The struggle by journalists in Russia to make themselves heard while being menaced by the state is the theme of Ivan Britanov’s thriller Svetlana’s Garden. With the ongoing public inquiry into the death of Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko by poisoning, this book is a timely fictional exploration of state methods to suppress the truth.
It also boasts a cover quotation from Britanov’s friend, Marina Litvinenko, who describes this book ‘as well-imagined as only the truth can be’.
Journalists Svetlana Dorenko and Nick Mendez battle to broadcast the truth about the death of Russian army conscript Andrei Ivanovich Petrov, who died after a training exercise in a gas chamber. Stalked by the Federal Secret Service, Svetlana, whose conscript brother also died in mysterious circumstances, is warned by a media watchdog that publication in the weekly Search for Truth newspaper may fall foul of the Russian Criminal Code.
Her editor Demchi tells her that ‘we don’t do military’ and ‘we’ll put our people in danger’. While the Dubnikov gang ‘protected her and she never wrote about them’, the arrival in Moscow of International News Network’s correspondent, the smooth-talking Nick, gives fiery Svetlana an ally as she seeks to provide answers.
Author: Ivan Britanov
Publisher: Nyet Books (£13.50)
She is helped by artist Yakov Katenin who was stationed with Petrov at Chita in southern Siberia. Katenin cleverly supplies a series of clues to Petrov’s death while desperately avoiding the attention of sinister FSB captain Gennadiy Malenkov. But tension within the military and the FSB to keep under wraps a gas ‘that was untraceable in post-mortem examinations’, brings events nicely to the boil and leaves Svetlana with a life-changing decision.
The book also touches on the turmoil in Ukraine. Russia wants an ‘appropriate measure of respect’ in negotiations about gas prices, and with elections coming up mulls possible regime change. But this sub-plot feels like an after-thought and detracts from the main story.
Britanov, or solicitor John Boydell, enjoyably plunges you into his story and draws strong characters. But overlong sentimental passages and toe-curling sex scenes clash sharply with his concision elsewhere.
Britanov’s Moscow may not be the forbidding city once ruled by Stalin and his NKVD henchman Beria, but Britanov acknowledges that ‘merit often had nothing to do with who lived and who died in Moscow’. This gritty tale gives a flavour of battling for truth against mighty odds.
Nicholas Goodman is a sub-editor at the Law Society Gazette