Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina

Uran Uranium
Historical thriller. Fluid Publishers. Moscow 2019. 377 pages
Foreign rights: Estonia

1953, the year of Stalin's death. Soviet Estonia. A secret nuclear factory is being built at a site with uranium ore and around it a city for specialists from Russia and for Estonian workers. The forced laborers for the mine are housed in a GULAG camp. This secret site, Combinat No. 7, is intended to ensure the uninterrupted supply of uranium for the Soviet nuclear project.

Stalin's death puts the lives and souls of the Combinat residents to the test. The magnificent opening of the Palace of Culture is not canceled, but nobody knows what is coming. The announced amnesty brings unrest between forced laborers and the population. Leaked Gestapo files about the former Estonian Waffen-SS puts pressure on partisans, who are hiding in the woods and have so far been looked after secretly by locals. And in Moscow the power struggle is raging between the Politburo and Beria, who has so far been able to cover up the fact that the Klooga concentration camp discovered during the construction of the combinat was simply converted into a Soviet forced labor camp, including a mass grave.

A number of mysterious deaths in Combinat No. 7 suddenly puts everything in a different light. The external investigator sent from Leningrad encounters communist leaders engaging in cult and religious-orthodox occult practices, hypnosis and manipulation, sex and violence. When almost all the local men are suspected of murder and arrested for the time being, the investigator also becomes a victim. Everyone seems guilty and unhappy, every crime and sin has its own motives and backstory. The murders are brutal clues as to who is really related to whom and how. Even the killer, who calls himself Agent U-235, ends up causing pity rather than hatred – he seems above all to have gone astray in search of himself.

In Uranium, there are neither absolutely negative nor clearly positive characters. As in real life, each acts according to the circumstances. Without justifying or judging, the author tries to understand and to convey this desire for understanding to the reader. Like an exciting Netflix series, the plot of this historical novel, which is also a spy thriller, is told horizontally from the different perspectives of the various characters, without a central hero. Each character not only has his own truth, but also his own voice.

The novel is based on the memories of residents of the closed city of Sillamäe, as well as documentary materials and some reports cited in original from recently released CIA archives.