Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ARC REVIEW: ONE NIGHT IN WINTER by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Title: One Night in Winter
Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore
Publisher: Century
Publication Date: September 5, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reviewed by: Margitte
Source: NetGalley
Margitte’s Rating: 4/5


By the author of the world-wide bestsellers, Jerusalem, and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, and based on a true story, a heart-breaking, addictively readable love story set in Stalin's Russia.


1945. Moscow, Russia.
Jubilance raged over the war-ravaged city. Hitler was defeated. New beginnings lay ahead for a nation with promises of greatness by Stalin. The hope for normalcy raised slowly from the ashes. 

The young Andrei Kurbsky saw “crumbling buildings, their fa├žades peppered with shrapnel, windows shattered, roads pockmarked with bomb craters. Everything – the walls, the houses, the cars – everything except the scarlet banners was drab, beige, peeling, khaki, grey. But faces of the passersby were rosy as if victory and sunlight almost made up for the lack of food, and the streets were crowded with pretty girls in skimpy dresses, soldiers, sailors and officers in white summer uniforms. Studebaker trucks, Willys jeeps and the Buicks of officials rumbled by – but there were also carriages pulled by horses, carts heaped with hay or bedding or turnips, right in the middle of this spired city with its gold domes. Sometimes, when he closed his eyes in the heat and the world went a soft orange, Andrei heard laughter and singing and he was sure he could hear the city itself healing in the sunshine.”
Life was starting over for everyone. The top officials in the Communist party were compensated with lavish lifestyle in the high-ceilinged apartments in the Granvosky building (otherwise known as the Fifth House of the Soviets), with dazzling corridors of capacious parquet floors and crystal chandeliers. Each official owned more than one chauffeur-driven car: open-topped Mercedes and -Packards, Dodge, Cadillacs, limousines, and Rolls Royces. It was also the home of Serafima Romashkina.

A new life was also starting for Andrei and his mother who just returned from exile to Stalinabad, “The Paris of Central Asia”, also known as “The Athens of Turkestan”. Everybody knew what that meant. “It was his tainted biography all over again.”

He remembered “that no one in the Soviet Union respected personal space. Everyone existed in a state of neurotic anxiety, but his mother always told him: The key to survival is to be calm and save yourself. Never ask anyone what they did before and what they’re doing next. Never speak your mind. And make friends wherever you can.”

He wanted badly to make friends in School 801, the finishing school for the next leaders of the Kremlin; the place where the Princes of the Communist regime sent their children to be trained as the young Barons of the Kremlin. He did not belong there, but needed to fit in. He wanted to join the literary movement: 'the Fatal Romantic’s Club', founded December 1944 by Nikolasha Blagov, with the mission statement reading: 
1. We suffocate in a phillistine world of science and planning, ruled by the cold machine of history.
2. We live for love and romance.
3. If we cannot live with love, we choose death. This is why we conduct our secret rites; this is why we play the Game.

It was to be called ‘bourgeois sentimentalism’, a 'bourgeois heresy', by the Communists and regarded as un-Bolshevik. 

Young, poor, optimistic, ambitious, inexperienced Andrei would meet Serafima.

24 June 1945. It was the day of Stalin's review of The Victory Parade.
The rain has stopped; “the air is packed with suffocating pollen, and Serafima loses sight of her friends as she is buffeted by the carousing crowds. The smell of vodka and blossom, the thunderous boom and the drifting smoke of a cannonade, a hundred impromptu street choirs singing wartime romances amidst the salvoes of that fifty-gun salute, surround and confuse her. Then two staccato gunshots, very close. Serafima knows something’s happened to her friends even before the sounds has finished ricocheting off the Kremlin walls....”

“... These shots will blast their lives and uncover secrets that would never otherwise have been found – hers (Serafima's) most of all ...” 

After all, Stalin believed that killing was the quickest, most efficient way to accelerate the progress of history. 'We must never lose our sense of humour', said Josef Vissarionovich aka Stalin...

So many lives, so many losses; so much heartbreak, so much optimism. The background to the life in Moscow was so vividly illustrated that the reader might walk those streets and recognize all the people and places described in the tale without ever being there before. The death of the two children would unleash a series of events which were like dominoes tumbling from different directions falling everywhere.

The collective mistrust, back stabbing, fear, betrayal, secrets and self-serving objectives of the participants will be exposed until only time would bring acceptance and reconciliation with lives destroyed or revived. But many years filled with endless minutes would be needed to finally bring closure. And closure was only made possible by love and loyalty which never died.

'The party never makes mistakes. Better to kill a hundred innocents than miss one Enemy.'

In this tale not everything is lost, although nobody would walk out unscathed. 

I am so between the devil and the deep blue sea on this one. It is a magnificent book to start off with: well written, extremely detailed, beautiful prose, spell-binding with no unfinished characters. However, my final impression, was that too much historical facts were included in the narrative, necessitating the creation of too many protagonists. The story is about a group of children and their families, every member, their teachers, and what happened to them, during the reign of Stalin. There were many love stories, too many, to be told. More emphasis needed to have been laid on the millions of people who collectively died under Stalin's reign of which the majority were non-Jewish, instead of only the Jewish victims.

I am going to settle for four stars. If there were less protagonists, more focus on less events, it would have deserved five brilliant flying stars. In fact, I might change my mind again!



Simon Sebag Montefiore was born in 1965 and read history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University. Jerusalem: the Biography was awarded the Jewish Book of the Year Prize by the Jewish Book Council (USA), Catherine the Great & Potemkin was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper, and Marsh Biography Prizes. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar won the History Book of the Year Prize at the British Book Awards. Young Stalin won the Costa Biography Award (UK), the LA Times Book Prize for Biography (US), Le Grand Prix de la Biographie Politique (France) and the Kreisky Prize for Political Literature (Austria). Montefiore’s books are published in over 40 languages. He is also the author of the novel, Sashenka. He is now writing his next history book: THE ROMANOVS and a sequel to Sashenka. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he lives in London with his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore, and their two children. He has recently been apppointed Visiting Professor at the School of Humanities Research at the University of Buckingham.


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