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Night Soldiers

Night Soldiers

3.9 37
by Alan Furst

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Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin's purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates

the European world of 1934-45:


Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin's purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates

the European world of 1934-45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times
Charges along from the rise of Fascism in Bulgaria, to Spain during the Civil War, to France and back to Eastern Europe. The history is deftly incorporated; the viewpoint is civilized; the characters and the settings picturesque; the adventures exciting; the writing pungent.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The father of a boy murdered by fascists in a small town in Bulgaria in 1934 embraces Communism and becomes an agent for the Soviets, who assign him to Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. ``Furst shows a remarkable talent in his fifth novel, integrating details about the cultures of Spain, France and Eastern Europe with a fascinating story,'' PW declared . (Feb.)
Library Journal
A young Bulgarian, Khristo, is recruited into an elite unit of the Soviet espionage network. Bloodied and betrayed in the Spanish Civil War, he seeks oblivion in Paris but soon leads fresh sorties, this time against his Red spymasters. As World War II closes in, secret contacts among those who trained together makes it possible for most of them to evade the revenge of their former Russian overlords and eventually find their way to well-deserved refuge. An engaging writer and Esquire contributor, Furst deploys communists, fascists, and American naifs in Europe's theater of war and supports the action and romance with well-researched detail. Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress
From the Publisher
“A spy novel, a war story, an adventure, a survivor’s tale—Night Soldiers is all this and more.”
The Seattle Times

Night Soldiers has everything the best thrillers offer—excitement, intrigue, romance—plus grown-up writing, characters that matter, and a crisp, carefully researched portrait of the period in which our own postwar world was shaped.”
USA Today

“Intelligent, ambitious, absorbing . . . The history is deftly incorporated; the viewpoint civilized; the characters and the settings picturesque; the adventures exciting; the writing pungent.”
–Walter Goodman, The New York Times

Night Soldiers is an atmospheric journey through turbulent lands at a turbulent time, not so much a thriller as it is a panoramic, historical adventure.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Intelligent and absorbing . . . An unusual viewpoint, solid research and unobtrusively elegant writing make this pure pleasure to read.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Evocative, moving . . . Furst shows a remarkable talent, integrating details about the cultures of Spain, France and Eastern Europe with a fascinating story of the constantly changing, constantly unpredictable events of that world at war.”
Publishers Weekly

“One of the very best novels ever written about the inner world of Soviet intelligence. . . . This fine novel, in effect the memoir so many did not live to write for themselves, is a triumph of historical imagination.”
–Thomas Powers, author of The Man Who Kept the Secrets

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.

His brother was fifteen, no more than a blameless fool with a big mouth, and in calmer days his foolishness would have been accommodated in the usual ways—a slap in the face for humiliation, a few cold words to chill the blood, and a kick in the backside to send him on his way. That much was tradition. But these were political times, and it was very important to think before you spoke. Nikko Stoianev spoke without thinking, and so he died.

On both sides of the river—Romania to the north and Bulgaria to the south—the political passion ran white hot. People talked of little else: in the marketplace, in the church, even—a mark of just how far matters had progressed—in the kitchen. Something has happened in Bucharest. Something has happened in Sofia.

Soon, something will happen here.

And, lately, they marched.

Torchlight parades with singing and stiff-armed salutes. And the most splendid uniforms. The Romanians, who considered themselves much the more stylish and urbane, wore green shirts and red armbands with blue swastikas on a yellow field. They thrust their banners into the air in time with the drum: we are the Guard of Archangel Michael. See our insignia—the blazing crucifix and pistol.

They were pious on behalf of both symbols. In 1933, one of their number had murdered Ion Duca, the prime minister, as he waited for a train at Sinaia railway station. A splinter group, led by a Romanian of Polish descent named Cornelius Codreanu, called itself the Iron Guard. Not to beoutdone by his rivals, Codreanu had recently assassinated the prefect of Jassy “because he favored the Jews.” Political times, it seemed, brought the keenest sort of competitive instincts into play and the passionate reached deep within themselves for acts of great magnitude.

The men of Vidin were not quite so fashionable, but that was to be expected. They were, after all, Slavs, who prided themselves on simplicity and honesty, while their brethren across the river were of Latin descent, the inheritors of a corner of the Roman Empire, fancified, indolent fellows who worshiped everything French and indulged themselves in a passion for the barber, the tailor, and the gossip of the cafés. Thus the Bulgarian marchers had selected for themselves a black and olive green uniform which was, compared with Romanian finery, simple and severe.

