Review: Child 44

I’ve decided to take a brief detour from reading nonfiction Russia books and shift over to lighter works of fiction for a while. In particular, I’m trying to rekindle my interest in the political thriller genre. My feelings about modern espionage/int’l crime thrillers set in Russia (as written elsewhere): tl;dr, I’ve read many; basically a persistent combination of outdated stereotypes, factual inaccuracies, genre-specific tropes and Cold-Warrior attitudes keep me from enjoying many of the post-Soviet ones. I’m so jaded, I know.

But I’ve also caught word of some recent thrillers trying to break the traditional mold: stories told from the Russian perspective, stories in which the U.S. isn’t always victorious, stories not simplified to a battle of “good” vs. “evil”, and even stories of (uneasy) cooperation against a shared enemy. Child 44 appeared to be one of those, well, novel novels*. And it had critical acclaim. However, reviewing this book was made more difficult by one little fact.

The story takes place during Stalin’s era.

Yup. Regardless of what side of the geographic divide you’re on, the topic of Stalinism and Stalin’s Russia still attracts controversy and debate. Inevitably the author’s personal opinions of the USSR and Stalinism do bubble up between the lines of prose, but for the sake of keeping the waters calm, I’m not going to elaborate on them here. I had to turn off the part of my brain concerned with Russian studies and historical (in)accuracy, and silence that tiny voice that was repeatedly asking “might I be opening a can of worms by choosing to review this?”.

After reading (and critiquing) so much nonfiction, adjusting to read for pure escapism was tricky. But I was successful, and reading Child 44 turned out to be very, very interesting.

Set in Moscow in 1953, “when Communism controlled every aspect of daily life”, and government officials believed that “there is no crime,” Child 44 recreates the turmoil in the life of a State Security Force official who begins, reluctantly, to question the “facts” before him. Leo Stepanovich Demidov, working for MGB (Internal Security), is drawn into an investigation of the death of a four-year-old, supposedly struck and killed by a train. The child’s family believes he was murdered, but Leo conveys a not-so-subtle warning to them not to question the state’s findings regarding the child’s death.

Because each community certifies its own causes of death, Leo can only regard the death of this child as a single instance of a mysterious death. When he is relocated to a more remote village and discovers that there has been a similar death there, however, he begins surreptitiously to investigate. Always, he must hide his reasons for asking for information. He cannot afford to be labeled as a doubter–he has a wife and parents to protect. Soon he has created a map showing dozens of similar crimes.

As Leo is trying to identify a serial killer, he must also deal with internal politics within the security service, including his own demotion and loss of reputation. A fellow MGB officer will stop at nothing to bring him down. At the same time, however, Leo is still a party man, and he plays by the book in his other investigations, including the interrogation, beating, and eventual execution of two men he knows to be innocent victims of the system. Torture, the use of informants, constant spying on each other, and the manipulation of records, are public policy–“Terror protects the Revolution,” the party believes.

Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel is filled with carefully drawn and vivid characters, all of whom convey their complex personalities within the structure of their Communist society. His creation of Moscow life feels realistic, and his inclusion of maxims which could be part of a communist handbook adds to the sense of realism–and horror. Even though some of the scenes were gruesome, I couldn’t put the book down.
Pretty outstanding for a first novel.

The 2015 film, on the other hand…

Bloated, scatterbrained, tedious, uneven and sometimes preposterous. And despite the entire story taking place in Soviet Russia, everyone speaks in pidgin English with thick Russian accents. It’s a farce.

I’ll be reviewing book 2 of the Leo Demidov series, The Secret Speech, in the coming days.

★ ★ ★ ★

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. Pub.2009 by Gran Central Publishing. Mass Market Paperback, 509 pages. ISBN13: 9780446402392

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*The concept has likely been done before (see Gorky Park), but unlike Gorky Park, Child 44 has not a hint of Cold-War international espionage in it. And boy do I appreciate that.

