The Russian Revolution takes up a large portion of the novel it is also about the plight of Soviet Jews and the anti-Semitism that existed in early 20th-century America. It covers a period from 1883 to 1918 and is largely set in America and Russia.
The plot revolves around the story of Lieutenant Stephen Morrison, born a Russian Jew but adopted into a high-ranking American family. He becomes a naval officer sent by President Theodore Roosevelt on a top-secret mission in 1905 to work with British agent Sidney Reilly to kidnap Tsar Nicholas II and remove him from Russia before he can sabotage the upcoming Portsmouth Peace Conference (to bring about the end of the Russo-Japanese War).
The mission, of course, goes wrong, and Morrison is captured and sentenced to death. He finds himself, however, sent to the infamous Russian prison on Solovetsky Island for ten years’ hard labour. It is there that Morrison is transformed into Moryak, a cold-blooded, brutal and feared killer. The novel then proceeds to describe Morrison’s later exploits and involvement in the Russian Revolution proper, mixing with the likes of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky and even playing a part in the execution of the Romanovs in 1918.
Morrison is a charismatic and deeply drawn character who wins our sympathies at the plight in which he finds himself. At 400 pages long, the novel feels much longer. This is because of the wealth of detail included and Mandel’s tendency to indulge in overwriting, being thorough where more conciseness would have sufficed. But there is no doubt that he can also thrill, and I defy any reader not to want to finish it to discover Moryak’s ultimate fate.