Book review: The Distinguished Assassin by Nick Taussig

The Distinguished Assassin by Nick Taussig
The Distinguished Assassin by Nick Taussig

Nick Taussig is determined we should never forget the brutal excesses of Stalin’s Soviet Russia…

So what better way to recall a regime defined by its ruthless state control and vicious secret police than a novel which combines politics, crime and history in a page-turning and yet moving and thought-provoking thriller?

The Distinguished Assassin, written by a man steeped in Russian studies and the author of the critically acclaimed novels Love And Mayhem, Don Don and Gorilla Guerrilla, is the compelling story of a persecuted intellectual who takes deadly revenge against six leading Communists.

It’s a daring and complex plot which takes us from the grim streets of 1950s Moscow deep into a labour camp in the heart of Siberia’s Gulag hell and has distinct echoes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s groundbreaking book The Gulag Archipelago.

Inevitably, Taussig’s account of how an essentially good man turns bad in a country which has lost its moral compass is an emotional and harrowing reading experience but stays true to its purpose of exposing the terrible realities of Stalinist Russia.

It’s 1952 and Moscow is dominated by the dark, brooding presence of Stalin. Even its once magnificent architecture has been subsumed by buildings reflecting the Soviet state – butch and ugly, lacking in subtlety and humility.

The downtrodden, dirty, deprived city dwellers drown their sorrows in vodka, ‘the great elixir of the Union, the opiate of the Soviet masses.’

War hero and history professor Aleksei Klebnikov, who was banned from his teaching job at Moscow’s State University after accusations of involvement in anti-Soviet propaganda, is incarcerated in a labour camp in Kolyma.

He has been there for three years after MVD agents, vicious state security operatives full of hate, mistrust and even madness, took him from his home, tortured him and then packed him off to Siberia.

Chief architect of Aleksei’s persecution was agent Vladimir Primakov but worst of all was that Aleksei was betrayed by his beautiful wife Natasha who is now living with Primakov in their Moscow apartment.

Isolated from his family, overworked and starved almost to death, Aleksei has discovered that in the camps, it is far worse to be a political dissident than a violent criminal.

One of the crooks, Ivan Ivanovich, has a special interest in Aleksei and offers to help him escape from the camp on the condition that he takes on a highly paid mission to assassinate six leading Communist apparatchiks.

It’s an offer that Aleksei can’t refuse and he determines to add another name to his death list … evil MVD agent Primakov who stole his wife.

But, with just one man left to kill, Aleksei is suddenly reunited with Natasha and discovers that all is not quite what it seems and that perhaps he has an even greater enemy than Primakov, his wife and the Communist system…

Taussig’s style is robust, descriptive, passionate and searingly honest. Through the horrifying plight of Aleksei, we see the wider picture of a country brought to its knees by the immovable, mind-numbing, emotionally bankrupt and self-serving logic of a Communist machine which puts politics before people.

Fast-paced, brimming with suspense and intelligently imagined, The Distinguished Assassin is a heart-felt reminder of the inhumanities of state repression, and an addictive thriller with a powerful moral message.

(Dissident, hardback, £12.99)