cover image A Russian Requiem

A Russian Requiem

Roland Merullo. Little Brown and Company, $22.95 (356pp) ISBN 978-0-316-56789-3

Against the backdrop of the failed August 1991 putsch that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and to the ascendency of Boris Yeltsin's Russian Republic, Merullo skillfully explores the lives of ordinary people caught in a dramatic transference of power. Two weeks before the attempted coup, middle-aged American diplomat Anton Czesich flies to the provincial city of Yostok to coordinate a Western hunger relief program. Jaded and cynical about politics, Czesich remains a hopeless romantic when it comes to personal honor; he ignores embassy directives to put the project on hold because of the unstable political situation and hooks up with his Russian counterpart in the relief effort, Sergei Propenko, who is unaware of the change in the U.S. position. The narrative segues between the men's troubled personal lives and political reality; they are tested by a riot over food distribution and an attack by Communist hardliners on Propenko's reform-minded daughter. While the novel never quite captures the excitement and turbulence of the stormy days that ended Soviet power (or the delightful quirkiness of Merullo's first book, Leaving Losapas ), it is smoothly written and multifaceted, solidly depicting the isolation and poverty of a city far removed from Moscow and insightfully exploring the psyches of individuals caught in the conflicts between their ideals and their careers. ( Sept. )