Simon Sebag-Montefiore, One Night in Winter (Century 2013) pp456
Several years ago, when I read Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s books on Stalin, I had approached them with preconceived notions about such ‘popular’ works. I quickly realised how wrong I was and literally could not put them down. Sebag’s new novel, based in part on real events in Stalin’s Russia, similarly draws in the reader and renders time meaningless.
The saga emanates from Moscow’s School 801, a school for the pampered offspring of the Soviet elite. Two pupils are found shot dead on the very day of the victory parade in 1945 to celebrate the USSR’s triumph over Nazism. Stalin is informed by Beria that the deceased teenagers ran the ‘Fatal Romantic Club’ at school with an emphasis on the centrality of love. Such bourgeois sentimentality pricks the ears of the ailing dictator. The implied inferences to Pushkin’s Eugene Onedin are clearly a plot to overthrow the Soviet state. Six year siblings are called in for interrogation and so the terrible ‘children’s case’ begins.
If you are over 12, nine grams of cold Soviet bullet can end your life if the Stalinist fantasy of an interrogation takes a wrong turning. If you are under 12, the kindly NKVD man will wait until you reach this age of maturity before pulling the trigger. The accused are roped together, if one falls then all fall into the abyss.
Stalin once commented that a true Bolshevik shouldn’t have a family because he had to devote himself solely to the party. And yet even the straight-laced Bolsheviks in private believe in unadulterated love. With their children in the dungeons of the Lubyanka, with their families on the point of atomisation, frantic parents can only smile in public and calmly proclaim that Soviet justice will prevail.
Sebag sketches out the villainous nature of Stalin’s acolytes in chilling detail. Invented characters mix with historic killers such as Abakumov and Kobylov. The bullies and the bureaucrats denounce colleagues to procure advancement. Lovers betray their partners to live another day.
Above them all is the Gulag returnee, Benya Goldin, who does not sell his soul, a dedicated teacher whose Jewish dissidence, honesty and wit protect his conscience from Stalinist assault. As he remarks in the school common-room to the hack who wants to displace the conscientious headteacher: ‘so, is this a coup d’etat?’
There are hints of Mayakovsky and Pasternak in Sebag’s story. Lovers are remembered, Dr Zhivago-style, thirty years after late Stalinism had sent them to the camps instead of the altar. In the interim, they have moved on – with different partners and numerous children – but they can never forget the passions of their youth and what might have been.
As in the film, ‘The Life of Others’ about East Germany, opportunists who trumpet Communist puritanism as a virtue are depicted brilliantly. Autocracy, from the Tsars to the Soviets to the present day, is a feature of Russian governance. Liberalism seems to be a generational exercise in failure and frustration. Today it is the turn of the gays. At least Putin, so far, has had the common sense not to mess with the Jews.
Jewish Chronicle 30 August 2013