Russia is a country that captures the romantic's heart unlike few other places in the world. For a land so amazing, with a history so complex and tragic, Simon Sebag Montefiore's 2008 epic Sashenka presents three parts of Russia's story - the ballrooms of Nicholas II's Russian Empire, the cold, windowless cells of Stalin's Soviet Union, and the uneasy freedom of Yeltsin's Russian Federation. Through it all, the titular Sashenka - first a precocious young girl, then a woman dedicated to the Communist Party and her two children, and finally a ghost reaching out through history - remains a powerful, believable, and amazing character.
When the story opens in St. Petersburg in 1916, Alexandra ("Sashenka") Samuilovna Zeitlin and Russia find themselves in precarious positions. Sashenka is the daughter of a powerful banker, but secretly supports the surging Bolshevik movement while being scorned for her Jewish ethnicity. Her beloved Russia is stretched between a world war, an oblivious upper-class and a seething, growing worker's movement. When the Revolution finally does come, Sashenka is rewarded for her work to the Party by becoming Vladimir Lenin's secretary.
In 1939, Russia uneasily watches a growing German army, but all is well in the Moscow home of Sashenka and her husband, Vanya Palitsyn, with their two children, Volya ("Snowy") and Karlmarx ("Carlo"). As the editor of a leading magazine telling Soviet women and wives "How to prepare Happy Childhood chocolate cakes and Soviet Union candles - tasty and nutritious food for the Soviet Family", Sashenka is the ideal mother and wife in the ideal Soviet family. Life is so good, in fact, that a May Day party attracts Lavrenti Beria, the head of the secret police (who Vanya works for)and the Father of the People himself, Joseph Stalin. Also at the party is Benya Golden, a writer who opposes everything the Communist Party stands for, but lives in fear that the lives of his wife and child will be forfeit if his subversiveness is discovered. Golden and Sashenka embark on a passionate love affair, both of them finding an escape from the drudgery and rules of life in the Soviet Union. Their bliss is quickly shattered, and as soon as she arranges for her childrens' escape, Sashenka arrested and tortured by the same people she entertained at her May Day party.
Fifty-five years later, Ekaterina ("Katinka") Valentinovna Vinsky, a young historian, arrives in London to help an old Russian woman rediscover her lost family. The journey takes Katinka into the deepest corners of Russia's Stalinist history, where lives were decided on a whim and a single mark of a pen was the difference between freedom and execution. What Katinka discovers changes the life of not only her elderly Russian sponsor, but the life of her own family as well.
It's tempting to compare Sashenka to Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago (1957): both are epic tales of love, family and loss set against the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union. But while Pasternak's novel tells the tale of a poetic doctor torn between two women, Montefiore's Sashenka adventurously looks at the changes in Russia through the eyes of women - either Sashenka herself, Sashenka's mother Adriana (who is enamored with Grigory "the Elder" Rasputin and has a nervous breakdown when he is killed), or Katinka. The changing female identity is most starkly juxtaposed between Sashenka and Adriana, who in the days of elaborate dresses and late-night parties is well known for her affairs and flirtatious nature. Having rejected her mother and her lifestyle, Sashenka falls in love with the Communist Party, gifting it two children and a life of service. Her love affair with Benya Golden is all the more believable, then, as decades' worth of repressed sexuality and identity are unleashed in a powerful union. As Sashenka laconically thinks after she makes love to Golden, So this is what the fuss is all about.
Montefiore strikes well with his extensive cast of characters. Family is an important element in the story of Sashenka, as she leaves her biological kin behind in favor of the Communist Party. Even as the ideology she so fervently served and believed in turns on her, she still believes in its purity and overarching righteousness. Surely this is a mistake, she thinks, as she her emaciated and sleep-deprived body is beaten. My Party would not do this to me. It's tragic, yes, and makes Sashenka all the more real. How easy would it have been for her to have renounced the Party, to have had that one moment when she realized the evil that Stalin had brought to her Russia? But instead, Sashenka never gives up. Her obsessive love for her children and the Communist Party keep her going, even when she is dragged naked in front of a court at 3 a.m. You can't help but love and admire this woman while wondering about her sanity. That's how well-written she is.
Throughout the freezing pages of Russia's history, figures from Sashenka's past, present and future work - sometimes together, sometimes not - to keep her children safe: we're reminded that children of the Enemies of the People carry the burden and shame of their parents' guilt. Even those who wear uniforms are not safe from the hand of the Communist Party, and years after the Soviet Union collapses, they still guard their secrets and mystery. Drawing on his own history, Montefiore makes Russia come alive in his 522 pages, defining the country as not a collection of cities and boundaries, but a shared culture and history, far better than any history textbook could have tried. Through Sashenka, Montefiore shows how Russia gained and lost so much in the 20th century.
If I have to criticize anything about Sashenka, it's that Montefiore includes a bit of "As you know, Bob" dialog with his characters. It's nothing critical, and only makes an appearance when the English vernacular doesn’t quite cut the mustard:
"Profiteers, revolutionaries, tinkers. You Evrei - Hebrews - are all at it, aren't you?"
"Did you handle the 'noodles' and the 'bulldogs'?"
"Noodles? I don't know what you mean."
"Don't play the innocent with me! You know perfectly well that noodles are belts of ammunition for machine guns, and bulldogs are pistols, Mauser pistols."
Thanks, Mr. Interrogator. Thanks to your cardboard exposition, now we all know.
Sashenka is many things: historical fiction, love story, epic tale, whodunnit. At the end of the day, it is simply a family story that is anything but simple, told against the most extraordinary of times.