This is a terrifying, compelling, moving novel. Oh… but wait, is it really a novel?
This book is a historical panorama of Russia from Stalin to Putin, seen through an ordinary family confronted to personalities and events far too large for them. The grandmother, a doctor, is summoned to treat Stalin, but at any time she knows that she might as well be killed or sent to a Siberian Gulag. The father is a bitter and depressed history teacher in the Siberian harbor of Murmansk. The son is a sailor on board the nuclear sub-marine that sunk in 2000. He’s one of the last person to die in the accident. In between, you get a glimpse of what happens to a KGB agent named Plotov, expatriated in East-Germany… who is to become the (current) president of Russia.
As you can see, the fictional cover for reality is very thin here, and on purpose. The author spent months in Murmansk and even traveled on board a submarine. Who said that Internet was to replace any research for writers? I rather trust him on his several hypothesis for the cause of the (in)famous sumarine accident. But the grimest thing in this affair is that the authorities deliberately abandoned the survivors for fear of the truth that they might tell to the media. Authorities by far preferred to have them all dead and deal with the consequences, that is hush the truth and pay the families to remain quiet.
The result is very dark: it looks as if Russia is still, after 50 years since Stalin’s death, governed by terror, graft, mediocrity and kafkaiesque bureaucracy. A weakness of the novel, though, is that all the characters speak too much as if they were writing a political essay. You hear Stalin and so-called Plotov talking a lot, and I’m not sure that great dictators are so eager to chat about their power theories. That’s why I much prefer the parts where the ordinary Russian people go about their business. There are no cliches whatsoever in those pages: it’s as if someone threw a bucket of icy sea water at you.