The Holy Thief takes place in Moscow in 1936. Captain Alexei Dimetrevich Korolev is a detective of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division who investigates the murder of a girl found dead and tortured in an old church. When the victim is identified as an American citizen, Korolev’s investigation is supervised by the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, known for its political repression during Stalin’s dictatorship.
Korolev believes in the system but his investigation brings him face to face with the grimy reality of Soviet life and, as a result, his faith in the communist utopia is progressively eroded. He, for instance, thinks “things [will] be better soon […] for the next generation anyway” (Ryan 2010: 143) since they are just “a stage in the evolution of history” (Ryan 2010: 336) which requires sacrifices at the moment but will eventually result in widespread well-being. However, he finds it increasingly difficult to believe that “the leadership [are] working for the People’s future” though he sticks to his faith since, if he stopped believing, “where would he be? What hell would he find himself in then – if it all turned out to be a blood-soaked lie?” (Ryan 2010: 203). At the end of the novel, in any case, as he witnesses how the members of the government enrich themselves by selling old icons on the black market and the assassination of those who threaten to expose the situation, his faith is further shaken and confesses, “I’m not quite the Soviet citizen I thought I was” (Ryan 2010: 338).
In the novel, Ryan paints a bleak picture of Stalinist Russia since the “new world socialism [is] creating” (Ryan 2010: 98) is as decrepit as the system itself. Roads are “holed and pitted by heavy trucks” and tenements are tottering and leaning “against multi-doomed churches, shabby with […] disuse” (Ryan 2010: 98). When it rains, it washes Moscow’s skies clear of the factories’ smog, only to “drop it into the streets as murky puddles of black sludge” (Ryan 2010: 176). The winter’s snow hides the city’s imperfections, but does not eliminate them, so Russia becomes a vision of hell where people with haggard faces and ragged clothes are lost in a labyrinth of “long hours, short rations and vodka” (Ryan 2010: 14).