Winter, 1916: In St Petersburg, Russia on the brink of revolution. Outside the Smolny Institute for Noble Young Ladies, an English governess is waiting for her young charge to be released from school. But so are the Tsar's secret police...
THE NOVEL BY SIMON MONTEFIORE
Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her part in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.
Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband with whom she has two children. Around her people are disappearing, but her own family is safe. But she's about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.
Sashenka's story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin's private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking tale of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism, history and redemption - and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice.
'A furiously readable novel - it's hard to put SASHENKA down. SASHENKA is a brilliantly-plotted novel which brings home with unique intimacy the joys and hopes of Russian families, the Revolution, the horror of the Thirties - and a new generation's penetration of KGB files... Montefiore has a scholar's knowledge of Russian history but he lets his knowledge serve the tale and become part of the texture. The glory and tragedy of the character Sashenk remains long after the last page is read.'
Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List
'Intensely moving and gripping, with an unforgettable climax that will touch the hardest heart.'
Jung Chang author of Wild Swans
'Gripping from start to finish. The perfect mix of sweeping history and pageturning storytelling - with wonderful female characters and a seriousness of purpose that stands out.'
Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth and Sepulchre
'An absolutely rollicking tale which also manages to convey an authentic period atmosphere. Very colourful, very evocative, very readable, and very very real,'
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat
MAIN BRITISH REVIEWS
'This completely addictive story offers an authoritative insight into Stalin's USSR and, in its huge characters and epic ambition, carries echoes of Tolstoy himself,'
Ros Gilfillan, Daily Mail
'Montefiore's astoundingly good novel. Stalin's eminent biographer proves a brilliant novelist too. Not for a moment did Montefiore never lose me... the story hurtles towards 1939 - this section of the novel is sublime. Simon Sebag Montefiore the accomplished historian becomes Simon Montefiore the wonderful novelist. Sashenka is grand in scale, rich in research, and yet never loses the flow of an addictive racy well - wrought plot. Sashenka combines a moving satisfying just - neat - enough finale with a warming - that history has an awful habit of repeating itself.'
Fiona Atherton, The Scotsman
'Terrific stuff! The novel throbs with sex, maternal feeling, revolutionary fervour, and terror'.
Elizabeth Buchan, The Sunday Times
'TSARIST-AGE TEARJERKER: Without giving away too much of the intricate, fast - moving and well - made plot... Sashenka's agonizing dilemma, her attempts to save the children she loves, and, two generations on, the discoveries her various descendants make about this buried past, are so powerfully and persuasively set out that by the time I put the book down, long after midnight, I was in tears. It is harder than you might think for a Westerner to write a good novel set in 20th Century Russia... Impressively, Montefiore pulls off a denouement that combines just enough hope and happiness to satisfy Western readers without losing sight of the tragedy he's invoked along the way. The note of quiet doubt on which his story ends should satisfy the gloomiest of Russian pessimists too.'
Vanora Bennett, The Times, London
'ONE OF THE TEN HOTTEST BOOKS OF THE SUMMER: the acclaimed historian of Russia sweeps the brittle high society of pre-revolutionary Petersburg, the terror-chilled jails of Stalin's purges and the secrets of the 1990s Moscow archives into a tragic panorama. This family saga captures both the epic travails of a Bolshevik elite that fell from grace and also - ambitiously - the enigmas of historical knowledge itself.'
Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
'Montefiore writes, as one might expect, with fluent authority about the revolutionary backdrop to his heroine's drama. His evocations of her early triumphs are as sweetly powerful as his descriptions of her later humiliations are chilling. Agile plotting, vivid characterisation and the exuberant spectacle of a well - informed author enjoying a flourish of serious frivolity - convoluted plot twists, astonishing coincidences, tear - jerking family separations and all - combine to make Sashenka an addictive page - turner with an elegant, steely edge of verisimilitude.'
