Book Extract: Sashenka, By Simon Montefiore

'Sashenka', the first novel by the historian Simon Montefiore, is a powerful saga spanning all of Soviet history
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The Independent Culture

Satinov stepped forward.

"Comrade Stalin, you already know Comrade Palitsyn a little," said Satinov, "and this is his wife, Sashenka, whom you may remember..."

"Please come in, Comrade Stalin, what an honour," said Sashenka, finally finding her voice. She had a terrifying and un-Bolshevik urge to curtsy as she used to at the Smolny before the portrait of the Dowager Empress. She was not quite sure how she managed the steps down to the garden, yet somehow she approached Stalin – smaller, older, sallower and much wearier than she remembered, his left arm held in stiffly. He had, she noticed, a slight pot belly, and his tunic's pockets were roughly darned. But then she supposed giants did not care about such things.

Stalin seemed amazed at the effect he had – and yet he revelled in it. He took her hand and kissed it in the old Georgian way, looking up at her with eyes of honey and gold.

"Comrade Snowfox, you're beautifully dressed."

He remembers my old party alias from St Petersburg! What a memory! How embarrassing! How flattering! She thought in confusion.

"It is lucky that you and your journal are teaching Soviet women the art of dressing. Your dress is very pretty," he continued, climbing the steps.

"Thank you, Comrade Stalin." She reminded herself not to mention that her dress had been made abroad.

"For once, comrades, the Party has appointed the right person to the right job..." Stalin laughed and the others laughed too, even Mendel. "Come and join us, Comrades Satinov and Palitsyn. And you, Comrade Mendel." Sashenka noticed that Stalin did not show much enthusiasm for the austere Mendel.

Beria affably poked Palitsyn in the stomach as he passed. "Good to see you, Vanya." He clicked his tongue. "All quiet? Everything ticking over?"

"Absolutely. Welcome to my home, Lavrenti Pavlovich!"

"What did you think of the football? Spartak need to be taught a lesson, and if our strikers don't play better next time I'll bust their guts!" Beria clapped his hands cheerfully. "Will you come and play basketball in my team tomorrow? We're playing Voroshilov's guards."

"I'll be there, Lavrenti Pavlovlich."

Sashenka knew that her husband admired Beria, who worked like a horse. He was young, his round face smooth and lineless.

"May I sit down here?" asked Stalin modestly, pointing at the table.

"Of course, Comrade Stalin, wherever you wish," she said.

Comrade Egnatashvili laid out the food on the table and Sashenka leaned across for the wine bottle.

"Let me open it," said Stalin. He poured glasses of the earthy red wine for everyone. Then he put some lobio beans, the rich Georgian broth, into a pudding bowl, tossed in some bread and added a plate on top to let the bread soak. He helped himself to shashlik lamb and Georgian spicy chicken, satsivi, and carried this assortment back to his place. Egnatashvili, blond and handsome in his well-cut uniform, with bulging wrestler's shoulders, stood towering over Stalin, helping himself to the same dishes. Both of them sat down and started to eat, Egnatashvili tasting his lobio a moment earlier than Stalin. He really was Stalin's food-taster, Sashenka thought.

"Comrade Satinov," Stalin said quietly, gesturing for Satinov to sit beside him, with Beria on the other side. Egnatashvili, Vanya and Mendel were further down the table.

"Lavrenti Pavlovich, who shall be tamada?" Stalin asked Beria.

"Comrade Satinov should be toastmaster!" suggested Beria.

Satinov rose, holding up a Georgian wine glass in the curved shape of an ox's horn, and made his first toast. "To Comrade Stalin, who has led us through such difficult times to shining triumphs!"

"Surely you can think of something more interesting than that!" joked Stalin, but everyone in the house stood up and drank to him.

"To Comrade Stalin!"

"Not him again," protested Stalin. His voice was surprisingly soft and high. "Let me make a toast: to Lenin!"

Other toasts followed: to the Red Army, to their hosts, to Sashenka and Soviet women. Sashenka observed everything, topping up the glasses then rejoining the table. She wanted to remember every moment of this scene. Stalin bantered with Satinov in Georgian but Sashenka sensed the Leader was watching him, evaluating him. She knew that Stalin liked simple, decent young people who were ruthless and vigorous but easygoing and cheerful. Satinov was hard-working and competent but he was always singing opera to himself.

Mendel started coughing.

"How's your lungs, Mendel?" Stalin asked, listening patiently as Mendel answered with an excess of medical detail. "Mendel and I shared a cell at the Bailovka Prison in Baku in 1908," Stalin informed the table.

"Right," said Mendel, stroking his modest espagnole beard.

"And Mendel had a food hamper from his indulgent family and he shared it with me."

"Right, I shared with all the comrades in the cell," said Mendel in his starchy, pettifogging way, making clear there was no favouritism in his comradeship. But only one cellmate mattered, thought Sashenka.

"That's Mendel! Incorruptible author of that bestselling tome Bolshevik Morality! You haven't changed in the slightest, Mendel," said Stalin teasingly but with a straight face. "You were old then and you're old now!" He chuckled and the others joined in. "But we've all aged..."

"Not at all, Comrade Stalin," insisted Egnatashvili, Vanya and Beria simultaneously. "You look great, Comrade Stalin."

"That's enough of that," said Stalin, "Mendel once told me off for drinking too much at a meeting when we exiles shared that old stable in Siberia, and he's still giving everyone a hard time!"

Sashenka remembered how Mendel had backed Stalin in the Control Commission ever since Lenin's death, never wavering during the famine of '32, nor hesitating to smash the "bastards" to smithereens at the Plenums of '37.

"In fact," Stalin teased Mendel, "I often have to hold him back or he'll froth at the gills and have a seizure!" Everyone laughed at Mendel because his pedantic fanaticism was notorious. But it was also the reason that Mendel was still alive.

Stalin sipped his wine, his half-slit eyes flickering from person to person.

© Simon Montefiore 2008

'Sashenka' by Simon Montefiore is published by Bantam £12.99

About the author

Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of biographies of Catherine the Great and Potemkin. His book 'Young Stalin' won the 2007 Costa Biography Award. He is married to the novelist Santa Montefiore. They live in London with their two children.