Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter begins in the hours immediately following the solemn victory parade that marked the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany — probably the high point of Stalinism. Two teenagers, dressed in 19th- century costume and members of a secret literary club called, aptly as it turns out, the Fatal Romantics, have chosen this moment, of all moments, to re-enact a duel from Pushkin’s Onegin on a bridge beneath the very walls of the Kremlin.
Needless to say, when the duel goes fatally wrong and the dead boy and girl are revealed to be the offspring of members of the Soviet leader’s inner circle, we know there will be consequences for the families and friends they’ve left behind. At this point, it seems inevitable that Sebag Montefiore’s new novel will turn into the fictional flipside of his masterful Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. However, strange as it may seem, One Night in Winter isn’t about the remorseless destruction of innocents caught up in events beyond their control — or, rather, it is, but it isn’t only about that. Surprisingly, it’s a novel that’s mostly about love.
Everyone in the book is in love. Some of the characters love Stalin — an unappreciative recipient, it has to be said (things don’t tend to work out well for the Stalin-lovers). Some love people they shouldn’t — and things don’t really go very well for them either, although they relish their illicit romances while they can. Some love spouses and children and parents and siblings, and do all in their power to protect them, albeit with patchy success. The state security investigation into the teenagers’ deaths, which swiftly extends to the remaining Fatal Romantics and soon embroils families, teachers and passing acquaintances, is predictably terrifying — but the novel’s romantic soul tempers the terror and makes for a gripping read.
Its success is helped by Sebag Montefiore’s pitch-perfect reconstruction of the golden tightrope that Moscow’s elite walked under Stalin. The splendour and security the privileged few live in is illusory, of course, and the Gulag is only one false step away. This is a morally complex world and while One Night in Winter might not dwell too much on how the parents of the Fatal Romantics managed to achieve and retain their senior positions, the reader can surmise that Comrade Satinov, known as ‘the Iron Commissar’, didn’t acquire his nickname through a love of things ferrous.
Betrayal and denunciation are part of the game, and frequently forgiven — or at least understood. As the investigation builds momentum, each character has to decide what they are prepared to do and not do in order to protect themselves and those they love. There’s little room for error or pity. A character swallows ‘the sudden lump in his throat’ when he realises an underling has sacrificed himself to protect him — but there’s nothing that can be done to repay the act, and survival necessitates ‘no hard feelings’, as Sebag Montefiore has Stalin remind him soon afterwards. Those fated to fall, fall; those fated to survive, survive. There’s no use crying over spilt blood.
One Night in Winter is a novel of passion, fear, bravery, suffering and survival, and Sebag Montefiore’s characters allow us to view the strange and frightening world in which its story takes place with an immediacy that non-fiction often struggles to match. The novel is a companion piece to his excellent Stalin, and it’s a worthy companion.