A Vow of Revenge for the Fall of the USSR

State of Play

What do the U.S. presidential succession, Pope John Paul II, a rogue Cold War KGB agent, Soviet portable nuclear weapons, and George Washington’s spymaster have in common? Nothing on the surface, but they are among the ingredients skillfully interwoven in the plot of Steve Berry’s latest novel, The 14th Colony. The novel is the 11th in the series featuring Cotton Malone, an operative in a secret Department of Justice intelligence unit.

The novel opens with a prologue featuring a private meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, where the two agree to collaborate to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union. The scene shifts to the present, as Malone is dispatched to Siberia by the intelligence unit chief, Stephanie Nelle, to locate an ex-KGB operative, Aleksandr Zorin. Zorin, bitterly resentful over the fall of the USSR, vows revenge against the U.S., and the Kremlin asks the outgoing American President for assistance to distance itself from the spy’s schemes.

The simple mission goes awry, and Malone has to fight his way to freedom. Before he escapes, Malone learns horrifying news: Zorin is on the hunt for portable nuclear weapons cached in the U.S. during the Cold War.

Nelle is about to lose her job since a new president will be inaugurated in days, and he intends to disband her unit. Zorin is interested in the inauguration as well. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet leader Yuriy Andropov believed he found a serious flaw in the U.S constitution, the 20th amendment dealing with presidential succession and concocted a diabolical plot to exploit this chink in his main adversary’s armor. Zorin, one of the KGB officers originally involved in the plot, decides to execute it to satisfy his long festering thirst for revenge.

Berry explains the flaws and differing legal interpretations of the amendment in considerable detail, focusing on a key issue: what happens if the President and Vice-President-elect are incapacitated before the inauguration? The convoluted statute blurs the solution, and the result could  spark the political chaos Andropov longed to inflict on the U.S. The plot may be long forgotten, but not by Zorin, the Soviet zealot bent on destroying the U.S with the catastrophic duo of flawed succession rules and “suitcase” nuclear bombs.

Zorin, however, never knew Andropov’s entire plan and  still needs to find another key piece of the puzzle to execute the plot. He knows from a decades old KGB report that the answers are in the “Tallmadge journal,” a diary in the Society of Cincinnati, a real organization formed by Revolutionary War veterans and kept active by their descendants. Among the embarrassing secrets in the Society archives are plans devised at various points in the nation’s history for the invasion of Canada, even as late as World War II.

Zorin eventually travels to the U.S. and joins with a Soviet sleeper agent to locate the nuclear devices and discover the last piece of the puzzle.

Every chapter of this fast-paced novel ends with a cliffhanger, as Malone and his crew race against the ticking clock of the upcoming inauguration to find Zorin, the nuclear weapons, and the Tallmadge journal secrets.  Along the way, they encounter heavily armed assailants from a hardline Russia faction that also searches for Zorin but wants the nuclear bombs for itself.

The novel is incredibly well researched, though some may find Berry’s extensive discussion of the presidential succession statutes too detailed. They are, however, interspersed with action-packed fights, ambushes, and narrow escapes. Even more, the details take on life when readers realize that the KGB scoured this same information to discover a flaw it could exploit to destroy the U.S.

Berry has said that “my goal is to keep the story 90 percent accurate to history, tripping things up only 10 percent,” and his holds true in The 14th Colony. President Reagan and the Pope actually did meet privately. While they didn’t launch the conspiracy of the novel, their parallel efforts did precipitate the fall of the USSR. The existence of Soviet suitcase nuclear weapons have yet to be proven, though one defector, GRU officer Stanislav Lunev, claimed they existed in a memoir.

Also, while many readers may be surprised, plans to invade Canada throughout American history are factual. While the secret journal is fictional, its author, Benjamin Tallmadge, was a member of the Society of Cincinnati. More importantly, Tallmadge, an undeservedly obscure Revolutionary War figure, was George Washington’s spymaster and as such, the nation’s first intelligence chief.

Berry masterfully integrates these historical facts with fiction to create a thriller that will keep readers riveted until the surprising secret is revealed. The novel is topical as well—Zorin’s lingering resentment over the Cold War will undoubtedly remind some of Vladimir Putin.  

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