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Books: A long trek back to Stalin

Archangel by Robert Harris Hutchinson, pounds 16.99, 421pp
INSIDE ARCHANGEL there is a thinner book, a highly readable thriller, struggling to get out. In its plot, Mamantov, once a senior figure in the USSR, makes use of Stalin's notebook - found in a safe in the Kremlin - to attempt to bring about a return to Stalinist rule. Caught up in his machinations as an unwitting cog is "Fluke" Kelso, an English academic, expert in Stalin's USSR and the ordinary guy at the centre of this story.

Archangel is page-turning entertainment. The background, in Stalin's Russia as well as the present, is utterly authentic and presented with an ease and relevance not always achieved by Robert Harris's competitors. The writing is strong enough to make you feel you know what it must be like to be in a night- club in Moscow, or in a sick, broken city like Archangel as the first heavy snow falls and the cold begins to thicken the water across the river. And, in spite of a plot that creaks somewhat in order to get everyone in the right place at the right time, it rattles along, a lot faster than the train from Archangel.

However, a certain portentousness in the writing, and the fact that it is longer than it need be, seem to imply that Harris and his publisher want us to take Archangel seriously, both as a novel with literary stature and as an analysis of Russia. This won't do. For a start, the central characters are two-dimensional. Kelso, the once-brilliant academic gone to seed, has appeared in a hundred campus novels.

Among the rest is O'Brian, an American journo who will do anything for a good story. He verges on the crudest satire and was done far better by Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, though his use of satellite technology is both fascinating and essential to the plot. And Zinaida, the female interest, is a beautiful prostitute struggling to become a lawyer, but burdened with the memory of a father who both loved and brutalised her... Well!

It's an odd thing. While these main characters lack substance, many of the minor ones - particularly the Russians and above all Zinaida's father, Rapava - have a stronger reality, born of Harris's awareness of the history that made them. And the fulcrum on which the whole plot turns - and which I am trying very hard not to give away - is certainly blood-curdling, shiver-making, as befits a thriller. But it remains too sensational and downright unbelievable to be taken seriously.

In his take on Russia, Harris shows both prescience and enviable cunning. The book takes place in October against a background of economic collapse and civil disturbance, but which October? Cleverly, he doesn't say, and it looks right now as if the die are rolling for him. His message is that the Russian people have a past which the West, by insisting on a swift and unconsidered transition to a free-market economy, has ignored, thereby bringing about a situation in which a return to Stalinist communism seems increasingly attractive.

But this, for all Harris's prescience, is hardly a blindingly revelation: unless you happen to be a dogmatic free-marketeer, one of those who think history is over, or a policy adviser in the White House. What is good about Archangel is very, very good; and what strives to make it better than that only serves to makes it longer than it need be by a hundred pages.