– Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow
In interviews, Jason Matthews has indicated that he believes that the current Russian state is much different than the former Soviet Union, but one would never know that by reading his debut novel Red Sparrow (Scribner, 2013). The Russia that he portrays under the icy “blond scorpion,” Vladimir Putin, who is a minor character in the novel, is repressive and cruel, a throwback to the Soviet Union. The Cold War may be officially over, but that is not the position of the Russian head of state. Putin is determined to retool the Russian Empire in order to reestablish the glory and prestige that the Soviet Union once exercised and he is willing to resort to any means from placing moles inside the American government to authorizing “wet actions” (murder) in order to achieve that goal. Any expression of dissent or disloyalty is mercilessly punished. The real life murder in a Moscow elevator of the investigative journalist Anna Polikovskaya, and the poisoning in London of a former KBG officer, Alexander Litvinenko, by polonium-20, incidents that are mentioned twice over the course of the novel, are merely the tip of the iceberg of the ruthlessness that characterizes contemporary Russia. While reading the novel, I noticed press reports that only seem to confirm the notion that the rule of law operates only at the pleasure of Putin and that the past is much alive in the present. Any serious rival to Putin is arrested, subjected to a show trial and convicted so that he cannot run for public office. In the novel, the brutal interrogation techniques in the Lubyanka prison are reminiscent of conditions that existed in the past. Even the novel’s central conceit, that young women are sent to courtesan schools to learn the art of seduction espionage and become “sparrows” for the purpose of sexual entrapment, is a relic of the Soviet era since the author has stated in interviews that he has no knowledge of the current Russian state operating them, although he concedes that independent contractors may be performing that service in the Putin era.