Tyrant revived in an intense whodunit
One Night in Winter
By Simon Sebag Montefiore Century, 480pp, $32.95
SIMON Sebag Montefiore’s gripping new novel about family loyalties in Stalinist Russia challenges Tolstoy’s famous opening line to Anna Karenina: ‘‘ All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’’
In One Night in Winter the golden children of parents who belong to the governing elite are suspected by Stalin and his secret police of being members of an anti-Soviet conspiracy. When taken in for questioning and threatened with death or the gulag, the distraught parents of each ruptured family behave in the same way, inwardly succumbing to mental breakdown but outwardly grinning and bearing it lest they show signs of weakness and disloyalty to the party and its great leader.
This makes for difficult and affecting reading, but not once are the loyalties of the reader tested: Montefiore’s characters snare our sympathy and we follow them avidly to the end to discover their fates.
The novel begins in Moscow in June 1945, the day of the victory parade. War is over and a city celebrates, but the peace is broken when two children are shot dead.
Montefiore then takes us back several weeks and introduces us to the privileged children of eminent families who attend School 801, the best in the Russian capital. A small coterie has formed a secret group called the Fatal Romantics’ Club. When two of its members are shot, the authorities investigate, believing the group’s worship of Pushkin is a front for a plot to overthrow the government.
Soon no one is above suspicion, especially black-sheep pupil Andrei, who is tainted for being the son of an enemy of the people, and teacher Benya, who is still on thin ice after years spent in exile.
So far, so whodunit, albeit one in an impressive historical coating. However, Montefiore delivers his masterstroke by panning away from the notion of guilt in the children. Seeds of doubt germinate in the warped minds of their ruthless interrogators as to whether the children’s parents may in fact be members of the party unfaithful. Suddenly the children, some as young as six and 10, are tricked or coerced into denouncing and testifying against friends and family.
What eventually comes to light, though, are not incendiary counter-revolutionary plots but illicit love affairs. No damage is done to the invincible Soviet machine, only to the less sturdy mechanisms of the human heart.
One Night in Winter finds Montefiore shuttling between his twin occupations of historian and novelist. The book’s conspiracy strand, a true story, was chronicled in full in Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004) and he distils its essentials and fictionalises them with help from nonhistorical characters. Several key characters even reappear from his 2008 novel, Sashenka. All of which, it should be made clear, comes over as judicious borrowing, not lazy recycling.
One Night in Winter is at its most original when it concerns the Man of Steel himself, who appears regularly as a character. This is a different Stalin from the one Montefiore presented in his acclaimed 2008 biography Young Stalin. Equally well drawn, this one is
Stalin makes regular appearances in
and steals every scene