Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of two books on Stalinist Russia, has also turned his hand to fiction. Inspired by "several true stories", this latest novel revisits Moscow during the last years of Stalin, the Red Tsar – an era characterised by paranoia and high-level betrayals. As the book's epilogue reminds us, "the familiar dilemmas of family life, the prizes and perils of children, adultery and career, have higher stakes than if the story was set in Hampstead."
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The novel follows a group of literary-minded teenagers, students at one of Moscow's most exclusive schools. As sons and daughters of the Kremlin elite, this band of friends takes a calculated risk when they decide to form a Pushkin fan club. Dressed in frock coats and frilly blouses, they gather in graveyards to recite poetry and toast their undying allegiance to "love and romance". But their play-acting takes a tragic turn when two are shot dead while re-enacting the duel scene in Eugene Onegin. Accused of "bourgeois sentimentalism" the others are detained in the Lubianka prison.
Sebag Montefiore is well-versed in the terror tactics of a regime willing to liquidate anyone in its path. Once in the cells, the novel takes on the momentum of a thriller as the secret police seek to establish whether this strange incident is a murder, a suicide pact or a conspiracy against the state. The students' parents – top-ranking members of the Politburo – have secrets of their own and are prepared to sacrifice their offspring.
Sebag Montefiore has an instinct for a good story, but it takes a very accomplished novelist to make such incredible events seem real. While lacking the emotional impact of Helen Dunmore's masterful Leningrad novels, the book does an excellent job at evoking the texture of everyday life in Stalinist Moscow – from the plush apartments of the grandees to the drab interiors of prisons and schools.
Mixing real figures with fictional creations is a challenge for any historical novelist, but Sebag Montefiore's vivid cameos, particularly of Stalin and his dissolute son, give this compelling read the grim stamp of authenticity.