Review: ‘Sashenka’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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… 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 – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice.

Date finished: 2 January 2020
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781416595540
Series: The Moscow Trilogy #1


Sashenka is a staggering novel from a highly acclaimed scholar of Russian History. Building on the extensive research of his internationally bestselling nonfiction about the Stalinist era, the Moscow Trilogy delves into the personal story of a young Bolshevik woman as she becomes increasingly entangled in an intricate web of politics and paranoia. Although this is his first foray into fictional writing, Montefiore steeps his novel in rich historical detail and creates an exquisite mimicry of real events.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the most powerful element of Sashenka is its setting. Montefiore’s Moscow hums with life, each flicker of light or breath of icy air appearing to hold some meaningful weight of history. And his characters do not simply move against this carefully crafted historical backdrop but rather wrap themselves in it. It is very easy to forget that these are not, in fact, real historical figures – so carefully choreographed is their dangerous dance through the political intrigue of the era.

Unfortunately, the novel fails to strike that delicate balance between history and fiction in its pacing. While it may be acceptable to jump from one pivotal event to another in historical non-fiction, to do so in this genre is to risk leaving the reader feeling dislocated by a disjointed plot. This is especially frustrating when each shift to a later period is accompanied by a long description of what we missed in the interim. The result was a rather stilted pace, which sometimes raced ahead to crucial plot points and climaxes but otherwise fell into an almost meandering and listless gait.

I’m tempted to read the next two novels in The Moscow Trilogy on the strength of Sashenka‘s setting and characterisation alone, but I do hope that they are structurally more exciting and fluid than their precursor. In spite of its strengths, readers will need iron-clad determination and more than a little grit to power through five-hundred-or-so pages that seem to be leading nowhere – slowly.

Recommended to: Any (patient) reader fascinated by the Stalinist Era of Russian history.

Recommended to: Any (patient) reader fascinated by the Stalinist Era of Russian history.

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