I had a strange reaction to Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland. I felt as if the author had researched the time and place without actually grasping anything about it. The novel is placed in post-revolutionary USSR with flashbacks to pre-revolutionary Russia. Tsar Nicholas II and Stalin are both characters in the book, in their different time periods, but you do not get any feeling that the author understands what kind of people they were or anything about the politics involved. Given my fascination with Russia, this novel would seem to be a great fit for me, but I have nothing but objections to it.
Pekkala, a Finnish soldier, is a prisoner in a labor camp in Siberia at the beginning of the novel. He was Nicholas II’s private investigator before the revolution, when he became known as The Emerald Eye. He remained completely faithful to the Romanovs, so when the family was captured by the Bolsheviks, he was exiled to Siberia. But at the beginning of the novel, he is released because Stalin wants him to find out exactly what happened the night the Tsar and his family were executed. Of course, this question has remained a mystery to the western world until recently, but I did not buy at all that Stalin and his predecessors would not have already known perfectly well what happened to the Romanovs.
My first objection is about how Stalin is characterized. The book takes place partly in 1929, when Stalin is only a few years away from his reign of terror. Yet he is depicted as quiet and thoughtful, not exactly true to the historical consensus. As a kind of extension of that thought, even though the book is about a time and place when everything is politicized, the novel provides no political context for the reader.
Another problem I have is with the narrative style. As Pekkala conducts his investigation, he remembers his past, in order. When I compare Eastland’s technique with that used in The Darkest Room, where characters have fleeting thoughts or disjointed memories that eventually add up to something, this novel seems incomparably clumsy in execution.
Finally (somewhat of a spoiler), I found it completely unbelievable, given the loyalty of the main character to the Romanovs, that he would willingly agree to work for Stalin at the end of the book. I forgive myself for revealing this turn of events, as it is easy to see it coming. Readers are told at the beginning of the book that Stalin is known as the Red Tsar. Obviously, since Pekkala was the Emerald Eye under the Nicholas, he will become the Eye of the Red Tsar under Stalin.