Jane Shilling, Sunday Telegraph, London
'To write a good historical novel you have to recreate that world both physically and intellectually and there must a sense that history is driving the plot forwards. Montefiore succeeds on all counts and the energy of his style shows how much he enjoyed writing the book. He revels in the details, he knows his cast intimately, Stalin and Beria have roles. He can describe the mindnumbing fear they inspire... The real achievement of the novel is that it describes the profound levels of self deception required if you wanted to stay alive in Stalin's Russia. It is a fine thing to devote your life to a Great Idea but when that Idea starts destroying what it means to be human you try to pretend its not happening. As they make the most heartbreaking decision of their lives, Sashenka at last understands the implications of the compromises.'
Artemis Cooper, Evening Standard, London
'Excellent. Its no surprise the historical detail is strong but its impressive the author never gets mired in it; Montefiore deploys his historical knowledge as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. The characterization is superb, Sashenka herself being especially well drawn. With her unwanted beauty, her gentle nobility that transcends wealth or class, and her earnest ideals that cost her so much, Sashenka commands our total sympathy and the sadness is profound and hard to dispel. Powerful, erudite, well - structured, with a heroine who lingers in the mind when the story is finished.'
Simon Baker, The Spectator
'Gripping. Montefiore has made his name with three historical books but proves himself more than equal to the task. Apart from the sheer scale of the story, on which Montefiore never loses his grip, he is very good at criticial setpieces. Even more powerful is the sheer terror... Here the outcome moves you to tears.'
Virginia Blackburn, Daily Express
'Spellbinding. Sashenka, Simon Montefiore's first novel, is a historical whodunit with the epic sweep of a Hollywood movie. The author of the bestselling biography Young Stalin, Montefiore is a natural storyteller who brings his encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history to life in language that glitters like the ice of St. Petersburg.'
Malina Watrous, Washington Post
'This superb novel. 'Sashenka' is unforgettable. Inspiring. Montefiore proves a matchless storyteller, his prose harrowing and precise.'
Caroline Weber, Wall Street Journal
'Sashenka tells a riveting story... An evocative, affecting and profoundly tragic novel filled with richly - drawn characters whose fates cannot help but move us. Constructed as a triptych, Sashenka spans Russia's three 20th Century incarnations - tsarism, communism and crony capitalism of the 1990s. Montefiore is a masterful writer and a marvellous story teller and the way he slowly peels back the layers to reveal Sashenka's fate propels the reader onward, eager to learn the key to the mystery. Yet Sashenka is more than a compelling story. Montefiore's deep knowledge of the country and its history is evident. Katinka eventually does discover the rest of Sashenka's story but so horrific is the truth that decides to save the Oligarch's mother from its devastating impact...
Douglas Smith, SEATTLE TIMES
'Montefiore paints Russia in bold colors, from Rasputin's sordid salon to parties at the dachas of Stalin's cronies. He draws on rich material from his own nonfiction on Potemkin and Stalin, with titanic historic events serving as backdrop to Sashenka's adventures. The novel draws the reader through the turbulent Russian century in a way few fictional narratives have done.'
Owen Matthews, Newsweek
'Inspired by a true story, historian Montefiore (Young Stalin, 2007, etc). turns novelist to profile a young revolutionary who leads an exemplary Marxist life until a romantic misadventure puts her in Stalin's sights. Sashenka, teenage daughter of a Jewish oil magnate, is exiting an exclusive prep school for daughters of the Russian nobility in 1916 when, instead of being picked up by her father's chauffeur, she's arrested by the Tsarist police, who have gotten wind of her subversive activities as 'Comrade Snowfox.' After spending the night in jail, she's interrogated by Captain Sagan, who releases her to her family. Uncle Mendel, Sashenka's mentor in the Bolshevik movement, assigns her to turn Sagan into a double agent; Sagan has similar designs upon Sashenka. As these intrigues play out, the Tsar abdicates, and the Revolution ensues. Sagan dies in the rioting, and Sashenka becomes Lenin's secretary. By 1939, she is a model Soviet matron, the wife of Vanya, a rising star in Stalin's NKVD. When Uncle Joe himself crashes a soiree at her dacha, she's intimidated, but relieved that the dictator seems taken with her children, Snowy and Carlo. Despite her communist scruples, Sashenka is drawn to impish younger man Benya Golden, a writer who seduces her with blandishments both verbal and physical. After Vanya bugs the lovers' trysting places, he's arrested by his former employers, taking Sashenka, Mendel and Benya down with him. Under torture, all confess to trumped - up conspiracy charges and disappear into the voracious maw of Stalin's terror machine. Snowy and Carlo survive, spirited under false names to adoptive families by family friend Satinov. In 1994, a Russian oligarch engages fledgling historian Katinka to research the disappearance of his grandparents in 1939. Katinka soon learns that Satinov, now 94, holds the key to the enigma of her client's origins, but Satinov challenges her to arrive at the solution independently - for reasons not clear until the well - tuned surprise ending. Katinka's archival research is as suspenseful as Sashenka's trials in this deft fiction debut.
