In the summer 1991, a Russian couple who deal in icons are found murdered in a villa in Berlin. There is evidence that the woman has been tortured before being killed. In Moscow, an officer in the new security service of the Russian Federation is despatched to German to find a rogue agent of the former KGB who has disappeared. Back in Berlin, an American art historian, Francesca McDermott, flies in to curate a major retrospective exhibition of Russian avant-garde art. The exhibition is the brain-child of Berlin’s new minister of culture, Stefan Diederich, a former dissident whom Francesca had known before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stefan tells her that the price for Russian co-operation in mounting the exhibition is that she work with a Russian art historian, Andrei Serotkin.
Serotkin turns out to have all the qualities of which the liberal-minded, feminist Francesca disapproves – he is a chain-smoking male chauvinist – but after he saves her from rape in Berlin’s Tiergarten she feels an involuntary attraction. He is also mysterious and has some kind of hold over Stefan Diederich. It is a time when Russia is in chaos, its assets plundered by cronies of Boris Yeltsin, and Berlin jittery because of the revelations that are emerging from the Stasi files.