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Book review: One Night in Winter, an Orwellian tale of persecution in Soviet-era Moscow

The Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore’s novel about the paranoid response to a tragedy involving two teenagers from high ranking families in Soviet-era Moscow proves a thumpingly good read, writes James Langton

Children celebrate Aviation Day in Tushino, Moscow in 1936. For the offspring of the party elite, Moscow was a privileged but dangerous city. Ivan Shagin / Slava Katamidze Collection / Getty Images
Children celebrate Aviation Day in Tushino, Moscow in 1936. For the offspring of the party elite, Moscow was a privileged but dangerous city. Ivan Shagin / Slava Katamidze Collection / Getty Images

One Night in Winter
Simon Sebag Montefiore

Poised high above the opening chapters of Simon Sebag Montefiore's novel One Night in Winter, the reader might be forgiven for taking a deep breath before the long plunge into so much ink.

Here are all the ingredients for a journey that will be physically, as well as mentally, arduous. The warning lights flash even before the opening chapter, before even the prologue. A list of characters greets us first, four pages of Russian names, some fictional, others, including Joseph Stalin, all too real.

The implication is that they, and their complex relationships, must first be memorised unless we are prepared to spend as much time flipping back to the list as moving forward with the plot.

Then there is the realisation that we are in Russia, a literary location so vast and unforgiving that it breaks the ill-prepared reader as easily as the real country did the armies of Napoleon and Hitler. It is with good reason that War and Peace has come to represent both.

And finally there is the author. Sebag Montefiore's last work was the critically-acclaimed Jerusalem, a great sprawling biography of the city, cast across thousands of years and, at nearly 800 pages, in its way another tale of war and peace.

So it is a relief to report that, despite first impressions, One Night in Winter is not just a thumpingly good read, but also essentially a story of human fragility and passions, albeit taking place under the intimidating shadow of a massive Stalinist portico.

Here is the Soviet Union at the peak of the old monster's power and influence. Russian troops have just raised the Red Flag over the ruins of the Reichstag, while in the rubble of Berlin, the corpse of the Führer smoulders with the Nazi dream of world domination.

In Moscow, the personality cult that credits victory almost single-handed to the vision of the Great Leader screams Stalin's name from every street corner. Under the shadow of the Kremlin walls, the triumphant Soviet legions are about to parade before an adoring populace, literally casting the fallen swastika battle standards at Stalin's feet.

There is no dissent. In dread corners of the Lubyanka prison and the frozen hell of the Siberian gulag, the odious Laventri Beria, head of the Organs, an all-seeing, all-knowing network of secret policemen and informers, makes sure of that.

For a group of young Muscovites, though, there are other more pressing matters on this rainy June morning in 1945 than the glorious conclusion of the Great Patriotic War. Members of an underground literary club that owes more to the Secret Seven than a secret society, their teenage hormonal passion is directed towards the great 19th-century Russian romantic poet Alexander Pushkin, taking form in enacting a costumed duel scene from his poetic masterpiece Eugene Onegin.

Armed with replica pistols, members of the self-styled Fatal Romantics' Club take turns in recreating the duel on the streets of Moscow.

This time, though, the theatrical props are replaced with something more deadly, and two members of the club, a boy and a girl, fall fatally wounded among the crowds celebrating victory.

In mere decibels, the shots cannot match the thundering cannons saluting Stalin and his battalions just a few hundred metres distant. But they are heard even in the deepest corridors of the Kremlin.

For these are no ordinary teenagers, but the offspring of "responsible party workers", the euphemism for the leadership of the Soviet Union. They are pupils at the Josef Stalin Commune School 801, an academy that educates children of the ruling elite. At the gates of this particular Animal Farm each morning one can see living proof of Orwell's observation that under communism "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others".

These gilded young pioneers arrive for lessons in chauffeur-driven American-made limousines. One, the daughter of the Soviet Union's most popular film actress, sits on the back seat of what is said to be Moscow's only Rolls-Royce. Their lives are buffed to a golden sheen by distinctly non-socialist comforts. Another family boasts a working TV set in their luxury apartment, although in the absence of any broadcasts, no one is quite sure what it does.

The bones of Montefiore's story are based on a real incident, in Moscow in 1943, when two children of powerful and well connected families died in a lovers' murder-suicide that was instead judged by the secret police to be a conspiracy against the state.

Likewise many of the characters in One Night in Winter are amalgams or gently disguised versions of real people (the author actually interviewed some of the survivors from the real Children's Case). Then there are vivid reconstructions of figures from the darker corners of the 20th century. Stalin, of course, and Beria, but also Stalin's two children, who bear the full weight of the family name while enjoying, and in the case of his son "crown prince" Vasily, abusing its privileges.

As the author of two well-regarded biographies of Stalin, Montefiore's fiction acquires a depth of authenticity. His Stalin - the Red Tsar, as he called him in an earlier work - is a man wearied by absolute power and total war, but with his DNA so deeply entangled in the machinery of state that it is impossible to disentangle one from the other.

Inevitably, then, what seems like an act of foolishness by teenagers gone horribly wrong rapidly enters the realms of paranoia. For some it is an opportunity to exploit. Victor Abakumov, the notoriously brutal head of SMERSH ("Death to Spies"), seeks to strengthen his hand over that of his arch-rival Beria and the internal security organs and judges the "Children's Case" to be a well-developed plot to overthrow the ruling elite.

Now no one is safe, from ministers and members of the Politburo to their youngest children.

The entire surviving membership of the Fatal Romantics club is rounded up and taken by the KGB to the Lubyanka prison, followed by their siblings. Brother is played against sister, children against parents. From their terrorised confessions, a truth must be concocted. Not the truth, but a truth that best fits the desired narrative of the interrogators and their masters.

In a society supposedly built on the principles of the dictatorship of the proletariat, how does the individual survive? For surviving is perhaps the ultimate goal in Sebag Montefiores' novel as it was in Stalin's Soviet Union.

Personal survival, of course, but also the survival of family and friends. What secrets must be surrendered to protect you and those you love and what can safely be kept hidden? Who will you betray along the way? Would you even make the ultimate sacrifice if the cause is important enough?

Each of Montefiore's characters must answer these questions alone. The only right answer is the one that keeps you and your loved ones alive, safe from the gulag or the "black work" of state security.

In such circumstances, Montefiore avoids passing judgement on his characters, beyond those who have already received the verdict of history. Even the most odious - the creepy teacher of "communist morals" at Joseph Stalin High who seeks to advance his position with fawning Bolshevik platitudes - are oddly sympathetic, or at least pathetic.

Stalin died eight years after the events of this book, his legacy trashed by those who followed him, his most trusted lieutenants, among them Beria and Abakumov, executed by firing squad.

But for those who survived, the shadow of those years was long and dark. As with the reality of the Soviet Union, there are no happy endings in One Night in Winter, just some endings that are less unhappy than they might be.