'Sashenka Simon Montefiore. Simon & Schuster, $27 (544p) Lauded historian Montefiore (Young Stalin) ventures successfully into fiction with the epic story of Sashenka Zeitlin, a privileged Russian Jew caught up in the romance of the Russian revolution and then destroyed by the Stalinist secret police. The novel's first section, set in 1916, describes how, under the tutelage of her Bolshevik uncle, Sashenka becomes a naïve, idealistic revolutionary charmed by her role as a courier for the underground and rejecting her own bourgeois background. Skip forward to 1939, when Sashenka and her party apparatchik husband are at the zenith of success until Sashenka's affair with a disgraced writer leads to arrests and accusations; in vivid scenes of psychological and physical torture, Sashenka is forced to choose between her family, her lover and her cause... The tale is thick and complex, and the characters' lives take on a palpable urgency against a wonderfully realized backdrop. Readers with an interest in Russian history will particularly delight in Sashenka's story. (Nov).
Publishers Weekly, 9/15/2008
'Through the prisms of the years 1917, 1939, and 1994, Montefiore digs into the tribulations of one family as it strives to survive the upheavals of 20th - century Russia. The pampered darling of a bourgeois Jewish family, Sashenka converts to Bolshevism in her teens. She becomes a highly placed apparatchik, but that does not save her from the 1930s Stalinist purges. By 1994, families separated by war and exile are digging in the archives to find lost connections. Not - so - blind fate intervenes to produce a surprise ending for Sashenka's progeny. Montefiore, already a celebrated historian (Young Stalin), makes his fiction debut chillingly realistic with his close knowledge of Stalin and his circle... The Russian voices of Vassily Aksyonov and Boris Pasternak have recounted the personal tragedies of the era in their captivating books The Generations of Winter and Dr. Zhivago, respectively; Montefiore's Sashenka shows us that the Soviet interlude in Russia's blood - spattered history still makes for a gripping read in the 21st century. Highly recommended.
Barbara Conaty, Library Journal, USA
'I love Simon Montefiore's novel... Sashenka is beautifully written, historically accurate, and a gripping page turner. I couldn't put it down. When I finished, I felt as if I had just spent a week marinating in the soul of Russia Fascinating... hearbreaking... torrid.'
Clara Bingham, The Daily Beast
'This hard - to - put - down novel... this electrifying saga...'
