Top critical review
2 people found this helpful
Sweeping Romantic Epic
on 4 September 2013
Simon Montefiore makes use of his wealth of historical information about Russia in his first novel, a sweeping saga covering Russian history from 1916 to the dark days before World War II to the early days of Yeltsin's presidency in 1994. In 1916, the beautiful and intelligent Alexandra Samuilova Zeitlin (Sashenka), the daughter of a wealthy Russian Jewish industrialist married to a nymphomaniac, is recruited by her fiery uncle Mendel to the Communist cause. As 'Comrade Snowfox' she heroically resists the advances of a member of the secret police, celebrates the downfall of the Tsar and the Kerensky government, and ends up as an assistant to Lenin himself. By 1939, Sashenka is a prominent Party member, editor of a leading Moscow women's magazine and wife to a member of Stalin's police, with whom she has two adorable children. She even entertains Stalin to a party at her summer dacha. But when Sashenka recklessly enters a secret love affair with a writer, the consequences are immediate and devastating. Can she save those she loves before the secret police get to her? The story ends in 1994 when Katinka, a doctoral student of history, is recruited by a wealthy oligarch to find out who his mother Roza's real parents were (Roza was adopted as a very small child, and has only vague memories of life before the adoption). Katinka's researches lead her back to Sashenka, and to an astonishing truth about her own life as the story comes full circle.
Mr Montefiore's wonderful knowledge about Communist Russia and particularly Stalinist Russia mean that in terms of historical detail this novel is a treat. He describes the landscape and the towns of Russia and of Georgia wonderfully, packs the book with fascinating historical information and introduces real life characters very convincingly into his narrative (particularly Stalin's henchman Beria, and there's a wonderful and complex portrayal of Stalin himself). However, he would have done well to study Russian masters like Turgenev or Tolstoy more in terms of creating interesting characters. Too many characters in this book are one dimensional - Sashenka's drunken tarty mother and her friends, Rasputin, the villainous Bolshevik henchmen, Katinka's jolly peasant grandparents. Sashenka's love affair is very unconvincing, and the details of it are packed with purple prose (lots of moaning, passionate palpitations, heads in a whirl etc) - it doesn't help that the writer she falls for is thinly created, and would an ardent Communist and a married writer in danger really be prepared to risk their lives for sex? Sashenka herself is a baffling character: I couldn't believe that someone so intelligent would come out with remarks such as 'The Revolution is coming and you'll all be destroyed. Yes, even you Father, and though I love you I'm glad of it' or 'A Bolshevik has no family', or that she would feel no guilt at the fate of the 'White' who loved her in 1916, or about betraying her husband. Despite her heroism she appeared to have little self-awareness. Her children were at times nauseatingly cute. And the final solution to the mystery of Sashenka was improbable, relying on several people living to enormous ages (102 in one case) with their memories intact, and a strange connection between Katinka and the Zeitlin family.
None of this matters as much as it might, due to Mr Montefiore's wonderful knowledge of Russia and his gifts as a storyteller. I was caught up the sheer epic sweep of the story for long passages, though I never felt as personally involved with the characters as I think Montefiore intended us to be. All in all this is a good read as an exciting and non-demanding introduction to Russian Communist history - but it isn't on the whole great literature.