Cairo 1973: A Soviet diplomat is drinking Armenian cognac in his jerry-built flat in a Cairo suburb. His name is Zlotnik, and I’ve invented him for my novel Cairo Mon Amour, set during the Yom Kippur War.
Zlotnik is a man with an awful inner conflict. He is cultured, well-educated, urbane: He should be as a graduate of the Moscow Institute of International Studies, the top Soviet school for diplomats. But he spent his high-school years in Washington DC, the son of a Soviet diplomat. He read George Orwell’s 1984 in the US the year it was published. When he’s not being a Russian, he speaks and thinks like an American.
I wanted to have Zlotnik experience an epiphany, and I took him to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia in 1962 for that purpose.
He’s just bought a copy of Solzhenitisyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, banned for years in the USSR but suddenly available in the bookshops as Krushchev relaxes censorship restrictions. In Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, he observes the destruction of Stalin’s statue and the erection of the Mother Armenia monument as the Soviet authorities loosen the leash on Armenian nationalism.
On a drinking binge in his Yerevan hotel, he finally realises that he has to make a choice: East or West. The years of doublethink – a word he learned reading Orwell at school in the US – must end. Here he is, grappling with his conscience:
He thought of the early years of hope and prospect and privilege when all you did made a kind of sense, and the bits that didn’t could be explained away. He thought of the years when you could reconcile the doublethink – where had he learned that English word? – by never daring to admit that Soviet power was not impregnable; when you pledged to uphold the might of the USSR, while not actually having to live there; when you reasoned away the sick in your gut when Hungarians and Poles were crushed for daring to defy Soviet rule.
Zlotnik is an amalgam of the biographies of numerous senior Soviet diplomats, and he can’t be identified as any particular individual. Although I had fun inventing him, I developed a strong emotional attachment to him. I really wished sometimes that I could have dinner with him in the Estoril restaurant in the centre of Cairo. He’s suave, urbane and multilingual, and I gave him an old-fashioned but twisted sense of chivalry. But he’s flawed by his internal contradictions, which ultimately lead to his downfall.
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