Simon Sebag Montefiore is the bestselling author of—among many other titles—Jerusalem and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, both utterly compelling nonfiction historical works.
Many academics and writers of the factual stumble when turning their talents to fiction. While they know their stuff, they cannot necessarily build tension. Dr Montefiore is an exception. His knowledge of the USSR during Stalin’s time is not in question, as anyone who has read The Court of the Red Tsar can testify, but in this novel he goes one step further.
Taking a true story and making it his own, Dr Montefiore has skilfully crafted a novel full of passion, conspiracy, hope, despair, suffering and redemption. It transcends the boundaries of genre, being at once thriller and political drama, horror and romance.
His ability to paint the tyrannical Stalin in such a way as to make the reader quake with fear is matched by his talent for creating truly heartbreaking characters: the children who innocently find themselves at the center of the alleged conspiracy to overthrow Stalin and, consequently, behind the dank walls of the dreaded Lubyanka prison; their parents, torn between the need to be seen as loyal Bolsheviks and the love they have for their families; the iron leaders who struggle with their own humanity.
Stalin’s introduction comes in the prologue, pregnant with foreboding:
“The war’s over, the streets teem with drunken, singing crowds. Everyone is certain that a better, easier Russia will emerge from the war. But this depends on one man whose name is never uttered by sensible people except in reverent praise.”
The big names in the Politburo come in for some charming introductions, too:
“She was sitting between Satinov and Mikoyan, the most courteous and elegant of the leaders, who were, as a rule, uncouth and dreary. When she looked around, she saw most of them sported the telltale archipelago of red spots on their cheeks, the signs of alcoholism and arteriosclerosis. She noticed the gruesome Beria making eyes at her across the table.”
Indeed, as if the reader might be in doubt about the paedophile Beria, the author thoroughly undresses him:
“Beria collapsed wheezily by the side of his new girl, his green-grey man-breasts hanging pendulously like a camel’s buttocks. What a session!”
With a few choice words, even the wives of the top brass are dealt with:
“First, her parents greet the smug Molotovs—he’s in a black suit like a bourgeois undertaker, pince-nez on a head round as a cannonball, his tomahawk-faced wife Polina in mink.”
Welded to these engaging character portraits is a sense of place so real that readers will believe they have been to the Kremlin, to Moscow and the country dachas, that they themselves have wept on the floors of the Lubyanka cells, even travelled to war torn Berlin and into exile.
“Holding his school satchel, he walked through the streets. He could feel the heat rising from the paving stones. Around him, the capital of Soviet victory looked like a defeated city. He saw crumbling buildings, their facades peppered with shrapnel, windows shattered, roads pockmarked with bomb craters. Everything—the walls, the houses, the cars—everything except the scarlet banners was drab, beige, peeling, khaki, grey. But the faces of the passersby were rosy as if victory and sunlight almost made up for the lack of food, and the streets were crowded with pretty girls in skimpy dresses, soldiers, sailors and officers in white summer uniforms. Studebaker trucks, Willys jeeps and the Buicks of officials rumbled by—but there were also carriages pulled by horses, carts heaped with hay or bedding or turnips, right in the middle of this spired city with its gold domes.”
At 480 pages it might reasonably be expected that some extra editing wouldn’t have hurt, but again Dr Montefiore proves the exception. The pages turn at a perfect pace, and the chapter endings are barbed enough to hook an adult sturgeon.
“Andrei was on his own. Now he could remake himself: reforging was a principle of Bolshevism. Stalin himself had promised that the sins of the father would never be visited on the son but Andrei knew they were—and with a vengeance.”
One Night in Winter is a gripping read and must surely be one of the best novels of 2013.
This review originally appeared on the New York Journal of Books and is reproduced here with their kind permission