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'Beleaguered leader!' Mikhail Gorbachev in the world of thrillers (IANS Column: Bookends)

It may well be an unconscious impulse but the writers are directly or indirectly influenced by their socio-political millieu, even when opposing it, and you don’t need to be a Marxist to acknowledge that.

As Edward Said showed in his examination of ‘Orientalism’, or recent works showcasing the overt or covert politics of such literary figures as William Wordsworth (Jonathan Bate’s "Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World") and Jane Austen (Helena Kelly’s "Jane Austen, The Secret Radical"), politics can intrude into the poetic realm or comedies of manners — or other forms of fiction, too. And this can span the entire gamut from literary classics to pulp fiction.

The Cold War is a fitting example. As two contrasting systems of social and political organisation vied for global influence, the conflict for influencing hearts and minds underpinned the diplomatic and military manoeuvres.

Duncan White’s "Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War" (2019) offers an overview of how novelists and poets were embroiled in games of betrayal, espionage, and conspiracy in the conflict, through the cases of George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Mary McCarthy, Graham Greene, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John le Carre, Anna Akhmatova, Ernest Hemingway, and Boris Pasternak (among others).

But let us take one aspect — popular fiction, of the thrillers variety, and one person — Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and seen as the unsuccessful reformer who brought down the edifice.

Soviet rulers largely did not have very complimentary representations across Western fiction.

Lenin — despite his immense potential as a profound ideologue – is largely missing, save in one dimly recollected thriller where a British operative, tasked with saving the last Tsar, Nicholas II (at the private initiative of his cousins, the British King and the German Kaiser) encounters him in his abortive mission.

Stalin is better served, featuring in Michael "House of Cards" Dobbs’ culminating work of his Winston Churchill quartet, "Churchill’s Triumph" (2005), the first two books of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Soviet trilogy — "Sashenka" (2008) and "One Night in Winter" (2013) — and all of Sam Eastland’s Pekkala series, from "Eye of the Red Tsar" (2010) to "Berlin Red" (2016), though the depiction ranges from a manipulative autocrat (at best) to an insecure and highly suspicious psychopath.

Nikita Khrushchev only features in one major work, in Barbara Allen’s "Bombshell" (2004), where he is targeted for assassination during his US visit — and saved by the intervention of Marilyn Monroe and Walt Disney!

Leonid Brezhnev remains absent despite his potential, Yuri Andropov only gets cameos in Ted Allbeury’s "Moscow Quadrille" (1976) — as the then KGB chief — though his two or three appearances are quite powerful; and in Robert Littell’s "The Company" (2002). The rather colourless Konstantin Chernenko did not stay in power long enough to count.

Gorbachev, though, was different — his accession to power came as a breath of fresh air to the Soviet people accustomed to the gerontocracy in the Kremlin for over a decade. His Western interlocutors welcomed a leader not steeped in orthodoxy like his predecessors, with Margaret Thatcher’s "we can do business with him" endorsement setting the pace.

He would go on to deliver. The arms control and reduction treaties, the withdrawal of the Soviets from the Afghan quagmire, and then East Europe would make him a respected statesman in most of the world’s eyes. He was not that successful at home, though, as his attempts at reform encountered decades of inertia and vested interests — and pushback was inevitable.

That’s how he appears in most Western thrillers. Threatened by attempts to overthrow or assassinate him, (and here comes the political subtext) he has a gamut of Western spies/secret agents heading to his aid. There are exceptions, though.

Frederick Forsyth’s "The Negotiator" (1989) is one of them. The basic plot is that Gorbachev and his US counterpart, President John Cormack, agree on an expansive arms reduction treaty, but there are sections in both countries that are not pleased.

The President’s son is kidnapped from Oxford, and despite the efforts of a senior but maverick hostage release expert, the "Negotiator" of the title, is killed at the time of release. A Soviet device is found on his body, scuttling the deal. The Negotiator digs in — aided by the KGB.

Gorbachev has a major role — and especially sparkles in a scene, where he summons a senior military officer, who is a key character, to his office and silently gestures to an array of pictures showing a ham-handed action by the security forces against a nationalist rally. The officer just raises one eyebrow, and Gorbachev says to himself, "Bastard."

This was not out of character for the General Secretary. Records show Gorbachev could be quite vitriolic and sarcastic, even with the military.

The Mathias Rust incident was a case in point. The amateur German aviator, then aged 18, flew his Cessna aircraft from Helsinki on May 28, 1987, into the Soviet Union — and while detected and tracked, carried on unhindered all the way to Moscow, landing near the Red Square. What made it worse was that the day in question happened to be the National Border Guards Day.

A furious Gorbachev summoned the military top brass and lambasted them — a candid admission by the Air Defence Forces chief that he learned of the incident only once the aircraft landed in Moscow drew special wrath on his head.

"I suppose the Traffic Police told you," was the kindest thing he heard.

The Soviet leader also appears in three of Tom Clancy’s early Jack Ryan novels — though not under his name. Andrey Ilych Narmonov, the Soviet General Secretary in the "The Hunt for Red October" (1984), "The Cardinal of the Kremlin" (1988) and "The Sum of All Fears" (1991), is clearly modelled on Gorbachev.

Narmonov just appears in the Soviet scenes of the first. He and Ryan — who has just pulled off an audacious gambit to save an agent and help forestall a challenge to Narmonov’s rule — meet at the end of the "The Cardinal" and he is overtly dismissive of American help.

In the final one too — the last to feature the Soviet Union — a purported conspiracy to unseat Narmonov is a key plot element, and in the climax, where the situation is fast unravelling, it is his decision to ease up the tensions a bit that prevent disaster.

The parallels with the real-world Gorbachev could not be more clear.

As noted earlier, most of the other deal with threats to Gorbachev, who survives with overt or covert Western help.

In Herbert Burkholz’s "Strange Bedfellows" (1988), as Gorbachev prepares to sign a treaty with the US, one his "closest associates" tries to kill him, but "the attempt is a failure; the assassin swallows cyanide." The US government is determined to unveil the conspiracy by enlisting their most effective spy, Ben Slade. A highly trained ‘sensitive’, he is blessed and cursed with the ability to read minds.<br> <br>Dennis Jones’ "Concerto" (1990) has a fake TV unit enter the high-security compound of the Soviet consulate outside New York City, and "within minutes, nine men lie dead, and the Soviet Union’s most powerful and respected leader — Mikhail Gorbachev — is missing".

Conservative author and briefly CIA operative William F. Buckley, Jr’s spy ‘Blackford Oakes’ ("A Very Private Plot", 1993) and Adam Hall’s Quiller (in "Quiller KGB", 1989) take a stab as well at saving the Soviet leader.

Joseph Finder’s "The Moscow Club" (1991), of yet another conspiracy, is a bit prescient and it came months before the abortive coup attempt in August 1991. Yet, it did come true in the end, and the Soviet Union did go into history — but no conspiracy was needed against Gorbachev.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at



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