The boundaries of Europe, the allegiances of the various empire-countries and their motivations were vastly different and infinitely more convoluted during the Great War than they were during World War 2. The rigid socio-political norms of the time were accompanied by class upheavals in almost all the participant countries, which had a butterfly effect on the war itself. The assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand was merely the lighted fuse to the social, economic and political powder keg that the early 20th Century Europe was. It takes a master storyteller of Follett’s ken (pun intended) to weave all this into a story that reads like an accurate blend of historic fact and fiction.
In The Man from St. Petersburg, Follett takes us to 1914, a few months before the ‘War to end all Wars’ explodes on the continent. Everyone knows it is coming, but no knows how to or wants to stop it. Every country is instead shoring up their defenses and forging alliances that will help them survive, and the United Kingdom is no exception. Almost every country, save Russia, is aligned with one side or the other. Winston Churchill, the then Lord of the Admiralty as part of the ruling Labour Government, approaches Lord Stephen Walden, an aristocrat with ties to Russian nobility through marriage and a prominent member of the Conservative Party, to represent England in talks with Russia and sway them over to their side. Walden, despite his distaste for the Labour Party in general and Churchill in particular (who he refers to as a class traitor for having given up his title), is realistic enough to understand the importance of having Russia as an ally and agrees.
He is even more amenable to the proposition when he learns the Russians have delegated Prince Aleksey Orlov as their representative, as he is Walden’s nephew through his Russian wife Lydia, and Walden has been a father figure to him in his formative years. Both Walden and Lydia begin preparations to host Aleks, as they have always known him, for the duration of the talks. We are also introduced here to Charlotte, Lord and Lady Walden’s only child, who despite the efforts of her mother and her Amazonian Russian matron, is growing up to be the sort of woman who isn’t content with being told what to do or how to behave and questions everything.
News of these talks reaches the ears of Russian anarchists hiding in Switzerland. Fearing that if the treaty is finalized it could sound the death knell for millions of Russian youth who would have no say in the matter, they decide to assassinate Orlov. This, they hope, will antagonize the Russians enough to make them stay neutral. The man who takes up the mission is Feliks Kshessinsky, one of the senior members of the anarchist movement, and on the run for many years after having escaped from a Siberian Gulag. He slips into London before Orlov’s arrival, making contact with other Russian refugees for a hiding place and a weapon. It also allows him to observe Walden receiving Orlov and follow them to the former’s house.
Having established Orlov’s residence and that it would not be possible to get at him there, the next point in Feliks’ agenda is to determine when he would be able to accost him in public. He sees the opportunity, when going through the newspaper he comes across an announcement of a Royal Ball where the year’s debutantes would be presented to the King and Queen. Orlov would definitely be present at such an event, and Feliks decides to hijack the Waldens’ carriage on the way back and carry out the deed. As a way of disappearing after the assassination, he rents a room in the home of an Irish boarding lady, away from the Russians who he knows will be questioned first.
The Royal Ball also happens to be the event where Charlotte, as one of the year’s debutantes, will be presented; it gives Walden and Orlov the supposed excuse to meet the rest of the nobility while discussing terms of the treaty with Churchill. While they discuss the price of Russia entering the war on the side of England, Charlotte has her first taste of Women’s Suffrage. As Russia sets the demand for the right to rule over the Balkans, one of the debutantes, a secret Suffragette, confronts the King before being manhandled out of the court, giving the already rebellious Charlotte more questions about her privileged life and the world beyond that. With all this on their minds, the party fails to notice that their carriage driver has been replaced by Feliks as they climb on board.
Feliks means to lead the carriage to a deserted stretch of road, throw open the doors, shoot Orlov and run away before anyone can react. Everything goes as per plan till the point he opens the carriage doors, and then it is Feliks’ turn to freeze as he recognizes Lydia. She is none other than the girl he fell in love with all those years ago in St. Petersburg, and whose father had her arrested and carted off to Siberia when he came to know of their affair. As he grapples with the shock of seeing her here in such circumstances, his momentary lapse allows Walden to wound him with his ceremonial sword. Dropping his gun, he manages to run away and evade capture.
The Waldens and Orlov reach home unhurt but shaken, and the Special Branch police is dispatched to make sense of the entire occurrence. The first thing the Inspector does is, as guessed by Feliks, start questioning the known Russian refugees in London. The second is to move Orlov to a heavily protected hotel room on the probability that the assailant knows where he lives. Feliks meanwhile barely reaches his hideout before passing out in front of his landlady. The landlady, of Irish descent and whose husband was killed while fighting for Irish independence, hates all things British with a vengeance; she hides Feliks while he recuperates from the wound.
In a couple days, when he can move around again, Feliks realizes Orlov is no longer at the Waldens’ residence. Having run out of options, he decides upon the dangerously simple yet direct move of introducing himself to Lydia and try to get information on Orlov’s whereabouts from her. Lydia, after the initial surprise of seeing him after all these years, believes his version of merely kidnapping Orlov to bring attention to the plight of the Russian people (instead of assassinating him as he means to) and divulges the name of the hotel he is staying at. A part of her helps him out of guilt, as she realizes that her father, who promised her that Feliks would be released if she married Walden and went away, never honoured his promise. Another part of her is afraid at the same time of a secret she has carried all the way from St. Petersburg to London, and for the sake of that wishes he would go away and never return.