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3 comments

  1. For better or worse, but CPU in my head-unit is working rather differently (old Soviet made model, d’uh!). I can’t just turn off some elements of my processing unit, pretend that I don’t know something in the name of “enjoying” something. I know, that “outdated stereotypes, factual inaccuracies, genre-specific tropes and Cold-Warrior attitudes” (i.e. – anything that characterizes present day Russophobia) are nothing new. That the very same stereotypig, tropes, lies and slander are older, much older – probably as old as 500 years. No matter how Russian state was called at the moment or who was in charge – the same old drivel was repeated again in again for centuries.

    So why, knowing perfectly well that in the here and now various Western propagandons are smearing present day “Putin’s Russia” with dirt and libel we must trust the presentation of Russia’s past from the people who were brought up in the atmosphere of toxic propaganda against “Russia” (ever noticed how in the Soviet period USSR was called “Russia” and its citizens – “Russians”?) multiplied by militant ignorance which strangles all desire to learn the facts not only in its carrier (the aforementioned propagandon) but also threatens to “democratically purge” anyone who tries to “whitewash” the official narrative with pesky and inconvenient facts.

    So why we should treat “Child 44” any different than, say, Kasparov’s “Winter is coming”? For me, there is no substantial difference. In both cases we have a cesspit of bilious propaganda. This work tries to present itself as “historical” – but it is not. It parasitizes on the general ignorance of the people, who, knowing nothing of the period, except two Absolute Truths (a) Russian history was craps and b) Stalin was Evil incarnate) they’d swallow as “truth”, as “how the things really were” in that time. And feel superior and safer in their knowledge, that they, way back in 1953, lived in the best country of the world, in the indispensible nation with God-given mission to rule over the world.

    I didn’t read the book, but, from what I gathered about the author and the book, I can safely safe – dear Author didn’t even try to conduct a historical research before writing down his “book”. For any more or less informed person it’s glaringly obviously, that his titanic effort to write something new consisted in transplanting real-life story about Chikatillo (who was active, btw, in the time of the blessed Perestroika) to the period of the dreadful Stalin, to accentuate all negative things in the USSR (read – everything) and throw a ton of author filibuster about How Everything is Bad in This Country ™.

    “Set in Moscow in 1953, “when Communism controlled every aspect of daily life”, and government officials believed that “there is no crime,””

    With the start like this, what could *possibly* go wrong? Well, everything. How often did you read a line, like “Set in New York in 1952, when Capitalism/McCarthyism controlled every aspect of daily life”? Hey, why not make it a new intro to the “Catcher in the Rye”? Next – the claim that “there is no crime” is, obviously, a propaganda piece – by the West. Soviet officials never claimed that, especially after the War. Interested in how much efforts were put into combating (like, often similar to military operations) are invited to read historical material on the topic (e.g. about Banderites and Forest Brethren) or to watch more or less based on real facts (i.e. more accurate than “Child 44”) Soviet/Russian TV series about the theme like “The meeting place cannot be changed” and “Liquidation”.

    “Torture, the use of informants, constant spying on each other, and the manipulation of records, are public policy–“Terror protects the Revolution,” the party believes.”

    I can’t read it with a straight face. In the previous sentence I LOLed at “innocent victims of the system”.

    “Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel is filled with carefully drawn and vivid characters, all of whom convey their complex personalities within the structure of their Communist society. His creation of Moscow life feels realistic, and his inclusion of maxims which could be part of a communist handbook adds to the sense of realism–and horror. Even though some of the scenes were gruesome, I couldn’t put the book down.
    Pretty outstanding for a first novel.”

    First of, J.T. – my apologies. Second – it was not a “Communist society”. It was a “Soviet Socialist one”. One of the chief attributes of the Communism is the lack of the state and security apparatus. And, no, bloody deluded maniac Stalin did not claim even in 1953 that the USSR managed to build a Communism. Third one – to claim, that portrayal of Moscow in early 1950 is realistic one has to research the subject and *know* about life in Moscow in that time period. Otherwise you are been fed what you might “expect” from the “accurate” portrayal of Moscow, USSR, people, institutions etc, etc. You have confirmation bias.

