An Historian’s Foray into Fiction
Simon Sebag Montefiore is renowned for his research and historical texts on revolutionary Russia, and especially for such recent groundbreaking studies of Stalin as Young Stalin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. In Sashenka, his first dalliance into novel writing, he succeeds in creating a number of fictional characters who rub shoulders with historical figures. The heroine — and the novel’s namesake — aids him in reaching his target of making what could be a historical text attractive to a broader audience. In his acknowledgements, Montefiore makes clear his aim to “write about how an ordinary family coped with the triumphs and tragedies of 20th-century Russian history.” The narrative is broken into three sections: Part 1: St Petersburg, 1916; Part 2: Moscow, 1939; and Part 3: The Caucasus, London, and Moscow, 1994.
The brave, if a little naïve, revolutionary we meet in the first section of the novel grows in depth, character, and appeal in Part 2, where we witness the passionate mistake that transforms forever the life of this respected wife, mother, and party member. Her spirit is kept alive in the final section of the novel when her presence is felt by all who strive to unearth the heartbreaking tale of a family torn apart by the devastating actions of a Party that thrived on terror and control. Unfortunately, as the author states, this is not an unusual occurrence. Many children were orphaned or separated from parents and siblings during this epoch of history. However, that is where all semblance of normality ends. There is nothing commonplace about Sashenka or her family.
Our heroine grew up the rich daughter of a Jewish businessman, deeply affected by her neurotic, party-loving, and oversexed mother. She was equally infl uenced by her crippled and socially inept Bolshevik Uncle Mendel. Sashenka joined the Party under the code name Comrade Snow Fox and was encouraged to use her youth, intelligence, and good looks to pass information and seduce the head of the tsarist police. In later life Sashenka and her family entertain Stalin and continue to win Party favor and avoid the terror that had led to the removal of many of their friends. Sashenka’s good looks and beguiling character aid her at times but are ultimately the cause of her most terrible downfall. We are repeatedly reminded of “the little shower of freckles on either side of her nose” and the “cool grey eyes” that bore into the souls of others and go on to haunt long after her death. At times the repetition of such facts feels somewhat tedious and excessive.
Montefi ore’s characters are colorful, at the same time credible and larger than life (her rakish uncle, the novelist/ journalist Gideon Zeitlin, who appears to have nine lives and evokes a vivid picture of English actor/adventurer Brian Blessed, to name one), and addictive — this book was devoured in a matter of days. I cared what happened to the characters; I wanted them to survive. The romance of the text that irritated me at first went on to ensnare me and did not let go until the very end.
However, it is not just the characters that make this such a readable novel. Montefi ore keeps some of the historical characters, offers us insights into their quirky manners, and paints a picture of Russia that tells a story of beauty, courage, strength, and compassion while reminding us of the horrors and terrifying times, when to throw a paper dart in class and hit the portrait of Stalin could lead to a family’s imprisonment. His descriptions of St. Petersburg at night, the heat and energy of Tbilisi, and the moon and stars creating crystals on the Moscow River are the perfect relief from the intensity of the plot.
Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Bantam Press, 2008, 544 pages) is available at Amazon.co.uk