SASHENKA by Simon Montefiore
“Sashenka felt happy suddenly, and at ease, almost too relaxed. She’d been terrified when first she saw Stalin, right there in her garden. But he had relaxed them all and now she was fighting against her instinct to flirt and chatter. She was overexcited and probably drunk on that heavy Georgian red. Several times, crazy things were on the tip of her tougue. Be careful, Sashenka, she ordered herself, this is Stalin! Remember the last few years – the meat grinder! Beware!”
Review by Jana L. Perskie (FEB 1, 2010)
Simon Montefiore is a Russian historian and an award-winning author of history books on the subject of Stalin (Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Young Stalin) and Potemkin (Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner). With Sashenka Mr. Montefiore has applied his vast knowledge to f historical fiction. His expertise really enhances this novel, filled with characters that come to life on the page, along with an absorbing and moving storyline that spans the end of Russia’s Tsarist regime, the Bolshevik Revolution, life under Lenin and Stalin, and, finally, to 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The author’s ancestors escaped the Tsarist Empire, an event which sparked his interest in Russia. In Sashenka he writes about a fictional woman and her family. However, he has stated that this book was inspired by “many stories, letters and cases that he found in archives and in interviews over a period of ten years.”
It is 1916 when the reader meets Sashenka Zeitlin, the 16 year-old daughter of a wealthy Jewish arms merchant in St. Petersburg. Her father, Samuil, is the proprietor of the Anglo-Russian Naptha-Oil Bank of Baku and has ties to the Tsarist regime. In 1915, the grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaivich declared all Jews potential German spies and had them driven out of their villages. Although a Jew, Zeitlin has the right to stay in St. Petersburg because he is a merchant of the First Guild. Just before WWI he was elevated to the rank of the Emperor’s Secret Councillor.
Sashenka’s unstable mother socializes and idolizes with the notorious mystic Rasputin, called the “Mad Monk” by his detractors. And Sashenka, influenced by her uncle Mendel, has become a staunch Marxist. Even at her young age, she is a Bolshevik operator who risks her life on more than one occasion for the upcoming and inevitable Revolution. Her motto is “All or nothing,” taken from one of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s heroes. She firmly believes in “a class struggle that would progress through set stages to a workers’ paradise of equality and decency.”
Eventually, she is arrested for her activism and is subsequently pursued by a Tsarist officer who futily attempts to turn her into an informer. When the Romanov regime falls she becomes a secretary to Lenin.
The second and longest part of the novel takes place in Moscow, 1939. Josef Stalin rules the country with an iron fist. During the late 1930s he had launched a great purge, (also known as the “Great Terror”), a campaign to eradicate the Communist Party of people accused of sabotage, terrorism, or treachery. He extended it to the military and other sectors of Soviet society. Targets were often executed or imprisoned in Gulag labor camps. The fortunate were exiled. In the years following, millions of ethnic minorities were murdered or sent into exile.
When this part of the narrative opens, Sashenka has become a beautiful woman, the wife of a senior Communist officer, Vanya, and the mother of two beautiful children. She is a model Soviet woman who works as the editor of the “Soviet Wife and Proletarian Housekeeping magazine.” The family enjoys the privileges of their high rank in the Party. Oddly, their lifestyle is not dissimilar to the one Sashenka lived before the Revolution. Their friends and acquaintances are the amongst the Communist Party elite, and Stalin and Beria even attend one of Sashenka’s and Vanya’s parties – a tense situation at best. A stray word or false rumor could cost one his/her life, which seriously detracts from the pleasantries of the family’s existence, indeed the existence of all Russians.
I don’t want to include “spoilers,” but let it suffice to say that the lives of Sashenka and her family change drastically during this period.
Sashenka’s story is hidden for half a century when a young woman, a historian, is hired in 1994, to discover what happened to our protagonist and her family.
This is a tale of family, love, politics, injustice and heartbreak. Indeed, I was moved to tears at times. With the exception of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Gulag Archipelago, I have never really understood the depths of horror that unfortunates faced in the forced labor camps, spread all over the Soviet Union, especially in Siberia. And what a blood-spattered history that is.
Sashenka is a gripping read. The plot is exceptional. This novel is historical fiction at its best and is certainly worthy of 5 stars!
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 40 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Simon & Schuster (November 17, 2009)|
|REVIEWER:||Jana L. Perksie|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Simon Montefiore|
The New York Times review of Sashenka
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of these other books on Russia:
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith
- Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner (2005)
- Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004)
- Young Stalin (2007)
- Monsters: History’s Most Evil Men and Women (2008)
- Heroes: History’s Greatest Men and Women (2009)
- Jerusalem: the Biography, a fresh history of the Middle East