British historian Montefiore turns in his second novel, a foreboding tale of Soviet Russia based on actual events.
Given that Montefiore is a biographer of The Boss (Young Stalin, 2007, etc.), it’s fitting that, as in Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat—whose spirit looms over this book—Josef Stalin should appear as a central character in this odd drama. Less usual, perhaps, is that Stalin has sympathetic moments: Late in the story, we find him reclining on a sofa, smoking a cigarette and thinking of lost love: “If only there had been more love in my life, he thought despondently, but we Bolsheviks are a military-religious order like the Knights Templar.” The romantic and slightly gloopy image suits the larger story, which concerns a class of well-heeled, privileged children who attend a school that’s out of Dead Poets Society, if with pictures of Lenin instead of Lord Byron. Young Andrei Kurbsky, from out in the sticks of the Soviet Empire, doesn't share their high status, but, a devotee of Pushkin, he nonetheless is swallowed up in a floppy-haired beatnik-manqué clique that adores the Romantic poets. That’s not such a smart move in an age when socialist realism is the only acceptable aesthetic, and Stalin—the sire of less-than-accomplished offspring, as we see—is as ruthless with the children of his own confidants as he is with his political enemies. Though the narrative lags at times, and though Montefiore sometimes inclines to the didactic (“The title ‘Comrade’ means Rimm was a member of the Communist Party”), the storyline is unusual enough to keep things moving. The characters, too, are strong and believable, all careening toward a fateful day. Though his novel is based on history and told with a historian’s concern for detail, Montefiore notes in an afterword that his is “not a novel about power but about private life—above all, love.” Yet, of course, it’s power that moves things to their grim conclusion.
A kind of Virgin Suicides for the Soviet set, speaking to much that’s dark in the human soul—but to what can redeem it, too.