By Martin Cruz Smith
Simon and Schuster, $26.95.
"He doesn't execute anyone?"
That startled question comes in response to a contemporary sighting of Josef Stalin at the Chistye Prudy station on the Moscow Metro, where he waves at passengers. The Russian characters in this book know the real Stalin, a major figure of the past century and, in George Will's phrase, the Pete Rose of genocide. Martin Cruz Smith, author of Gorky Park, can be thanked for Stalin's Ghost, a work that delights and instructs, something hard to pull off, especially where the instruction is needed most.
"My father knew Stalin," Smith's sleuth Arkady Renko explains to his lover Eva.
"They were friends?"
"That's hard to say. Stalin had most of his friends shot."
In this story, Renko is on course to connect with some of Stalin's victims. Eva has left him for Nikolai Isakov, supposedly a hero of the war in Chechnya and a loose cannon riding the wave of nostalgia for Stalin. At one point, Renko astutely adds Stalin to his notes on the case.
"In the States, Stalin is dead," explains Wiley, an American marketing type. "Now, Hitler's different. In America, Hitler continues to be hot. History Channel, street fashion, video games. But here in Russia, Stalin is the king. Long story short, we are using nostalgia for Stalin to publicize the Russian Patriot political party."
Readers will learn that in his hey-day, Stalin was hailed as "our best friend, our best teacher, the pathfinder of the ages, the genius of science, brighter than the sun, the greatest military strategist of all time." A wartime version of the Soviet national anthem said "Stalin has raised us with faith in the people, inspiring them to labor and glorious deeds."
"I know some innocents died because of Stalin," a character explains, "but he made the Soviet Union respected by the world." "I am a Communist and proud of it," another character, Platonov, remarks. "I remember when millionaires were shot on principle."
On Stalin's orders, Smith notes, “any Russian soldier missing in action was presumed guilty of going over to the enemy. . . his family was punished for associating with a traitor." Stalin's Ghost even includes bits of the Soviet strongman's speeches.
This is the Stalin that has become beloved of Russian skinheads and the surging new Patriot Party. The chase leads Renko to Tver, where diggers unearth mass graves.
When asked what he expects to find there, Isakov says "We will find Russian prisoners of war who were slaughtered by their German captors at the onset of the great counteroffensive of December 'forty-one."
What they find turns out rather different. As Smith's narration calmly notes: "Where there was nostalgia there was amnesia. People tended to forget that when Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland, Stalin took the precaution of executing twenty thousand Polish Army officers, police, professors, writers, doctors, anyone who might form a political or military opposition. At least half were killed in Tver. Buried beneath the trees was the cream of Polish society."
How refreshing to find such frank acknowledgment of history denied for decades by Stalin's American alibi armory. That is why the American left, which spawned Howard Fast and other disciples of Stalinism, will not like this novel.
"That's always the problem, isn't it?" Arkady tells a Russian colonel. "Once you start digging, when to stop?" Renko also knows that when the snow melts, more bodies would be discovered. "In Moscow that was spring."
One hopes Martin Cruz Smith digs deeper into the rich vein of stories, and that somebody makes Stalin's Ghost into a movie. The book also conveys the current Russian scene with great flair, and accuracy. Here readers will find the only legitimate use of the term "Caucasian," to describe the people of the Caucuses region.