Still, though simple and severe, they were uniforms, and the men of Vidin were yet at some pains, in 1934, to explain to the local population how greatly that altered matters.

It was a soft autumn evening, just after dusk, when Nikko Stoianev called Omar Veiko a dog prick. A white mist hung in the tops of the willows and poplars that lined the bank of the river, clouds of swallows veered back and forth above the town square, the beating of their wings audible to those below. The Stoianev brothers were on their way home from the baker’s house. Nikko, being the younger, had to carry the bread.

They were lucky to have it. The European continent lay in the ashes of economic ruin. The printing presses of the state treasuries cranked out reams of paper currency—showing wise kings and blissful martyrs—while bankers wept and peasants starved. It was, certainly, never quite so bad as the great famines of Asia. No dead lay bloated in the streets. European starvation was rather more cunning and wore a series of clever masks: death came by drink, by tuberculosis, by the knife, by despair in all its manifestations. In Hamburg, an unemployed railway brakeman took off his clothes, climbed into a barrel of tar, and burned himself to death.

The Stoianevs had the river. They had fished, for carp and pike, sturgeon and Black Sea herring, for generations. They were not wealthy, but they did earn a few leva. That meant the Stoianev women could spend their days mending lines and nets and the family could pay the Braunshteins, in their flour-dusted yarmulkes, to do the baking. They had, frankly, a weakness for the Braunshtein bread, which was achieved in the Austrian manner, with a hard, brown crust. Most of their neighbors preferred the old-fashioned Turkish loaf, flat and round in the Eastern tradition, but the Stoianev clan looked west for their bread, and their civilization. They were a proud, feisty bunch—some said much too proud—with quick tempers. And they were ambitious; they meant to rise in the world.

Much too ambitious, some thought.

A time might just come, and come fairly soon, when the Stoia- nevs would have to bow the head—who were they, one might ask, to have their damned noses stuck so high in the air? After all, had not the eldest son of Landlord Veiko sought the hand of the eldest Stoianev daughter? The one with the ice-blue eyes and thick black hair. And had he not been refused? A shameful slight, in the watchful eyes of Vidin. The Veiko were a family of power and position; property owners, men of substance and high rank. Any fool could see that.

What fools could and could not see became something of a topic in Vidin following Nikko Stoianev’s death. A few leading citizens, self-appointed wise men and local wits, who read newspapers and frequented the coffeehouse, asked each other discreetly if Nikko had not perhaps seen the wrong Veiko. That is, Landlord Veiko. For Landlord Veiko was not in the town square that autumn evening.

Colonel Veiko was.

In his black and olive green uniform, marching at the head of the Bulgarian National Union—all eighteen of them present that night. You see, the wise men told each other, to call a landlord a dog prick was to risk a slap in the face for humiliation, a few cold words to chill the blood, and a kick in the backside to send you on your way. That much was tradition. It had happened before. It would happen again. But to say such things to a colonel. Well, that was another matter altogether, was it not.

Omar Veiko, in either manifestation, landlord or colonel, was a man to be reckoned with in Vidin. A man whose studied effeminacy was a covert tribute to his power, for only a very powerful man raised neither voice nor fist. Only a very powerful man could afford to be so soft, so fussy, so plump, so fastidious. It was said that he dined like a cat.

This Veiko had a mustache, a sharp, stiff, well-waxed affair that shone jet black against his cream-colored skin. He was a short man who stood on his toes, a fat man who sucked in his stomach, a curly-haired man who oiled his curls until they brushed flat. A man, obviously, of some considerable vanity and, like most vain men, a close accountant of small insults. A note of sarcasm in the voice, a glance of ill-concealed anger, a rental payment slapped overhard on the wooden desk. All such sins were entered in a ledger, no less permanent for being kept in Veiko’s razor-sharp memory rather than on bookkeeper’s pages. It was, in fine, the Turkish style: an effete, polished surface just barely concealing interior tides of terrible anger. An Eastern tactic, of great antiquity, meant to frighten and intimidate, for Omar Veiko’s most urgent desire on this earth was that people be frightened of him. He lived on fear. It set him above his fellows, content to live out their days animated by less ambitious cravings.

