Those much over-used epithets ‘epic’, ‘sweeping’ and ‘saga’ are useful signals when they crop up in press releases, semaphoring that the book in question is probably not for me. To be fair, they’re not words used to describe Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots but just for once they seem appropriate. This doorstopper of a novel, apparently loosely based on a true story, explores political idealism and the stark realities of life under a totalitarian regime through Florence Fein, who sets out for Russia from New York in 1934, and her son Julian, trying to do business in the ‘new’ Russia of 2008.
Florence is an idealistic young woman, attracted by the equality she thinks socialism offers during the Depression when American women are being shown the way back into the kitchen after their wartime efforts. Bright and numerate, she finds a job working for Amtorg, who promote trade between America and Russia, where she falls in love with Sergey. When she decides to turn her back on her comfortable Jewish family and travel to Russia after he goes home, she knows that it’s not just idealism that is carrying her off on this perilous journey. On board ship she meets Essie with whom she forges a friendship. When her pursuit of Sergey proves fruitless, Florence settles herself in Moscow where she talks her way into a job with the Soviet State Bank. She meets Essie again, then Leon a sassy fellow American working for the Soviet news agency with whom she becomes both romantically and professionally involved, working together as translators for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Life is hard but Florence and Leon remain committed to the cause until anti-Semitism creeps in; their past work – once lauded – is now used against them. With a child to protect, Florence finds herself cooperating with the authorities in ways she could never have imagined, and then betrayed. Many years later, the Cold War long over, her son is working as a liaison officer for an American oil company. His frequent visits to Russia enable him to keep an eye on his son’s plans to be ‘a cowboy on the frontiers of private enterprise’. When Julian questions the judgement of his own Russian contacts it becomes clear that the USSR may be long gone but the old ways are alive and well.
Krasikov unfolds her story through two narrative strands spanning more than seventy years, shifting her perspective backwards and forwards between Florence and Julian. It’s an ambitious structure – all too easy to lose control of it in such a long novel but Krasikov deftly pulls it off although Julian’s first person narrative is less absorbing than Florence’s. The tension between Florence’s apparently obdurate idealism and Julian’s cynical pragmatism is well drawn, and its resolution satisfying. Krasikov’s depiction of the USSR under Stalin with its labyrinthine surveillance systems in which no one can be trusted, even the closest of friends, is both convincing and chilling. We’d all like to think we’d be the ones to stand firm, steer well clear of betrayal, but who knows what any of us would do in such circumstances. Well researched and engrossing, The Patriots felt like a particularly timely read given the advent of the Trump administration with relations between the US and Russia under the microscope yet again.