Source: Review copy
Publication: 28 October 2021 from Pushkin Press
1930s Leningrad. Stalin is tightening his grip on the Soviet Union, and a mood of fear cloaks the city. Detective Vasily Zaitsev is tasked with investigating a series of bizarre and seemingly motiveless homicides.
As the curious deaths continue, precious Old Master paintings start to disappear from the Hermitage collection. Could the crimes be connected?
When Zaitsev sets about his investigations, he meets with obstruction at every turn. Soon even he comes under suspicion from the Soviet secret police.
The resolute detective must battle an increasingly dangerous political situation in his dogged quest to find the murderer―and stay alive.
The title of Yulia Yakovleva’s book takes its name from a Dutch paining by Paulus Potter and at the beginning of each chapter the reader will find a drawing that pertains to that painting. It takes most of the book to realise why these drawings and that painting are relevant to the story of a series of bizarrely laid out murders which have the police mystified.
Our protagonist is Investigator Vasily Zaitsev and it is ostensibly his job to get to the bottom of these murders. I say ostensibly because this is Stalin’s Russia. Punishment of a Hunter is set in 1930’s Leningrad in the midst of Stalin’s oppression of the people and in particular of the class of richer rural peasants, the Kulaks, whom Stalin saw as resisters of change.
The murders in this book take place against a backdrop of political repression, arrests, deportations, and the executions of millions of kulaks who were deemed class enemies and in opposition to the Soviet 5 year plan.
Reading Punishment of a Hunter, which is riddled with informers, and in which no-one can trust anyone else, I was tempted to think of it as a biting satire of the times. But the truth is that those times were. I believe, pretty much as Yakovleva presents them; full of corruption, false confessions, hunger and extreme poverty.
It’s a bleak picture and Yakovleva paints it well. Investigator Zaitsev is that rare creature, a man in search of the truth. When he finds it, it comes as a very bitter pill which is hard to swallow and its relationship to justice is hard to configure, because there is none.
Yakovleva has taken the true story of a Government cover up involving the Hermitage and old masters and crafted around it a chilling political story of murder, conspiracy, corruption and political manoeuvring to hide the truth from the Soviet people. It is a fascinating tale that involves the naissance of the American National Gallery of Art and one of the world’s great art collectors, the founder of the Iraq Petroleum Company, philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian.
Punishment of a Hunter is a dark and divisive story in which no-one can be trusted and gifts should be considered at best bribes and at worst betrayals. Yakovleva casts a well-honed eye over the corrupt and morally bankrupt state and shows us just how easy it is to become one of the ‘disappeared’. This is a time when you need to constantly check you are not being followed – and if you’re not, there’s every chance that’s because they’re waiting at your room to arrest you.
Vasily Zaitsev’s problem is that he won’t settle for whatever rubbish the Secret Police are peddling; he actually wants the truth. Sadly, however he is pretty much the only one who does – apart that is, from the murderer.
Together with his team, not all of whom he can trust and most of whom certainly do not trust him, he has to doggedly piece the evidence together before coming to the startling and unpleasant truth.
Verdict: A dark and bitter murder mystery in which the biting cold and dark repressive practices of 1930’s Russia shine through with a vengeance. It’s not always the easiest of reads, but Yakovleva and this translation by Ruth Ahmedzai has produced a startlingly clear portrait of the era laced with bite and a grim, satirical humour.
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Yulia Yakovleva is a writer, theatre and ballet critic, and playwright. She was inspired to write Punishment of a Hunter by her love of St Petersburg, where she grew up, and by the extraordinary true story of how the Soviet government sold most of the greatest, most famous old paintings from the former Tsar’s collection. The novel subsequently became a bestseller in Russia.