Merrimon Book Reviews

Stalin's Mug Shot
The information card on Joseph Stalin, from the files of the Tsarist secret police in St. Petersburg

Stalin with his Children
Stalin with his children

Russian Politiburo execution order
An example of Stalin's Terror during the times in which Shashenka lived:
Part of list of names to people to be executed and
Politburo passing of  resolution to execute 346 "enemies of the CPSU and the Soviet Power" who led "counter-revolutionary, right-trotskyite, plotting and spying activities". Signed by secretary: I. Stalin January 1940

1920 Russian Propaganda poster
1920 Russian Entente propaganda poster.  The theme of deceit under masks was a common warning in Russian propaganda and in Sashenka's mind during her Bolshevik period

From Merrimon Book Reviews
Sashenka by Simon Montefiore
by Simon Montefiore

Russian History and Stalin's Terror through the eyes of family  
In 1916 St. Petersburg, a governess affectionately called Lala picks up Sashenka from the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls. As she completes her last class before the winter break, Sewing for the Tsar and the Motherland, Russia itself is poised on the edge of a revolution that will overturn the old way of life and Sashenka's life for decades to come. Spurred on by adolescent rebellion against the ways of the nobility's decadence (and indeed the lifestyle she sees within her own family) in a world mired in relentless poverty, Sashenka turns to her uncle Mendel. Through his influence, an influence that awakens her heart for literature and idealism, Sashenka becomes a loyal convert to the Bolshevik cause. For many years, Sashenka leads the life of the perfect revolutionary. Married to a rising star within the Party, her dedication to the cause has brought her recognition as well as material comforts for her family, including her two children. While her friends and family disappear, she herself feels safe from the political turmoil around her until she embarks on a love affair that will put everything and everyone around her at risk. Decades later, a historian delves into Stalin's archives trying to track down the scattered family. Hesitant to even accept the position, Katinka Vinsky finds herself drawn more and more intensely into a hunt to resurrect the missing pieces of Sashenka's life. Katinka's discoveries lead to a tale of betrayal, strange alliances, and a great passion filled with courage in the most harrowing moments, moments hidden within history that define Sashenka's life and that of her family.

In SASHENKA, Russian historian Simon Montefiore tells the intimate story of the one family through the history of the Russian Revolution and Stalin's Terror. Historical figures such as Rasputin and Stalin intertwine in moments of the the lives of Shashenka and her family, but SASHENKA is a work of historical fiction that centers on the figure of the fictional Sashenka and the themes of family, passion and courage. Although the reader feels the underlying depth of the author's historical research in the backdrop of the story, the author turns to historical fiction to pen a look at ordinary people, particularly women and children, caught up in this tragic time of Russian history. The author himself intends to reach an audience of readers who may not read history books like scholars but rather readers who, through imagination and fiction, wish to explore the period through the ordinary people living in these times with courage and endurance as families. In this aim, Simon Montefiore succeeds in crafting a story that draws the reader into the time period through the lens of family and love. For those who leave the story anxious to learn more about this period, the author provides several references for exploration at the back of the book.

Simon Montefiore captures the feel of the Russian epic novel tradition by focusing on particular moments in Russian history and Sashenka's life: 1916 St. Petersburg highlighting the pre-revolution and first stages of the 1917 Russian Revolution, 1939 Moscow with Stalin at the height of power, and 1994 with the historian's research through the opened Russian archives. Simon Montefiore focuses on Sashenka as the young adolescent revolutionary idealist, Sashenka the established Bolshevik but also a mother and woman who loves passionately, and finally the archival records of Sashenka's life alongside the secrets and hints of family that allow the historian to uncover the Sashenka that lives behind the written record. Together these three parts add up to create a story that provides a chilling tale of Stalin's Terror, the religio-military dedication of the Bolsheviks as well as the personalized idiosyncratic twists and intersections of personal actions with unintended consequences. The effects of politics on the Russian family, as seen in the orphanage and in Sashenka's own family, are heartbreaking in the devastation caused to generations of families and for the immense courage within some of the families in their attempts to survive. Simon Montefiore does an excellent job at making the reader feel the changes within Sashenka as she moves from being a teen who questions the world around her, to a dedicated unquestioning Bolshevik who puts politics above all, to a woman whose heart grows as she becomes a mother and lover. The novel reaches a new height in the third and final part when the hunt to uncover Sashenka builds the intrigue and emotion. The reader becomes more personally invested in the outcome of the search right alongside Katinka. As the novel draws to an end with a intricate intersection of archival records and oral stories, SASHENKA demonstrates the power of historical fiction to make history both personal and alive in his portrayal of the intimate desires, thoughts and longings of fictional characters in this moment of Russian history.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 2008)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Review Courtesy of Amazon Vine
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