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Review: One Night in Winter, Simon Sebag Montefiore

one night in winterAndrei Kurbsky’s father was exiled to a labor camp and he and his mother have spent the last few years in Stalinabad. In 1945 Russia, everyone is under suspicion, and with Andrei’s chequered family history, it seems like a small miracle that he’s been accepted into Moscow’s top school – where Stalin’s own children were educated. Andrei finds himself rubbing shoulders with the children of film stars and top governmental officials, developing a crush on a girl called Serafima, who is one of the most sought-after teenagers in the school. He is swept into the Romantics Club, where several of the students re-enact scenes from Eugene Onegin, one of Pushkin’s most famous plays. But when two of the teens end up dead, Andrei, Serafima, and their friends, just children, land in Lubyanka prison, subject to the brutal interrogation methods that could end up destroying them and their entire families.

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to have the state watch your every move, and arrest you on the slightest provocation, this book is one to read. It perfectly evokes the atmosphere of suspense and suspicion that haunted every single person in Moscow and in the rest of the Soviet Union. Any false move – even one that isn’t false – and prison awaited, along with the potential for exile to a labor camp where many suffered, including in this book Andrei’s father. For an idea of what this was like, I’d go read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – unforgettable. But this book covers instead the questioning, the wondering, and the suspense. No one was immune, not even these children.

Montefiore has written previous histories of Stalinist Russia, including biographies of the man himself, so he’s clearly done his research on the period which makes it easier to trust what he says. This is a surprisingly suspenseful novel; it’s easy to genuinely worry about Serafima, Andrei, and the other teens and children who find themselves in prison without being quite sure what they’ve done. The back story is revealed slowly, so we know Serafima has a secret from nearly the beginning of the book but aren’t sure what it is.

What I really liked in particular was the contrast between the children’s and some of their teacher’s love for what might be termed old Russian culture and the suspicious, derelict city of Moscow. Russia is still suffering the effects of the war and Stalin’s paranoia only increases as he ages; meanwhile in school, the teens admire the romance of Pushkin’s poetry and adore the teacher who shows them how life in the country used to be.

I really liked One Night in Winter; it’s a readable, tense, suspenseful account of what life may have been like during Stalin’s dictatorship. It has multiple threads of romance and mystery throughout, as well as a sincere homage to Russian culture. Recommended.

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