Commissar: A Novel of Civil War Russia

Written by D. V. Chernov
Review by Cindy Vallar

Delivery of a dispatch leads to the Romanovs’ executions. The messenger is Anna Sokolova, a young woman whose brother died in a demonstration at the Winter Palace and who believes that choices made are always black or white. Knowing she plays a role, however minor, in the murders causes her to transfer into the counterterrorism branch of the Cheka, the Bolshevik security agency. In 1918, she hunts for an elusive spy, who goes by many names and may be in league with the British. With talk of guns and an underground army, as well as an influx of Allied troops and two assassination attempts, stopping the spy becomes paramount. Anna teams up with an American Army captain tied to the American Red Cross. but the pursuit requires an alliance with an anarchist who has vowed to kill all White Russians, Allies, and Bolsheviks. It also requires Anna to choose between blindly following orders or staying true to her principles.

Chernov adroitly depicts the complicated factions threatening Russia. He shows the brutality of war and how the policy of Red Terror came to be. Commissar centers on the hunt for Sidney Reilly, and is the first book in the Anna Sokolova series. It also incorporates a significant laying of groundwork for future titles. There are some editing issues that still need resolving and there are times when the many characters, both historical and fictional, become muddled, but the various points of view emphasize the period’s confusion and convolution. The story isn’t as engrossing as other novels set during this time, but readers are invested in the characters and what happens to them by the story’s close. Loose threads are tied up, and the end twist will intrigue readers to see how Anna deals with a personal dilemma.