One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: An intriguing, gripping, The Crucible-esque historical fiction novel taking a melting pot of inspiration from real events in Stalin's post-war Russia.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Arrow
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099580331

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In June 1945 two school students are shot dead in Moscow. These aren't just any school students; they attended Josef Stalin School 801, the academy that taught Stalin's own children and the current educational establishment of choice for the offspring of many government and army grandees. Why did they die? Did the seemingly innocent Fatal Romantics Club have anything to do with it? For the children the club is a way of living their love of Pushkin's literature but to others it seems a little different. Stalin himself is determined to have it investigated and what Stalin wants, Stalin gets no matter how wide the ultimate spider's web of suspicion is cast and no matter whom it catches.

Novelist and historian Dr Simon Sebag Montefiore maintains that this novel (a companion piece to his earlier novel Sashenka) is about love, loyalty and families and just happens to be set in Stalinist Russia. In some ways this is the case as we see families of high ranking officials torn apart by the events set off by their children coming under the Communist establishment microscope. However our attention keeps being drawn back to the regime, the lifestyle and the horror that was Stalinism. It's Simon's own fault – he depicts it so superlatively we can't look away.

The action is centred on the school via both teaching staff and pupils. The teachers are enthralling but the ones who really stand our are Rimm the party hardliner and, Golden, Rimm's exact opposite who just wants to communicate his passion for literature despite a past that would make anyone else bitter and twisted.

The children are a mixed bag and wonderfully drawn (although most of them are 18 so not nippers). Serafima, daughter of film star and party official is spoilt but we still feel for her. Andrei is the son of an enemy of the people, therefore tainted but with a second chance if he can get through this. There are smaller children, like 10 year old Senka, a precocious 'Little Professor' whose logic, although perfectly reasonable to us, seems alien to his nation's rulers. Then, of course, 6 year old Minka proves that there's no age limit when it comes to cruel paranoia.

Indeed we soon begin to realise what their parents know: this paranoia drenches their society up through the echelons and back down again. The ruling party seems to fear the people and their potential as much as the people fear the regime. The difference is that the ruling party has the power and so, no matter how flawed their thinking appears, the rules are theirs.

Simon cleverly endows the well-woven story with a great sense of excitement as twists jump out. For instance, once the arrests start happening we watch with a shock that only deepens as Simon slowly reveals the powers' thought-line. Some of their actions seem random at first, but then the next part of their plan kicks in and the bones of manipulation and crooked, intricate mind games are revealed.

To be honest this was done so well that when, towards the end, we're taken away to be shown a couple of key romantic disclosures, I yearned to return to the investigation. However this is just me and definitely not enough of a niggle to detract from a 5* rating. By the way, the easy reference list of characters at the beginning is a gift (other large-cast-loving novelists please note) although we do remember everyone pretty quickly.

Talking about gifts, please read Simon's excellent historical notes at the back which tie in each event he fictionalises with its historic counterpart. The fact that even the most improbable set pieces all have their basis in truth is perhaps the scariest thing of all. Indeed this is a novel that jolts as it entertains, making it the sort that ensures that, once we start reading, we're going nowhere till we've finished.

Thank you, Arrow, for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If you've enjoyed this and would like to read more about Stalin in Simon's inimitable style, try his biography of The Young Stalin. If you prefer to stick to fiction, we also just as ardently recommend The Conductor by Sarah Quigley.

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Buy One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore at


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