Review: The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
The secret speech of this novel’s title refers to the address delivered by Nikita Khrushchev behind closed doors at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956. On the surface that sounds a pretty boring affair but the speech was unexpectedly dramatic and had widespread consequences.
Setting things in motion
Khrushchev, who was First Secretary (i.e. head) of the Soviet Communist Party at the time, spoke about the excesses of Stalin’s one-man rule, attacking his predecessor’s intolerance, brutality and abuse of power.
The spectacle of Khrushchev exposing the wrongful executions of the Great Purge of the 1930s and the excesses of Soviet police repression, after years of silence, had far-reaching effects. The resulting “thaw” in the Soviet Union saw the release of millions of political prisoners and the “rehabilitation” of many thousands more who had perished.
When news of the speech reached Hungary, it acted as a spur to those pressing for reform and became one of the background factors leading to the Uprising in October 1956.
This is the historical setting for Tom Rob Smith’s second thriller, which follows his highly acclaimed Child 44, both in sequence of publishing and chronologically in content. “History has given me a natural sequel,” he says on his publisher’s website.
It’s true. The period of the “thaw” in Eastern Europe was, like the secret speech, truly dramatic and significant, differing sharply from the long era of Stalin’s rule, but it is often overlooked or ignored, swamped in the widespread but mistaken belief that the years 1945 to 1989 constituted one long, undifferentiated period of repression and darkness.
This novel may well open the eyes of many readers to the importance of the secret speech, particularly as the book is not a dry, academic text but a racy, very readable thriller peopled by both supporters and opponents of Khrushchev’s reforms, as well as former victims of the Stalinist era.
The action takes us from the sewers of Moscow to the desolate prison camps in the far east of Siberia. The main figures include a former high-ranking state security agent trying to atone for his past by raising the orphaned children of one of his former victims, and an ex-prisoner of the Gulag, a woman married to a rebellious orthodox priest now turned into the bitter and uncompromising leader of an all-male, underworld criminal gang.
Characters need development
These unusual – to say the least – characters are complemented by a plot overladen with violent improbabilities and unexplained chance happenings. It perhaps could work well as an action-packed movie, where visual impact, shocking images and uninterrupted tension are deemed half-way satisfactory, but for a novel – and a long one at that – there’s a lot missing in terms of characterisation and authenticity.
Far from the truth
Intriguingly, the 1956 Hungarian Uprising features prominently. Here again, however, unsatisfactory improbability has the upper hand over factually-based imagination. The idea is that the Hungarian events were planned, initiated, controlled and manipulated by senior Soviet military officials fearful about Khrushchev’s reforms, their implied cut-backs in military spending and the threat of a “revenge culture” on the part of the millions of prisoners released from the Gulag.
Adding to this fantasy is that the hands-on leader of the Hungarian insurrection is made out to be our Soviet dissident, radicalised female gang leader, who is used by the military “old guard” to stir up a revolt in Hungary, which could then be crushed and a subsequent case made for maintaining the strength of Soviet forces. She – again improbably – accepts the assignment, believing she can make the Uprising successful and thus inflict a blow on Soviet power.
Mysteries to uncover
Returning to reality, it cannot be denied that the spontaneous nature of the 1956 Uprising is somewhat disturbing for anyone looking for an answer to the question “Who started it?” or “Who organised it?”.
In addition, there are a number of mysteries about 1956 that have given rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories. How did all the weapons on the street appear so quickly on the very first evening of the Uprising? Who was responsible for the fatal shooting of demonstrators in front of Parliament on 25 October? Were the Soviet forces in Hungary really on the alert, standing by expecting trouble days before the events began? Why did the Soviet tanks leave Budapest by 29 October, indicating a withdrawal from the whole country, only to return a few days later to crush the Uprising?
Such issues raise legitimate questions demanding answers. However, the response offered in Tom Rob Smith’s book, in particular its manner of presentation and its plot outline, should not be taken very seriously.