Monday, December 16, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“ONE NIGHT IN WINTER” by Simon Sebag Montefiore  (Century / Random House $NZ37:99)

            The review you are about to read will be one of the most conceited and prattish that you have ever read on this blog – and that’s saying something as you know how conceited and prattish I can be when I’m in the wrong mood.

Basically, I’m going to say I’m happy that a lot of people will read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s novel One Night in Winter, because it will give them a good page-turning read and, if they don’t already know the details from other sources, it will also give them an accurate version of a particularly horrible portion of history. But, I will sneer, it doesn’t teach me anything because I already know its historical details from other, factual, sources. Besides, it really is a pop novel and not up to the level of my refined literary tastes. The masses will get much joy from it and good for them.

So be warned.

It you can stomach this patronising, elitist tone in me, read on.

Factual details first. Simon Sebag Montefiore is a very good popular historian whose action-packed history of Jerusalem, Jerusalem: The Biography, I enjoyed when I reviewed it for the Listener back in 2011. Montefiore is a member of a very distinguished Jewish family with Russian connections, so he has also written extensively about Russia and the old Soviet Union. Among historians his best known factual books are Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar in which he gives an account of the dictator’s servile (and terrorised) entourage; and Young Stalin, in which he details the dictator’s youth as a terrorist.

Knowing that not everybody reads detailed history books, however, Montefiore has also decided to spin popular fiction out of Stalinism. His Sashenka (I reviewed it for the Listener in 2008) was a generational saga about a sincerely convinced Bolshevik woman who falls foul of Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s. One Night in Winter is not a sequel to Sashenka, but it pursues a similar theme.

Scene: Moscow, 1945, just after the genius of General Secretary Stalin has managed to defeat the Fascist Beast and win the Great Patriotic War. A huge victory parade is in progress, in which Soviet troops will throw captured Nazi standards at the feet of the Generalissimo as if he were a Roman emperor. All is joy and patriotism. But there is a sour note. Two schoolchildren – a teenage boy and a teenage girl – are found shot dead. They went to School 801, the school for the children of the Soviet elite, the school where even Stalin’s children went. This is a job to be investigated by the NKVD, not by the ordinary police who investigate unimportant murders. It involves Beria’s lot. After all, anything so closely touching the Soviet leadership must affect the security of the state.

As readers, we know the teenagers were part of a circle who, reacting against Soviet austerity and Bolshevik materialism, idolised Romantic poets and had cloudy teenage ideas about Love being the only thing worth dying for. They called themselves the Fatal Romantics Club. They liked to dress up in nineteenth century costumes and recite Pushkin while acting out bits of Eugene Onegin, especially the duel scene where Onegin kills Lensky. But to the investigating NKVD men – and to Stalin – their adolescent game-playing is a sign of subversive bourgeois sentimentality, and their fantasising diary scribblings suggest a plot to overthrow the government. So schoolkids – most of them the sons and daughters of Stalin’s ministers and Politburo members – are dragged off to the Lubyanka to be interrogated and intimidated and terrorised and forced to sign confessions. Most wrenching are the scenes where the 6-year-old Mariko and the 10-year-old Senka are asked to tell everything they know about what mummy and daddy have been saying, with frequent reminders that in just a few years they will be eligible for the death penalty.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, 12-year-olds could be executed.

Nothing is exactly as it seems, however. It never is in a totalitarian state. The “case” involving the schoolchildren is intertwined with three weighty matters. There is a scandal about aircraft production (Soviet fighter planes keep crashing because of defective design, but somebody has to be blamed for sabotage). Just after the Potsdam Conference, there is Stalin’s growing suspicion of foreigners and the USA, especially at this time when America still has a monopoly on nuclear weapons. And there is Stalin’s smouldering anti-Semitism, which will soon break out in the so-called “Doctor’s Plot”.

As the kids are imprisoned, punished and interrogated, strenuous attempts are made to connect their silly games with all these matters. Stalin uses the case to discredit those of the children’s parents whom he wishes to liquidate or exile. The situation is summed up by Abakumov, one of the novel’s real historical characters, head of the counter-intelligence agency SMERSH:

A play-acting club, which was a front to conceal passions of adolescence, had led to the death of two kids. The investigation had uncovered a puerile game. If they hadn’t been elite brats, Stalin would never have heard about it. But now that he had, he would use the children in any way that suited his manoeuvres of the moment.” (p.252)

Montefiore’s endnote tells us that his fictitious Fatal Romantics Club and its doings are based loosely on a real case, the “Children’s Case” of 1943, in which children of the Soviet inner circle were tried and imprisoned for light-hearted joking about overthrowing the government.

As in Sashenka, Montefiore’s level of historical accuracy is high. I am allowed to make this pompous statement because I spent a year researching a book – which I still have yet to write – about Communism in New Zealand; and I immersed myself in the detailed histories of Orlando Figes, Robert Service, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Anne Applebaum and other respected historians to get to know the Stalin era.

