There is an incident in a starving village in the Ukraine in 1933, a young boy separated from his brother while tracking a cat for food in the forest near their home. Pavel suddenly disappears; Andrei, terrified and alone, returns home with no answer for his shocked mother.
Twenty years later, Stalinís Soviet Union functions as a well-oiled machine, each citizen assigned meaningful work. There is no crime in the Soviet Union. Should some outrageous breach occur - like a murder - the government quickly names a culprit to be dealt with by a speedy, if tainted, trial. Problem solved.
When Leo Demidov, a high-ranking member of Stalinís State Security force, the MGB, is confronted with a brutal child murder, Leo declares to a grieving family that this death, while unfortunate, is a terrible accident. To question the dictates of the government is to court danger, perhaps twenty-five years in a Gulag, so the family must accept that there is nothing to be done or face the consequences.
Functioning as a servant of the MGB, an impassive Leo returns to another case that requires his immediate attention, the arrest of a traitor. But it is already too late: the finger of suspicion points to Leo, a jealous rival facilitating his fall from grace. With his wife, Raisa, Leo is sent to a remote, obscure village, demoted. When a similar child murder occurs, Leo is forced to face the truth: someone is systematically killing these small victims from Moscow to the countryside, the villages never communicating about the incidents.
The falsity of his marriage exposed in the aftermath of his demotion, Leo and Raisa endure an uneasy peace, the couple only granted a reprieve by an unforgiving system. When more children are murdered with the distinctive signature of the killer, Leo begins a painfully slow journey back to the humanity he has stifled in his MGB role, husband and wife dealing with a new phase of their lives where each pledges true honesty.
Thwarted at every turn by a repressive regime, Leo pursues the murders in spite of great risk, belatedly redeeming a crushed spirit and a completely different relationship with Raisa. Thus, a man in search of redemption turns against all that is familiar, hoping for one act of beneficence before the MGB reaches out again to deliver the ultimate punishment.
Against a blind, cruel system, hope blooms in the icy terrain of Leoís new world, his task all but impossible. Nevertheless, with Raisa by his side, Leo comes agonizingly close to an answer when the iron claw of the MGB grips him once more. A surprising tie to the past illustrates this authorís skill at plot and character development, the banality of evil but the surface of a deeply flawed society.
Profoundly sensitive to the human condition in an inhuman environment, Smith delivers a powerful lesson, a soulless society based on false premises, the moral bankruptcy of fear-driven citizens and a monsterís brand of control that strips citizens of pride, feeding off their terror, a harsh reminder that when we succumb to fear we have lost our better selves.