Art against the Machine – ‘One Night in Winter’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore

winter‘Dear friends, beloved romantics, wistful dreamers! Open your books. I hope you’ll always remember what we’re going to read today. We are about to go on a wonderful journey of discovery.’

One Night in Winter is a romantic thriller set in Stalinist Russia, just after the end of the Great Patriotic War. It is a companion novel to Sebag Montefiore’s earlier novel Shashenka. Whilst this novel stands entirely alone, shared characters and references mean that those who have read Shashenka will find added depths to this latest offering.

The two novels are thematically very similar. Though the opening section of Shashenka dealt with the communist revolution, much of that book is set deep inside Stalin’s regime, amongst the self-cannibalism of denunciations and forced confessions. And so it is with One Night in Winter.

The novel opens in a school. A school for the children of the Soviet elite. Despite being the children of grim faced Marshals, some of them are united by their love of Pushkin. In this they are encouraged by their teacher Benya Golden (a figure who appears in Shashenka).

The group are so in thrall to the works of Pushkin, that they even dress up and act out key passages in the text. This blatant display of bourgeois sentimentalism will have deep repercussions that reach far beyond the group. During the end of war celebrations two of the group are shot dead. The resulting investigation will tear friends and families apart.

This novel is really about The Machine. The terrifying world where Stalin is the ruling God of a religion free regime. The children are subjected to the full force of the Lubyanka’s interrogators, and, as their questioning continues, a ‘plot’ to overthrow Stalin is found. The author shows that nobody is safe. In the world where a six year old can be interrogated, and their words used against their parents, how could anyone be?

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s meticulous reconstruction of the Lubyanka’s workings once again reveals a regime consuming itself. Against this backdrop are three romances. That of Serafima, one of the Pushkin club members and sweetheart of the class. Another, a historical affair between two party grandees and finally the love of Benya Golden, for life, literature and his students.

The regime crushes all beneath it, but love and passion seeps through the cracks. It will not be contained. Sebag Montifiore uses this to bring forward hope in the direst of circumstances. His characters are well-drawn, and we root for all of them, but the story is a little underpowered. Terrible though the events are, there are few surprises in the novel and little narrative beyond, who loves who.

Shashenka had many of its characters go full circle, from firebrand revolutionaries, to powerful egomaniacs before becoming broken victims of the monster they created. This gave it an additional depth, and sense of irony. Here we start in the middle of the story and that angle is lost. Having said that, Shashenka is incredibly slow to get going. One Night in Winter is immediately gripping, having one of the finest opening lines I can remember.

One Night in Winter is a readable, often heart-breaking read, that entertains from beginning to end. I found it wasn’t quite in the ‘Oh My God! You have to read this novel’ category, but is still an accomplished novel written by one of our finest chroniclers of Soviet history.

Many thanks to Najma at Century/Cornerstone/Random House for sending me a copy of One Night in Winter

My thought stream can be found here.

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