It is that fear that leads her to confide in Lord Walden about Feliks’ visit and his finding out where Orlov is. At first chagrined, both Walden and the Inspector conclude that this is a perfect opportunity to ambush him. Unaware of these machinations, Feliks is preparing for the assault on the hotel, creating a homemade bomb in the form of liquid nitroglycerine in a bottle that will explode on impact. Again, his well laid plan rolls out smoothly till the point where he enters the hotel room and finds Walden and the policemen waiting for him instead of Orlov. He escapes once more, by threatening to break the bottle of nitroglycerine on the spot and then throwing it at Walden and running away while he barely catches it.
After saving themselves from being blown up and failing to catch Feliks yet again, Walden and the Inspector decide to move Orlov to the Walden’s secluded country estate, which would be easier to monitor for suspicious movement. With their talks at a critical juncture, both agree to the arrangement. At the same time, the Inspector spreads the net further, having his men track down the shops from where Feliks could have purchased the raw materials for the homemade explosive, an attempt that brings to light the boarding house run by the Irishwoman. Feliks, though, has already moved from there to another hiding place. A plainclothes policeman moves into the boarding house as a tenant, in case he comes back for any reason.
Feliks, meanwhile, is figuring out his next move. He has seen Orlov being moved from the hotel, but is unable to determine the destination. Correctly assuming that Lydia would not help him again, he decides to try and get the information from Charlotte instead. Charlotte, who has been busy exploring the newfound avenue of Women’s Suffrage, gets involved in a protest march led by prominent Suffragettes, which turns ugly when both policemen and bystanders attack them for their audacity. Charlotte almost gets assaulted, but is rescued by the stalking Feliks, and that gives him the opening he is seeking. It is easy for him to play on her emergent sympathies for the working classes, and he whets her appetite to learn more about it by giving her glimpses of his knowledge. She is suitably impressed, and agrees to meet him again without the knowledge of her parents.
While this is happening, Feliks is betrayed to the police by his new landlord, and a trap is set for his capture as he returns. Taking no chances this time, the Inspector gathers a huge task force, blocking all avenues of escape. Unfortunately for him, Feliks spies them as they are getting into place, and escapes via the rooftop route and kills a policeman in the process. This gives the Inspector to pull all stops on the manhunt, as they are now searching for a murderer. On the run now, Feliks disguises himself for his rendezvous with Charlotte, as he is still not willing to give up his mission.
He also has another reason for wanting to meet Charlotte; something about her strikes him as very familiar. At first, he attributes it to her being Lydia’s daughter, but then, as he enquires about her date of birth, realization dawns – she isn’t Walden’s daughter, but his! Lydia was pregnant when she was forced to marry Walden, and it is the secret she has been carrying for so long. With that realization comes a sudden urge to create a connection, and Feliks tells her about him being her mother’s lover all those years ago. The information merely strengthens Charlotte’s resolve to help him in whatever way she can, and she promises to find out where Orlov is being hidden.
Before she can do anything, though, disaster seemingly strikes. Her meeting Feliks is observed by someone in their social circle, and gossip spreads about Charlotte and her ‘working class’ paramour. Hugely embarrassed, her parents decide to move her to their country house until the year’s social season is over. They have no reason to suspect anything else, and moving her plays into her hands as she discovers Orlov’s hiding place. Feliks has given her the address of the Irishwoman’s boarding house, and she succeeds in sending him a letter indicating Orlov’s presence at the country house. Feliks gets the letter when he visits the Irishwoman on the off-chance that there is something for him, and decides to head there immediately.
His visit is observed by the plainclothesman masquerading as a tenant, who upon reporting this is ordered to tail him. He follows Feliks to the railway station, sees him buying a ticket to the countryside, and gets into the same train with him to keep an eye on him. Striving to remain inconspicuous, he nevertheless gets noticed by Feliks due to his large sideburns, which causes him to recall the Irishwoman mentioning the new tenant having such facial har. His ingrained paranoia now at a peak, he gets off the train a few stations earlier and at the last possible moment, stranding the frustrated follower in the train.
At the Walden’s country house, the talks between Lord Walden and Prince Orlov have been concluded, with the terms of the treaty decided and signed by Churchill and Orlov. The happy moment gets interrupted by the Inspector bearing news of Feliks’ discovery of the hiding place and his subsequent escape from the train. He also brings proof of Charlotte being the collaborator, causing an enraged Walden to lock her up in her room. Knowing Feliks is out in the countryside and making his way to the house, the Inspector brings in a large team to surround the house and protect the inhabitants. The stage is set in typical Follett style for a massive showdown with all the main characters converging for the climax.
Despite the presence of the police, Feliks gets as close as he can to the house, where he is discovered by Charlotte (who has herself slipped out under the pretext of a walk around the house) and is secreted by her into the house. As night falls, he sneaks out, kills a policeman and steals his weapon. He then starts a fire on the ground floor of the house, intending to drive everyone out in the direction where he can accost them. And as fiction and history merge here to give us the timeline we know and live in, Follett gives us a brilliant accounting of a task failed successfully.
As with any Follett book, his depiction of historical events is equaled only by the description of the people he creates. Feliks is the living embodiment of the turn of the century Russian anarchist, idealist and cynical at the same time. Charlotte brings to life the girl who wakes up to social turmoil and refuses to be what her class demands of her. And the bonus is a Churchill before he became the larger than life figure of WW2, at a time when he was aware of his vulnerability and fallibility, and unafraid to embrace both. As a book that will ease you gently into the cauldron of pre-WW1 European politics and make you want more, look no further than this one.