As a postgraduate student of Russian literature at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1995, I will never forget my first encounter with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a staggering work that powerfully, and methodically, documents the vast network of forced labour camps that existed throughout the former Soviet Union. What is most striking about this work, as much as the quality and scope of its historical record, however, is its searing honesty, its attempt to get to the heart of man. What makes him do the things he does, and how does he behave in the most adverse of circumstances?
Solzhenitsyn, like any great writer, is hunting for big game, unafraid to ask such big questions, and the conclusions he reaches, though often unsettling, normally point to some fundamental truth. And one such conclusion he reached struck me, to the extent that I could not shake it from my mind. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various stages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.”
This statement became the starting point for The Distinguished Assassin, the story of a good man, who, when placed in extraordinary circumstances, commits evil, and is then forced to confront what he has done: he has destroyed a piece of his own heart. And what better setting than Stalin’s Russia, a place that, like Nazi Germany, heightened this truth, forcing its citizens to live and think according to a single prescribed ideology: Soviet Communism. Aleksei Klebnikov, the novel’s protagonist, cannot abide by this creed, which he, like some many Russians living under Stalin, saw to be a fabrication, a lie. The people are not living and working in perfect Communist harmony, he can see this, but rather are living in abject poverty and dread. Aleksei initially tries to point to this great deception through his teaching post at Moscow State, and yet any form of criticism of the way things are is not tolerated. He is subsequently removed from his teaching post, wrenched from his home, separated from his wife and young daughter, interrogated and tortured, then convicted of anti-Soviet activity and sentenced to twenty-five years hard labour. Put on a transport to Kolyma, worked close to death and forced to endure the suicide of his mother, who can no longer tolerate the hypocrisy and oppression all around her, he is then informed that his wife has made her bed with his nemesis, Vladimir Primakov, the MVD agent responsible for his arrest, exile and imprisonment. Thrown in isolation, Aleksei is left to rot. He emerges full of anger and hate: the line in his heart has shifted, to use Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor. He escapes from the prison camp having killed two men, a prison and a guard, then returns to Moscow, where he is confronted by his wife’s alleged betrayal. She was with his enemy after all. Thus, when offered a mission by the notorious thief-in-law, Ivan Bessonov, whom he’d befriended while in Kolyma – to assassinate six leading Communists, and therefore take revenge on those who have fed, profited from and sustained the Stalinist system – he takes it.
The hero of my novel, therefore, provided me with the precious opportunity to explore Solzhenitsyn’s conviction that every one of us is “at various stages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being, at times close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.” Aleksei is this, close to both, and yet he battles, as we all do, to ensure that the good side prevails, that he ends on the right side of the line which separates good from evil, which cuts through his heart, as it does our own.