One Night in Winter, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I received a free review copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publishers. It will be released 6 May 2014.

18505815On the same day as the Victory Parade, with Stalin and the rest of the Central Committee only yards away, two children are shot and killed. The children were the sheltered children of the Soviet elite so, rather than having the matter rushed to a conclusion, the NKVD get involved. Once the characters of Simon Montefiore’s One Night in Winter get caught in the machine of Soviet “justice,” a small tragedy is transformed into a gigantic one.

The students of the elite are taught at Joseph Stalin School 801. Andrei Kurbsky, the son of a man who was arrested during the Great Terror, thought he didn’t have a chance of getting in. He somehow gets a place and, miracle of miracles, finds himself making friends with the children of state ministers and film stars—especially when he finds and returns a notebook that holds the rules and member names of the Fatal Romantics’ Club. The Club is run by Nikolasha Blagov. Blagov is so obsessed with the works of Aleksandr Pushkin that he created a club that dresses up in costume and acts out the duel scene in Eugene Onegin with stolen theater pistols loaded with blanks. Nikolasha arranges for the Club members to play their game right after the Victory Parade in June 1945 and that’s when everything goes wrong. The children’s “game” and their membership book is misinterpreted by the NKVD. Fear and lies spread like a virus and soon it seems that everyone is on their way to the Lubyanka.

Montefiore takes us back six months from the shooting to show us the beginnings of two love stories. Serafima Romashkina is the object of desire for almost everyone (male) who meets her. One day at the Bolshoi, she shares a box with an American diplomat. Before long, they’ve fallen in love with each other. Hercules Satinov is in the Soviet high command during the final battles with the Germans when he meets and is instantly attracted to Doctor Dashka Dorova. Both couples hid their affairs, but when the Children’s Case—as it becomes known—is used by various vindictive parties, the affairs put all four in jeopardy.

Over the course of a few weeks in June and July of 1945, everyone in the Fatal Romantics’ Club is arrested. Then their siblings and friends are arrested. Once the NKVD have found out everything they think they can get out of the kids, they start questioning the children about their parents. Denunciations and lies and stories start to swirl around. Everyone is terrified and no one is safe—unless you’re one of Stalin’s personal favorites, but even that’s precarious. There’s no way out.

Montefiore then takes you forward in time to show you the aftermath of the frenzied investigation. I won’t give away what happens to who, because One Night in Winter is a book that should be read with one’s heart in one’s mouth. Even though this is a work of fiction, Montefiore writes in his historical note at the end that there are elements of historical truth woven into the story. This could have happened the way it was written. One Night in Winter is a powerful story of love and fear.

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