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Smith's fictional portrait of modern Russia rings true

For all the news reports about the sweeping changes in the former Soviet Union, why does it seem that there's no clearer text on modern Russia than the most recent Arkady Renko novel?

Author Martin Cruz Smith introduced Americans to the cynical, suicidally honest Renko in 1981 with "Gorky Park." Prince Charles had just married Lady Di, and Leonid Illyich Brezhnev led the pantheon of great American boogeymen.

Renko, the son of a famous general, rejected his comfortable seat among the Communist Party's privileged inner circle to become a Moscow police detective. In those days, a Party card meant a kind of immunity from the grimier aspects of Soviet life -- like a decent apartment, a certain flexibility in one's legal affairs and the ability to buy the butter, chocolate and coffee of which their countrymen could only dream.

Renko said no to all that, and Smith's readers loved him for it, even after he volunteered to return behind the Iron Curtain after he met some Americans and saw a bit of Manhattan.

Now it's the MasterCard, not the party card, that determines whether you can enter the better sushi temples near the Kremlin. Russia has elections now as well. What that means in practical terms to Renko is that considering the government a suspect in unsolved murders isn't enough. Now candidates might want people dead, too.

Capitalism is the new state religion, but you can get killed for having a successful business. People are free to cross the border if they want, but they can get killed for coming home. As portrayed by Smith, freedom in Russia has been less than truly liberating. In fact, it's been so awful, many Muscovites are openly pining for the good old days of Josef Stalin.

So it is the burning acid of political indigestion that pushes Renko's boss to send him to the Chistye Prudy subway station. What's the crime? Well, several passengers claimed they saw Josef Stalin himself on the platform just after midnight.

On the way to the station, Renko passes an excavation where workers excavating for a sewer found bodies, buried in the old basement of the Soviet Supreme Court. Besides its illumination of the workings of Soviet justice, the scene fits perfectly with the Renko modus operandi. He's the detective who's always turning up the inconvenient bodies, solving the cases no one wants solved, unable to obey the official dictates of ambiguity.

"I can assure everyone that there will be an investigation of the dead to see whether criminal charges should be brought," the colonel in charge of the excavation declares:

"Congratulations." Arkady put his arm around the colonel's shoulders and whispered, "That is the best joke I've heard all day."

The colonel's face turned a mottled red and he ducked out of Arkady's grip. Ah, well, another enemy made, Arkady thought.

Gleb asked, "What if the grave runs under the entire court?"

"That's always the problem, isn't it? Once you start digging, when to stop?"

Knowing when to stop has always been Arkady's chief failing, of course. But he can't help himself, in a society where sewer lines can't be repaired without disturbing history, turning up evidence of forgotten crimes. Smith's story describes a country that, try as it may, cannot make the scars the nation it is built upon disappear by simple application of will.

Renko's investigation leads him to American political consultants working to elect Nikolai Isakov, a hero of the Chechen war who happens to be a fellow detective. Isakov wants to ride his elite paratrooper record and speechifying for a stronger Russia to carry him through Election Day.

To no one's surprise, Renko notices that the gallant battle that made Isakov a hero doesn't make any sense. Witnesses to the battle keep dying, too, which seems to interest no one besides Renko.

There is always a place in a Renko story that could be the heart of a great novel by itself.

In "Polar Star" it is the struggle aboard a fishing factory ship in the Bering Sea. In "Wolves Eat Dogs" it is a ghost village nearly emptied out by Chernobyl, its only residents those who face worse problems than dying of cancer.

In "Stalin's Ghost," it's what Renko witnesses in the fields and forests outside the city of Tver, where the Soviet Army fought the Nazis to a standstill among the bogs and birch glades.

The Diggers are bringing history back to light one spade at a time. The Red Diggers seek Soviet heroes who died defending the Motherland, so that their bones might be venerated -- a new generation of saints in a country hungry for heroes, dead or alive. The Black Diggers are looking for Nazi Iron Crosses and other grim souvenirs, which can bring a month's vodka on eBay.

The novel reaches its peak when the Red Diggers and their allies, Isakov partisans, trailed by television cameras, prepare to excavate an area identified as a great battleground in the Great Patriotic War. Russia's past and present wrestle in the muck for control of its future. There are few thriller practitioners indeed who can weld a story to a graceful chassis of literature and send it barreling away at top speed. Martin Cruz Smith is one of them, and "Stalin's Ghost" is a rare accomplishment. If Smith wants to take another three years to have Arkady show us what's new in the new Russia, that's fine. I can wait.

Andrew Z. Galarneau is a News features reporter.

***

Stalin's Ghost

By Martin Cruz Smith

Simon & Schuster, $27, 352 pages

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