If you ignore the fact that we (literally) lost one of our serving Prime Ministers in the 1960’s, relative to most countries in the world Australia’s political history is uneventful. We’ve had no civil wars, no major coups, our lone armed rebellion lasted a single day and for most of the 223 years of our political history you’d have had to look awfully hard to find more than six people holding anything approaching radical political beliefs. It is little wonder then that when a genuine political upheaval does occur it receives an enormous amount of attention. What is known colloquially as ‘the Petrov Affair’ is one of these events. Taking place in 1954 it involved the defection of a senior official from the Russian Embassy in Canberra and his wife who had both also been operating as spies. This sparked the Royal Commission on Espionage which in turn led to the severing of diplomatic relations between Australia and Russia until the end of the decade.
In Document Z Andrew Croome has provided a fictional account of these events from the point of view of the primary ‘players’: Vladimir Petrov, his wife Evdokia and the Polish/Australian spy who orchestrated Petrov’s defection. Croome says that using fiction allowed him to put his characters in every-day scenarios in a way that factual historians cannot For me, someone who has never been able to take the subject of spying seriously due to an early and prolonged exposure to Get Smart, I found this particularly effective as it showed that the art of spying is subject to the routines, mistakes, ordinariness and petty rivalries familiar to any workplace.
The story that Croome tells is personal rather than political. Vladimir is depicted as a womaniser, a petty thief and fairly unsuccessful spy. His decision to defect has a lot less to do with any deeply held beliefs than it does vested personal interest. His betrayal of his wife is in keeping with that character. Defecting alone, without telling her what he was up to, put Evdokia in an impossible situation because she had family in Russia whose safety she was worried for. Her story is just sad. Having lost her first husband to a Russian gulag she marries Vladimir more out of necessity than anything else. She appears to spend her entire life dealing with the real or imagined death of loved ones and, though she is stoic, it is quite heart breaking to read.
I have never been much engaged by the study of history as a series of dates and events to be remembered. In this confidently written novel Croome has provided the kind of history that is intriguing even if it is not entirely true (though the factual basis for his imaginings is evident). He shows us a reality that might very well have been. One in which there were innate problems in maintaining strong Marxist principles while living in a place that demonstrates daily that capitalism has its advantages and one in which people’s fears and worries don’t always (often?) lead them to do the laudable thing. As someone who has plowed through a considerable amount of the non-fiction available on this subject I found this fictional account offered the much-needed human element that is missing from so much historical writing.
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You can hear a 15-minute discussion with Andrew about the book on our national radio network’s Book Show here. He talks, among other things, about making use of the extensive documentary archive as well as ignoring it when it did not suit his narrative needs.
Document Z has been reviewed at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip and Guy Salvidge
Document Z has won many awards including the 2008 Vogel Award (for best debut fiction by an Australian awarded by The Australian newspaper) and was shortlisted in the best first fiction category at the 2010 Ned Kelly Awards.
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My rating 4/5
Author website http://www.andrewcroome.com/
Publisher Allen & Unwin 
Length 346 pages
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
Bernadette – Thanks for this excellent review. I agree with you that history is very much more than dates and people’s names, and this book sounds as though it really tells the story of the Petrov affair (and history really is a series of people’s stories, I think) quite effectively. I’m fascinated by history, especially aspects of history I don’t know enough about. I’m going to have look this one up.
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