This one came to me unsolicited from Mr. Fleming who thought I might be interested given that I’ve reviewed other alternate histories.
I agreed to review it given its original premise and, frankly, I was rather hoping the fanatical Baron Ungern-Sternberg would show up. (He doesn’t)
Review: Maid of Baikal, Preston Fleming, 2017.
That original subtitle in my review copy, “A Speculative Historical Novel of the Russian Civil War”, hints that alternate history fans should not expect any distinct Jonbars, turning points, or “sharp agate points” (to borrow Winston Churchill’s phrase when he dabbled in alternate history) where our history diverges from Fleming’s story.
Instead, Fleming has done something else that may or may not be too much for an alternate history buff to swallow. He has given us a sincere tale of miracles and prophecies and clairvoyance. He’s given us a Russian Joan of Arc.
I’m not spoiling anything by saying that. Fleming is open about it in the description of his book, and he is true to his conceit by presenting a close analogy to the Maid of Orleans in his story. The visions of Zhanna Stepanovich Dorokhina are real, and she achieves real victories that match her prophecies.
This spiritual element didn’t bother me nor the absence of a traditional alternate history turning point. There is, of course, no known example of any such figure in the Russian Civil War.
If you insist on strict materialism in your alternate history, this isn’t going to work for you. I accepted Zhanna’s improbability the way I accept Joan of Arc’s improbability – a documented improbability.
But Fleming makes it work on those terms. He sells it on an emotional level, and he sells it on the level of craft and realism.
Zhanna, one of two main viewpoint characters, is compelling through the whole novel. Fleming makes you feel that you are in the presence of a charismatic, extremely unusual, but fully developed character.
His other viewpoint character is Captain Ned du Pont, a member of the American Expeditionary Force, the instrument of that mostly forgotten injection of American and British troops intot he chaos of the Russian Civil War in the waning days of the Great War. Its purpose was to keep Allied supplies to Russia out of the hands of the Bolsheviks.
When du Pont arrives in Russian in 1918, the Russians have been out of the war for about 10 months and a complex struggle between many factions is being fought on the battlefield, through assassinations and espionage and diplomatic and financial intrigues.
Du Pont, an extended member of the famous Du Pont munitions family in America, is ostensibly there to set up the Russian Railway Service Corps’ telegraph service, a joint American-Russian venture to operate the Russian railway system starting in March 1918, telegraph service. In reality, he’s an American intelligence agent setting up wireless networks to help the White Russians against the Bolsheviks – and intercept the White Russian messages for America.
What he finds in Russia, Fleming works out with great skills. I don’t know if the “government service” overseas Fleming’s bio mentions was diplomatic or intelligence work or both, but the meetings between the various players here have the air of realism. There are the White Russians full of various degrees of monarchists and reactionaries and autocrats. There are the Social Revolutionaries now allied against the Bolsheviks but not trusted by the Whites. There are radical priests fighting the Reds and priests on the Cheka payroll. There is corruption and nepotism which diverts Allied supplies to the Whites and keeps incompetent officers employed on the staff of head White Russian Admiral Kolchak.
Many of these characters are historical figures. In the manner of Harry Turtledove, Fleming has a dramatis personae at the book’s front which separates his creations from history’s. He even provides photos of several of the latter.
Fleming diverts from Turtledove’s worms’ eye view of war in a satisfying way. Fleming gives us the eagle eye view, second hand reports, and sometimes we see combat up close, particularly when the Maid is on the scene.
He makes the strategies depicted realistic and throws in three useful maps. My knowledge of the actual Russian Civil War is pretty sketchy, so I don’t know exactly at what point things diverge from our history besides the appearance of the Maid. However, Fleming throws in a dream for one character and, in one of his occasional footnotes, shows that bleak vision to be what happened in our world.
Besides the drama of battle, plenty of this story takes place outside of combat, and one of its touching aspects is du Pont taking up with a local Russian woman, Yulia, who has fallen on hard times, fearful that not only her land but her life will be taken by the Bolsheviks. Their relationship was poignant. So is the complexity of du Pont’s relationship with the Maid of Baikal.
Despite the broad arc of Zhanna’s life being known ahead of time – and Fleming uses some particular details of the Joan of Arc story for his analog, her story is still surprising and moving.
Fleming manages to achieve that state every alternate history writer should strive for. In the moment of the book, the reader accepts this as real history. When the book is closed, we have to remind ourselves this is what might have been, a vivid dream of a time that never was.
As Fleming notes at the beginning, this is a hopeful story of a Russia taking a middle course during the twentieth century, one that avoided the tyranny of the Czar and the blood and poverty of Vladimir Lenin and his heir, Joe the Georgian.
There is one unusual feature in this book worth noting. Fleming provides a musical selection, taken from Russian symphonic works written from about the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, for each chapter. Some didn’t really seem to evoke the linked chapter but many did, and I was glad to hear some pleasant pieces I hadn’t been exposed to before.
If you can get past the unusual premise, I recommend this one not only as an alternate history but a moving story of people doing their best – and worst – in a complicated and trying time.
Spoilers and Additional Thoughts
While Fleming provides a pleasing picture of Russian reforms being done by a government headed by Admiral Kolchak, a Russia getting richer, and a pleasing finale to the story of Ned and his relationships with Corinne, an ex-fiance back in the state — and Yulia, things are not good in 1934, the date of the last chapter.
Zhelezin aka Reilly “Ace of Spies” is becoming something of an autocrat since he now is Russia’s Prime Minister. He is something of a villain in this novel.
Fleming postulates a traditional liberal cure for what ailed Russia – democracy with universal suffrage, freedom of speech, international investment, and low tariffs. Those things really haven’t kept things on the rails in America, but it’s easy to think they are the cure for what ails everyone.
However, I suspect, contra to a certain past American president, not everyone in the world wants to be “free” in a sense everyone agrees to. It seems there are actually few universal desires in that regard: freedom from invasion, no rule by foreigners, and the desire to live without physical want. Everything else is in flux, subject to the whims of inherited predispositions and culture.
I suspect that the Russian idea of freedom was never America’s idea of freedom, and there is no great Russian desire to make them congruent.
As to the problems of Czarist Russia, perhaps, as blogger Anatoly Karlin suggests, the Russian Empire was too nice for its own good.