Constant Nobody, by Michelle Butler Hallett

Why this book: Recommended by my friend Chris in my literature reading group. Chris is a retired intel professional and said he found this novel powerful and recommended it for something different. So we agreed and selected it for our July discussion.  

Summary in 3 Sentences:  The book begins in the Basque region of Spain during the Spanish Civil War, with a male Russian undercover agent feeling an attraction to a female British undercover agent  – each representing their home country’s efforts to report on and influence the outcome of the civil war.  These two serendipitously run into each other again, but this time in Moscow in 1937 during Stalin’s purges, where our Russian is a mid-level executive with the NKVD carrying out the ugly work of the purges,  and our Brit is undercover as a language teacher trying to get insights for Britain about what is happening in Moscow. Through a series of painful episodes, they become involved with each other, their relationship and their lives are extremely strained and constrained and we get insight into the horrors of Stalin’s purges through their experiences and efforts to survive and protect each other. 

My Impressions:  A powerful book about a horrific time in Russia’s history. It was dark, and is not pleasant to read about and confront the horrors of Gestapo-like brutality and power in the hands of men who have become dulled to the pain and suffering of others.  But indeed it is a fascinating look at this very unpleasant side of humanity, and what it does to those carrying out murder on behalf of state.   

Kostya Nikto (“Nikto” is Russian for “nobody”) our male protagonist was an orphan on the streets of Odessa and owes his life to an older and senior member of Stalin’s NKVD, and therefore feels abiding loyalty to the state and his surrogate father.  As a human being, this loyalty erodes as he sees how thin the veneer of justice is on the horrors he is compelled to  commit and support on behalf of the state.    He struggles to come to terms with the legal executions he is compelled to commit as part of his “duty” – alcohol and drugs help dull his senses, and these are the refuges of many in his line of work.  In his world, he has to accept the willingness of his comrades to accuse and report on each other to gain personal advantage and promotion.  He is further confused by the feeling of love and sacrifice that he feels for the British woman Temerity – who goes by several different names in the book.

Temerity West (or Nadia, or Margaret, depending on the context) is a gifted, intelligent, ambitious agent for British intelligence MI6, and after her encounter with Kostya in Spain, volunteers for a tough assignment in Soviet Russia, and soon finds herself in over her head in the Moscow in 1937.  She is undercover as a language teacher, part of a group of COMINTERN volunteers who believed Soviet propaganda about the worker’s paradise that Stalin had created, and are living in a Moscow dormitory teaching different languages to the youth of Russia.   She, like the others, were constantly under surveillance and suspicion of being spies, or reactionaries, and were subject to the same arbitrary arrests, interrogations, and executions as Soviet citizens.   When she is picked up on the street as an attractive young woman out walking alone, and kidnapped to be part of a “dessert party” for senior NKVD officials, her situation become dire, and at the party, her erstwhile companion Kostya coincidentally at the party recognizes her, and at great risk to himself, is able to spirit her away. 

The remainder of the book is about their fraught relationship, their co-dependence in an environment where if either is compromised, they both die. 

Though it is very well written, it is not easy to look at the brutality that surrounds and threatens them in Moscow during Stalin’s purges.  That said, the ethical issues were palpable, and the discussion our reading group had of this book was among the more interesting we’ve had in a long time.   In this book,  we see what can happen when a regime or any government attains total power without checks and balances, and the whims and favors of the powerful (men in this case) cannot be challenged. 

Some of the interesting aspects of this book:

  • Beauty and ugliness. The incongruity of the horrors of random arrests and executions of citizens, and experimenting on human prisoners for medical purposes (very Nazi-Germany-like) contrasted with the beautiful music of Tschaikowski, Prokofiev and others played on the radio.
  • Personal power. When Kostya was issued his revolver, he felt a new sense of power and strength.   “A starving bezpriznorik (stray dog) held the life of a wealthy herring merchant. Was it so easy to obtain and exercise power, to solve problems, take revenge soothe humiliation and pain?  It felt better than a hit of vodka.” (p205)
  • Reality and Fantasy Throughout the book the two protagonists evoked and exchanged references to the images and characters from Russian children’s folk tales.
  • Special Cleaning Crews were always on hand to clean up the blood and carnage in the offices and other public and governmental spaces after a murder or a suicide.
  • Duty and Compulsion –  The concepts of “duty and compulsion”  were regularly discussed as two forces that drove the actions of the key players.  In fact the two concepts were conflated – one was seen compelled to do one’s duty. Temerity  argued for the concept of freedom and free will; Kostya responded that there is no such thing –  people are driven by externals -a combination of duty and compulsion, though there may be “theoretical choices.” “Where is the duty in choice?… True obedience hurts less in the end.” (p 279)
  • Intersections of power. Kostya’s surrogate father warned him to “find the intersections of power and adapt.” (p206)  A very Machiavellian perspective – even the lowly clerks have some power that intersects with the power of the senior bureaucrats.  The wise and nimble bureaucratic operator cultivates those intersections to his own advantage. 
  • Bureaucracy in the extreme. No one was trusted. Permission was necessary to take even the smallest step, and two or three person integrity and permission was required to take nearly every step, to approve nearly every decision.  There was always someone who could snitch on you to their own advantage.
  • Change and the shifting nature of power.  Kostya’s surrogate father repeatedly reminds him that “The steppe gives up in patches to forest, and forest gives up in patches to tundra, yet in places where you see no change, all the differences blend. Power works like that.”  
  • It’s not murder if it’s following the law.
  • Neither love nor duty drove her.  Purpose had fled. (p431)

In the midst of evil perpetrated by regular people, acting out of fear and duty as tools of a powerful state, we also saw acts of love and courage. In our group, we discussed the interesting ways in which we saw “love” manifested in this novel – differently than what one traditionally sees in literature, but there none the less.  It was interesting and reassuring to  see manifestations of love in the midst of the “banality of evil.”  The love story between Kostya and Temerity is also not a traditional love story – two damaged and yet courageous souls struggling to find a connection that has meaning and is deeper than the expedient and transactional relationships that had become the currency in a culture of fear and obligation.  

I and the others in our group had some issues with the style of the publishing.  Quotation marks were abandoned for the use of he dash (-), the new chapters and titles deserved  greater prominence, and we all found a number of typos and editing issues.  Goose Lane who published this interesting novel did not do it well.  That said, though it was not a pleasant read, I’ll agree with my friend Chris – it does certainly evoke an emotional response and poses thought provoking questions about how much evil would one do and be  accountable, under the authority of the state, and under the threat of torture and execution?  

Really glad I read it. Won’t soon forget it.  But I’ll be selective to whom I recommend it.  

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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