Originally published in 1997, The Angels of Russia was the first e-book to be submitted for the Booker Prize. Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, it was described as "a sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika."
"My cousin Stephanie arrived in Leningrad in February 1986. Russia had possessed her since she was a child, not the grey utilitarian empire of Lenin and Stalin, but a romantic fairytale Russia of golden domes and white nights. When she met Sergei, standing in front of the Philharmonia Theatre, she was waiting to hear a concert by that most romantic of all composers, Tchaikovsky."
Stephanie is a French student, and Sergei is a dissident. When Stephanie falls in love with him and agrees to a marriage of convenience to help him leave the USSR, she believes that she is helping to outwit the KGB. But in Leningrad in 1986, no one is quite what they seem, and Sergei has another mission to fulfil when he gets to Paris. The apparently "chance" encounter outside the Philharmonia is the opening move in a sinister attempt to entrap a woman who defected to France twenty years earlier. No one will escape unscathed from the tragedy that follows.
If you stand at the entrance to the Russian cemetery in Sainte Geneviève des Bois, you see rows upon rows of crosses stretching away before you, rather like those military graveyards that mark the sites of former battlefields. Fallen for their country, rest in peace. But these are Orthodox crosses, with their three horizontal struts: one short, one long, and one diagonal, and the dead who sleep in this foreign field are not warriors, but exiles and emigrés.
It's very peaceful here. When you walk into the cemetery, it's like walking into a forest. Birches and firs, the trees of Russia, sway in the wind between the tombs. Some of the graves are decorated with blue or gold domes, some carry etchings of the deceased, some bear inscriptions in old Cyrillic characters. One, uncharacteristically, has an inscription in French: Toutes les séparations du temps ne sont qu'un rendezvous pour l'éternité. The French graves on the far side of the cemetery are sealed with slabs of marble, but the Russian graves are planted with bushes and flowers.
Russians have been buried in this graveyard for over a century. After about 1920, this was probably not by choice. Some of them had fled to Paris, and some of them were sent. If they ended up here, the old soldiers, the princes, and the refugees, it's mainly thanks to one man -- one god, I should say, the god of Soviet Power, who promised his people a new kind of society and a new kind of man, a kingdom of Socialism on earth, and a kingdom of Communism in the radiant future.
What amazes me is that Lenin's myth endured so long. Even sustained by the logic of the axe. All right, I know, people need their illusions. The longer they've had them, the more they need them. When you've spent your whole life expecting to build socialism, bury the West, hang the capitalists with their own rope, and so on, you can't just quietly drop the whole project and take up consumerism instead. And that's just the practical side of it. How do you come to terms with what's going on in your head when they tell you that the last seventy years were all a mistake? How do you take in the idea that you've lost your grandparents to collectivization, your father to the camps, and your sons to the war in Afghanistan, all for nothing?
Sometimes I feel even worse about those ordinary Soviet people, who worked hard all their lives and believed that they were doing the right thing, than I do about those people who were part of my own life, and who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If it is hard to go to a cemetery and visit a loved one's grave, it's even harder to look around you and know that your whole country is a cemetery, and that the graves contain the whole of your past and everything you had ever hoped for.
In Memory of the Radiant Future
1917 - 1991