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by John Helmer, Moscow

Simon & Schuster is a New York publisher which is now the property of ViacomCBS,  National Amusements Inc., and the part-demented Sumner Redstone (Rothstein). It has long made a business of selling lies about Russia. That’s the non-fiction department.

 It’s a harder sell for the fiction department to do the same.  Martin Cruz Smith’s newest in his series of Russian detective novels comes up with the idea that President Vladimir Putin has ordered the murder of an oligarch challenging him for the presidency, and nearly gets away with liquidating a well-known investigative journalist at the same time.  The dirty deeds done, but the girl safe holding hands with the hero under the Kremlin wall, the book’s last line ends with “the latest coronation. With a fourth term secured, Putin how reigned longer than any ruler since Stalin.”

According to Cruz Smith’s acknowledgement on the next to last page, it was his editor at Simon & Schuster who “came up with excellent ideas for the book and patiently encouraged me to take the time I needed.”

After seven weeks in print, this fabrication hasn’t made it on the New York Times best-seller list yet. It is having to compete with Simon & Schuster’s better selling fiction, seven weeks on the list and going strong at Number 8  —  “The Book of Gutsy Women” by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.

Cruz Smith (right) – he is called Mr Smith in serious papers – wrote his new book at the start of this year. Simon & Schuster released it on November 5. Amazon is already discounting the price. 

The Washington Post endorsement of Cruz Smith’s fiction is that it’s “an authentic view of contemporary Russia”. The newspaper would say that, wouldn’t it? But there you are – lies pretending to be fiction which, because they are about “contemporary Russia”, are “authentic”. Publisher’s Weekly, which doesn’t pretend to be more than a promotional trade sheet, adds that Cruz Smith’s novel is “a must for any crime fiction fan interested in the underside of Putin’s Russia” – that’s underside as in the real thing.  The Guardian, London’s most feverish Russia-hater, can’t afford to be left behind in the rush to authenticate Cruz Smith’s faking. His “depth of knowledge [is] on display as ever”.  Knowledge of what, you might ask. 

Cruz Smith has already told The Daily Beast, an epitome of Russia-hating on the internet, where he got his facts from. His story, he told The Daily Beast, is actually about Mikhail Khodorkovsky (lead image, right) and Anna Politkovskya (left); in the book he calls them Mikhail Kuznetsov and Tatiana Petrovna. Cruz Smith’s “depth of knowledge” doesn’t extend to knowing the difference between Petrova, a female surname as common in Russian as Smith in English, and Petrovna, the female patronymic (daughter of Peter).

“The character Mikhail Kuznetsov,” Cruz Smith said to The Daily Beast, “is inspired by the famous oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a political hero who ran for office in Irkutsk [one of Siberia’s largest cities]. Through him, Arkady [the policeman hero] is able to reflect on his homeland, oligarchs, and Russian politics. Tatiana is based on the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was arrested in 1996 for speaking out against the government during the Chechen war [Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006]. In The Siberian Dilemma, Tatiana is threatened because she is determined to investigate the oligarchs with ties to the government.”

In case there’s doubt about Smith’s credentials for fabricating like this about the Khodorkovsky and Politkovskaya stories, he appealed to the xenophobia of book buyers in The Daily Beast’s audience: “[Russians] will always attempt to fix elections here [US] and abroad and will continue to expand their borders with aggression. And as long as Vladimir Putin is president, Russia will be a kleptocracy. He aspires to be the wealthiest man on earth and intends to remain in office as long as he can.”

Consider the market calculation in a pitch like this.  The only way author and publisher think they can persuade  American readers to take $18.99 out of their wallets for the ninth adventure in the career of Arkady Renko, a veteran detective in the Moscow police, is to see what Renko can come up with on Putin. In Russia, Renko is told by Putin’s man, a Moscow prosecutor who cheats on his wife with a buxom Cuban girl, “assassination is the natural order of things in politics. It’s what people expect.” Cruz Smith means that Americans should expect this in Russia — not,  perish the thought, in places where the US has been running the show.