    MGB (obligatory – predecessor of the KGB) was a state security organ. They were not (as is portrayed in both the book and cloacae of a movie) bloody ghouls, who spent every waking moment torturing innocents, while covering up real crimes. Most Soviet citizens at that time (who include my ancestors and grandparents) were not cowed bydlo suffering from the non-stop machine of the state terror. Don’t know about the book, but the movie starts with a phrase that “Holodomor” was, in fact, the “systematic extermination by hunger”, and that in 1933 due to “Joseph Stalin’s state-imposed famine against the Ukrainian people” (because it was totally proven – as well as the fact, that only racially pure Ukrs died from hunger at the time) “25 000 died each day” .School level of math (or just a calculator) will tell us, that arch-Fiend Stalin caused the death of 9 million Ukrainians in one year. Which is 1 million shy of the “official” figure, stated by the great friend of the Ukrainian people – Reich’s minister Goebbels.

    […]

    I.e. from the very beginning authors are drawing not so subtle parallels between Wacky Nazis and Yuden-Bolsheviks. Only Russians (remember – all commies were Russians!) were actually more evil. True story – ask any svidomite.

    But that’s crappy movie, not the book! So, what dear Mr. Smith writes instead? “In 1930-33 during Holodomor and de-kulakization perished 14,5 mln peasants” (c). “The number of Soviet children, who died from hunger or were shot in 1932-34 was from 3 to 4 mlns” (c). “The number of workers engaged in the forced labor in the USSR was 28.7 mlns” (c). Plus – no, I’m not quoting Mr. Smith on the culinary preferences of the Ukrainians, least someone accuses me once again of being Ukrainophobe. Instead, I will point out, that Ukrainians (target of Anti-Christ Stalin’s attempt to wipe out) in the time of the Great Patriotic War had a chance to express their attitude to the events of 1932-33 most avidly. In the ranks of OUN-UPA, SS battalion “Galitchina” and “Nachtingal” (plus various bands) fought 300 000 Ukrainians – mainly from the Western Ukraine… which in early 1930s was part of the Poland and wasn’t affected by Holodomor – i.e. 1 (one) percent of the UkrSSR population. Meanwhile, there were literally millions of Ukrainians serving in the Red Army or fighting in guerilla units (the most famous of which was lead by general Kovpak). So, either the scale of the “attempted genocide” are overblown, and, in fact, it was not a genocide at all, or the Ukrainians are masochistic self-hating slavish untermenchen, who continued to serve their butcher no matter what. The last suggestion, btw, ties in perfectly with pretty much everything said about Russians slave mentality and tendency to love “the strong hand and the whip”.

    Oh, and the passage about “typical Stalinist orphanage” – that’s just beyond the good and evil, pure madness, written by a mentally disturbed coprophile with pedophiliac tendencies. Proof? We don’t need no stinking proof! Author said that this was the Truth – and you WILL believe his WORD! And you will remember this, and this presentation will worm into your sub-consciousness, so from now on you will “know” the TRUTH about USSR (read: Russia) in 1953.

    What both the movie and the book did to the assault on Reichstag and the placing of the banner of Victory is befitting any handshakable Russophobe, Ukrian nationalist and Baltic Neo-Nazi – one huge bucket of spit into the memory of the true (not cartoonish with capes and panties over trousers) Heroes (the line at the end of the film about Soviet POWs is 2 buckets of spit and is as histprically accurate as anything else here). The fact that marauding was a crime in the Red Army, and that a soldier engaged in that would be shot on the place (as was documented numerous times) is of no interest for Herr Smith. “Everybody Knows” ™ that the RKKA was just a bunch of all looting, all destroying, all raping Asiatic barbarians. Basically – hardly a human beings at all. Orks – who can win only by employing human wave tactics against their more civilized and racially superior opponents. After all – author claims that these hellspawns were “systematically killing their own citizens” while “liberating” towns and villages from much more merciful Germans (who didn’t rape anyone – it was all done filthy Reds, who raped their own women and then framed Nazis). That’s why Soviet women carried during the war kilograms of the cyanide. Абсолютли тру!

