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Archive for the ‘Russia’ Tag

Investing in Justice   Leave a comment

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Red Notice by Bill Browder is a true-life tale involving financial investments, conspiracy, Russian intrigue and, ultimately, murder. A look at how U.S. laws are enacted is also included. A red notice is essentially an international arrest warrant. Putin tried, unsuccessfully, to have one placed on the author. The political climate with Russia makes this a timely read.

Browder recounts his experience as a foreign investor in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. He discovers a motherlode, secures investors and founds his own capital management firm. Initially, the focus is on Browder’s financial acumen. Then, things get ugly for him and his associates when he exposes corruption in – surprise! – the Russian government.

Browder’s visa is revoked, but he’s able to covertly move his company’s holdings out of Russia saving his clients’ fortunes in the process. However, this isn’t where the author reveals his valor. That comes in the narrative’s final third as he seeks justice for the abuse and murder of his friend/attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who revealed a multi-million dollar fraud committed by the Kremlin.

Browder’s efforts, along with assistance from U.S. government officials, helped put in place the Magnitsky Act, which, initially*, blocked Russian officials and business leaders from entering the United States and froze their assets held by U.S. banks.

Guilt motivates Browder’s actions, but the true hero of the story is Magnitsky who steadfastly believed truth and fairness would prevail.

With some exceptions, such as occasional extraneous details, the rapid-fire pacing makes Browder’s story engaging.

Red Notice: A True Story of Finance, Murder, and One Man’s fight for Justice
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
396 pages, includes notes and index

*The act was expanded in 2016 and now applies sanctions to human rights abusers worldwide.

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A Grand Life   3 comments

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Epic Russian novels have long appealed to me for many reasons: the history, the descriptions of stark landscapes and lively urban settings, the storytelling, and the names. Ah, the names.

Author Amor Towles ties all these elements together in A Gentleman in Moscow.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, known as Sasha among a few and as the Count among many, is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s grand Metropol Hotel in 1922. This is an engrossing tale about a man who grew up with every comfort and advantage during tsarist Russia. Although his lifestyle changes, it unexpectedly expands.

At the beginning of his confinement, the mother country is in the early stages of political and economic changes that continue for decades. The Count is undeterred by his reversal of fortunes. Towles presents a contented man, knowledgeable, kind, charismatic, happy with routines, yet imaginative. As the Count’s story moves through the years he faces challenges greater than the restrictions of his movements, but always with a good attitude.

Towles injects humor and history with a hotel guestbook of intriguing characters. Interestingly, each chapter begins with the letter A, like the count’s (and author’s) first name.

Here is a novel of the never-wanting-it-to-end variety. The Count’s humanity, his relationships/friendships, and the rich memories of his childhood overshadow his loss of freedom. At times it’s easy to forget that he is a captive in a majestic hotel. He can’t actually check out any time he wants, but why would he want to leave?

A Gentleman in Moscow
Five Bookmarks
Amor Towles
Viking, 2016
462 pages

From Russia With Art   1 comment

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Anthony Marra is the master of foreshadowing. At times he’s subtle, then he’s as obvious as an agitated teenager reeking of cigarettes claiming he doesn’t smoke. This was true of his first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and follows suit in his most recent: The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Marra has chosen a similar setting in Russia with another interesting cast of characters; however, he spans more time, beginning in 1937 continuing to present day. He expands the setting from Siberia to Leningrad/St. Petersburg to Chechnya: landscape is a crucial element.

The narrative begins with an artist in the propaganda department whose job is to erase enemies of the state whose images appear in paintings and photographs. He does this by blotting out faces with ink or by painting something new, which is often his dead brother’s face. It appears in a myriad of scenes representing various phases of his life: child, teenager, middle age and old age.

With each chapter comes a new narrator, in a different setting providing a singular element to the overall novel. The stories are a progression. It’s no spoiler alert to note that the pieces do eventually fit together (very well). Even if they didn’t, Marra’s writing is full of wit and pathos. The images of the pollution-wreaked mining community in Siberia are stark and frigid; just as a Chechnyan hillside is pastoral and warm. The men and women introduced by the author are so human their breath practically turns the pages.

