Sunday, February 8, 2009

By Simon Montefiore
Simon & Schuster, $27, 517 pages

Simon Montefiore writes of the perfidies of the Stalin era with a personal passion. As a child, he shuddered as he listened to his maternal grandparents relate horror stories of the state-endorsed pogroms that drove them from Lithuania and the Ukraine. Now, he is devoting his literary life to ensuring that the world never forgets the atrocities endemic to a totalitarian state.

You perhaps know Mr. Montefiore from two earlier masterpieces, “Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar” and “Young Stalin,” the product of a decade of work in the Russian archives. He also did a biography: “Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner.” All the while, he squirreled away stories of women and children traumatized during Stalin’s Great Terror. Now this material is put to splendid use in his first novel, “Sashenka.” It is Tolstoyan in its sweeping descriptions of life in the USSR during a terrible period.

Mr. Montefiore opens with the arrest of Sashenka Zeitlin, the 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant (her dissolute mother is an opium addict and a nymphomaniac who consorts with Rasputin, one of many historic figures who make cameo appearances).

Czarist police sweep her up as she leaves the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls and accuse her of being part of a terrorist ring that is bent on starting a revolution. Her stunned father uses his imperial connections to gain her freedom, but not before a brutal interrogation. In fact the police were correct: she has been working as a courier for her Bolshevik uncle Mendel, known in the underground as “Comrade Snowdrop.”

Her experience with the czarist police strengthens Sashenka’s fidelity to the Bolsheviks. History sweeps forward. She marries a party official with ties to the NKVD and becomes editor of a party women’s magazine, Soviet Life and Proletarian Housekeeping. Then she realizes, to her horror and dismay, that the Communists are even more brutal than the czarist regime. She quakes as the “Black Crows” — ominous police vans — trundle up to apartment blocks in the dead of night and haul away screaming neighbors.

But Sashenka and her husband are high enough in Soviet officialdom that Stalin and NKVD boss Laventri Beria feel free to pay a surprise nighttime visit to a party in their dacha outside Moscow. Beria insists on dancing with her, to her disgust: “Beria’s hand squeezed her and he put his face too close. His lips were so fat it seemed as if there was too much blood in them.” Sashenka quakes when her young daughter exchanges teasing banter with Stalin, realizing that he is subject to sudden and deadly mood changes. But he chooses to display his tender side and all goes well.

Bored with the tedium of her home life, an emotionally distant husband, and the nonsense the party forces her to publish in her magazine, Sashenka more or less stumbles into bed with a Jewish writer who confides that he thinks the entire communist system is a murderous sham. But this comes after a session of love making so intense that “he made her forget she was a Communist… at last she began to live in the luscious, invincible present.”

But she is fearful of what might happen to her young children should her affair with a dissident — and a Jew at that — be exposed. “When the Terror came, she saw other parents disappear and their children vanish after them, no longer playing in the courtyard.… But these parents had deviated from the Party line and acted rashly, insincerely, impurely. They had seemed honest Communists yet in reality they wore masks. The Party came first and they had erred. She had always promised she would never do that. Yet somehow she had done exactly that.”

In due course, her husband learns of the affair, and the very Beria who had given Sashenka a slobbering (and unwelcome) goodbye kiss to end the evening at the dacha obligingly signs an order for her arrest. In an interrogation room, she is confronted by a long-ago friend who denounces her as being “under the command of Japanese and British intelligence but taking orders from the United Opposition of Trotsky and Bukharin.”

As Sashenka is tormented, Mr. Montefiore gives what is to me a convincing look into the mental state of a falsely accused innocent caught in the jaws of Stalin’s terror. “Sashenka experienced the despair of the damned. This scarecrow was tolling the bells on her entire life … The unthinkable had happened.”

She breaks. Still hoping that something can be done to save her children, she gives her own false confession — that while still a schoolgirl she had been recruited by “the Tsarist secret police and thence by British, German and Japanese intelligence and their hireling Trotsky.…” There her story abruptly ends.

For the moment, at least. At this stage, Mr. Montefiore resorts to a clever literary trick. He leaves Sashenka in the jail cell in 1939 and segues forward to 1994, when a young historian is hired by Sashenka’s son, now a rich Russian oligarch, to try to unravel the story of what happened to his mother, and why. She produces a surprise which I am not about to reveal. Read the book.

Here Mr. Montefiore draws upon his own experience to describe what it is like to do research in just-opened Stalinist-era archives. In truth, some readers might find this section to be a bit too much “inside baseball.” But as a writer who has spent uncountable hours doing just such archival work, I found it fascinating. (Out at College Park, the repository of military, intelligence and diplomatic documents of eras past, we take pride in our self-description as “archive rats.”)

Do not be puzzled about the way Mr. Montefiore has bob-tailed his name. His previous books were by “Simon Sebag Montefiore.” A publicist tells me that he will continue to use that full name for nonfiction, and the shorter version for fiction. I look forward to more of both.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is

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