BOOKS YOU’LL LOVE: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The Assassins features three Russian killers: Alex Orlov, Sergei Lapin, and Nikolai Markov. The books notes a “remarkable sameness” in these men because I attempted to pattern them after Russians I met in different capacities during my travels in the Soviet Union. I saw pudgy-cheeked men, fattened from eating too much pastry and a consumption of vodka and cognac that to this day remains legendary. Often, one sees eyebrows that remind an observer of Leonid Brezhnev. Plum cheeks squeezing the eyes are in every public setting.
Why so similar and predicable?
Because that’s the way Russian society looks. Too much lard and grease in the diet.
As I traveled from Moscow to Minsk and on to St. Petersburg, I found the travel guides tried to impress me on how affluent their society really was. However, once you strolled down the main street of any city and then turned down a side street, you immediately realized that there weren’t any curbing on the streets. A visit to Kum’s Department store near the Kremlin revealed not a plush mall, but stalls boxed together like a flea market. During the Stalinist era, all resources went into armaments and the rest of the society dangled on the end of a thin thread. The Russian heritage had been to create illusions that were nothing more than cardboard and plywood store fronts with nothing behind them.
I wanted these assassins to fit the scenery that exists behind the illusions. Some years ago Gorbachev was briefly deposed by men in the Kremlin who appeared on television wearing the same gray suits, sitting together discussing why Gorbachev had to go. I think that particular coupe last three days, but during that time we got to see plenty of the “grayness” of official Soviet bureaucracy. My three assassins reflect the same bland, meaninglessness of the Soviet system.
Someone might protest that these three killers seem flat, colorness, and animalistic. Correct. Americans have become adjusted to exciting villians in the movies. We get everything from the Joker to Hannibal Lecter. We’ve come to expect exciting and challenging “bad guys.”
Even Vito Corleone and his sons became the anti-heros who were better than the other criminals so we ended up cheering for the Corlione family. Are genuine real-life criminals like this?
For some time I worked as a counselor in a 3,000 prisoner institution. At the end of the day, I’d generally went home depressed. The vast majority of the prisioners were not very bright and many were borderline normal. Their crimes were stupid and their behavior often ridiculous. Once they were released, many quickly returned for crimes ranging from shop lifting to holding up a small grocery store with a toy pistol. Coming from broken and deprived homes, their behavior tended to be predictable, meaningless, and often frighteningly destructive.
I wanted the assassins in my story to reflect the real world. Killers of this sort are definitely sociopathic and probably on the psychopathic side. That means they don’t feel the pain they inflict on others. Murderers are self-preoccupied and indifferent to the chaos they impose on other.
Only Masha Khaykina in the story was different. In her struggle to survive, she remained in touch with human values.
I hope my explanation makes the character a tad more real for you.