This week sees the publication of Untraceable, the fifth novel by Russian author Sergei Lebedev, but the first to be published in the UK. Lebedev has been described by the New York Review of Books as ‘the best of Russia’s younger generation of writers’ and having read an advance copy of his new book, it is easy to see why.

Untraceable tells the story of Professor Kalitin, the Russian inventor of ‘neophyte’, an untraceable neurotoxin. Having defected to the west, Moscow then sends two killers to murder him with the same toxin he created. It’s a story with obvious echoes of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, which took place in Salisbury three years ago this week. When I caught up with Lebedev on Zoom from Berlin, he said the novel was ‘triggered’ by the poisoning, ‘but in a very specific way, by the broader historical background of the Skripal case.’

Novichok, the chemical agent used to poison Skripal, was developed at a place called Shikhany, which Lebedev describes as the Russian equivalent of Porton Down. Porton Down was originally set up during the First World War in response to the German development of chemical weapons. After the war, due to the restrictions of the Versailles treaty, those same German scientists moved to Russia and helped set up Shikhany. Over the next decade, there unfolded a curious marriage of experimentation between the two nations. And while German involvement ended with the rise of Hitler, they left behind what Lebedev describes as ‘the cradle of all further chemical warfare of the Soviet Union.’

With the Skripal attack happening so close to Porton Down, Lebedev explained how ‘I saw these baffling and amazing circles of history.’ What interested him, and where the strength of his novel derives, was less about the specific attack and more about the deeper moral questions of science, knowledge and power that lie beneath: ‘Novichok I saw as a distinctive footprint for Putin’s Russia, the mark of modern evil.’ Lebedev argued the attack was toxic, not just for those who came into contact with the toxin, but toxic more widely in its effect on Russian society: ‘it disrupts the very idea of evil and injustice’ when a state can behave with such impunity.

While Russia has one of the richest histories of literature in the world, the lack of fiction on modern Russia feels striking. ‘An enigma’ Lebedev suggests, wondering whether ‘the very idea of social responsibility was somehow compromised by the Soviet heritage … twenty-five years since the beginning of the Chechen war,’ he notes, ‘and more or less nothing.’

Lebedev at least is keeping the flame alive: Untraceable is a richly realised, quietly powerful, thought-provoking read.


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