Nikita Khrushchev’s so called “Secret Speech” is the central spark to the events of Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech. For those who have not read Smith’s previous novel, CHILD 44, pick it and read it first, because this novel is a continuation of certain characters from that story. Smith’s debut novel CHILD 44, garnered both critical and commercial acclaim. Secret Speech is set in the period of the “Khrushchev thaw” in the Soviet Union, when, in his eponymous secret speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s dictatorship, the police state, and the Stalinist policy of arbitrary detention and sometimes liquidation of political dissenters.
During this period millions of political prisoners were released, and the liberalization policy did not meet with the approval of hardline conservatives. It was opposed particularly by some factions in the KGB, the secret police, and led to power struggles, with some trying to promote and some trying to hinder liberalization. It is around this that the plot of the novel is built, and particularly the fear of some KGB members that the newly-released political prisoners might seek vengeance on those who denounced and arrested them.
The book is all about wrongdoing, and how the sins of past, either recent or remote come back to haunt the sinner. As Demidov, is demonstrated in CHILD 44, a bad man who by the end of the book had sought to take a brighter path to redemption for the sins. The book opens with a flashback to one of the Demidov’s most evil actions, the arrest- and so much more- — of a priest that takes place in Moscow in 1949.
The story follows Leo as he works on the only homicide department in Moscow. He lives with his wife, Raisa, and their two adopted daughters, Zoya and Elena. Raisa works at one of the state schools, where all teachers are given the speech to read to their classes. Once this speech goes public, it paints a giant target on anyone associated with that old regime, with Leo dead in the sights of one certain female gang leader who was the wife of one of his false arrests. She wants her pound of flesh from Leo and will go about it anyway she seems fit, including kidnapping one of his daughters, with the payoff of making Leo head to the Gulags to bring her husband home.
Smith writes as if he is channeling the ghost of a street level Soviet official. In turn, one cannot be blamed if they reached the conclusion that Smith transcribes the fierce whisperings of any angry babushka who bore forced silent witness in the Stalin – era mayhems that were perpetuated against the soviet citizenry in the 1950s. Smith really paints the picture of sheer brutality of the prisoner camps, more so than some of the true accounts that have been published. But he could have easily ended the story to a certain point but no he has much more to tell, leading to the uprisings in Budapest.
Tom Rob Smith weaves this story so well, keeping all the balls in the air with even larger cast than before, and coming up with characters that are better defined. No matter how horrific and brutal some of their actions are, you feel for them.