Cover image of "Wolves Eat Dogs," a book about Chernobyl

Over the years, I made two trips to the Soviet Union. The first time was in 1965, in the course of a four-month knockabout through the USSR, Eastern and Central Europe, and Scandinavia before my Peace Corps service started. (That was the trip during which I was threatened by submachinegun-toting East German Vopos, or Volkspolizei, near Hitler’s bunker and briefly held under gunpoint in a Romanian secret prison.) My second, less harrowing trip, came in 1989 as a member of a delegation organized by one of my nonprofit clients to meet with the Soviet foreign policy leadership.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

During the first trip I glimpsed a country still slowly recovering from the unimaginable devastation of World War II, and still bitter about the experience. Everything seemed gray: the cities, the skies, the clothing, the people. On my second visit I viewed a nation in its death throes, just months before its final collapse. The Chernobyl disaster had occurred just three years earlier. (Suffice it to say, I did not visit Chernobyl.) There wasn’t much visible difference from one trip to the other despite the passage of a quarter century. Everything was still gray.

Wolves Eat Dogs (Arkady Renko #5) by Martin Cruz Smith (2004) 351 pages ★★★★☆

Now I have Martin Cruz Smith to guide me through the successors to the USSR, both Russia and Ukraine, another quarter-century later in this book about Chernobyl. Through his eyes, I observe an environment vastly changed in so many ways, yet essentially the same in others. The Russian character endures: stolid yet endlessly romantic, pessimistic, and prone to alcoholism. Still gray, by and large. The corruption of officialdom is expressed in different ways but is fundamentally unchanged. The skylines of the big cities bristle with gleaming high-rise towers, offering a glamorous and colorful lifestyle to the few who can afford it, while the overwhelming majority of the people still languish in poverty. All that is changed is the veneer of the New Russia, dedicated to the proposition that everyone is entitled to get rich and escape the stigma of the past.

A book about Chernobyl disguised as a suspenseful detective novel

In Wolves Eat Dogs, it is 2004. The intrepid investigator, Arkady Renko, and his alcoholic detective-partner, Victor, are called to the scene of what everyone, from Renko’s boss to the friends and business associates of the dead man, calls a suicide. Though Renko has questions — he always has questions — the matter is considered closed. The man who jumped from a 10th-floor window onto a Moscow sidewalk was one of Russia’s richest and most powerful men. Nonetheless, Renko pursues an investigation — despite orders not to do so. He embarks upon a lengthy and painful journey that takes him to the radioactive hulks of Chernobyl and into the depths of depravity in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In the course of his investigation, Renko learns what really happened at the huge nuclear power station that experienced the worst meltdown in history, even more terrible than the Fukushima disaster a quarter-century later. Wolves Eat Dogs is worth reading for that bit of imaginative speculation alone.

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