Some weeks later, Antipin, the Russian who pretended to be a Bulgarian, would nod slowly with grave understanding. “Yes, yes,” he would say, pausing to light a cigarette, “the village bully.”

“We know them,” he would add, eyes narrowing, head nodding, in a way that meant and we know what to do with them.

Colonel Veiko marched his troop into the main square from the west. The sky was touched with the last red streaks of the setting sun. The twenty-five minarets, which gave the town its fame along the river, were now no more than dark shapes on the horizon. There was a light evening breeze off the water and, at the center of the town square, the last leaves of the great beech tree rattled in the wind, a harsh, dry sound.

The Bulgarian National Union marched with legs locked stiff, chins tucked in, arms fully extended, fingers pointing at the ground. Legs and arms moved like ratchets, as though operated by machinery. All in time to Khosov the Postman, who kept the beat with a homemade drumstick on a block of wood. They badly wanted a drum, but there was no drum to be had unless one went all the way to Sofia. No matter. The desired effect was achieved. A great modern age was now marching into the ancient river town of Vidin.

Colonel Veiko and his troopers had not themselves conceived this fresh approach to parades. It had come down the river from Germany, twelve hundred miles away, brought by an odd little man in a mint-colored overcoat. He arrived by passenger steamer, with tins of German newsreels and a film projector. To the people of Vidin, these were indeed thrilling spectacles. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Such enormous banners! Huge bonfires, ranks of torches, songs lifted high by a thousand voices.

The people of Vidin worked hard, squeezed the soul from every lev, watched helplessly as their infants died of diphtheria. Life was a struggle to breathe. Now came an odd little man in a mint-colored overcoat and he offered them pride—a new spirit, a new destiny. Omar Veiko, who could read the wind like a wolf, realized that this time belonged to him, that it was his turn.

First he made himself a captain. Later, a colonel.

The uniforms were sewn up by a tailor named Levitzky, whose family had for generations outfitted the local military: Turkish policemen stationed in the town, Austro-Hungarian infantry going to war against Napoleon, Bulgarian officers in World War I, when the country had sided with Germany. The fact that money passed into the hands of Levitzky, a Jew, was regrettable, but was viewed as a necessary evil. In time such things would be put right.

The uniforms were soon ready. The heavy cotton blouse was olive green, an Eastern preference. The trousers and tunic, of thickly woven drill, were a deep, ominous black. A black tie set off the shirt. Each tunic had a shoulder patch, a fiery crucifix with crossed arrow. The uniforms were received with delight. The heavy double-breasted cut of the jackets made the National Union members look fit and broad-shouldered.

But the caps. Ahh, now that was a problem. Military caps were not the proper domain of a tailor—that was capmaker’s business, different materials and skills were required. There was, however, no capmaker about, so the job fell on Levitzky.

A progressive. A reader of tracts on Palestinian repatriation, a serious student of the Talmud, a man who wore eyeglasses. Le- vitzky had an old book of illustrations; he thumbed through it by the light of a kerosene lamp. All Europe was represented, there were Swiss Vatican Guards, Hungarian Hussars, French Foreign Legionnaires, Italian Alpine regiments of the Great War. From the last, he selected a cap style, though he hadn’t the proper materials. But Levitzky was resourceful: two layers of black drill were sewn together, then curved into a conical shape. The bill of the cap was fashioned by sewing material on both sides of a cardboard form. All that was lacking, then, was the feather, and this problem was soon solved by a visit to the ritual slaughterer, who sold the tailor an armful of long white goose quills.

Colonel Veiko and his troopers thought the caps were magnificent, a little flamboyant, a daring touch to offset the somber tone of the uniforms, and wore them with pride. The local wise men, however, laughed behind their hands. It was entirely ridiculous, really it was. Vidin’s petite-bourgeoise tricked out in goose feathers, strutting up and down the streets of the town. The grocer preceded by his monstrous belly. The postman beating time on a wooden block. Laughable.

Nikko Stoianev thought so too, standing with his arms full of Braunshtein’s loaves on a soft evening in autumn. The Stoianev brothers had stopped a moment to watch the parade—very nearly anything out of the ordinary that happened in Vidin was worth spending a moment on. Veiko marched in front. Next came the two tallest troopers, each with a pole that stretched a banner: the blazing crucifix with crossed arrow. Three ranks of five followed, the man on the end of each line holding a torch—pitch-soaked rope wound around the end of a length of oak branch. Five of the torches were blazing. The sixth had gone out, sending aloft only a column of oily black smoke.

