When I say ‘Russia in the year 1900’, many will likely get the same mental image: snowy winter palaces, opulent halls, red and gold military uniforms, lavish carriages pulled by half a dozen pristine white stallions, and caviar and champagne – fueled palatial balls.
These romanticised versions of pre-Revolutionary life in St. Petersburg have primarily taken root in contemporary association due to the atrocities and subsequent darkness which followed in the Revolution’s wake; and in no other work of fiction have I seen a more poignant account of both the former and the latter eras, as in Simon Montefiore’s Sashenka.
Spanning the lifetime of the eponymous character, the book is split into three chronological sections, telling the story of a bourgeoisie child – the daughter of a wealthy Jewish baron – who is en-route home from an elite all-girl school on the eve of the October Revolution. Following the overnight regime change, her family is thrown into a dynamic turmoil due to both their social class as well as their heritage, while Sashenka herself opts to join the Bolshevik wave. The majority of the novel explores the far-reaching consequences of that decision.
Portraying the main character during three crucial periods of her life, as well as depicting her evolution from Sashenka to Comrade Alexandra, the novel spotlights the gradual moulding of a delicate child into an efficient and sterile cog of the Communist system.
Added to the eclectic mix are the interspersed glimpses of the dark underbelly of the newly-formed USSR, which expose the immense corruption, sleazy libidos, extreme nepotism, and, of course – the endless censorship.
I adore novels that chronologically encapsulate a whole generation, instead of a single moment in time. Although immediacy is heightened in the latter, character development is portrayed best through a macro depiction, where the protagonist can be seen evolving more gradually, smoothly resulting in a gigantic contrast between the character at the beginning vs. the finale of the novel.
Sashenka is ultimately a tragic story. It centers on the futility of fighting the machine that became the Soviet regime, and the countless individual lives it sucked into its blades before discarding them.
In the case of the protagonist, it portrays this mass exploitation through her gradual disenchantment with the regime she so diligently helped to build, her loss of naivete and increasing disaffection with the growing tide of Stalinist propaganda, and her ultimate failure to escape it.
This is a heavy read, but a beautiful one. It explores both the magnified immediate repercussions the events hold for the protagonist’s family, as well as painting the larger picture of a society changed virtually overnight; its purges, attempted escapes, and the sudden end of an era which favoured education, art and refinement, as it gets trodden under indiscriminate red boots.
You are likely to have heard of Simon Montefiore, who has made a potent mark on the literary sphere via his in-depth looks at isolated occasions of Russian and Israeli histories. His best selling novels include the explosive Young Stalin, The Romanovs, and the more recent Jerusalem: The Biography – all of which are a masterful blend of meticulously-researched history and skillful story-telling. Indeed, many of the secondary accounts depicted in Sashenka were dug up by Montefiore from within the towering piles of KGB records, which were finally made available to the public in 1991.
This pearl of a novel is therefore a fictitious journey very much rooted in historical fact, and not mere speculation or fearmongering. Sashenka is every woman – a single fragile individual caught up in the flurry of an unruly system, and her character arc depicts the collision of a multitude of sociocultural themes which were stirred up by the sweeping change brought about in October 1917.