I found myself nodding approvingly when Montefiore deployed details, which I recognized from other sources. There are, for example, these reflections of the boy Andrei, son of a liquidated dissident father, who has unexpectedly gained a place at the elite school. As he comes into class for his first day, he is jostled by one of the bigwigs’ children:

“ ‘Hey, don’t push me’, he said, but then he remembered that no one in the Soviet Union respected personal space. Everyone existed in a state of neurotic anxiety, but as his mother always told him: The key to survival is to be calm and save yourself. Never ask anyone what they did before and what they’re doing next. Never speak your mind. And make friends wherever you can.” (pp.28-29)

There are the references to the sexual sadism of Beria, who used his position to seduce or rape young female prisoners. Montefiore describes the disgusting creature after his congress with a 14-year-old girl:

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!” (p.148)

The novel naughtily reminds us that Nikita Khrushchev, later regarded more-or-less affectionately by the West as the post-Stalin reformer, was for years one of Stalin’s hacks. One of the novel’s main characters describes Khrushchev as  “this squat confection, the warts on his face, teeth like a horse, his suit as baggy as a sack. He was a real peasant.” (p.168)

We are given the detail of a paddy-wagon, trundling kids to prison, disguised as a grocery van with “Eggs. Milk. Groceries” painted on the side (p.257). This is reminiscent of the bitter final sentence of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece The First Circle, where a naïve liberal Western journalist sees a similar paddy-wagon with “Meat” painted on the side, and imagines it shows who well supplied with meat Moscow is. Such camouflage was standard for Stalin-era Soviet political police.

In a flashback sequence, Montefiore has Red Army soldiers advancing through Prussia in the closing months of the war, envious, shocked and outraged at what they saw:

Even Germany’s humblest cottages had larders filled with sugar, bread, eggs and meat, soft beds and white pillows. Most farmers had fled from the Russians, but the few who stayed were ruddy-cheeked and well dressed. They even wore wristwatches.” (p.267)

Such shock – among Russia’s peasant soldiers who had been led to believe that their collective farms delivered then a good standard of living – has been verified in numerous history books.

There is also the fact that Stalin’s inner circle has to remain exquisitely and painfully polite in the dictator’s presence, even when they are agonising about the fate of their children.

So I could rattle on with many other details, which show that Montefiore really has researched the era he is writing about and brings many of its customs and fears alive for us.

But here’s the problem. Historical verisimilitude or not, this is still a pop novel with all the infelicities thereof. There’s the heavy-handed irony. The scene of a kid, vomiting with fear while under interrogation, is followed by a scene of Stalin’s cronies vomiting from too much banqueting and vodka. There is the strained and declarative dialogue, often sounding like a TV miniseries spelling things out. The10-year-old who matches wits with the NKVD interrogator strikes me as a highly improbable creature, although Montefiore may have based him on some factual original. There is a long, romantic flashback when one of the main characters remembers his wartime affair with a woman doctor. There is even what amounts to a  “happy ending” in the novel’s thirty or so last pages. And (a chronic defect of too many historical novels) there are moments where readers are offered the luxury of feeling superior to the characters in the novel who, naturally, don’t know as much about the outcome of their historical situation as we do. For example, the following is not untypical. The high-ranking Central Committee member Sartinov is reflecting on his arrested children, and he thinks:

 “It seems unlikely… but what if Lenin’s state, built on the graves of millions, is one day overturned?.... They might even rename the towns and streets that bear my name. What is all that truly matters is my children, my beloved wife…. What if only love will justify ever having lived at all?” (p.397).

And we purr with approval, knowing that the Soviet state has indeed disappeared, its streets and towns have been renamed, and Leningrad has reverted to being St Petersburg.

Now you see my dilemma. I approve of a mass audience getting a history lesson from somebody who knows his history. I would much prefer the readers of bestsellers to be reading One Night in Winter rather than rampantly unhistorical fantasias posing as dramatized history. But I’m still aware that this is one for the airport lounge and the long flight, with its formulaic writing and its un-nuanced characters. 

I really am an elitist prat, aren’t I?
            Pardon me for living.


  1. Glad you think so highly of Montefiore as a historian. In fact his studies of Stalin contained elementary flaws and in many places he went in for tired cliche and speculation.

    And how exactly did Kruschev "look like a peasant". What does a "peasant" actually look like in this context? And what is this derogatory attitude towards "peasants". The sons of those East Prussian farmers with the nice beds and wrist watches nevertheless believed jews, gays and the mentally handicapped were subhuman and killed millions.

    Before giving credence to supposed facts, particularly in history, it is a good idea to reflect how they can have been obtained.

  2. Dear Simon21, I apologize for only now putting up your comment. I have been away from this blog for five weeks and have not been monitoring comments. I am, of course, fully aware of the atrocities of the Nazi regime and have no desire to play the silly game of validating and endorsing one dictatorial, genocidal regime (Stalinn's Soviet Union) by comparing it with another (Nazi Germany) - which appears to be what you wish to do. As my doctorate is in history, and as I have lectured to undergraduates in courses on historiography, I assure you I do not need to be tutored on how "facts" are obtained in historical narratives. The envy and anger of Soviet troops, as they advanced west and encountered well appointed German (and Polish) farms has been multiply-attested from excellent sources. As for the use of the terms "peasant", I do not use it in any derogatory sense, but as an objective designation of a class, just as the Soviet Union did when it proudly declared its alliance of "peasants, workers and intellectuals". And enlistment records will show that most of the Red Army was indeed composed of peasants. As for Montefiore, please note that I said he was a good "popular" historian, not an academic oone.