Allen and Unwin, 2010
There is a reason why I never skip the author's notes section in a book, and reading through them today just after having finished the story, I came to discover that this novel is a fictional re-imagining of a real event that took place in Australia during the Cold War years of the 1950s. I'd previously never heard of what ultimately became known as "the Petrov Affair," the defection of two Soviets working at the Soviet embassy in Canberra that ultimately revealed clandestine Soviet activity in different areas of Australia's government. Vladimir (Volodya) Petrov and his wife Evdokia held diplomatic posts at the embassy, but in reality they were also spies working for the MVD, the USSR's Ministry of Internal Affairs. Further exploration led to an incredible photo which mirrors the action occurring as the novel opens, that of Evdokia being escorted through a crowd at Sydney's then Mascot Airport by a couple of big, brawny minders whose job is to get her on a flight that will eventually take her back to Moscow after her husband defected.
The reason why Evdokia looks so panicked is not just that she's headed back to Moscow to face an uncertain future where who knows what will happen to her or her family, but in those pre- 9/11 days, the tarmac is actually surrounded by a mob of angry people who are trying to block her access to the airplane, trying to keep her off of it and free in Sydney, a scene also realistically depicted in the novel.
The story begins three years earlier introducing the Petrovs, moving through their daily work routines and their home life in Canberra. Coming to Australia from a post in Sweden, Evdokia is secretly a captain in MVD intelligence decrypting coded messsages but openly works for the ambassador, while ironically, the job of Vladimir (also a spy) is to prevent defections. But within the embassy it's all about power, political intrigue, and paranoia; the Petrovs often find themselves on the receiving end of trouble, with trumped-up charges that find their way back to Moscow in the ambassador's reports; no small worry for Evdokia who still has family back in the Soviet Union. They are also sure they are being watched constantly outside of the embassy, but they're not sure who is and is not an agent spying on them. Then the ambassador receives word of Stalin's death and Beria's arrest -- and when Evdokia and Vladimir are told that they are being replaced and will be returning home shortly thereafter, Vladimir, who has been secretly courted as ripe for defection, decides the time is right to make his move but tells Evdokia nothing.
Not only is the story behind the Petrov defections intriguing and compelling on its own, the author's re-imagining of their personal lives is also credible. There is not a great deal of emotion shared by this couple; often they come across as rather flat together but all the same their inner lives are in turmoil. Evdokia cannot stop thinking of her dead daughter; Vladimir drinks, visits prostitutes and is faced with the life-changing experience of giving away his country's secrets. Add in the author's excellent depiction of the political atmosphere of the time, as well as the workings of the fledgling Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), and Document Z jumps miles above the usual spy fare. In fact, after I finished the book and went on to read what I could about "The Petrov Affair," I was taken aback at the realistic tone of the author's rendition of this story. I couldn't put it down while reading it and most definitely recommend it.
fiction from Australia