Daniel Silva is a former CNN producer turned espionage thriller novelist. Silva's most recent novel, Moscow Rules, was released on July 22, 2008 and shot to the top of The New York Times bestseller list within a week. In Moscow Rules his recurring hero, art restorer and Mossad agent Gabriel Allon, battles a ruthless arms-dealing Russian oligarch and "the KGB".
Moscow Rules: FSB here, FSB there...KGB everywhere!
In July 2008 the popular California-based conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt aired a prerecorded interview with Daniel Silva for his evening drive time listeners across the U.S. Most of the interview was about Silva's very interesting biography and the development of his writing style and characters. Silva fondly recalled showing his kids around Moscow, and how great a time they had seeing the sights there. However, in Silva's opinion, post-Soviet Russia has turned from Communism to "fascism".
The novel opens with a group of international hotel staff in the alpine resort of Courchevel, France (made famous by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov) scheming to drive a presumably obnoxious Russian guest out of their hotel, first by turning up the heat in his room, then by losing poor man's luggage and otherwise making him miserable. The hotel staff is surprised the next day to find this "ugly Russian" dead, stabbed to death by a single thrust of an assassin's blade, and to discover that the Russian victim is an opposition newspaper journalist named Alexander Lubin.
When Boris Ostrovsky, another Russian journalist from the Moskovsky Gazeta (presumably based on the real life opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta) is assassinated inside the Vatican, Gabriel Allon is dispatched by the Mossad to Moscow. Allon must make contact with Olga Sukhova, a surviving member of the newspaper's staff, while maintaining his cover as a visiting cultural minister at an Israeli embassy reception. Olga informs him that the Moskovsky Gazeta had a source who claimed that Ivan Kharkov, an ex-KGB officer turned oligarch with powerful friends in the Kremlin, is planning a major arms deal with an African militia connected to Al-Qaeda . Allon must find the source and protect her before it's too late. But before Allon can make contact with the source, Ivan Kharkov's wife Elena, he kills two Chechen gunmen who were waiting in ambush at Olga Sukhova's apartment in Moscow. This leads to Allon getting arrested by the militsiya, who transfer him to FSB headquarters at Lubyanka. In FSB custody, Allon is exposed as a Mossad agent and nearly beaten to death by mysterious man named Sergey. Gabriel is eventually released from Lubyanka. With considerable help from the CIA, MI6, and French intelligence services, Gabriel returns to Moscow to help Elena defect with the evidence of her husband's sale of advanced shoulder-fired surface to air missiles to Al-Qaeda.
Westerners who have actually lived or worked in Russia will find Silva's version of it rather cartoonish, like looking at a whole country in a funhouse mirror. Silva's fictional Moscow has secret police and Russian Unity Party (a play on United Russia) banners on every corner. KGB thugs are still making Stalin proud by torturing prisoners deep in the bowels of Lubyanka. Worst of all, for the few Russians who will read this book, they will find lots of their countrymen depicted as drunks, drug addicts, informers, or gangsters. Several middle aged and older Russian women, like Elena, are depicted as saints put upon or abandoned by their arrogant or worthless men. But their younger countrywomen are mostly portrayed as street prostitutes or higher class model versions of the same doing whatever it takes to snag an oligarch sugardaddy.
There were moments while reading character monologues in Moscow Rules when it was hard not to burst out laughing. But the sad fact is, thousands of Americans will read Silva's book while shuffling through airports or at home, and will think that he has captured the true dark heart of modern Russia. While Silva is a smart guy and a very talented writer, that simply isn't the case. There are plenty of immensely wealthy individuals in Russia who profited from personal connections to build their fortunes who were not ex-KGB men or part of that particular apparatus, but hailed from the former state-owned enterprises and basically took them over following privatization. In those cases, the ex-KGB men happened to be the only "roof" (kyrshe) the budding oligarchs could trust to protect them from rapacious government officials and ruthless business rivals in the 1990s.
