Book Review: One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

one night in winterThis book explores the consequences of forbidden love in this heartbreaking epic, inspired by a true story that unfolds in Stalin’s Russia during the bleak days after World War II.

A jubilant Moscow is celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler when gunshots ring out though the city’s crowded streets. In the shadow of the Kremlin, a teenage boy and girl are found dead. But this is no ordinary tragedy, because these are no ordinary teenagers. As the children of high-ranking Soviet officials, they inhabit a rarefied world that revolves around the exclusive Josef Stalin Commune School 801. The school, which Stalin’s own children attended, is an enclave of privilege—but, as the deaths reveal, one that hides a wealth of secrets. Were these deaths an accident, a suicide pact . . . or murder?

Certain that a deeper conspiracy is afoot, Stalin launches a ruthless investigation. In what comes to be known as the Children’s Case, youths from all over Moscow are arrested by state security services and brought to the infamous interrogation rooms of the Lubyanka, where they are forced to testify against their friends and their families. Among the casualties of these betrayals are two pairs of illicit lovers, who find themselves trapped at the center of Stalin’s witch hunt. As the Children’s Case follows its increasingly terrifying course, these couples discover that the decision to follow one’s heart comes at a terrible price.

A haunting evocation of a time and place in which the state colluded to corrupt and destroy every dream, One Night in Winter is infused with the desperate intrigue of a political thriller. The eminent historian Simon Sebag Montefiore weaves fact and fiction into a richly compelling saga of sacrifice and survival, populated by real figures from the past. But within the darkness shines a deeply human love story, one that transcends its moment as it masterfully explores our capacity for loyalty and forgiveness

From Netgalley in exchange for a review

This is set in the USSR, predominately in 1945 in the months after the end of WWII.  The USSR is jubilant, having been on the winning side against Germany and the Nazis.  However, on an individual level, people have already learnt the double-think of the state under Lenin and now Stalin and know that they can be betrayed by even their closest family members.

It starts, almost innocently enough, with the return of Andrei and his mother to Moscow and his starting at school 801, which has children of many of the elite in the politburo etc. His father has disappeared several years before – who knows where? – and the lives of his family are tainted by his being declared an “Enemy of the State”.

Andrei is sucked into a niche group, who have been studying Pushkin, his position aided by Andrei’s extensive knowledge of the poet. Unfortunately, it means his reputation is tainted when two of the members are found dead following a performance piece at a celebration march.

Much of the rest of the book is spent covering the months following the deaths as the State investigates the deaths of two children of prominent state members. Due to the suspicion and fear imposed on the Russians, no one trusts anyone else  and they fear each other and themselves – husbands and wives; parents and children etc.  Add into the mix the vagaries of the interrogators (who have no problem presenting a 17 year old with the option of betraying his older sibling and either his mother OR his Father or pulling a 6 year old in for months of questioning) and the second-guessing of what a temperamental Stalin may want, makes for living on the edge.

As stated in the Epilogue – this book is about love – the love between spouses, parents and children, unrequited (first) love; sexual love; even Stalin gets a look in with both his dead wife and his dead-to-him daughter (who had the nerve to marry a Jew!).  Stalin is presented as a leader having to keep everything in line by being unpredictable – you never knew the day nor the hour when you would be summoned, and each new day presented a new opportunity for each person to fall in and out of favour – often never finding out what was the cause of each change in situation. Only the fast of wit and intellect survived very long.

The fear to talk outright, even between spouses and certainly not between acquaintances, leads to a sense of inadequacy and paranoia. How can you ask for help when you can’t even admit that your child has been arrested and is even now being interrogated and you have no idea what’s going on? I haven’t read many books set in post WWII USSR, but sitting here in the comfort of the west, this book must give some indication of what it was like in the communist state – I suspect our nearest equivalent is 1984 by George Orwell, which was written in the late 1940s, so is possibly as close as we come.

Thankfully I didn’t have my usual problem of people having too many names – yes everyone had more than one, but for once I was able to keep them all pretty much on check.

About this Author

Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of the prize-winning books Jerusalem: the Biography’ and Young Stalin and the novels Sashenka and now One Night in Winter. His books are published in over 40 languages and are worldwide bestsellers. He read history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, where he received his Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD).

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One thought on “Book Review: One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

  1. Great review! I really want to read this book; I read his other novel Sashenka last year or so and absolutely loved it. The author does a really good job in bringing to life what it was like to be in Soviet Russia and the system they operated under.

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