A new novel from Simon Montefiore, a well-known British writer and historian, tells the story of three generations of women in a Russian family, from the time of the last Tsar, the terror of Stalin's regime in the 1930s, up until contemporary post-Communist, oil-rich Moscow and its oligarch billionaires.
Montefiore, a specialist in Russian history who was reportedly raised on the stories of his ancestors who escaped from the Tsarist Empire, creates his heroine, Sashenka, and puts her and her family in the midst of the events that shaped Russia in the twentieth century. The novel consists of three parts: the first is set in St. Petersburg around the time of the Bolshevik revolution, the second in the late 1930s, at the height of Stalin's regime, and the final and third part in the Caucasus, London and Moscow in the mid-1990s.
The novel tells of reckless love and the love of children, brutal death and the mysteries of the past, all that can happen to an ordinary family in one period of time. At the center of the story is a wild love affair that lasts just a few days but has a reverberating effect on the lives of the characters and their families. In a hidden world of power and fear, with the passage of time love has to fight with hatred, suffering and violence.
As the publisher notes, the characters of this novel are fictional but the setting is based in fact. There is truth in this, as the fate of the characters is similar to that of many people of their generations.
The novel begins in the winter of 1916, when St. Petersburg is on the brink of revolution. Outside the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, an English governess waits for her young pupil to be released from school, but so are the Tsar's secret police. While her mother parties with her dissolute friends, Sashenka, beautiful and headstrong, slips into a frozen night to take part in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction, doomed to leave her own, albeit small, mark in history.
Sashenka's story continues after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and Stalin's rise to power in the 1920s, when the reader sees her flourishing as a magazine editor and the wife of a Communist official, with whom she has two children. While people around her fall prey to Stalin's purges, Sashenka's family is prospering, but when she embarks on a forbidden love affair, the world around her collapses, unleashing a devastating chain of events.
Then, for half a century, Sashenka's story, in which love and pitiless power come together, remains untold. Only in the glittering post-Communist Moscow of the 1990s, when a new billionaire commissions a young female student to research Stalin's archives, does the story come to light. She enters the world of Russia's nouveaux riches and the old KGB to uncover Sashenka's heartbreaking secrets marked with passion, betrayal, cruelty and heroism. At the same time, this student becomes the novel's new main character, representing young Russian women of the 1990s.
Sashenka is indeed a very personal work for Montefiore, as it is largely inspired by his own family's Russian origins, many years of archival research into the Stalin era and a five-year stint in Moscow in the 1990s as a freelance correspondent. What's more, the author's personal touch is evident throughout the book, making it a more passionate and intimate read.
Montefiore successfully places the work in a historical context; his knowledge of Russia's past, along with his family background, certainly aided the writer in making the story convincing and trustworthy. In a novel of this kind, it is often difficult to find the right balance between history and storytelling, but Montefiore seems to carry out this task with good effect.
One point of criticism relates to the novel's length. Even for such an epic novel, Sashenka seems to be an excessively voluminous work, and, despite the gripping plot, it can be a challenge for the reader to maintain his concentration throughout.
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