lady adjusts her reading glasses. “Defacing a public notice is against the law,” she scolds. Chin elevated, eyes peering through thick lenses, she reads Pravdin’s footnote. “What language is this, Jewish?”
“Jewish is right, lady,” Pravdin stage whispers. “It’s an old Talmudic saying that means, ‘Who will watch the bosses?’ “
“Attention,” snaps the bulky lady. The empties in her sack jingle as she gestures. “Those who are not with us are considered to be against us.”
Pravdin winks slyly. “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Yes or no?”
The bulky lady nods warily. “Yes.”
“Under communism,” Pravdin assures her, “it is just the opposite!”
The bulky lady moves away uncertainly, hesitates, returns like a tide and tries to drown Pravdin in accusations. Her voice, shrill as a cat’s in heat, echoes through the alleyway. Necks crane. Heads wrapped in dust kerchiefs dart from windows. Pravdin, who was born with his inner ear tuned to proscenium wavelengths, practically dances as he denies that he is a radish-Communist (red outside, white inside). “The bosses don’t see eye to eye with me,” he concedes, “but do I hold it against them?” (“Neither for, neither against, as God is my witness,” he assured the Druse the first time they met. The Druse always has to know where a man stands politically before he will do business with him.)
The bulky woman raps her knuckles on the notice, gestures toward the house, jabs her index finger into Pravdin’s solar plexus. “It’s ones like you …”
Pravdin retreats. “Talking politics is like talking about life after death,” he murmurs. “I have thank you enough trouble with life before death.”
The crowd breaks up (reluctantly; Muscovites don’t particularly want to get where they are going). Folding himself into his dignity as if it is an old Army greatcoat, Pravdin hurries off toward the Slaviansky. On the path that runs parallel to the Moscow River he pauses alongside the Kremlin wall to light a cigarette, then quickly scribbles with a piece of chalk:
I’ve seen the future and it needs work
(L. Steffens: Pravdin never forgets a face or a phrase). His spirits buoyed, he cuts through the Kremlin with a group of German tourists, tries (unsuccessfully) to sell Bolshoi tickets to the stragglers, stops under the clock in the Kremlin tower (which is two minutes slow) to buy a lottery ticket but doesn’t find a number that suits him. Ten minutes later he is at the entrance to the Slaviansky Bazaar, a restaurant remarkable (in addition to its Polish vodka and Georgian sausages) for its prerevolutionary decor.
“Pravdin, Robespierre Isayevich,” he announces to the lady wrestler with the guest list, “at your beck and call.”
She takes in his basketball sneakers, his trousers frayed at the cuffs from walking on them, his Eisenhower jacket with the four medals overlapping above the breast pocket, his day-old growth of rust-colored beard, she runs her polished thumbnail down the P’s. “There is no Pravdin,” she says cautiously.
“But there is, ravishing lady; you have the honor of having him before your very original body.” Pravdin gives her a fleeting glimpse of a small laminated card (the menu from a Leningrad ice-cream parlor), mumbles something about representing the Second Chief Directorate of GLUBFLOT.
“Oh dear,” the woman says nervously. Pravdin smiles crookedly (according her a glimpse of stainless steel bicuspids), bows, brushes past her into the Slaviansky.
The first person he runs into is another freeloader, his old camp friend Friedemann T., a goateed painter who claims to have created abstract socialist realism. He is wearing a dark tapered suit (French), pointed shoes (Greek), a white-on-white shirt (Russian) with studs (his grandfather’s) and a light prewar overcoat (origin obscure) draped over delicately hunched shoulders.
“What are we here?” the painter whispers urgently, a glass of vodka in one hand, a Georgian sausage in the other. “Computers?”
“What we are is literary,” Pravdin whispers back, plucking a glass of vodka from a passing tray.
“Literary.” Friedemann T. takes this in. He lifts on his toes, sways as if he is putting himself into gear, raises the pitch of his voice. “What’s wonderful in a book, if you want my view, is what the author doesn’t say.” He bites into the sausage and washes it down with a mouthful of vodka.
“In my new novel,” Pravdin offers—neither bothers looking at the other—“I’m experimenting with action that has no relation at all to character.”
“Not possible,” Friedemann T. dismisses the idea out of hand. “Action is character.”
“The trouble with that,” complains Pravdin, “is there’s no way for a character to step out of character. Whatever he does, he is. My God, that’s worse than solitary confinement!” Throu...
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Book Description Hutchinson, 1978. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110091334306