Bookmarks Issue: 
Award Year: 

A-SashenkaBritish historian Simon Montefiore is the author of several works of nonfiction, including the best-selling, award-winning Young Stalin (2008). Sashenka, Montefiore’s first novel, gives life to Russia’s tumultuous 20th-century history by drawing on his knowledge and extensive research in newly opened Soviet archives.

The Story: In the first of three sections, 16-year-old Sashenka Zeitlin, the idealistic daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant, is accused of being a Bolshevik and is arrested and imprisoned in 1916, the eve of the Russian Revolution. Her father uses his influence and connections to secure her release, unaware that the accusation is true. In 1939 Moscow, Sashenka, the model Soviet housewife and mother, married to one of Stalin’s key officers, hides a secret which, if discovered, could lead to her doom. Finally, in 1994, Katinka Vinsky, a historian living in London, is hired to find out what happened to Sashenka and her family, who mysteriously disappeared 55 years before.
Simon & Schuster. 522 pages. $27. ISBN: 1416595540

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Caroline Weber

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"For a first novel, it is an impressively well-constructed and imagined narrative. … Mr. Montefiore overcomes some early novelistic wobbles to create a memorable set-piece when, one summer night, ‘Koba’ himself [Stalin] shows up at a party Sashenka and her husband are hosting at their dacha." Robert Cremins

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[An] evocative, affecting and profoundly tragic novel filled with richly drawn characters whose fates cannot help but move us. … A best-selling British historian, Montefiore is a masterful writer and a marvelous storyteller, 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." Douglas Smith

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Malena Watrous

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sashenka offers an absorbing—albeit sometimes bumpy—ride through a suspenseful stretch of Russian history. Montefiore knows how to tell a story and once readers are hooked they will find it hard to put the book down before learning how the plotlines all unravel." Marjorie Kehe

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sashenka’s youth is not as consuming as her adult life, but Simon Montefiore is more than adept at portraying the terror of Stalin’s rule with Sashenka, this sobering novel." Kate Ward

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Despite] overblown sex scenes and cartoonish dialogue—one character actually says, ‘Russia still lacks a real proletarian class, and without one revolution isn’t possible’—Sashenka is an intriguing portrait of the people who brought down the czars and went on to serve the Soviet state during Stalinism. … Mr. Montefiore rarely meets a Communist he doesn’t hate, and the majority of his Bolsheviks are stock characters, leering bullies and sycophants." Dinitia Smith

Critical Summary

Again and again, critics praised Simon Montefiore as a natural storyteller who puts his sweeping knowledge of Russian culture and history to good use in this suspenseful novel. They paid tribute to his breathtaking descriptions and his nuanced portrayals of Sashenka and Stalin. But they also noted some problems: awkward language, one-dimensional characters, and implausible plot developments (though the Seattle Times conceded that "the book’s bizarre twists of fate and unlikely coincidences … were the stuff of life in the grotesque reality of 1930s Russia"). Critics also lauded Montefiore’s gripping account of Stalin’s despotism—his particular area of expertise—but found the other sections less engaging. Nevertheless, they all agreed that Sashenka is a fascinating portrait of life under totalitarian rule.

Supplementary Reading

Young Stalin |Simon Montefiore (2008): Montefiore charts Stalin’s rise from poor peasant boy to tyrannical leader of the Soviet Union in this brilliant biography. According to the Christian Science Monitor, "Montefiore has the gift of writing you-are-there history and Young Stalin has an intimacy that turns its readers, in the words of one reviewer, into ‘eerily privileged insider[s].’"

The Whisperers Private Life in Stalin’s Russia | Orlando Figes (2007): Based on the oral histories of those who lived through Stalin’s rule, this critically acclaimed history describes how ordinary individuals and families coped with and survived purges, collectivization, and forced resettlements at a time when one in eight Soviet citizens became a victim of Stalin’s terror.