Cover image of "Rostnikov's Vacation," a crime novel about a government conspiracy in the USSR

Soon after Mikhail Gorbachev rose to supreme power in the old Soviet Union in 1985, he forced two new words onto the world’s consciousness. Glasnost, meaning more open consultative government and wider dissemination of information, usually dumbed down to “openness.” And perestroika, the policy of restructuring or reforming the economic and political system. Two years later, Gorbachev announced the new policy of demokratizatsiya, or democratization. And on March 26, 1989, nearly ninety percent of the adult population of the USSR turned out to vote in the first competitive elections since the Bolsheviks lost the last one in 1917. To hard-liners, it all looked like a government conspiracy. To the world at large, it appeared that the country was on the cusp of a brilliant new era.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Exploring the role of the KGB in the Russian state

In spite of all the promising new policies, however, expectations for a better life fell victim to the sour fatalism ingrained in the Russian people by seventy years of Communist rule—and for good reason. Because the Soviet system was coming apart at the seams. Nothing seemed to work anymore. And the same old apparatchiks who had skimmed the cream off the “socialist” system were jockeying to continue in power despite the trappings of democracy.

That’s the setting for Rostnikov’s Vacation, the seventh novel in Stuart Kaminsky’s sixteen-book series of historical mysteries centered around Moscow police Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov. Like the others, which span two decades of Soviet history, the novel explores the pivotal role of the KGB and its successors in the Russian state—and the lengths to which an honest policeman needed to go to do his job.

Rostnikov’s Vacation (Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov #7 of 16) by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1991) 244 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev two years before the events in this novel about a Soviet government conspiracy
General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, met face to face with President Ronald Reagan on several occasions in the 1980s, establishing a warm personal relationship. Gorbachev’s willingness to negotiate so freely with the “main enemy” opened him up to attack by hard-line Communist forces. That’s the conflict that unfolds in the background in Rostnikov’s Vacation. Image: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum via YouTube

Rostnikov and his able team

Like most of the six preceding novels in the series, Kaminsky follows three criminal investigations undertaken simultaneously by Inspector Rostnikov and his team in Rostnikov’s Vacation. The inspector had been demoted from his prestigious position in the Procurator’s office for tangling with the KGB. Two of his closest subordinates followed him to the new posting. Now, they’re on the staff of the vainglorious Colonel Snitkonoy, “the Gray Wolfhound.” Officially, they’re to investigate only the most minor of crimes. But Rostnikov has other ideas, and his colleagues Emil Karpo and Sasha Tkach are eager to follow his lead.

Emil Karpo, the Vampire

Veteran detective Emil Karpo is on the trail of a homicidal lunatic who has thrown a young woman to her death from a window. The killer is in plain sight at the window but escapes with the help of an accomplice. And one of those who sees him is Rostnikov’s most able colleague. Karpo is known as “the Tartar” or “the Vampire” for his gaunt, menacing looks. “He had lived his adult life with dedication to the Revolution, had lived only to cleanse the state, bring about the world ideal for which Lenin died and which Karpo believed.” As an investigator, he is relentless. And he spends most of his evenings pursuing new leads on some of the hundreds of cold cases he has been involved in over the years.

Sasha Tkach

Emil Karpo’s young colleague, Sasha Tkach, pursues a gang of thieves who are stealing computers. Evidence has mounted that they have targeted only Jewish homes. So Sasha has gone undercover as a young Jewish man named Yon Mandelstem, who was en route to a new home in Israel. Together with a colleague, a dim-witted detective, he has moved into Mandelstam’s apartment in hopes of luring the thieves there. He is in agony because he has been ordered to stay out of contact for several days with the pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter he adores. He has never been apart from them overnight since the little girl was born.

Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov

Rostnikov, now in his early sixties, limps from a wound he suffered in the Great Patriotic War. He is a weightlifting champion and is called “the Washtub” for his broad, heavily muscled body. Rostnikov has been ordered to take a vacation in the Crimea. His wife, who is Jewish, had recently undergone surgery to remove a brain tumor and is recuperating at a sanatorium in Yalta. But once there he stumbles into a murder mystery. A policeman named Georgi Vasilievich has been murdered, and it soon becomes clear that he was secretly investigating a Moscow-based conspiracy that threatened the Gorbachev government. Rostnikov’s investigation soon takes him back to Moscow and the intrigue swirling around the Kremlin.

Only much later will we learn what is actually going on in the conspiracy Vasilievich had uncovered. And it turns out that Inspector Rostnikov’s nemesis, a KGB colonel named Nikolai Zhenya, is deeply involved. Eventually, this will bring the two men face to face.

About the author

Stuart Kaminsky is the author of this novel about a Soviet government conspiracy
Stuart Kaminsky with the Grand Master Award he received from the Mystery Writers of America in 2006. Image: Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The late Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934-2009) wrote more than sixty crime novels. He is best known for his long-running series of books featuring Toby Peters, a down-at-the-heels private eye in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. The sixteen novels of the Porfiry Rostnikov series are less well known but interest me more for their historical content. Kaminsky served as President of the Mystery Writers of America and received its highest honor as a Grand Master three years before his death. He was educated at the University of Illinois, which granted him a BA and Master’s degrees, and the University of Illinois, where he earned a doctorate in film studies.

This is one of a superb series of Police procedurals spanning modern Russian history.

I’ve also reviewed the six previous novels in the Porfiry Rostnikov series. You can start anywhere in the chronology, but I recommend reading them in order. Start with the first, Death of a Dissident (A grim murder mystery set in the USSR). And I’ve reviewed the eighth, Death of a Russian Priest at A puzzling Russian murder mystery set in Yeltsin’s time.

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