Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. It’s tempting to adapt that and say that historians also often repeat themselves, first as biographers, second as novelists. Having written a book about Stalin’s court, and then a biography of Stalin himself, Simon Montefiore now publishes Sashenka, a novel about the horrors visited by Stalin on one family. Stalin appears here as an unsettling combination of rustic, avuncular warmth (‘his feline, almost oriental face smiling and flushed and still singing a Georgian song’) and ice-cold lunacy.
The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, which takes place between 1916 and 1917 in St Petersburg, Sashenka Zeitlin, the teenaged daughter of a wealthy Jewish financier, is recruited into the Bolshevik party. She is arrested for her activism and pursued by a Tsarist officer, who tries vainly to turn her into an informer, but then sees her party’s dream realised when the old ruling classes are swept aside. In the second and longest part, set in Moscow in 1939, Sashenka is married to a senior Communist officer and edits Soviet Wife and Proletarian Housekeeping magazine. They enjoy a pleasant standard of living — city apartment and grand country house — which, ironically, is similar to that which Sashenka enjoyed as a child and against which she fought. The only difference now is that a stray word, or even a false rumour, can cost you your life, and soon enough the world which Sashenka and her husband helped to create turns on them. Serious, moral Sashenka has an affair, and the repercussions lead to her arrest and torture and the loss of her beloved children, Snowy and Carlo. In the third part, set in 1994, a young historian is hired to investigate Soviet archives, and we discover what eventually happened to Sashenka and her family.
Sashenka is a novel with many qualities, and when judged specifically as a first novel, it is excellent. It’s no surprise that the historical detail is strong, but it is impressive that the author never gets mired in it; Montefiore deploys his historical knowledge as a means to an end, rather than as the end in itself. The characterisation is superb, with Sashenka being especially well drawn. When her battle between the need to be dutiful and the need to be an individual takes place, it is tempting to draw parallels between her and many other tragic female characters in Russian literature, but it is to the author’s credit that we can draw those parallels without marking down his own creation. With her unwanted beauty and charisma, her gentle nobility that transcends class or wealth, and her earnest ideals which eventually cost her so much, Sashenka commands our total sympathy, and when she is forced apart from her children, the sadness is profound and hard to dispel.
The novel loses some quality, however, through its pacing, particularly midway. Montefiore’s prose, at its best, is rich and evocative; at its worst, it slows the story too greatly, and occasionally when the requirements of drama demand that things should keep moving, the story is freighted with unnecessary, scene-setting descriptions of clothing and surroundings. When overused, descriptive language paradoxically starts to take away rather than to add to the mental picture we are building. To describe one smell is useful; to describe endless smells in just a few pages, so that different people are giving off whiffs of cloves and sweat and stale cheese, risks making the reader numb: it becomes an overload of imagery and so we stop responding to it.
However, although less captivating than it could have been with a few cuts, Sashenka is still a powerful novel, erudite and well structured, and with a heroine who lingers in the mind when the story is finished.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 12, 2008