A suspenseful expedition into the sad, complicated world of 1970s Soviet writers, who apparently spent more time
concealing their work to avoid KGB arrest than banging away at typewriters, borrows authenticity and weight from the author’s
own seven-year imprisonment for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" (the 1988 memoir Grey is the Color of Hope).
A well-known Soviet author dies, leaving behind a completed anti-Soviet manuscript. Ordered to recover the missing
samizdat—subversive literature—KGB agent Viktor Stepnych trawls through the lives of Muscovite writers who might be hiding
it. His undercover search settles on two main suspects: the reclusive, cat-loving widower Anton Nikolin, children’s author and
colleague of the deceased; and young Dima Koretsky, a poet under suspicion ever since a friend’s ambiguous warning to "be
careful" was recorded by KGB bugs. Stepnych finds the missing samizdat early in the story, but not before he stumbles on
further subversive writings: Nikolin’s lifework, a full-length novel, whose authorship could cost him his life. Stepnych now
completely changes direction, mobilizing a network of reluctant informers to trap Nikolin, who is eventually snared and forced
to choose between "psychiatric treatment" and going to work for the KGB. This somewhat disorienting about-face in the
narrative is compensated for by often charming characterizations of Stepnych’s reluctant informers: a writer, for example, who’s
been in the KGB’s grasp since signing an anti-Soviet petition, or a veteran still singing war songs with his WWII comrades.
Ratushinskaya’s sympathetic depiction of her characters’ struggles between right and wrong, and between self-respect and familysafety, makes her story a compelling and ultimately hopeful study of people’s actions under extraordinarily difficult
circumstances. Charm carries Ratushinskaya’s debut fiction over its structural hurdles, allowing a look into the challenges and paradoxes
of creative life behind the former Iron Curtain.