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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gangster Regimes: Communism and National Socialism Destroying Lives - "One Night in Winter" by Simon Sebag Montefiore and "Monsieur Le Comandant" by Romain Slocombe (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"If your children were forced to testify against you, what terrible secrets would they reveal?

Moscow 1945. As Stalin and his courtiers celebrate victory over Hitler, shots ring out. On a nearby bridge, a teenage boy and girl lie dead.

But this is no ordinary tragedy and these are no ordinary teenagers, but the children of Russia's most important leaders who attend the most exclusive school in Moscow.
Is it murder? A suicide pact? Or a conspiracy against the state?

Directed by Stalin himself, an investigation begins as children are arrested and forced to testify against their friends - and their parents. This terrifying witch-hunt soon unveils illicit love affairs and family secrets in a hidden world where the smallest mistakes will be punished with death."

One Night in Winter is an excellent novel which is loosely related to Sashenka as many characters from that book, including one of the main heroes, appear here. There are also allusions to what happened in Sashenka, but One Night in Winter can be read independently as all the back story is recounted. 

Taking place over a few months in 1945, with some flashbacks to the late stages of the war and an epilogue jumping in time to 1953 and then to the early 70's to conclude the several threads, One Night in Winter follows the following main characters:

Decorated war hero, Marshal Hercules Satinov, intimate friend and protegee of Stalin who often refers to the 20 years younger Georgian as "boy" and whose four surviving children, including the six year old Mariko play an important role in the novel too. 

18 year old Andrei Kurbski, son of an "enemy of the people", who has just been allowed to return to Moscow with his mother after almost a decade of exile in Central Asia, while also being accepted - to his considerable surprise - to the elite high school 801 where all the Party bigwigs send their children. One little tidbit from the past that turns out to be important is Svetlana - Stalin's youngest daughter, now 19 and a college student - time at the school... 

While an outsider in the beginning, Andrei soon starts making friends with the affluent children of the nomenklatura and through him we see the lives of the rich and privileged families of the Red Tsar's Court from a "normal" perspective.

Serafima Romanshkina, the beautiful and glamorous girl at the school whom all the boys are in love with, is the daughter of famous actress Sophia Zeitlin, Jewish, cousin of Sashenka, intimate of Stalin and courted by both pervert Beria, the secret police chief and by self proclaimed ladies' man, Victor Abakumov, the chief of Military Intelligence and main rival of Beria. Following in the steps of her mom, the serious and contemplative Serafima is courted by Stalin's surviving son, Vasily, a 24 old drunken and dissolute air force general known as the "crown prince" among the elite, though Stalin is quite tough with him too. But Serafima has a dangerous secret and that may turn to be the undoing of all...

Dr. Daria Dorova, Dashka, personal physician of the elite and cardiologist, later Minister of Health, married with Stalin's hatchet man, feared bureaucrat and executioner, Genrikh Dorov and whose four children, most notably, 10 year old Senka, nicknamed "the Little Professor" have also very important roles to play. Senka's - a 10 year old remember - verbal duel with the experienced secret police interrogators are among the highlights of the middle, dark part of the novel. A glamorous woman like Sophia Zeitlin, Dashka has her own secrets that could prove dangerous...

And then there are many other secondary characters, including Stalin and his court, all with very memorable portraits, and last but not least the teachers of the school, including seemingly stiff principal with a (secret) heart, 50 year old "spinster" of the revolution, Kapitolina Medvedeva, political hack and deputy principal, Innokenty Rimm whose mis-adventures are in turn comical and horrifying and most popular teacher, Benya Golden, whom we last saw destined for the Gulag in Sashenka, unexpectedly returned from the living dead and somehow even having got a position at elite high school 801 to boot...

One Night in Winter is an emotional page turner, quite brutal especially in its middle part and alternating the absurdities of communism with its tragedies: kids denouncing parents and 6 year old children - of Stalin's immediate collaborators - jailed and interrogated by the secret police, while a 10 year old was being threatened with being jailed until 12 when he legally could be executed, while teenagers' poetic musings taken as conspiracies against the state...

As it happens pretty much of the book is inspired by reality with all the above actually having happened in "the real life" under communism, including 11 year old children kept in jail until they turned 12 and could be given the 9 gram treatment - ie shot in the back of the head, while younger children were jailed, as their siblings denounced them and their parent.

Exceptional narrative flow and memorable characters made One Night in Winter one of my big time favorites of this year and I think the author managed to raise his prose skills one step up from the compelling but on occasion grating Sashenka, so I look forward to anything Mr. Sebag Montefiore will be putting out.


"French Academician and Nazi sympathizer Paul-Jean Husson writes a letter to his local SS officer in the autumn of 1942.

Tormented by an illicit passion for Ilse, his German daughter-in-law, Husson has made a decision that will devastate several lives, including his own.

The letter is intended to explain his actions. It is a dramatic, sometimes harrowing story that begins in the years leading up to the war, when following the accidental drowning of his daughter, Husson's previously gilded life begins to unravel.

And through Husson's confession, Romain Slocombe gives the reader a startling picture of a man's journey: from pillar of the French Establishment and World War One hero to outspoken supporter of Nazi ideology and the Vichy government."

Monsieur Le Comandant is a novel that is more horrifying than anything in the horror genre; it is also a book that cannot to be put down as it ratchets the tension gradually and one keeps hoping that the narrator will just shred the letter in the end...

As noted in the blurb, the novel has as main conceit a letter being written in 1942 by an early 60's famous French Catholic novelist, member of the Academy, decorated WW1 veteran who had lost his forearm in battle, had many affairs in his time, being now quite well off if not rich and whose only son had married in the 30's a German actress with whom he became quite fascinated with, to the point of both conspiring to hide her Jewish origins and amplifying his official antisemitism to the no return point of vitriolic articles, denunciations etc...

While a lot of the "what happened" from the letter is predictable, the "how it happened" brings quite a few twists and turns and the narrative flow is extremely powerful.

Dark, brutal and excellent stuff that reminds one of two things - how the gangster regimes of the 20th century - National Socialism and Communism - casually destroyed lives and brought up the scum of the society who enjoyed doing the dirty work for the leaders and then how under such circumstances it was very hard to remain innocent and one either became one of the perpetrators or one of the victims - or of course both.




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