The Tzar of Love and Techno
Four bookmarks
Hogarth, 2015
365 pages

Soviet Roulette   Leave a comment

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

 

Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vial Phenomena demonstrates that families are often created by need, proximity and shared experiences – sometimes more than bloodlines.

Marra writes of worn-torn Chechnya. More accurately, his story involves the newly-formed family of Akhmed, Havaa and Sonja, three genetically-unrelated characters whose lives intersect because of friendship, obligation and fate.

Moving back and forth between 1994 and 2004, Marra details the poverty and fear of those living in a small Chechen village. Eight-year-old Havaa is rescued by Akhmed, a long-time family friend, when the girl’s father is “disappeared” by military authorities.

Akhmed, a third-rate physician, takes the child to the city hospital 11 kilometers away. There, he convinces Sonja, a surgeon, in charge of the facility to keep Havaa. In exchange, Akhmed offers his medical services, which prove to be lacking.

The novel’s beauty is Marra’s writing. The people and landscape are bleak, and are vividly portrayed. Yet hope surfaces in spite of the harsh conditions. Havaa is optimistic about her father returning; Akhmed hopes he can keep the child safe; and Sonja needs to believe that her younger sister, Natasha, is still alive. Hope also makes cameo appearances when Marra foretells characters’ futures. At first this is done with incidental players, then minor ones and finally those about whom the reader cares most.

Trying to understand the historical context of Chechnya is confusing. Fortunately, Marra’s emphasis is on a handful of characters, each who do what it takes to survive while trying to remain true to themselves.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Four Bookmarks

Hogarth, 2013

384 pages

 

Packing for a Long Trip   1 comment

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I’m a sucker for a good title and that’s the reason I read Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase. The book was included on the long list of the Tournament of Books. It didn’t make the cut to the short list, and I can see why.

Akhtiorskaya’s novel begins in 1993 with the Nasmeratovs who have settled in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach following the Soviet Union’s collapse. They are a continent away from their roots, but the new community is a little Russia where shops, restaurants and neighbors share the same language and customs. Assimilation isn’t necessary.

Pasha Nasmeratov is a poet and the one family member who remains on native soil. He visits his family in New York, but never commits to immigrating. His sister, her husband and their daughter live with Pasha’s parents in a crowded apartment. Pasha is the link to the past in many ways. Jump ahead to 2008 and Frida, his niece, is grown up. She’s intrigued by the mother land, but is rooted in an inability to embrace the future while clinging to the past, even one she doesn’t remember. Frida was young when the family left Odessa.

The problem is there’s too much jumping from one character or location to another. Still, the author’s writing is rich in clever turns of phrase and vivid imagery. Humor is a lively resident among the prose: “Frida stumbled past tidy strips of lawn, her favorite with a PLEASE CARB YOUR DOG sign…”

Panic in a Suitcase
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2014
307 pages

Held in Suspense   Leave a comment

Child44

Child 44 begins in such a predictable manner, with a vignette from the past, it belies the true suspense of Tom Rob Smith’s novel. However, as the tale unfolds each twist and turn is a complete surprise.

In Stalin-era Russia, Leo Demidov is with the State Security Force. In the midst of investigating a possible traitor, he’s ordered to address the death of a colleague’s young son. The family is convinced the boy was murdered but as Leo notes, “If left unchecked, the groundless chatter about murder could grow like a weed, spreading through the community … making them question one of the fundamental pillars of their new society: there is no crime.” The family’s concerns are dismissed.

Although he’s guilty of cold-heartedly dealing with those who denounce Mother Russia through actual or perceived actions, Leo has a soft side. Smith establishes a tangible fear and mistrust that permeate the Russian culture. Leo has kicked in more than his share of doors and had citizens banished, or worse, but the tide changes and he becomes a hapless victim when he refuses to condemn his wife, Raisa.

Consequently, Leo is assigned menial tasks with  small town police force, but a girl’s murder captures his attention by its similarity to the death he had previously scorned. Thus begins a secret investigation, cross-country pursuit, and unraveling of long-held secrets.

This is a rapid-heart rate page turner. However, one fault lies in Leo’s nemesis: Vasili, a one-dimensional character in an otherwise realistic, albeit frightening, world.

Child 44

Four and a half Bookmarks
Grand Central Publishing, 2008
436 pages