Cruz Smith’s plot leads the reader to Lake Baikal, in southeastern Siberia, to Irkutsk on the west side and Chita in the east, where the Khodorkovsky character is in a contest with another oilman, a Boris Berezovsky character called Boris Benz. They do things to each other’s business like pouring cement down oil wells, blowing up railroad tanker cars, and trying to assassinate each other. Khodorkovsky succeeds in killing Berezovsky, detective Renko suspects just before he is mauled by a bear. He recovers by the time Khodorkovsky and Politkovskaya go down together in a helicopter crash on the frozen lake. Renko manages to save the girl in the nick of time. Khodorkovsky isn’t so lucky. He’s plucky instead. “His face was flushed with pride and resignation, defiance and acceptance, and that was how they watched him die.”

Preposterous Russian plots aren’t a novelty for Cruz Smith. A Russian review  of the Renko series commented in 2013:  “if any graphomaniac had thought of writing such nonsense, I warrant the staff of any of our publishing houses would have pushed the writer out of the house, even at the risk of further explanations with the police. But don’t jump to conclusions. For what is absolutely unthinkable with us, it turns out, is quite possible on the other side of the ocean. Do a simple operation: replace the American names with Russian, Hollywood to Mosfilm, Macy’s to Detsky Mir, Staten Island to Cheryomushki, and you get an accurate, if somewhat abbreviated version of one of the best-selling bestsellers in 1981, the novel by Martin Cruz Smith ‘Gorky Park’.”

Verisimilitude is a standard tool in fiction-writing, especially in the whodunit genre. In the US journalism genre, the standard has always been less exacting for Russia than for other countries,  so the appearance of real facts which are false hasn’t done any damage to the credibility of the stories or their writers. For faking on Russia, and to replace fact-checking, Bloomberg invented the attribution “two sources who can’t be named”; the number of those sources has multiplied with the years at all the mainstream media. The positive correlation between source and claim is now equal to veracity  – the more blind attributions, the more truth.  

But that formula can’t rescue Cruz Smith and Simon & Schuster from these embarrassing mistakes. Tatiana, the Politkovskaya character, says she doesn’t know what the BAM is; every Russian her age knows it is the second of the trans-Siberian railways, the Baikal-Amur Magistral (‘Mainline’). At the feast following Berezovsky’s funeral, Cruz Smith puts on the table kulich, the Easter-only sweet bread. The shooting of a Moscow prosecutor which Renko is investigating is reported at “Patriarchal Park” when the Russian name is Patriarshy Prudy (“Patriarch Ponds”). In the month of November Renko arrives at a protest on the anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination; Nemtsov was shot in mid-February. Cruz Smith says he was killed “with four shots from a passing car”; the police, Russian press reports, court testimony,  and CCTV footage show there were six shots from a hitman who got out of his car to fire. A zoologist at the Moscow zoo calls the Australian koala a bear. Renko says Putin “was known to like photo ops with lion cubs”; Cruz Smith missed the stripes and spots – the animals were a Siberian tiger and a snow leopard.

Left to right: the BAM; kulich (the Cyrillic letters stand for the traditional Easter greeting, Христос воскрес! “Christ is risen”); President Putin with a Siberian tiger cub (2008) and a snow leopard (2014).  

At the start of the book, in mid-November, Renko sees swallows “dart[ing] back and forth along the Kremlin’s walls”.  At the end of the book, in March, he is walking along the Moscow River “as swallows darted around the crenellations of the Kremlin wall.” Wrong both times. Moscow’s swallows leave town before the snow comes in October; they don’t return until the thaw is complete in May.

There are more serious mistakes at the scene of the crime. There are goldmines north of Baikal and around Chita – no oilfields; no “oil mines” as Cruz Smith calls them.

Then there are the clichés, the seeming half-truths.  “Russians were famously dangerous drivers”; “it was a condition every Russian knew, a man with too much vodka inside him being half-carried, half-dragged by his friends”; “every Russian knew that [train] timetables weren’t worth the paper they were printed on”; “it seemed incongruous that a woman as pretty and intelligent as Saran should have chosen someone as lumpen as Dorzho but couples like that could be found all over Russia.”

These are insights into the Russian character in case American travellers to the country are afraid of being arrested by the Russian police in retaliation for things the FBI and CIA are doing to Russian travellers.  Cruz Smith has filled his book so that his readers won’t have to go further than north Miami or Brighton Beach in Brooklyn to see for themselves. That’s navel-gazing for arm-chair detectives to shoot themselves in the foot.

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