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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Why Russia is Still a Good Source for Thriller Writers

This is a guest post by George Eccles.

The end of the Cold War seemed to throw many thriller writers into a state of panic. For forty years they found a perfect setting for stories of espionage and treachery, not to mention world domination, nuclear holocausts and even the end of the world. Suddenly, with glasnost and perestroika, the Soviet Union disintegrated and Russia ceased to be 'the enemy'. Thriller writers searched around for an alternative background for their plots: some ventured into the world of drug wars and cartels; others explored the possibilities of the Middle East; others delved into terrorism on their own doorstep. Only a few ventured back into Russia.

A key problem was that, while Russia remained closed to the West, it was easy enough to base a novel there because no one was in any position to judge the validity of the scene settings or the operations of the KGB (as it was in those days) or even the way of life. With the opening up of the country, suddenly there were pictures all over the internet, thousands flocked to Russia as tourists or to work, newspapers and dissidents started carrying stories about 'real Russia'. All this made Russia far more treacherous ground for writers unless they really knew what they were talking about.

However, for those well versed in Russia, the region remained a great background for a thriller. Let me outline why:

Back in 2000, Putin assumed the Presidency and has never gone away. An ex-FSB (formerly KGB) officer, he has proved to be a mercurial and confrontational figure – intolerant of his critics, regularly at odds with the West, often economic with the truth, and intent on recovering elements of Russia’ former empire. From the time he assumed power, he has waged a running battle with the oligarchs, whom he views as having got their hands on chunks of Russia's natural resources 'for a song'. Where the opportunity has presented itself, he has appropriated their enterprises back into State control – often with, in the Godfather’s immortal words, an offer the oligarch couldn't refuse, other times simple sequestration dressed up as a penalty for so-called criminal activity. (This was the basis of my first thriller, The Oligarch.) For the most part the oligarchs have managed to hang on to their massive wealth, a situation Putin has reluctantly accepted in return for their total loyalty. Nevertheless, no oligarch can feel really safe: an ill-judged remark could at any time lead to trumped up tax charges and the loss of their assets. Is it any wonder that so many of them have transferred the wealth and abode overseas?

It is not just their own 'businessmen' the Russian hierarchy views with suspicion. Despite public pronouncements, they resent large Western businesses whom they tend to regard as creaming off the country's wealth. Once they’ve creamed off the benefits of the Western expertise they need, the Russians regularly turn against their Western partners, often with (at least implied) Presidential backing. There are numerous examples of this in the oil sector: just look at the battles Shell had over its interests in Sakhalin a few years ago, or BP's well-publicized and ongoing battle at TNK-BP. But it is not just in the oil sector. When I was in Moscow, the Western founders and operators of its first large chain of supermarkets were forced to 'do a runner' back to their home country one Friday night after they had been warned off. 

The KGB might have gone, but the FSB remains. What is the difference? To be honest, not much. Many former KGB employees have gone into 'private security' which is far more lucrative but requires much the same skills. They have been replaced by a younger group of thugs, some more computer literate than before, others just the same old hard men. Their activities have not changed: in the interests of State security, they bug the offices of suspected dissidents, drag people off in the night to be questioned, place spies in the West (remember the glamorous Anna Chapman episode?), and arrest (and assassinate) outspoken journalists. 

Geographically, too, Russia lends itself to thrillers. The country is about 10,000 kilometers wide and spans nine time zones. Much of the business wealth is on the Western side of the country, but most of its natural resources lie in Siberia. A large proportion of the towns in Siberia started life as gulags, and many of those who live there now are descended from former prisoners - and often share their ancestor's criminal tendencies. Siberia itself is a vast area. The cities are in many cases cut off from each other: if you are lucky there might be a rail link, mostly you have to fly in or out. The extremes of weather conditions make transport, communications, and visibility often difficult and sometimes impossible. In Soviet times, many Siberian towns (for example, those manufacturing weapons) were 'secret towns': these did not appear on any map and required special KGB-issued passes for a visit. Perhaps there are still secret towns to inspire the thriller writer - who knows?

As if all the above were not sufficiently fertile ground for thriller writers, the events of the past two years have brought Russia firmly back into the forefront of the public’s consciousness. During this relatively short period, Russia has occupied Crimea and stimulated civil war in Eastern Ukraine; Russian-backed separatists shot down a Dutch airline; the West imposed sanctions; Russia threatened to choke Europe’s gas supply in retaliation; the oil price collapsed, plunging the company into a recession; global security plunged with the rise of ISIS; and Russia intervened to support Assad in Syria. Any one of these could be the source of a thriller – taken together, they’re manna from heaven.




George Eccles, writing as G W Eccles, graduated from the London School of Economics with a law degree and subsequently became a partner in one of the major international financial advisory firms. In 1994, George left London to move to Russia and Central Asia during the tumultuous period that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. His work involved extensive travel throughout Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - often to places with restricted access to foreigners. During his time there, he advised a number of real-life oligarchs how best to take advantage of the opportunities that became available as regulation crumbled and government became increasingly corrupt. Against this background, while his novels are fiction, many of the anecdotes and scenes are inspired by actual events. His first thriller: The Oligarch, was awarded a Silver Medal both at the Global E-book Awards 2013 and at the Independent Publishers Book Awards 2013, as well as being selected as IPPY Book of the Day. George is married and now lives with his wife in a hilltop village not far from Cannes in the South of France.