THE idea of children denouncing their parents to the state is somehow uniquely terrifying, a betrayal made all the worse by their inability to truly grasp it.
A Night In Winter - Simon Sebag Montefiore
In 1984, Orwell’s Junior Spies are on the watch for thoughtcrime; in Nazi Germany and China’s Cultural Revolution, children were encouraged to report any disloyal signs in their families. The guilt set in for most later, as they grew up in a changed world and realised what they had done.
In this engrossing novel, the setting is the USSR shortly after the end of the Second World War and the children are sons and daughters of the elite: members of the Politburo, a star of patriotic films, a diplomat and a military officer. In their comfortable homes and exclusive school, the children are shielded from the suffering most of the country has endured during the war. But they are not safe from the pressure to turn against their parents and each other, when they attract the attention of Stalin and his secret police.
The older children have formed a pathetically earnest club devoted to their hero Pushkin – a sort of Dead Poet’s Society – with an idealistic manifesto which proclaims love and romanticised death to be the meaning of life. But what in any other time would be a daft bit of teenage role-playing becomes labelled as “bourgeois sentimentalism”: an indirect challenge to the State which prizes the Party above all, and, perhaps, even a cover for a conspiracy. So the children – aged six to 18 – are rounded up for questioning in the Lubyanka Prison, where saying the wrong thing can have fatal consequences.
As Simon Sebag Montefiore explains in an afterword, this is based on similar real events, and certainly his ease with the setting and certain historical characters is masterly. Stalin, for instance, is not only ruthless but an enthusiastic reader, polite to his tailor and housekeeper and capable of appearing deceptively sympathetic. The NKVD boss Beria and interrogator Likhachev are less nuanced, but Montefiore is careful to shepherd the non-expert reader through the personalities and realities of the time.
The invented characters are well-drawn too, particularly ten-year-old Senka, whose attempts not to incriminate his parents are heart-rending. Montefiore borrows a few characters from his earlier novel Sashenka but otherwise the book stands alone and maintains a tense pace as the witch-hunt uncovers secrets and draws more people into its clutches.
The novel is hugely romantic: various characters are overwhelmed by passion, swear undying love and hold fast to it over years of separation in a way that cynics may find a bit much. Yet Montefiore seems unashamed: like his young Muscovites, he suggests that love may not quite conquer all but ultimately it is stronger than tyranny.
• Simon Sebag Montefiore is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday 26 August