Monday, May 23, 2011

The Russian Affair

The Russian Affair is about affairs of the heart and the affairs of state. It's the story of Anna Tsazukhina and Russia in the 1970's. Anna is a twenty-nine year old house painter, the caretaker of her father who was once a respected poet but is now just another dissident artist, a loving wife and mother to Petya. Her husband, Leonid, is in the Red Army. The separations brought on by his service have made him a somewhat shadowy but still beloved presence in her life. Bureaucracy and Do Without fill up what moments of her life aren't spent working, caring for her family and in standing in line. She is in line for food, for medical care for her son, for jobs, lines to find out what line to be in, endless lines. Daydreams are her constant companion while in line. Anna fantasies about having a larger apartment, the parts needed to fix a fawcett, more food, a less spartan life.

Anna catches the eye of Alexey Bulyagkov a minister in science research. A smooth dinner leads to gifts and gifts lead to an affair. Alexey is decades older than Anna and successful in ways that Anna or her husband couldn't be in a hundred years. But hey this is Brezhnev's Soviet Union and soon the KGB shows up. Anna is recruited to spy on Alexey. She is a patriot and if the state needs her to do this to be reassured that Alexey is also a good citizen then she can do it. These are the things that the KGB does to justify their paychecks and kickbacks, right? It turns out that the KGB can be even more seductive than Alexey. They offer much greater gifts. The perks that go along with spying bring a full stomach and medical care for Petya, the reinstatement of her Father's reputation and a level of luxury to Anna's life that she has never known. Living a double life proves to be more difficult than Anna expected. The new found prosperity is wonderful. Alexey is wonderful. Living a double life? Less than wonderful and quite costly.

The Russian Affair is a different kind of spy novel. The author, Michael Wallner has ignored most of the usual espionage trappings in this novel. There are no breakneck chases, microfilm, meetings with handlers, state secrets aren't bandied about between generals and arms dealers. There are not cliffhangers every five pages. Wallner has written us a compelling study of a woman whose indiscretion brought her into a world that put herself and her family in great jeopardy. Anna isn't magically, unrealistically transformed into Mata Hari after the KGB comes to call nor does she become a martyr to justice. Wallner keeps her true to her upbringing, her experience and her time. The story of Anna's choices, of personal and political corruption and the ceaseless toil of life as a have-not in 1970's Moscow come together to make their own unique version of an action packed spy story.
P.S. The cover? Love it! Beautifully done.

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