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 Stéphanie 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."
Stéphanie is a French student, and Sergei is a dissident. When Stéphanie 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.
Also by Patricia le Roy on obooko:
Author's Website : www.patricialeroy.com
It is essential and urgent to prepare the terror in secret.
- V.I. Lenin, 1920
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
Marina Villers-Massenet had never had a great deal of sympathy for dissidents. Human rights groups were, in her view, on a par with Sisyphus and his stone. The regime was all-powerful, and she was inclined to think there was little point in fighting it. That the Bolsheviks had managed to seize power in the first place was an aberration: that they had succeeded in spreading and maintaining their power throughout that huge land mass was another. Clearly they could have done neither without wholesale recourse to coercion and terror. Although the climate of the Union was not what it had been under Lenin and Stalin, the underpinning of violence was still there, institutionalized now, personified in the grey bureaucrats of the Communist Party and the darker grey ones of the KGB, tentacular, all-pervasive, regulating every aspect of Soviet life. The dissidents knew exactly what they were up against, and they had a pretty good idea what was going to happen to them if they persisted in stirring up trouble. Thus, when they got themselves imprisoned, or deported, or sent to Afghanistan, this was nothing very surprising, in Marina's opinion, and certainly nothing to become indignant about.
But the news that she was about to be confronted with an ex-Soviet dissident in the bosom of her own family disturbed her considerably. Of course, strictly speaking, it was not her family any more, but even after eight years her ex-husband insisted on inviting her to family gatherings, for the sake, he claimed, of Nicolas, their son, who would otherwise fall victim to the 'dangerous side-effects' of a broken marriage. André was a man who liked to have his own way. Even though he had remarried since their divorce, even though Gisèle, his new wife, viewed Marina's presence at these gatherings with as much distaste as Marina herself, there was no escaping it. Wife Number One and Wife Number Two: only a man as obsessed with family unity as André was capable of overlooking the overtones of the harem and regarding the presence of both women at the same table as perfectly natural. But the result of André's bullying was that she was going to have to meet this Sergei, and once she had met him it was more than likely that ethnic coincidence would force them into some kind of relationship. The more Marina thought about it, the more she disliked it. The fact that Sergei's ticket to the West had taken the form of a marriage certificate did not in itself alarm her. The ways of the regime were unfathomable. What alarmed her was the identity of Sergei's fictitious wife. Could the choice of Stéphanie really have been pure chance?
The proofs of her new book were supposed to be returned to the publisher as soon as possible. Leaving them uncorrected in her workroom, Marina drove across Paris to discuss things with Kazakov.
Kiril Kazakov lived in the same one-room apartment that he had rented when they deported him to Paris in 1975, and for ten years his flat had kept the same air of impermanence. Exile had been the regime's way of dealing with literary troublemakers at that time, and Kazakov was following in illustrious footsteps: Nekrasov, Sinyavsky, Solzhenitsyn... Marina had met Kiril Stepanovich years earlier in Moscow, at some kind of cultural reception. She couldn't have been much older than Nicolas back then, while he was already in his forties and a well-known writer. But they had had a long talk at the reception, and he had found her number and telephoned her when he got to Paris. Marina avoided emigré circles out of both prudence and lack of interest, and Kazakov was the only Russian she knew.
Somewhat to her surprise, he seemed inclined to dismiss her fears. It had been a long time, he pointed out, they had probably forgotten about her by now, most likely it was just coincidence. Marina raised her eyebrows. Kazakov had had a long and eventful relationship with the KGB, both before and after he left the Soviet Union. Surely he knew that they had a long arm and a long memory? He was getting old now, admittedly, he must be past seventy, but surely he wasn't losing his memory? Could he have forgotten that every file in their archives was marked To Be Preserved For Ever?
She swallowed her impatience. "Probably you're right, Kiril Stepanovich. But if you still have contacts in Leningrad, I'd be grateful if you could check that this man is genuine. It would set my mind at rest."
"Of course, Marina Vladimirovna. I'd be happy to. What's his name?"
"I don't know, Stéphanie didn't say. Sergei something, that's all I know. I'll let you know when he arrives."
"No hurry," said Kazakov, "I can't do anything for a week or two anyway." Marina looked at him inquiringly, and he added, a little too casually, "I'm going into hospital tomorrow."
Marina had noticed already that he wasn't looking well. He had lost weight since she had seen him last. His clothes hung off him, and his skin had a greyish tinge to it.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Cancer. They want to operate on Friday."
"Cancer? Oh no! Are they sure? How bad is it?"
Kazakov shrugged fatalistically. "How would I know? You can never tell with doctors. They say if I have the operation now that I'll live a few more years. How can I be sure if they're telling the truth or not?"
"I hope they are."