OCTOBER READING: ONE NIGHT IN WINTER by Simon Sebag Montefiore
A bit of internet research shows up that Joseph Stalin, dictator leader of the Soviet Union from mind-1920s till his death in 1953, was responsible during this time for the deaths of 20 million Soviet people - his own people. Most died from starvation either due to state induced famine or in the infamous Gulags. By the way, this is in addition to what may be another 20 million who died as a direct result of WWII. His purges were so extensive and ruthless that come the German invasion of Russia in 1941, it is claimed that he did not have enough man power to prevent the invasion. Such was Stalin's paranoia and insecurity during all the years of his terror filled reign, that literally no one was safe. Including children. Even children of his own advisers and high ranking defence personnel.
This novel is based on the episode that became known as the Children's Case of 1943 when two children of high ranking Soviet officials died during a shooting. Amongst their papers, plans for a joke government were found which resulted in the friends of the two dead teenagers being imprisoned, interrogated, forced to sign a confession and then sent to central Asia for six months. The author spoke to survivors of the case as part of his research. This case forms the backbone to the novel, using both real people, for example Stalin and some of his generals, and fictionalising the children and their families. The novel is as much about Soviet Russia during this time as it is about the private lives of families, and how betrayal at this most private of levels was actively encouraged.
Stalin didn't believe in love of any kind except to himself and the glory of Russia. The one fly in this ointment was the poet and writer Alexander Pushkin whose works were reluctantly permitted as he simply couldn't get this man out of Russian mindset. In this novel, the author uses Pushkin as the base around which the teenagers build their Fatal Romantics' Club which Stalin felt so threatened by. The web of fear that was caused by the shooting of the two teenagers, is huge and complicated, with the reader fearing for the lives of most of the characters in the novel. This includes the children themselves, one as young as six, the parents, some of whom have to continue looking Stalin in the eye, knowing that Stalin hs personally directed the arrest and interrogation of their children.The school teachers at the prestigious state school the children attend are also under threat, surveillance and interrogation.
At the same time as all this is going on, one of the school girls is having an affair with someone she shouldn't be. This too is based on a true story of the period, whereby a translator at the British Embassy became engaged to a Russian girl. When she attempted to legitimately leave Russia and join him, she was poisoned, brought back to Moscow and tried for treason. The fictionalised version is slightly different, but no less terrifying than the original.
The tension and fear throughout this story is palpable from the opening sentence: "Just moments after the shots, as Serafima looks at the bodies of her school friends, a feathery whiteness is already frosting their blasted flesh". This very highly regarded author has written two non fiction books about Stalin, and another about Catherine the Great, as well as one other fiction book set during the time of Stalin's rule. He knows this period in history intimately, his knowledge and research shining through. We get a real taste for what daily life was like in communal living situations, the need for husbands and wives to have private whispered conversations in the bathroom with the taps running, the queues for food, the constant being on guard, the sudden disappearances of neighbours and then years later the random appearance of long lost friends and loved ones. We simply can't comprehend living under such fear and intimidation. And yet it is important that we know about what has gone on in our recent past.This is a compelling and frightening read, Stalin's use of children making you realise what an absolute monster this man was, and yet the power of love still managing to shine on through.