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Love and suspect in Stalin's Russia
on 8 October 2013
By Simon Sebag Montefiore the eminent Stalin's biographer (Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Young Stalin), an historical novel set in 1945 Russia. It's a novel about love, family ties, adultery, youth, friendship, fear, hope, deception, psychological violence, secrecy, literature, privilege, Bolshevik faith and its implacable rules.
The author's passionate and profound knowledge of Russian history and his vivid and sophisticated imagination along with his natural talent as a writer generated an unforgettable novel.
The Soviet Union is celebrating the victory on the Nazis. An elite school. A group of teenagers, scions of Bolshevik grandees, forms the Fatal Romantic Club based on Pushkin poetry. A duel is enacted and two of them are mysteriously killed. Their friends are arrested on suspicion of being plotting against the government. On a world where also the members of the establishment live a precarious existence under constant pressure, Stalinist regime puts its unforgiving hand.
The children are forced to testify against their parents, and friends are put one against another. Every word can be used against them now and in the future. Inside and outside the prison a tangible fear, anxiety, and moments of intense longing and love permeate the lives of the characters. Interrogations, deception, suspicion, blackmail, punishment, made up conspiracies, fake truths, unveiled secrets, and hope. They all know what they might face and they all try to survive according to their own nature. Love, remorse, betrayal.
The plot is organized by narrative threads that merge at crucial times designing unexpected twist and turn. The reader is taken through breathless suspensions to the climax and then to the resolution or, instead, to a sudden change of scene. The author masterly drops clues of future events leaving the reader to quick conjectures along with an undeniable emotional participation. The story is crossed by a few leit motives: from the highest picks of culture with Pushkin's poetry to the blindest methods of the Bolshevik system, to love (a lot of romantic love).
Flashbacks, foreshadowings, and intersected brief episodes laid out as patches, create movement, a feeling of anticipation, an intriguing temporary sense of displacement. But the story flows effortlessly and the reader never looses his/her thread.
The sentences are short. The dialogues have rhythm. The style is synthetic, always effective, exquisite in the sequences and in the selection of the words.
The plot is inspired by some real stories. Literary characters and historical ones mingle seamlessly. SSM's familiarity with Stalin and the members and the life of the Politburo makes him confortable in bringing them alive. Stalin, tired, sarcastic, provocative, sadistic, always alert and ready to strike, ferocious also with his closet court. Beria, his top manager, fat, angry, competitive, morbid in his sexual tastes. Or the fictional characters such as Satinov, reticent, introverted, not in touch with his own feelings, struck by an unfamiliar passion. The movie star Zeitlin, beautiful, genuinely selfish, at time clumsy, prima donna in every situation. Or minor characters such Dr Rimm, viciously weak, consumed by the desire of belonging to the higher spheres. Or the 14 year old girl who sleeps with Beria whose face is not described, we are introduced to her only by her flat belly slightly wrinkled by Beria's weight.
The setting is evocative and accurate. The streets of Moscow after the victory on the Nazi appear in front of the reader's eyes. The Communist school. The interrogation rooms, the smell of sweat, urine and detergent, the grinding of the locks, everything is devised to break the prisoners. The precious description of the shabby dwellings of the lower classes that have a hole as a lavatory (and relative smells) shared by many families. And the blatant contrast with the large homes of the Bolshevik leaders inhabited by European furniture, paintings, maids and nannies.
It's simple. Simon Sebag Montefiore writes so well that reading his novel is, in the end, pure pleasure.