- - Wednesday, January 6, 2021

In Robert Littell’s novel “Comrade Koba,” a young boy named Leon, who along with other parentless children, is hiding in the labyrinth of secret rooms of a large house where many Soviet officials, like his late father, lived and worked.

While exploring the large building the boy encounters an elderly man who calls himself Koba. The man and the child begin a dialogue about Soviet life and history over a series of visits to the man’s apartment.                 

I reached out to Robert Littell and asked him what inspired him to write “Comrade Koba.”

“I have long been fascinated by Iosif Stalin, surely one of the most brutal — and most riveting — figures of the twentieth century,” Robert Littell replied. “I’ve already nibbled at the edges of this story in my novel ‘The Stalin Epigram,’ in which the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam imagines two meetings with the Soviet dictator. What I was getting at in ‘Comrade Koba,’ which is half fable, half black comedy, was a portrait of the unrelenting evil of the man, and an exploration of what might have happened to the innocence that even dictators begin life with.

“I decided early on that the best way to portray Stalin was to see him through the innocent eyes of a precocious ten-and-a-half-year-old boy who didn’t recognize the old man he was having confabulations with, as the 74-year-old Stalin didn’t look anything like his retouched photographs on posters or in newspapers. Stalin, for his part, is intrigued by his conversations with the naive kid. The boy tells him, when they first meet, that as he doesn’t know who he is, he’s not afraid of him. Stalin replies: ‘I don’t often get to talk to people who aren’t afraid of me.’ On that note the novel is launched.”

Mr. Littell said that the resentments, prejudices and fears that Stalin harbors, along with his paranoia and visceral anti-Semitism, are historically accurate, but the actual story of the young boy stumbling on an old man who invites him up to his well-guarded apartment is invented.

“Leon is a precocious, clever and courageous kid and the soul of innocence, which provides the motor for the novel as his innocence stands in stark contrast to the evil of the old man he converses with,” Mr. Littell said. “The boy’s father was a nuclear physicist who died in a radiation accident. His mother is one of the Kremlin doctors who were arrested, in the months before Stalin died in 1953, as part of his campaign against Russian Jews. With the arrest of his mother, Leon winds up hiding in one of the secret rooms in the House on the Embankment — surviving along with other children in the same boat, waiting, hoping against hope that his mother, whose arrest he witnessed, will be released from prison. 

“Stalin was surely evil incarnate — scholars still argue over who was more evil and who murdered more people: Stalin or Hitler. Starting with collectivization of agriculture in 1929, when many millions of peasants were forced into collective farms and other millions were starved to death in a Stalin-organized famine, Stalin’s rule resulted in unmeasurable suffering in the Soviet Union.”

Mr. Littell noted that in the 1930s Stalin purged the Communist Party, including his old comrades who made the Bolshevik Revolution, of potential enemies before they had a chance to become Stalin’s actual enemies. He said that millions were herded into Siberian Gulag camps or simply shot out of hand. He was well on his way to organizing the destruction of Russia’s four million Jews when he died in 1953. 

Although I disagree somewhat with Mr. Littell’s worldview, I’ve enjoyed reading his espionage novels over the years, such as “The Company,” a novel that covers the history of the CIA, and “Young Philby,” a novel that explores the background and motivation of Harold “Kim” Philby, the notorious British intelligence officer and traitor who spied for the Soviet Union and defected to Moscow in 1963.

“I was never so much interested in espionage as I was fascinated by the Cold War, which I covered as a journalist when I worked for Newsweek Magazine in the 1960s,” Mr. Littell explained “I have long been convinced that when historians get around to looking over their shoulders in a hundred years, they will be scandalized by the fifty or so years when the two superpowers wasted vast resources and their collective energies and talents in this competition that goes by the name of Cold War. What drew me to the subject was the Cold War itself and not CIA-vs-KGB espionage.”

“Comrade Koba” is a well-written and insightful look at the private life of one of the world’s most evil men.

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.

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