"Moscow Rules" is the latest in a spate of inside-Russia thrillers whose appeal lies partly in their Iron Curtain-lifting properties -- most western readers can't get enough information on Soviet foibles and intra-Party politics -- and partly in their traditional values of suspense and intrigue. To these ingredients Robert Moss, an Australian-born journalist and coauthor (with Arnaud de Borchgrave) of earlier thrillers -- "The Spike" and "Monimbo'" -- has added another sure-fire attraction: wish fulfilment. "Moscow Rules" is about nothing less than a plot to bring down Russian communism itself.
The movement emanates from the army, in particular Maj. Gen. Sasha Preobrazhensky, who has harbored a double grudge against the system since his college days. It was then that he learned how his father really died during World War II: not manning a cannon, as the official report states, but cut down by a fellow soldier he was trying to stop from raping a German girl. It was then that the authorities imprisoned and drove to suicide Sasha's dissident girlfriend. He vows to join the Party, resist co-optation, and transform the corrupt and deadening system from within.
This, of course, is no mean trick, and Moss does not hesitate to help Sasha by delivering him into the hands of serendipity. A friend just happens to fix him up with the daughter of the man who will become army chief of staff. Sasha marries her and eventually becomes her father's top aide, which positions him perfectly to produce and direct a coup. Posted to the United Nations for a spell, he happens to run into a young woman in Bloomingdale's who looks just like his dead girlfriend. Besides providing the obligatory love interest, she serves as insurance that his anti-Soviet animus will not flag. Also in New York, he becomes the drinking buddy of a KGB agent who will later give him a crucial link with that nefarious organization.
And yet so strong is our thirst for transformation of the Evil Empire that these coincidences go down as easily as spring water. Sasha obviously needs all the help he can get, and the reader is prepared to let him have anything short of Divine thunderbolts. And to be fair, one feature of the contemporary Soviet scene that Moss seizes upon -- the tendency to pick aged time-servers as Party bosses -- lends itself admirably to his scenario. If the nation's leadership is going to change arthritic hands every year or two, something regime-shaking is likely to happen sooner or later.
At any rate, Sasha's primary weapon is quite earthly, a special force within the Soviet army called Spetsnaz, roughly equivalent to our Green Berets. He has served with these troops in Afghanistan -- a tour that has only hardened his antipathy to the Party line -- and can count on their commander's loyalty.
Along the way to the story's epochal climax, Moss reminds us of the etymological nexus between hashish and assassinations -- the ancient Moslem Order of Assassins got their name from smoking hashish for courage -- and then characterizes Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan as "drugged to the eyeballs." And we are made privy to what sounds like the definitive account of the death of Lavrenti Beria, the brutal KGB chief who counted on succeeding Stalin.
Moss' writing is always polished and professional -- in some places, inspired. I especially liked one Party cynic's reflection: "One of the great achievements of our form of society was that the victims always felt guilty." And here is a memorable description of the tottering Party leadership assembled after Andropov's death. "They stood there on the podium, these old men in hats and heavy coats . . . and they reminded Sasha of a photo he had once seen of Easter Island statues, weathered and eroded, crumbling in front of your eyes."
If this novel does not quite thrum the spinal cord as soundly as a top-notch thriller should, it makes up for the shortcoming with its riveting portrayal of intra-Party machinations. Then, too, there is the dream-come-true quality of its plot. Soviet domination -- and with it Russian truculence -- may not succumb the way Moss suggests, but he all but convinces the reader that it will succumb. "Moscow Rules" is an antidote to the superpower brinksmanship and verge-of-destruction blues.