'It was I who removed de P- this morning.' With these chilling words Victor Haldin shatters the solitary, industrious existence of Razumov, his fellow student at St Petersburg University.
Razumov aims to overcome the denial of his noble birth by a brilliant career in the tsarist bureaucracy created by Peter the Great.
But in pre-revolutionary Russia Peter's legacy is autocracy tempered by assassination; and Razumov is soon caught in a tragic web with Haldin's trustful sister Natalia in spy-haunted Geneva.
Their fateful story is told by an elderly Englishman who loves Natalia but plays his part of a 'dense Westerner' to the end.