“Ah, here’s a thing,” Khristo said quietly. “The glory of the nation.”

“Levitzky’s geese,” Nikko answered, a title conferred by the local wise men.

“How they strut,” Khristo said.

They took great strength from each other, the Stoianev brothers. Good, big kids. Nikko was fifteen, had had his first woman, was hard at work on his second. Khristo was nineteen, introspective like his father. He shied away from the local girls, knowing too well the prevailing courtship rituals that prescribed pregnancy followed by marriage followed by another pregnancy to prove you meant it the first time. Khristo held back from that, harboring instead a very private dream—something to do with Vienna or, even, the ways of God were infinite, Paris. But of this he rarely spoke. It was simply not wise to reach too far above what you were.

They stood together on the muddy cobbled street, hard-muscled from the fishing, black-haired, fair-skinned. Good-natured because not much else was tolerated. Nikko had a peculiarly enlarged upper lip that curled away from his teeth a little, giving him a sort of permanent sneer, a wise-guy face. It had got him into trouble often enough.

In good order, the unit marched past the grand old Turkish post office that anchored the main square, then reached the intersection.


Colonel Veiko thrust his arm into the air, held tension for a moment, then shouted, “Left . . . turn!”

They marched around the corner of the open square, heading now toward the Stoianevs, white feathers bobbing. Veiko the landlord. The grocer. The postman. Several clerks, a schoolteacher, a farmer, a fisherman, even the local matchmaker.

Nikko’s grin widened. “Hup, hup,” he said.

They watched the parade coming toward them.

“Here’s trouble,” Khristo said.

Copyright 2002 by Alan Furst

Meet the Author

Often compared to Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, Alan Furst is a master of the spy thriller and one of the great war novelists of our time. He is the author of Night Soldiers, Dark Star, The Polish Officer, and The World at Night. He lives in Sag Harbor, New York.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

Sag Harbor, New York
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
B.A., Oberlin College

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Night Soldiers 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Khristo Stoianev is the protagonist of this novel about the years before World War II. He is a Bulgarian, growing up as a fisherman working the Danube. He is about 18 when his brother is beaten to death by a Fascist troop in his home town, and Khristo is thereby recruited into the Soviet NKVD as a spy. The first long part of the book is about his training in Arbat Street in the methods of spycraft, and the formation, among his companions, of a brotherhood that will tie together the plot through the sections that follow. Soianev is sent to Spain during the Civil War, but escapes the purges when one of his brotherhood warns him of his arrest, lives in Paris and is peripherally involved in a killing by Bulgarian emigres, and is sent to prison at the behest of British secret service. He is released by another of the brotherhood, joins the resistance and is smuggled out of France to Switzerland by the Americans. Sent back to Prague as a spy, he finally learns of a defection and enlists the aid of the Americans to exfiltrate the NKVD spy. The novel is always literate, well paced, with believable characters and interesting historical comments. Thoroughly enjoyable, I read most of this in one evening.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just read Night Soldiers and will now read all of Furst's espionage novels. The writing is fine, the characters sympathetic and believable, the tradecraft authentic, the historical background excellently developed. I couldn't put it down and really cared about several characters. I have one minor criticism, which may relate to an unavoidable problem in a book of such sweeping scope. He introduces some intriguing plot twists which he doesn't sufficiently develop. For example, in the Spanish Civil War segment, Fay Bern has very strong reason to be suspicious of the loyalties of her lover, Andre. She could have picked up on the clues and faced a decision to trust him or not. Or suspicion could have fallen on her, with her able to escape only by pointing to him. The dramatic possibilities were terrific. Instead, the theme just gets dropped. There are a few other loose ends like this, but the novel is nearly 500 pages, so something had to be sacrificed. Despite such minor quibbles, I am looking forward to reading Dark Star and then his other books.
Mark Wunschel More than 1 year ago
a peak lnto a world that is little known. written ln furst's true fashion.this book was my first furst and kept me reading many more
BlueVilla More than 1 year ago
Furst is a master of the espionage book, set in the 1930s and 1940s.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Perhaps the best I have read so far from the author. Intend to keep reading his other novels.
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