Document Z by Andrew Croome (Australian)

As naive as this is no doubt, I have never imagined Australia having much of a political underbelly, so to speak. I know from my own professional experience that there is often more going on underground in society than we imagine, but political espionage and spying isn't something that I immediately associate with Australia. Who could possibly be that interested in a country like ours and what could be interested in about other country's secret political 'going ons'?

Andrew Croome's Vogel Prize winning (2008) novel, Document Z, certainly gave me some insight into this question. It is centred around the Petrov Affair, an incident in Australian history that took place in 1953, deep into the Cold War era. Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov were Russian diplomats, who came to work at the Russian Embassy in Canberra in 1951 and both of whom were functioning as spies for their motherland, albeit in different capacities. When Stalin passes away in 1953, Vladimir defects from Australia without his wife's knowledge – leaving her to make an almost impossible decision about what step she should take in response to her husband's actions.

My knowledge of the Petrov Affair was shamefully limited. Non-existent in fact. Although Document Z was a fictionalised account of their story, I learnt a lot about a rather dramatic and important incident in Australia's political history.

I saw Andrew Croome speak about this book at a Sydney Writers Festival event a year of two ago and at the time I greatly admired his enthusiasm for his subject and the lengths that he had gone to research the Petrovs, including listening to secret recordings made of the couple which are still available to be listened to in the National Library (from memory). His enthusiasm was infectious at the time and so I was very much looking forward to reading the book.

Document Z seems to be creating detailed portraits of the players in the Petrov Affair. We learn a lot about Vladimir (or 'Volodya' as he is referred to throughout most of the book) and Evdokia and about their relationship. There is Michael Biogulski, a Polish emigrant doctor who spies for both sides of the political fence according to whatever suits him best, and to whom Vladimir eventually shares his intention to defect. We see ASIO's spy network in action through Michael Howley, who assists in the defection.

Whilst I appreciated what Croome was trying to achieve in writing this book, and whilst I feel as though I learnt a lot in a short period of time about a point in Australia's political history I previously knew nothing about, I never really connected with this book.

The plot was rather too slow for my taste. In my view, it was the death of Stalin that really instigated the political events that ultimately lead to Vladimir Petrov seeking political asylum in Australia, and until this event occurs in the book, little else happened. Although Croome spends a long time really trying to get inside the various players in the Petrov Affair, I didn't connect with any of the characters and couldn't really identify with them in any real way. Their experience was so far from my own that whilst I could appreciate what life must have been like for them on an intellectual level, my emotions were left unaffected. This, combined with the lack of action until towards the end of the book, meant that although I enjoyed reading the book, it never really drew me in.

Image from Wikipedia
There was nothing political about it. There was no underlying message. There was no real sense of drama. Croome produced a well written book, but also a book that didn't go out on any limbs. I think that it would have been a better book if Croome had taken more risks somehow or been a bit edgier.

The one aspect of this entire Petrov Affair that I was fascinated by was the experience of Evdokia Petrov. You will see that in the body of this post I have inserted an image of Evdokia Petrov being escorted to a plane by armed Soviet Guards following the defection of her husband. Evdokia Petrov was being forcibly removed from Australia, to return to Russia to face punishment for her husband's actions – an event which sparked anti-Communist demonstrations throughout Australia I believe, and certainly at the airport from which she was leaving. In her final moments in Australia, she was then forcibly removed from the Soviet Guards by ASIO and made the agonising decision to defect alongside her husband.

It is her story that I find the most fascinating element of the entire Petrov Affair, purely on a personal, rather than political, level. What was she thinking? How did she feel? What thoughts were going through her mind? In the image you can see how close to collapse she seems – with her hand on her heart, one shoe missing and an agonised expression on her face. If Document Z had been solely from her perspective I think I may have had a stronger emotional response to the story, but then it would have been a completely different story altogether.

5.5 / 8 Enjoyable and well written. Worth reading if you have the opportunity but there's no need to prioritise it unless you have a particular interest in learning about an important incident in Australian political history.  

I would love to know what you thought of this book if you have read it. Were you able to identify with any of the characters? How much do you rely on the truth of the history contained in books that fictionalise true historial events like this one?

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