The story begins one day in summer. As Simon Sebag Montefiore says, his novel is “very roughly” inspired by an episode that flashed intriguingly across the pages of his celebrated history Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar (2003).
ONE NIGHT IN WINTER
by SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE
Century, 480pp, £16.99
In 1943, midway through the USSR’s war against Nazi Germany, two 15-year-olds died of gunshot wounds on the Stone Bridge near the Kremlin. They were children of the “red aristocracy”, pupils at Moscow’s most elite school. In a fit of possessive passion, Volodya Shakhurin, deranged son of a commissar of aircraft production, murdered Nina Umanskaya, beautiful daughter of a senior diplomat, before shooting himself.
The deaths on the bridge revealed a secret schoolboy club, “the Fourth Empire”, styled on Hitler’s Reich. Its members called each other “reichsführer” and “gruppenführer”. Sketched out in Shakhurin’s school exercise book was the teenagers’ plan to seize power from their own fathers.
“Wolf cubs,” Stalin reportedly said when told of the conspiracy, “they must be punished.” Several sons of Kremlin magnates were arrested by the secret police, interrogated in the Lubyanka prison over six months, and, after signing confessions, sentenced to exile in Central Asia.
In this absorbing novel, Sebag Montefiore has released his imagination onto his own historical research. Chronology is rearranged. The crypto-Nazi “Fourth Empire” becomes the “Fatal Romantics’ Club”, devoted to Pushkin’s poetry. Elements of the Wolf Cub case intertwine with the poignant true story of Major Hugh Lunghi of the British Embassy, Churchill’s translator at the wartime summits with Stalin, who lost his Russian fiancée to the cruelty of the gulag.
Out of these threads, Sebag Montefiore weaves a tight and satisfying plot, delivering surprises to the last page. Stalin’s chilling charisma is brilliantly realised – the historian knows him well. Intimate with the details of the Stalinist penal system, he powerfully evokes the interrogation rituals of the Lubyanka, heightening the horror with child inmates.
Against a backdrop of high politics, the novel’s theme is love: family love, youthful romance and adulterous passion. One paradox of totalitarian evil is that “desk killers” were also doting family men. Sebag Montefiore imagines them as lovers too. His fictional Politburo member, Erakle Satinov, a “chilly, passionless statue”, is carried away by a soaring eros when he meets a brilliant Jewish female doctor at the Front.
A warmer romantic hero is the ex-gulag prisoner Benya Golden, earthy and bookish, familiar from Sebag Montefiore’s historical novel, Sashenka. Benya consummates his story in self-sacrifice, the highest love.
Many scenes are set in “the Granovsky building”, a late-Tsarist pile near the Kremlin in which the Soviet elite once lived in chandeliered apartments. It was my home for ten years from the late 1990s. Sebag Montefiore stayed with us one summer while researching Court of the Red Tsar. Inevitably, I approached his fictional version of my former home with some wariness, but was quickly caught up by his adroit storytelling.
The Granovsky Building also features in a recent Russian novel based on the Wolf Cub case: Alexander Terekhov’s Stone Bridge, a literary sensation in Russia in 2009, to be published here next month. Like Sebag Montefiore, Terekhov was a journalist in the 1990s, when the secrets of the Stalin years came to light. How differently these two gifted writers work those secrets. One Night in Winter is full of redemptive love and inner freedom. Stone Bridge, the bitter fruit of the Putin era, is postmodern and anti-nostalgic; for Terekhov, Russian history is destitute of glamour, heroism or plot.