    So, know this, Russian idiots – your grandparents were untermenchen rapists, savage looters, dolts, cowards, idiots, incompetent soldiers and filth of the Earth. You cheated. You don’t deserve the Victory – it belongs to more civilized nations. And you belong to the pigsty – where your genetically defective ancestors were held prior to Yuden-Bolsheviks coup against the Forces of Good in 1917.

    Bloody MGB shoots people. Just shoots. Blam-blam in the head. Not even Ezhov era’s Troikas did that in such a number AND without court decision and all necessary reports, protocols, reports – you know, all these stuff, which allowed dissident masses of Perestroika to decry these “crimes of Stalinism”. That’s what you are expecting from filthy ghouls anyway, do you? Do be merciless killers. And, hey, psst! Vlad Putin was from the KGB. And you know what this mean – this is in his blood. He also has people who just murder poor, innocent dissidents without any right or reason. Proof? Why would you need any proof – this is Russia! And Russia… Russia never changes (c). It doesn’t even matter that Herr Smith (and others like him) is contradicting himself . He/they spent so much time trying to establish, that the USSR (read: Russia) is/was/always be a totalitarian paranoid hellhole with all powerful security apparatus. To execute someone in such a country without filling all necessary paperwork would be a death sentence to the trigger-happy moron, who, somehow, managed to become a high ranking member of MGB (we already established that everyone is spying on everyone and ready to backstab and report on the “comrades”, did we?). Such paranoid country won’t just pat on the back its state employed ghoul – it will start such ugly questions as “Why you were so quick to shoot them – did they know something about you?”.

    Is it even worth mentioning that herr Author completely distorted Dzerzhinsky’s phrase about “true Chekist”? Nah – in Stalin’s Mordor bloody ghouls of MGB kill ALL relatives. And then eat them. Without a salt. Wild people – what you expect of them? Some are event illiterate…

    But this line of thought is in fact perfect for the sick world-view of Russophobes! By claiming that the Bloody Regime actively ignored real crimes (from which cattle-like masses silently suffered) and that ALL activity of the security apparatus of the USSR chose only politically motivated cases… you are not so subtly ushered to accept the Ultimate Truth – all victims of Stalinism were innocent. And revolt, terrorism and sabotage against such state (even “Operation Unthinkable”) are, therefore, ethically sound and excusable endeavors. Perfect ages old formula – that works till this day.

    [All people citing from 1950 Criminal Code of the USSR will be immediately pronounced guilty of the crimes against Freedoom and ‘Mocracy and sent to Camps of Liberty for re-education]

    In “Communist Russia” there are no family values. Wives exist only as test subjects to demonstrate party loyalty and there is no love among the people – you can only love the Party, comrade! Everyone is spiteful and ready to betray their own relatives. People are considered to be animals – and they behave like them (decree of 1917, and laws from 1922 and 1940 about 8 hour working day? Never existed!). Humans are to be turned into automatons, a faceless robotic mass – as befitting people who already live in slave like conditions. As opposed to the shining, beautiful individualism in the God-saved West. OTOH – we have never changing barbarous Russia. This means one more thing – iconic suppressed sacred cows of the West (from about… recently) – the gays! Can you imagine that – 150 “persons of non traditional sexual orientation” in the middle of nowhere! Wow! That’s a… number out of someone’s red-hot fantasies – because it has nothing to do with reality.

    Author is oblivious to a lot of things – but most of all, he is oblivious to the fact that people, who he says are “fanatical communists” are behaving contrary to their supposed beliefs. Inb4 “this only shows the two-faced lying nature of the communism!” – cut off propaganda. Either one, or another – but not both can be true. But this would require actually learning what were people thinking at the time, to read some basic works on socialism and communism – why bother? Everyone in the West is already dead set that Godless communism was worse than Nazism, because was against private property and capitalism.