It is in capturing snapshots of the Russian oligarch lifestyle abroad that Silva's book reads most true to life, with mistresses and local French Riviera gossip following his villain Ivan Kharkov wherever he goes. Everyone who reads the European and British tabloids, of course, knows about Roman Abramovich, the richest man in Russia, and his penchant for affectionately biting his much younger girlfriend Dasha Zhukova's rear end while swimming off his yacht near St. Tropez. Some of the source material Silva cites for the novel, however, such as Edward Lucas' The New Cold War, fails to acknowledge the tremendous economic and social progress that has been made in Russia since the Yeltsin era. The book also suffers from several sloppy anachronisms. For example, when Silva has one of his character declare that the Russians used Kalashnikovs to defeat the Germans in World War II. In fact, the famous AK-47 was designed near the end of WWII and manufactured after the war.
Anyone who has followed Russian current events closely the last few years knows that the number of killings targeting journalists and businessmen has sharply declined since the 1990s -- even though one heinous crime is far too many. The State still by no means has a monopoly on violence, and Russia remains a country struggling to impose the rule of law, with even President Medvedev lamenting the "bites" businessmen suffer from corrupt bureaucrats and the fact that government offices are often bought and sold for personal profit. The decline of the Russian stock market after Prime Minister Putin publicly accused steelmaker Mechel of tax evasion was followed a few days later by President Medvedev declaring that, "Our law-enforcement bodies must stop terrorizing business", in what many analysts have described as a subtle rebuke to his old boss. While many have dismissed Mr. Medvedev as merely a puppet of Mr. Putin, few people expected Putin to stick or do much of anything when he was appointed as PM and then President by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Perhaps Medvedev, like President George W. Bush, has been misunderestimated.
Putin and Medvedev's jobs remain unenviable - inflation remains stubbornly high in Russia, in part thanks to a depreciating U.S. dollar, while foreign investment since 2008 has slowed considerably from the record levels reached in 2007. All "New Cold War" hype from the recent conflict in Georgia aside, Russia's largely conscript military remains backward, and Putin and Medvedev's reforms have only reduced the rate of Russian demographic decline, but have not yet managed to reverse it.
Contrary to Silva's characterization, Russia is not a country whose leaders wake up every day fantasizing about how to avenge losing the Cold War by causing trouble for the West in the Caucases and elsewhere. Unfortunately, in recent months there has been some ridiculous tit for tat over America's proposed missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, with several Russian officials irresponsibily threatening to return long range nuclear-capable bombers to Cuba in retaliation for the American installations.
Ironically, this return to Cold War gamesmanship comes at a time when Russian investments in the U.S. were recently at an all time high, led by the Russian Central Bank's holdings of $50 billion in U.S. government-backed short term paper, with more Russian acquisitions of U.S. steel mills, port facilities, and refineries likely in the works. If Russians, Chinese and Arabs are indeed conspiring together to bring down America, then investing billions in the U.S. and sustaining the American national debt seems an odd way to do so. As it is, these countries often publicly condemn American foreign policy, especially in Iraq, while providing the financial wherewithal to sustain it.
As for Russia's current flirtation with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, some of it is driven by a desire to poke the U.S. in the eye for sending troops into Russia's traditional sphere of influence in Georgia, and some of it to show Washington what it's like to be cut out of huge oil deals in your own back yard. In the Nineties, the U.S. and NATO countries strongly supported the BTC pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey through Georgia to exploit former Soviet oil fields while bypassing Russia. If Russian and Chinese investors eventually get together to build a pipeline from Venezuela to Brazil, the U.S. will have a similar queasy feeling of being cut out from major deals in its own traditional sphere of influence.
Silva knows what many Americans think of when they picture today's Russia - mafia, KGB, and beautiful but desperate women -- and he largely gives that picture for his readers. Moscow Rules is a no more accurate portrayal of Russia's Federal Security Service than The Bourne Supremacy is of America's Central Intelligence Agency. In that movie, loosely based on the Robert Ludlum spy novel of the same name, the CIA could call on an army of trained assassins ready to kill at the drop of a hat, even in the heart of London in broad daylight. Even so, Moscow Rules remains an interesting page turner, with Russian heroes as well as Russian villains, and anyone who understands that it is a work of fiction can take it in as escapist reading.