A Tale of Two Russians, by Christopher Arthur
Date: 23rd Oct 2013
Publisher: Dynasty Press Ltd
This is a story about two boys who meet at school in England. The first, Nicko, is the direct descendant of a White Russian émigré from the Revolution while the other, Viktor, is the grandson of Stalin's satrap, the director of the Dalstroi Trust, a part of the Gulag system that mined gold in Kolyma. The satrap, Nikishov, is an actual historical character, but the grandson, Viktor, is the author's invention.
The novel follows the fortunes of the boys and their friendship through early adulthood. It moves from London to Novgorod, to Montenegro and back to London again and describes the world of New Russians following the end of the Soviet Union: the scams and criminal activities, the aspirations and attempts to forge fresh identities, while the past cannot be entirely escaped. An important character is a leading British politician, a neighbour of the Nikishovs in Chelsea whose relationship with a Russian oligarch is enigmatic to say the least! The story has many of the elements of a thriller.
It begins with the two boys, just out of school, meeting in the flat of Nicko's godfather, a retired university don. Together they get hopelessly drunk and smash one of Uncle Frank's almost priceless 5th century B.C. Greek vases… later, Nicko, out of university and working for a peripatetic antique dealer, visits Viktor now living in Novgorod with his wife and small son, Kolya. Here Viktor's wife, Vera, who loves all things English, manages to take Nicko in hand sexually while Viktor fixes an art scam via Nicko with his boss in the UK. It involves doctoring old pictures and selling them on as Russian masters. A slip occurs when a work by Gainsborough is turned into one by the Russian painter, Shishkin, but Nicko prefers the doctored picture… later he visits Viktor who is ostensibly holidaying in Montenegro with his family.
By now Nicko is working as a schoolmaster, while Viktor is involved in Russian property development in Montenegro. Staying with the Nikishovs is the enigmatic Ludmilla Mikhailovna, ostensibly an academic studying English literature. It becomes clear that Viktor is in trouble when the oligarch Oleg Dobrinin arrives with his yacht in Tiva. Meanwhile Nicko's relationship with Vera develops. She loves his 'Englishness' while dealing sympathetically with his sexual naievity. However, Viktor's troubles dominate events when the family are tailed on an outing to Cetinje, the country's old capital, and the boy is nearly killed in a shooting incident… later the Nikishovs make the move to London, where Vera is determined that Kolya should have a British education. Viktor has worked his way back into the international fine art market.
Problems arise, however, when Oleg Dobrinin buys himself a house in London at about the same time, but in the meantime peace seems to reign. A neighbour of the Nikishov is a Government minister, Lord Isaacs of South Shields, living with a Mexican boyfriend and some interesting proclivities. But fresh trouble breaks out when Viktor accidently sells Dobrinin a fake Rothko and the shadows close in again. Nicko meanwhile continues his affair with Vera, but gets tangled up with Isaacs' boyfriend, Miguel as well. The Government Minister has befriended the Nikishovs, even buying the boy a puppy. Dobrinin's intentions are not made clear, but there are some dark hints. Nicko, however, is able to share his thoughts about Russia and these Russians in particular with Tim, a London estate agent.
Matters get more complicated when Ludmilla appears on the scene and it becomes apparent that Dobrinin's hostility towards Viktor and his family goes deeper than business rivalry, but to an alleged atrocity committed on a member of his family in Kolyma, in Stalin's day. Isaacs affair with Miguel is an important thread in the plot. It ends with the Mexican boy walking out on him and exposing the true nature of the man's sexual proclivities on the eve of a General Election…Isaacs' suicide on board Dobrinin's yacht follows… Ludmilla, who has married Nicko's friend Tim, however is a loose cannon, and may be involved in Viktor's mysterious fall to his death under the wheels of a train in a London Underground station… Nicko finally marries Vera and in the fullness of time they have two children, one of which is a boy called Viktor…
This is a tale of mystery and suspense, based in large part of the author's own experience of Russians and their culture. It owes elements to Le Carre and to Patricia Highsmith!
Dynasty Press, 36 Ravensdon Street, London SE11 4AR. Distributors: UK. Orca Book Services Ltd; US. Pathways; Designer: Two Associates;
Typesetter & book publishing services Shore Books and Design; Printers: Cromwell UK, Finland; Promoters: Colbert & Macalister, London.