The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith is the action-packed follow-up to Child 44. Based in Russia in the 1950s, it is set soon after the fall of Stalin. Three years have went by since the first book and Stalin has died. The protagonist Leo Demidov is trying to be a good father to his two daughters and a good other half to his wife Raisa. He now is at the helm of his own homicide department and is trying to put his past of torturing behind him. This makes him a very complex protagonist.
Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, compiles The Secret Speech in order to distance the new regime from the violence of the former period. The speech is supposedly supposed to be secret but is leaked throughout Russia causing many of Stalin’s former henchmen to feel incredibly exposed and unsafe. It is rumoured that some senior officials have had heart attacks or committed suicide following the reveal of the speech. Demidov is a former loyal follower and servant of the regime and one of his victims who was sent to prison for seven years comes back to seek revenge.
The book has a very quick pace and is based on the time leading up to the 1956 uprising in Hungary. The process of de-Stalinization is underway and following the speech two separate entities are central in book: on one side the vory and on the other side the state’s torturers and killers. The vory start a campaign against those who helped uphold Stalin’s rule. Demidov was three years with the secret police and was responsible for sending hundreds of people to the gulags, the torture chambers and the executioner. He now has turned over a new leaf and lives with his wife Raisa and his daughters Zoya and Elena in Moscow. Raisa and Leo adopted Zoya and Elena after Leo sent their birth parents to their death. Elena is the youngest and she has settled into the family, the eldest Zoya on the other hand hasn’t. She harbours thoughts of revenge and stands over Leo while he is asleep holding a knife wishing she could kill him.
Meanwhile Fraera, the vory leader who was imprisoned by Leo seven years earlier, also has revenge on her mind towards both Leo and his family. Leo had sent her husband and her to the gulag in the past. She tells him that she “was nothing until I hated you.” She kidnaps Zoya. Zoya becomes a member of the vory going on missions with a young guy called Malysh and they fall in love.
The book has a huge theme in second chances and the follower mentality of human nature. Personally I couldn’t get past the evilness in Leo’s past and the following orders thing didn’t make me feel any different about him and I didn’t particularly like him but not every central character has to be likable in books. My favourite character was Raisa and I also liked the romance between Zoya and Malysh.
Described as “brilliant (Chicago Tribune), “remarkable” (Newsweek) and “sensational” (Entertainment Weekly) I would have to agree. A wonderfully crafted book by a very talented writer.