Canberra, 1951. The Cold War is at its height. Into an atmosphere of paranoia, rumour and suspicion, Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov are among a group of new arrivals at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. Both are party loyalists, working for the MVD, Moscow intelligence. Yet all is not well in the new city of Canberra. The atmosphere in the Embassy is tense and suspicious; the Ambassador resents their presence, and is secretly working to have Vladimir disgraced and recalled. In the meantime, ASIO is determined to discover who in this new group works for the MVD. ...
As the blurb says, Canberra, 1951, the Cold War at its height. In Australia it all became very high profile with the defection of a Soviet spy and the drama around the Soviet's attempt to repatriate his wife to the USSR immediately. Whilst it's a true story, the "Petrov Affair" probably isn't that well known outside Australia - but it was quite an event here. DOCUMENT Z takes the true story as its basis, and fictionalises the viewpoint of the husband and wife - Evdokia and Vladimir Petrov.
The voices of these two are compelling, albeit very contained, almost dry - which seems perfectly apt given who they are and the timeframe in which the book is set. As the story is told it moves between day to day life within the Embassy (she worked for the Ambassador / he is an agent for Moscow Intelligence - MVD) and at home in the Canberra suburbs. The background to what life could have really been like for a Soviet couple transplanted to extremely English, very territorial, closed up 1950's Canberra is cleverly drawn out. Coming via Sweden wouldn't have helped as there is not only the differences between Soviet / Swedish sensibility and Australian society at that time - there's also the massive changes in climate and the dislocation that the extreme heat of Australia can cause - let alone in before air-conditioning, early development, tree-less Canberra within the cliques of the Embassy crowd.
The book carefully builds a picture of an Embassy riven by political intrigue and power-games, through to a society driven by much the same imperative and the precariousness of the situation of the two central characters who basically, were on the wrong side of an Ambassador. It takes you through the complications of trying to build a life, a home, a family in an environment where you can be moved / recalled at any stage. It shows the pressure that could be placed on people when they have family and loved-ones at home, and the regime is not afraid to use fear and pressure to ensure compliance. And it shows the paranoia and real intimidation that plays out in the game of spying.
When reading this book, the timeframe in which the action takes place, and the political climate and origins of the central characters need to be kept in the forefront of your mind. The delivery style seems very dry and almost flat in an Australian context, but somehow apt in a Soviet, Cold War environment where every word and action can be analysed, nuanced and used against you. The other thing that you really do need to keep reminding yourself of is that this is a fictional account. It's a measure of how well the book tells this story, that makes it really easy to forget that.
This book is was a winner in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards of 2010 and the Vogel Literary Award - so I was interested to read this. Also the premise is interesting - the story of the Petrov defection - from their points of view.