January 10, 2012

Interview with Author William Ryan

Interview with Author William Ryan

William Ryan’s second book featuring MVD Detective Alexei Korolev, The Darkening Field, was released on January 3, 2012. Russian Life Publisher Paul E. Richardson interviewed Ryan about the genesis for his character and the challenges of situating a novel in Soviet Russia.

Russian Life:What drew you to this time period? Why did you choose Soviet Russia in 1937 as the setting for your books? I hardly seems a time when crimes were being investigated in anything like a thorough way, guided by facts and real clues...

William Ryan:About twenty years ago, I read Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry, which I loved. I've always been a bit of a Russophile and a great admirer of its literature and cinema and Babel's short stories, with their very visual imagery and vivid descriptions of the enthusiasm of the first years of the Soviet Union and the tragedies of the Russian Civil war, fascinated me. When I read them, in the late eighties, there wasn't much accurate information available about Babel, or indeed the early years of the Soviet Union – which was in itself interesting. At that stage it wasn't quite clear when he'd died, although it was clear that he'd been arrested in 1939 and had disappeared into the NKVD's prison system. I began to scour memoirs of other writers for mentions of him, out of curiosity that such a great writer should have written so little, relatively, over the twenty odd years he was active before his arrest. In Ilya Ehrenberg's memoirs I came across a description of a trip Babel and Pasternak had made to a international writer's convention in Paris in 1936 and discovered that, in addition to a wife and daughter in Moscow, Babel had another, longer-standing, wife and daughter in Paris – with whom he was still on intimate terms – and a mother and sister in Brussels. He was very well-regarded in France, it had been at the French writer's insistence that he and Pasternak had been added to the Soviet delegation, and I wondered whether there couldn't be an interesting screenplay based on his decision to leave Paris and return to his eventual execution in Moscow. 

William Ryan

Anyway, to that end, I began to research Stalin's purges in the late thirties and when work took me to Moscow in the nineties, I took the opportunity to explore some of the places Babel would have been familiar with. The more I found out about Moscow and the strange dual life that most Muscovites and, indeed, Soviet citizens in general were required to live – with their public and private beliefs often being quite different – the more curious I became. Clearly there were many evil people who helped to create the repression of the Stalinist period, but there were probably many more who acted out of fear or misguided belief in the original ideals of the Revolution. And while we can now look back with twenty-twenty vision, at the time Soviet citizens were subject to the most pervasive propaganda – in which truth was very difficult to identify. I began to wonder how an honest detective, whose job involves seeking for truth and justice, would be able to function in such a world, and Korolev began to take shape. 

Moscow detectives were pretty sophisticated at the time – probably a little behind their Western counterparts, but not too far. Fingerprinting and forensic detection techniques were well-known in Russia before the Revolution and were embraced by Militia investigators. The MVD Museum in Moscow has some very interesting artifacts from the period, including a forensic investigators satchel – with all you might expect. The investigators based at 38 Petrovka Street were famous throughout the Soviet Union, so I thought it would be good to have my man based there. By the very nature of his environment, he's a complex character – he suffered greatly during the First World War and the Civil War and has done his best to forget the traumatic experiences, although they keep bubbling to the surface – and in addition he finds his slightly naive hopes for the ultimate success of the revolution to be completely at odds with his personal belief in God. One thing I've found fascination about the new Russia is how the Orthodox Church, after so many years of repression, has been able to return so quickly and so strongly. In short, I don't think people like Korolev were in short supply.  

Russian Life: I definitely agree that people like Korolev were not in short supply. Can you elaborate a bit more on the genesis of your protagonist, MVD Captain Alexei Korelev? Why an Orthodox believer in Stalin's Russia? A good man amid so much bad?

William Ryan: I think Korolev's religious belief is a very instinctive one, the kind that comes from being brought up in pre-Revolutionary Russia when the Orthodox faith would have been something that permeated every aspect of life. I'm not sure he'd have been very religious as such, but surviving the First World War and the Civil War seem to have persuaded him that having God on your side in a tight spot is no bad thing. 

As for his morality – again, I think he knows the difference between right and wrong and believes that evil should be punished and that's probably what drives him as a detective. Of course, the dilemma for him is that being moral in 1930s Russia is not necessarily sensible for a man who values his safety and that of his friends and family, so he has to be pragmatic more often than he might like.

The interesting thing about him of course is that he also believes, or wants to believe, in the ultimate aims of the Revolution. I think a lot of Russians even today would say that life in the Soviet Union had elements that they miss and Korolev, living in the thirties, has high hopes for the future. I found it interesting, reading diaries and memoirs from the time, that it wasn't unusual for people to have personal and public beliefs that were completely opposed – but which they seemed to be able to reconcile in some strange way, probably as a survival mechanism. 

