Leo Demidov is a hard man. In the Soviet Union in 1950 — the Stalin era — he is a well-regarded member of Moscow’s secret police. He knows how to interrogate, how to torture and how to kill. And he knows to trust no one. By 1965, he’s a former agent because the love of his life, his wife, Raisa, helped him realize that the secret police did more to hurt citizens in the Soviet Union than help them.
So he becomes a nondescript factory manager, and he and Raisa, who is a teacher, rear two daughters who don’t understand him and don’t try all that hard to. They live in a small, crowded apartment in a large, crowded apartment building.
Leo’s wife and daughters are invited to the United States as part of a cultural exchange, but Leo, tainted for having quit the secret police, isn’t welcome. The exchange goes well — Soviet and American students perform at the United Nations — but his younger daughter, Elena, gets manipulated in a plot that leads to the killing of an aging and once-famous black singer who had been discredited in America because he preferred Soviet communism to America’s.capitalism.
The singer isn’t the only victim. His wife also is killed in a chaotic scene at a New York police station. More important to Leo, Raisa also dies of a gunshot wound in the police station. Was the activist’s death a random killing, an American plot or a Soviet plot? The story the world was told was that Leo’s wife, a jilted lover of the singer, shot him.
He knew that was a lie.
When his daughters return home and tell him what happened, he goes initially into grief and shock and then commits himself to finding her killer.
Eight years later he is caught trying to cross the Finnish border to get to America.
He is spared execution, and seven years after that he is in Kabul, serving as a liaison between the Soviet occupiers and the Afghans, who resent the Soviet incursion.
Leo is fluent in the local tongue and abundantly resourceful. The Soviet authorities, in posting him to Kabul, expected him to die there, and given the environment and opium habit he acquired to dull his pain, that seemed likely.
Instead, he helps a young Afghan woman he is grooming as a spy escape death as a traitor by her people. Captured with her by Afghans fighting the Soviets, Leo is cut off from drugs and is very painfully cleansed. Truly alert for the first time in years, he promises to help his captors get arms if they will turn him, the woman and a child they rescued over to the CIA in Pakistan. He knows enough about Soviet operations in Afghanistan to be useful to the CIA.
The Soviets are encouraged to believe that Leo and his trainee were tortured and killed by their captors.
Years after his wife was killed, he finds himself standing out side the United Nations building at the very spot the aging singer-activist was killed.
Leo’s search takes him to the ghetto where the activist lived, and Leo makes a breakthrough at a neighborhood diner where the singer’s memory was still revered and where people rejected the press accounts of his death.
As Leo follows leads, the trainee and the young child try to persuade him to leave the past behind and build a new life with them.
Tempting as that notion is, he can’t end his pursuit. As he closes in on the man he knows only as Agent 6, he finds out that the Soviets have learned he is alive. And to get to him, they are making life increasingly uncomfortable for his daughters, whose only offense was to be the daughters of a traitor. In “Agent 6,” Tom Rob Smith has written a powerful story. His characters, particularly Leo Demidov, are well drawn and multidimensional.
His depictions of daily life in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War were mesmerizing.
His narrative of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in some respects calls to mind our nation’s experience there
Smith has written two other novels, “Child 44”and “The Secret Speech,” both of which became international bestsellers. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and lives in London.
Walt Braun is editorial page editor of the Mercury.