Morton Teicher, Sun-Sentinel (Ft.Lauderdale, Florida)
In her great poem 'Elegy,' Anna Akhmatova recalled the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s as a time when 'the stars of death stood above us, and innocent Russia writhed under bloody boots.' The wrenching irony of Simon Montefiore's superb novel, 'Sashenka.' is that when its heroine falls beneath the boot of Soviet oppression, she is far from innocent. Although born into privilege, Sashenka Zeitlin-Palitsyn is, in her own view, 'a Bolshevik to her fingertips.' As a teenager, she joins the Communist underground that, in 1917, topples the czar and institutes a dictatorship of the proletariat. By 1939 when Mr. Montefiore introduces the adult Sashenka she is the mother of two small children and the wife of a prominent member of Stalin's government, proudly serving as 'comrade editor of Soviet Wife and Proletariat Housekeeping magazine.' Despite having lived through the worst of Stalin's purges, Sashenka firmly believes in the dictator's goodness and his genius. She reasons that even the countless victims of his Terror (in which her own father disappeared) were the necessary casualties of progress. And then, for no apparent reason, Sashenka is herself thrown into Moscow's dreaded Internal Prison. She is, in effect, destroyed by the very machinery of oppression that she helped bring to life. In his account of Sashenka's downfall, Mr. Montefiore, an acclaimed biographer of Joseph Stalin, proves a matchless storyteller, his prose harrowing and precise. As a tale of the Soviet dream turned nightmare, 'Sashenka' is unforgettable, but its ambitions - and rewards - are even greater. For the novel recounts not only the horrors of the Stalinist era but also its pre - history (the adolescent Sashenka's staunch utopian fervor) and, more powerfully still, its aftermath. The last third of the novel takes place in 1994, when the fall of the Soviet Union opens the floodgates to the nation's traumatic past - and to its archives. During Sashenka's lifetime, inquiring into the plight of a 'former person' - someone carted off by Stalin's secret police - was enough to place the questioner himself under suspicion. But by the mid - 1990s, Russians are much freer to probe the past. Enter Katinka Vinsky, a young student whom a rich Russian family has hired to locate a long - lost relative. She delves into a once - inaccessible Soviet archive (as Mr. Montefiore himself did to research his two Stalin books) and discovers both the awful truth of Sashenka's demise and the inspiring story of her children's survival. In the novel's final pages, the threads of Sashenka's family adventures interweave with those of Katinka and her employers, bringing about both destruction and redemption. According to Akhmatova, under Stalin the only 'ones who smiled were the dead, glad to be at rest.'In the early days of glasnost, Mr. Montefiore shows, Russia's living still had cause to mourn - but they also, for once, had reason to smile.'
Caroline Weber, Wall Street Journal
'Sashenka, Simon Montefiore's first novel, is a historical whodunit with the epic sweep of a Hollywood movie. The author of the bestselling biography Young Stalin, Montefiore is a natural storyteller who brings his encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history to life in language that glitters like the ice of St. Petersburg. The first section of the novel takes place in 1916, as the Russian revolution approaches. In a harrowing opening, police arrest 16 - year old Sashenka Zeitlin at her private school and whisk her off to prison where she is accused of being a Bolshevik: code name 'Comrade Snowfox.' Her wealthy father secures her release, but the accusations are true. Her uncle, a party linchpin, has been training her in Marxism and sending her on secret missions. Sashenka wants to distance herself from her dissolute parents and craves the purity of revolution, the purging of decadence. 'There is no one as sanctimonious as a teenage idealist.' reflects her interrogator. Montefiore writes nuanced female characters, and Sashenka evolves into a complex heroine. In the second part of the book, set in Moscow in 1939, she is a restless wife in an arranged party marriage, devoted to her two children even as she engages in a passionate affair with a Jewish writer. The novel picks up after Stalin's reign of terror, when no one was safe from the draconian system of fabricated crimes and forced confessions. Sashenka's husband is one of Stalin's key officers, and she is still, to some extent, a believer, although she knows that Stalin has the power to shatter her family on a whim. When the dictator pays an unannounced visit to their dacha, Sashenka watches in horror as her little girl teases him, aware that loyal party members have been turned into 'former persons' for less. In the final third of the book, set in 1994, a young historian is charged with figuring out what happened to Sashenka and her family. Montefiore shows that the historian seeking the truth must call upon creativity as much as upon meticulous research. It must not have been a stretch for this biographer to turn novelist. Here's hoping we get more spellbinding historical fiction from him.
'Sashenka' has some pleasures of the great Russian novels... There's the sense that Russian civilisation is but a fragile surface beneath which brew shadowy and ineluctable forces of history ready to erupt at any moment. Equally vivid are Mr Montefiore's depiction of country's extremes. Mr Montefiore does a particularly good job portraying Stalin as a complex figure, a softspoken music lover capable of both solicitousness and extreme cruelty... An intriguing portrait of the people who brought down the czars and went on to serve the Soviet state during Stalinism.'