It took a while to put his character together but the more research I did into the period the more I wanted to try and show the psychological pressures and damage that the savage wars, famines and repression that had ravaged Russia in the years after 1914 inflicted on individual Russians and how they managed to cope. And the fact that Korolev has managed to retain his optimism and morality through all of this is what makes him, I hope, an attractive character.

Russian Life: Yes, I do think Korolev is an attractive character, and it is interesting to learn of his genesis. When I was reading the novel, I actually marked a paragraph (page 108) that I felt really kind of encapsulated his worldview:

"…wherever you were in the world, he suspected, you'd find your hands were a little dirty at the end of the day's work. Saints lived only in books so far as he knew, and Korolev lived in the real world, where the road ahead, if there was one, was likely as not pot-holed and spattered with excrement. But you still have to walk it and if he'd learned one thing in the last twenty years, it was to carry on putting one foot in front of the other, and to keep his head down. Which direction he walked in was for the bosses to decide -- his duty was just to do as he was told, and to trust that the Party would bring them to a brighter future…"

I guess I'm cynical about this period in Russian history, because as Korolev was plodding through this case (“walking the road ahead”), trying not to come out on the wrong side of things, I kept finding myself thinking: "would they really have wasted their time with doing an investigation 'right' in 1937? Wouldn't they just have hauled in all the likely subjects, slapped people around, and sent most of them packing to Siberia?" Shoot and ask questions later, so to speak... 

William Ryan: Moscow CID, or MUR to use its Russian acronym, had a good reputation for solving serious crimes throughout the Soviet period, and the professional criminals – who made the political prisoners lives so much worse than they might have been otherwise in the GULAG – were arrested by detectives and policemen doing their jobs properly. Investigations into serial killers like the Mosgas Murderer and organized criminals like the Black Cat gangs seem to have been carried out well, and when Ezhov took charge of the NKVD and Militia, one of the reasons he was initially popular was a crack down on professional criminals in Moscow. 

Of course, a certain amount of cynicism about Soviet propaganda is no bad thing, but at the same time the Soviet Union did achieve some quite extraordinary things – often at great human cost, but often also through voluntary sacrifice and enthusiasm. But you're certainly correct to say that the Soviet Union could take short cuts when it came to individuals and problems if it suited them. But of course that's also one of the motivations for Korolev to make sure the job is done properly.

Russian Life:In the novel you are clear to show there are, shall we say, tensions between militia and NKVD. What sorts of sources did you use to get at what it was like to be an MUR detective during that period? Are there some good memoirs of detectives?

William Ryan:At the end of the day I write fiction rather than history so while I try and give my novels a sound historical base, I often end up constructing a reality that's consistent with the information I have and that works for the novel rather than being entirely accurate. That having been said, I used a number of different sources when I was researching the Militia including photographs (I've put a few up on my website), memoirs, Militia museums and non-fiction. I took all of that and tried to make something that modern readers would recognize and which isn't, hopefully, too weighed down by the research.

Generally speaking, a careful examination of a photograph can often be the best source - you see what clothing people wore, where they worked, what the furniture was like and so on - information memoirs take for granted and so don't mention. Also there are some great Russian movies and television dramas dealing with detectives from the thirties and forties and because a lot of the audience would have been familiar with the reality these have to be at least partially accurate.

As for tensions between the Militia and the NKVD, I think there were tensions between the whole of Soviet society and the NKVD - as you might expect. There are a number of very interesting NKVD memoirs incidentally, far more so than Militia detectives I'm afraid.  Pavel Sudoplatov's Special Tasks is a pretty amazing read in particular.

Russian Life:Yes, Sudoplatov is superb. And Amy Knight has some great writings on the KGB past and present. 

Your note about the photograph actually leads to one final question I had. I found the opening scene of this book, with Korolev making a foray into a hostile workers' dormitory, very interesting. I was wondering at the time where you drew the detail for this, and thought at the time that perhaps you were inspired by just one such photograph. 

William Ryan:The original description of the worker's hostel comes from Andrew Smith's I was a Soviet Worker which was published in 1937. Smith was a naturalised American but originally from Hungary I think and he and his wife spent three years in Russia in the mid-1930s. He was one of the sensible ones who didn't renounce his citizenship - many of those who did ended up in the GULAG. I took his description of a hostel and put Korolev into it but I may have borrowed from some other descriptions as well. I think David Hoffman's Peasant Metropolis: Social Identities in Moscow, 1929-1941 probably had some influence on it as well. I'm sure there are a few photographs behind the chapter, but I couldn't point to a particular one. As I said before, I tend to do the research and then do my best to translate it into something which works for the novel.

Russian Life: Thanks. And thanks for taking the time for this interview. Can I ask if additional Korolev novels are in the pipeline?

William Ryan: I'm working on the third one at the moment. It's set in Moscow and Korolev will be investigating a murder connected with some Soviet psychiatric experiments. So far, I think it's coming along nicely. It's a bit like painting a picture though - I have the outline done and I'm filling it in but I may end up changing it completely. In other words, it's a work in progress.

Additional Reading:


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