Montefiore has the gift of writing you-are-there history and “Young Stalin” has an intimacy that turns its readers, in the words of one reviewer, into “eerily privileged insider[s].”
Now Montefiore has taken his penetrating view of Russian history (he is also the author of “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” and “Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner”) and used it to frame a novel. Sashenka traces a fictional family through several generations of turbulent Russian history. The result is a thriller spliced throughout with dark, photo-realistic images of the terror of Stalinist Russia.
“Sashenka” begins in Czarist Russia in 1916, on the eve of the revolution. A British governess sits in a chauffeur-driven car outside an elite St. Petersburg boarding school. She is waiting for Sashenka, her beautiful young charge, who is also the adored apple of her eye. Sashenka finally arrives – only to be arrested immediately by the Czar’s secret police.
The aristocratic adolescent, it seems, has been taking lessons in Marxism from her radical uncle and is now working for the revolution. She spends a night in jail before being rescued through the connections of her wealthy father.
It turns out, however, that you can take the girl out of prison more easily than you can remove the revolution from the girl. Sashenka has become a believer.
The first part of the book follows Sashenka and her family throughout the upheaval of the revolution and ends with a cameo appearance by Lenin – now taking his place at Russia’s helm.
The second part of the story, however, is where Montefiore’s expertise makes itself felt. The scene is set in Moscow, 1939. Stalin is firmly in charge of a terrorized nation and Sashenka is a committed (and privileged) Communist Party worker who is trying hard to convince herself that Stalin always acts in the country’s best interest.
She lives in a lovely dacha (assigned to her by the Party) with her two adorable children, Snowy and Carlos. Snowy is a little blond charmer who snuggles with an old pink cushion, while Carlos is a sturdy, sensitive toddler who looks like a little bear and cares for his pet bunny rabbits as tenderly as he loves his mommy.
Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Sashenka’s little socialist paradise does not endure. She discovers the cruel side of Stalinism firsthand and, in scenes that invoke “Dr. Zhivago” (refugees on battered trains rattling across Russia’s vast countryside), her little family is scattered to the winds.
The third part of the book zips readers up to 1994 and then hops, skips, and jumps between the Caucasus and London and Moscow. An earnest young student has been hired to find out what happened to Sashenka, Snowy, and Carlos. The search requires her to dig through Stalinist-era archives (much as Montefiore has spent his own career doing.) What she discovers is as surprising to her as it is to the remaining members of Sashenka’s family.
“Sashenka” offers an absorbing – albeit sometimes bumpy – ride through a suspenseful stretch of Russian history. Montefiore knows how to tell a story and once readers are hooked they will find it hard to put the book down before learning how the plotlines all unravel.
The knowledge that Montefiore knows whereof he writes gives the book that much more bite. Any reader tempted to wonder if he is exaggerating the terror he describes need only to pick up one of his thoroughly researched books to be reminded that this is history.
Unfortunately, however, Montefiore remains a historian first and a novelist second.
That means that at times his characters feel like stock figures from a dime-store novel. (Sashenka’s depraved, uncaring mother, Adriadna, in particular, seems to have lost her way from an unhappy romance novel before somehow stumbling into Rasputin’s dressing room.)
Other characters have more verisimilitude but still often feel like historical composites rather than real beings. (Montefiore explains at the book’s end that his intent was to write fiction based on many of the actual stories he has perused in Stalinist archives and most of the time this is exactly how this book feels.)
However, for readers who like either a large dose of history with their fiction or some fiction to sweeten their history, this is a book to put on the Christmas list. It successfully recreates a Russia about which we still have much to learn, even as it tells a story too near the truth to be forgotten anytime soon.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.