    Alternative universe of Russian past (as seen by the Russophobes of all stripes and origins) is having a life of its own, supplanting the reality with ease and frightening success. The fact that this book is “acclaimed” proves nothing – a lot of crap about modern Russia is also acclaimed. This point of view, based on literally nothing, is so overpowering and dominant that people just can’t think that you possibly might doubt it.

    Julian Assange, Pvt. Manning and Snowden can sympathize with the message of the book – “When you try to find a truth [in always totalitarian Russia] you are dealt with”. Because such a thing is impossible in the civilized West.

    P.S. Tl;dr: When in doubt – call Russia a Mordor!

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    • I should have listened to that voice
      Fair enough points. Alright – my knowledge of the USSR under Stalin is limited and in need of an update. Also fair to say that Tom Rob Smith, like Steve Berry, could’ve done better with period research. However, I’m unconvinced that Child 44, while possibly capitalizing on readers’ ignorance for extra scares, is a deliberate attempt to spread anti-Russian propaganda. The recent movie, perhaps; or post-Soviet espionage thrillers, maybe; but sometimes a thriller novel is just a thriller novel.

      I’ve heard that breathing slowly into a paper bag helps calm hyperventilation.

      Backing away now.

      Like

      • “However, I’m unconvinced that Child 44, while possibly capitalizing on readers’ ignorance for extra scares, is a deliberate attempt to spread anti-Russian propaganda.”

        If it is not deliberate, than it is even worse. This means that it was natural for the author of the book to assume all those horrors as truth without even thinking about it. How such knee-jerk demonization is a good thing? Besides – I’m not convinced that it was “unintentional”. When dear herr Author learned, that his movie was not allowed (after a huge wave of angry comments, denouncing the movie *and* the book for what they are) to be issued theatric license in Russia, he responded with a tweet saying, feigning innocence: “What is false in my book?” According to the author, because there were such historical events like the famine of 1932-33, Great purge of 1937-38 and criminalization of homosexual activity in the USSR, then it makes his “portrayal” of these events a priori true.

        “The recent movie, perhaps; or post-Soviet espionage thrillers, maybe; but sometimes a thriller novel is just a thriller novel.”

        Okay, J.T. Name me a book/movie from the last 10-15-20 years (i.e. even before Crimea in 2014 and Ossetia in 2008) that portrays Russians (of today or of the Soviet period) both in genuinely sympathetic and non-stereotypical way (i.e. without resorting to klyukva). Caveat – said Russians should not be traitors/defectors.

        From the top of my head I can name only 1 (one) such movie – and guess what happens to him? This doesn’t count as spoiler – it’s a Russian guy we are talking about!

        If I may suggest – here is LJ community Kino Klyukva that deals, primarily with Russia’s portrayal in foreign movies and TV Series – both old and new. Here is also a YouTube channel of Pavel “Pepper” Petrov aka – “Россия – чужой взгляд”, that does basically the same, only in video form and focusing on more recent things. So far – nothing good.

        Look at the reporting about present day Russia. No good news – either Russia is threatening to invade someone, or is on the verge of collapse, or passes some “wrong law” or oppresses this or that darling of the West. Nothing good happens in Russia – ever. Therefore even books and movies about Russian history can’t say anything genuinely good about the subject – you’d be denounced as the Kremlin stooge. Julia Ioffe, during her stint in Moscow in 2010 (in)famously comment in the first iteration of her blog on the “True/Slant”, that “It’s Putin’s Media job to report about successes of the country – I report all else”. In her understanding, all else means a ceaseless stream of Russophobia and kvetching.

        Old Marx said that (social) being determines consciousness. When the “being” in question is a thick cloud of stereotyping, ignorance and lies what kind of consciousness (and views) it would produce in the people?

        Like

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