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Mission to Moscow Is Mission Implausible : STARIK by Jeff Rovin and Sander Diamond (E. P. Dutton: $17.95; 305 pp.)

May 01, 1988|Mort Kamins | Kamins is a free-lance writer. and

I buy only the basic premise of this non-thrilling thriller: Post-Gorbachev, the Soviet Union is ruled by Cherganyev, a Hitler-like Lenin worshiper, obviously mentally unbalanced, but supported by his own ruthless storm troopers, called "Lenin Utra" (Lenin Awake). As with all fundamentalists and true believers, they scare the hell out of non-believers, including a right-wing U.S. administration, because their fanaticism permits them to wreak havoc around the world on behalf of a higher cause. Here the cause is world revolution and the Soviet Union's Manifest Destiny, the spread of Leninism.

Almost nothing else in this book is credible. We are asked to believe that a hawkish and conservative President, in an emergency that threatens World War III and a nuclear holocaust, would call in only one outside adviser, a 60-ish left-wing Ivy League Kremlinologist without a security clearance, named Joseph Rosenstock. Rosenstock immediately becomes part of the President's inner circle--several of whom have hated him for years--discussing how to topple the Soviet leader from power and whether using the undetectable stealth bomber to nuke Moscow in a preemptive strike would be the best response.

We are asked to believe that this same Prof. Rosenstock, a bookish intellectual with no intelligence background, will be sent by the head of the CIA--without informing the President or his Cabinet!--on a desperate mission to Moscow with the simple task of stealing Lenin's embalmed body. Why? Because, Rosenstock insists, stealing the body of Cherganyev's idol will unbalance him, leading to his downfall. What's more absurd--the idea itself, the fact that Rosenstock thinks of it suddenly in the White House and wants to act on it immediately, the crazed assurance he has that it will work when even the CIA psychologists say it's at least as likely to enrage the Soviet leader into an even more warlike state, or the fact that this deskbound academic will be descending into the Moscow subway system and, with gas masks and stun guns and drills, will be primarily responsible for making this crackpot scheme work?

There were times when, after laughing in the wrong places, I wondered whether perhaps this wasn't a satire so subtle that I was missing it. What are you supposed to think when, deep into the story, Rosenstock suddenly considers a "problem he'd avoided"--what to do with Lenin's body once he stole it! Or, earlier, when he worries that when he meets Cherganyev, he might fall under his charismatic spell and "tell him everything."

If this book were any good, its blithe glorification of an "off the shelf" (and off-the-wall) CIA-organized undercover mission would be pernicious in effect. Because Rosenstock and his CIA patron are liberals and supposedly much less hawkish than the rest of the Administration, we're obviously meant to admire them. They're on "our" side; they're like us. And even if the stealth bomber eventually works as well as this fictional one does, allowing undetected access to Moscow, are we to believe that any American President--no matter how right-wing--would be willing to attack Moscow with one plane and one bomb (and with thousands of Americans on site) on the assumption that it would not trigger a retaliatory response?

It's probably unnecessary to mention that the physical heroics of much of the cast--especially Rosenstock--in fighting and escaping from the KGB and Lenin Utra while being outgunned and outnumbered, have as much reality and less wit than a Saturday morning cartoon.

Not for one moment does the book's intended suspense grab the reader. We know, with Rosenstock, that while the plot to steal Lenin's body unfolds, a stealth bomber is approaching Moscow with its deadly payload. That bomb will fall unless they succeed. Mostly because of the pervasive absurdity, though, the tension we're supposed to feel never takes hold.

Beyond all the ludicrousness lies a further failure of the authors to create a believable context for their story. Anyone who lived through the 1962 Cuban missile crisis will recall the epidemic of jitters and dread that infected nearly everyone. Here, with a mad Soviet leader, U.S. and Soviet fleets sailing toward each other, the Warsaw Pact armies mobilized and moving west, Soviet troops shooting at Israeli troops, the defection of the Soviet Union's ambassador to the United States, the alleged defection of the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, the detention of all American journalists in Moscow--in other words, a crisis of far greater scope and seriousness than 1962--there is no sense in either Moscow or Washington that the world may be coming to an end.

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