Black Sun

Owen Matthews

Bantam Press, £16.99

Review by Trevor Royle

ONE of the best kept secrets of the Cold War was the Soviet Union’s creation of 10 closed cities in densely forested areas deep within the country’s huge land mass.

These ghost municipalities were not marked on maps and existed only as post-box numbers which made them virtually anonymous. Most were situated beyond the Urals or in western Siberia and the principal of these was Arzamas-16 (present day Sarov), some 250 miles from Moscow where the first atomic and hydrogen bombs were developed, notably the massive RDS-220 (nick-named the “Tsar Bomba” in the west), detonated in October 1961. It is the most powerful and terrifying thermonuclear device ever tested.

Now that the Cold War belongs to history, the story has been retold in fictional terms by the experienced journalist Owen Matthews, and a rattlingly good yarn it is too. An old Soviet hand immersed in contemporary Russia as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Moscow, Matthews knows the territory and has the uncanny ability to transport the reader back in time to the Soviet Union of 1961.

Briefly told, the plot centres on the sudden and unexplained death of Dr Fyodor Petrov, a brilliant young scientist at Arzamas who allegedly killed himself by ingesting two grams of thallium (enough to kill 8,000 people), and the subsequent investigation by Major Alexander Vasin, a cynical cop turned KGB officer sent from Moscow.

At each stage in the inquiry Vasin finds he is being stalled both by the paranoid nuclear engineering team and by his security force colleagues. A particular bugbear is the principal scientist Yuri Adamov, based loosely on the real-life Andrei Sakharov, a leading Soviet nuclear physicist and dissident whose warnings about the unnecessary speed of development of weapons of mass destruction led to the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which banned the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and was a breakthrough of sorts at the time.

Knowing the novel is based solidly on real events gives it an authenticity which might otherwise have been lacking, but the fictionalisation is a well-calculated risk by Matthews. Vasin is a finely drawn character who evokes mixed feelings, being both a consummate professional and a weak and fallible human being. Throughout the narrative he is tortured by those shortcomings – he drinks heavily and is engaged in an unwise sexual relationship with his boss’s wife in Moscow – yet clings vainly to the hope that “things will be done properly one day”.

He is also surrounded by a gallery of plausible characters ranging from Kuznetsov, his bullish KGB minder in Arzamas, through the enigmatic aeronautical engineer Pavel Korin to Masha Adamova, the nuclear scientist’s gamine wife.

But the most important personality in the book is the secret city itself. Arzamas is not just an anachronism, a claustrophobic place where crime is non-existent and the shops are well stocked with luxury goods. In Matthews’s capable hands it is thrillingly imagined as a sentient, if implausible, entity which repels as much as it attracts.

Arzamas was not exactly a tourist attraction during the Cold War, so the author has some license in his evocation but to make the place stand up as a living conurbation requires a deep knowledge of the Russian temperament, even its very soul, and Matthews has this in spades.

Irritation only creeps in with the lengthy, though no doubt necessary, descriptions of the processes involved in detonating a nuclear weapon as Vasin attempts to understand the reasons for Petrov’s death. As a result, the narrative struggles in places to maintain its pace and urgency but these are minor blemishes in a debut novel which deserves a wide readership. (Thankfully a trilogy featuring Alexander Vasin has already been planned.)

By ironic coincidence, the Soviet authorities tried long and hard to find a home-grown novelist to counter the outpourings of Ian Fleming and John le Carre. Almost 30 years after the Cold War came to an end, they found such a writer in Owen Matthews who plies his trade between Moscow and Oxfordshire.