Christian Salmon’s new book “The Blumkin Project” has a very appropriate subtitle: “A Biographical Novel”. The book really reads like a novel, but it is contextually biographical. From the first line to the last, it is an engrossing read.
Salmon has a meaning for words and uses them so elegantly that he paints images throughout the book. The very beginning draws the reader in with its description of rummaging through an old chest of books and documents, all centered on his research on Yakov Blumkin, the 17-year-old Bolshevik Ukrainian Jew, who began his rise to Soviet stardom when he assassinated German Ambassador Wilhelm von Mirbach on July 6, 1918.
Indeed, “The Blumkin Project” looks like an old book. It reads as if it was written during the Cold War or even between the two great wars. The only moments that betray the modernity of the work are the author’s references to Google Maps or his current travels. But these references are minimal enough to allow the reader to fall back into the tradition of an ancient story.
The writing method explained
The author explains, more or less, how he wrote the biography as a novel, a spy novel at that. His gift for creating visuals begins with creating his own visuals.
“Before I start writing a chapter, I usually post photos of the main characters, maps of certain cities or neighborhoods where the action takes place, etc. on a blackboard that covers one of the walls of my office. Once the chapter is finished, I file these documents in an archive box. I then repeat the same operation for the following chapter, as a detective does at the start of a new investigation.
The process apparently works for the author and results in a book that will work for readers.
Crime as a starting point
The author begins with the assassination, an international incident that took place during an international crisis: the First World War. Later in the book, the author writes that Blumkin said he was a man with nine lives.
It was his first life. After the assassination, the Bolsheviks informed the German government that Blumkin had been executed. Of course, he was not executed. Since he was “officially” dead, his ghost could be used to complete other missions.
The author, however, expresses that Blumkin must have felt even more useless than before being summarily “executed”.
“To Blumkin, everything he had been through since the July 6 attack seemed unreal,” Salmon wrote.
“’My story will end in rubble,’ he thought suddenly. In the history books, he would simply be the man who assassinated the German ambassador. Everything else would be erased, darkened by his crime. At seventeen, he was already posthumous.
A life of intrigue and myth
The starting point of the book is assassination, and assassination never leaves the screenplay. The crime equals the shadow of Blumkin. It’s part of him; and those around him, as well as the author, can hardly see him through any other lens. It is the subject’s point of reference to his own myth.
Blumkin becomes a useful tool for Bolsheviks and revolutionaries, a revolution he truly believes in, as the crime of July 6 clearly shows. He becomes a friend (if one can use such a term among revolutionaries) and an ally of Leon Trotsky.
It is Trotsky who assures that Blumkin will not be executed, and the author emphasizes that there was no real threat of execution. His friendship with Trotsky, however, would be his downfall early in Joseph Stalin’s reign.
But this fall, which happens in the fall of 1929, comes at the end of the book.
Salmon follows Blumkin’s transformation from a revolutionary young assassin to a matured revolutionary clandestine agent. Like a work of fiction, straight out of a novel by John Le Carré, Blumkin’s cover is that of a collector and dealer of rare books.
His specialty was rare Hebrew works. At a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in Russia, Blumkin knew his cover could also save books that would otherwise be destroyed. He quickly succeeded.
Blumkin was tasked with creating a network in Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. He played a vital role in counterintelligence against the West. He traveled through Mongolia, Tibet, northern China, Palestine, Oulan Bator, New Delhi, Shanghai, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Cairo.
His work was obviously dangerous as he was the target of Western spy agencies. But perhaps his most dangerous place was at home, where the revolution had resulted in the rise to power of Vladimir Lenin, but was barely settled. Adding to the danger, it moved among groups like the Cheka and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR).
Lenin and the left SR were at odds with each other. After the attempted assassination of Lenin by Fanny Kaplan, a Ukrainian Jew and member of the Left SR, the Left SR helped Blumkin to safety. Kaplan was executed by the Cheka, the new organ of the Soviet secret police.
This association also nearly resulted in his assassination when left-wing SRs thought he had betrayed them to the Cheka. He was shot several times, but was taken to hospital. While recovering, members of the SR left threw a grenade through his hospital window, but he quickly picked it up and threw it away.
An honest look at the Revolution
The salmon creates an almost sympathetic character. Blumkin was a 17-year-old teenager at the time of the assassination, meaning he had fallen in love with Bolshevism long before that time. He eventually went from impressionable to true believer, that is, until the belief that created the revolution began to crumble before his eyes. Interestingly, Blumkin’s life mirrors that of the life of the Russian Revolution.
“The ‘glorious October Revolution’ has become the subject of three successive accounts,” writes Salmon. “First as a collective and anonymous epic of peasants and workers; then as a romantic work of Bolshevik theoreticians and strategists; and finally, as proof of a man’s genius. Soviet historiography successively followed three literary genres: the epic, the novel and the hagiography.
But the transition from one to the other was not easy. To achieve this, faces and voices had to be erased. Whole lives have been wiped out, a colossal and difficult undertaking, because bodies are easier to get rid of than living memory.
For this reason, Salmon goes on to add that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist, was not a novelist. “He was an archivist, an archaeologist.” That’s what Salmon does for Blumkin. He unearthed an “erased” story about a pivotal figure at a pivotal time.
Salmon gives an honest approach to the Revolution. The promises, the hopes, the violence, the devastation, the artists, the dissensions and the consequences. There are chilling moments from eyewitness accounts, perhaps those that had been “erased” and are now brought back into “living memory”.
As the author argues in the book, a revolution requires young people. A revolution needs people like Blumkin, who will do whatever it takes and rise through the ranks, living only on Party dogma and adrenaline. But as the old saying goes, a revolution eventually eats itself up, just as it did with Blumkin, Trotsky and so many others.
“The Blumkin Project” was not only a thrilling read, but it’s also an insightful look at the Russian Revolution through the eyes of a Bolshevik agent. Salmon works to separate truth from myth, while presenting both. It’s an honest story that reads like fiction.
“The Blumkin Project: A Biographical Novel”
By Christian Salmon, translated by William Rodarmor
Other press, September 27, 2022
Paperback: 352 pages