Dinitia Smith, The New York Times
Montefiore succeeds in crafting a story that draws the reader into the time period through the lens of family and love. Montefiore captures the feel of the Russian epic novel tradition... 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, are heartbreaking. 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. As the novel draws to an end, 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.
Merrimon Crawford, Denver
REVIEWS FROM CANADA, AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
'A compelling and affecting saga that resonates long after the reading. Montefiore's depiction of the epoch is superb. The language is precise and evocative without getting in the way of the storyline. The fate of Sashenka and her family is profoundly moving. Although Montefiore is an experienced author, this is his first novel and it is a very good one. Its evocation of 20th Century Russia is so intoxicating it made want to buy a plane ticket and find out more for myself. I cant remember being as moved by the fate of a character in a novel for some time,'
Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
'Montefiore captivates us with the free - spirited Sashenka: this epic tale spans almost 100 years of tumultuous Russian history in the mould of Dr Zhivago, its themes of love, lust, treachery, sacrifice and family values dominate the book,'
The Courier - Mail, New Zealand
'Must read! Montefiore polishes all the facets of a good story - secrets, lies, betrayal, love and death - and places them in Russia's grand setting,'
The Sunday Telegraph, New Zealand
'Tightly paced and rich in detail, it tells the story of Sashenka Zeitlin... in a twisting plot of love, revenge and violence.'
Sarah Hampson, Toronto Globe & Mail
'Vivid, and increasingly compelling... By the end, the pages almost turn themselves.'
Heather Thompson, Toronto Globe & Mail
MORE BRITISH REVIEWS
'This powerful and moving novel... It is absolutely terrific!'
Sarah Broadhurst, Bookseller
'Moving and seamlessly - written,'
Mail on Sunday
'A suspenseful page - turner painted in opulent colours on a big historical canvass.'
Richard T Kelly, The Financial Times
'A compelling love - story; a genuine page - turner...'
Francesca Segal, Jewish Chronicle
'A compelling novel of passions and secrets, politics and lies, love and betrayal, survival and savagery.'
'A heartbreaking tale of passion, betrayal - and an unthinkable decision,'
'Montefiore's densely - plotted novel unfolds with sinuous grace over three generations... It's a consummate performance from Montefiore who sweeps through history with supreme confidence to produce a spellbinding story.'
The Yorkshire Evening Post
'Scholarship and imagination combine to create a moving story,'
Lancashire Evening Post
'Love a good saga? Sashenka is a tale rich in conspiracy, seduction, glamour, and intrigue that should satisfy all.'
Image Magazine, Irish Republic
'This wonderful novel... Dr Zhivago will immediately spring to mind... The story of 3 generations of a family with forbidden love at its heart is a triumph of creative writing.'
'An unforgettable character, one who enchants and inspires. Hers is an intensely moving story with a totally absorbing plot. An exception story of love and endurance of the spirit.'
Historical Novels Review
'An addictive and seamlessly - written tale.'
Books of the Year, Daily Mail
MORE EARLY READINGS
'An absolutely rollicking tale. Very colourful, very evocative, very readable, and very very real,'
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat
'Simon Montefiore, already well-known as an accomplished historian, has told a dramatic, gripping tale of a passionate, beautiful woman living in pre - revolutionary Russia, and subsequently in Stalin's Soviet hell. Her story, set against richly textured backgrounds - some lavish, some grim - make this novel extraordinarily difficult to put down.'
Robert K. Massie, author of Nicholas & Alexandria
'He writes beautifully, vividly and passionately,'
Fay Weldon, author of Life and Loves of a She - Devil
'In SASHENKA, Simon Montefiore proves himself a true storyteller. The world of the Russian Revolution and of Stalin's Terror comes vividly to life in this deeply intimate novel, full of Russian atmosphere and color. I felt as if I'd lived through an epic movie...'
Edward Rutherford, author of Sarum & Russka