Books: Russia, From Rasputin to Stalin

Alexandra (Sashenka) Zeitlin is clever, spirited and rich, the beloved daughter of a Jewish industrialist growing up in Petrograd during the first world war. She's also a revolutionary who reads the works of Marx and Plekhanov after lights-out at the elite Smolny Insitutue for Young Noblewomen.

The action in "Sashenka," Simon Sebag Montefiore's first novel, begins on the last day of the Smolny's winter term as Sashenka hurries out of classes to her waiting English nanny—and to the waiting secret police who are there to arrest her as a dangerous subversive. As the revolution unfolds, Sashenka plunges into its intrigues, flirting with the police and Bolsheviks, carrying messages, revolvers and information, all in a spirit of girlish adventurousness. The old bourgeois world of her alcoholic mother and her eccentric wheeler-dealer father crumbles around them; Sashenka sheds her past like an old skin.

Two decades later, we find Sashenka still a devout Communist believer—a proud Soviet housewife, married to a party boss and living in scarcely less splendor than during her childhood in a fine apartment near the Kremlin. But the choices she made back in the heady days of revolution come back to haunt her; she discovers that her upstanding husband's real job is to crush enemies of the state, "breaking men like matchsticks." And she finds that her friendship with Stalin and his henchmen cannot protect her and her family when their turn comes to be accused, plunging into the abyss of the secret police's "meat grinder."

Montefiore's Russia, like his characters, is painted in bold colors—from Rasputin's sordid salon, all velvet drapes and neurotic aristocrats shivering with sexual tension, to the forced jollity of late-night parties at dachas of Stalin's cronies a generation later. All these romantic sleigh rides and the summer evenings round the samovar at the dacha might totter into cliché in less skilful hands. Instead, Montefiore achieves an impressive verisimilitude which foreign writers describing Russia rarely manage—more so even than Ronan Bennet's "Zugzwang," another recent spy tale set against the turmoil of pre-revolutionary Russia. There are a few slips—no one would travel from Tbilisi to Rostov via Baku, for instance. But like the best writers of historical fiction, Montefiore has a reporter's eye for telling details. His three works of Russian history, a biography of Catherine the Great's favorite Grigory Potemkin and his two volumes on Stalin, have furnished him with a rich fund of material. Many of the best passages are drawn directly from contemporary accounts—the police reports of the comings and goings of society ladies at Rasputin's apartment, for instance; a chilling letter sent by the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold complaining of his bestial treatment at the hands of his interrogators in the Lubyanka during the purges, which the author paraphrases as a letter of complaint from one of his own characters, to terrifying effect.

Montefiore is best when he's describing the pre-revolutionary world of the Zeitlins, who live in a complex social vortex—wealthy Jews in an avowedly anti-Semitic city, poised between the rough-and-tumble squalor of the rabbi's court in Poland where they were born and the aristocratic salons of wartime Petrograd. He also evokes the Stalin years very convincingly—hardly surprising for a writer steeped in the archival accounts of the Terror's ways. He describes the chilling ritual of Stalin's secret police coming to search the apartments of its victims, the sealing off rooms with glued and stamped strips of paper, the hard-faced men refusing to tell the terrified families anything of the fate of their loved ones. The sudden pariah status of the accused families, who find themselves separated from their neighbors in "the land of the living" by the taint of their relative's treachery. The Lubyanka at night, "the giant building throbbing like a secret city" as the Purge's victims fall into an abyss of fear.

"Sashenka" is a fitting sequel to Montefiore's nonfiction works—the world he researched so thoroughly now populated with compelling characters and woven into a gripping narrative. Against the backdrop of titanic historic events, a young girl's romantic dreams turn into a nightmare, which forces her to make a heartbreaking choice and sets the scene for a mystery which is only solved in the venal Moscow of the 1990s. Montefiore writes beautifully; his plot is taught and fast paced. Sashenka's story draws the reader through the turbulent Russian century in a way few fictional narratives have ever done.