Simon Montefiore's Sashenka

When I was in 6th grade, I was assigned a beast of a social studies project. My teacher was crazy about details and creative elements, so the thing had to be beautiful and thorough. I was told to investigate whether or not Anastasia Romanov had died in 1917 like the Bolsheviks said or, as Anna Anderson would later contend, she had actually made it out alive. (At this time, they had not yet done the DNA testing proving that Anna Anderson was an impostor, so the subject was tinged with mystery.) Until this point, I had had no exposure to Russian history, but being a sucker (still am) for high intrigue, ornate architecture, and costuming, I was immediately hooked. What began then, has evolved into a life-long interest in Russian history and literature.

A few weeks ago, I came across a thick, door-stop of a novel in the library by Simon Montefiore, a Russian historian. The eponymously named Sashenka follows the life, love, and enigmatic disappearance of Sashenka, a head-strong and wealthy young woman who comes to age during Russia’s transition from Tzarist monolith to Communist titan. Sashenka grows up in a household of maids, fine clothes, but little attention from her self-centered parents. Unhappy and neglected, she turns to the fascinating and subversive teachings of her uncle, a Bolshevik revolutionary, who has ideas about how Sashenka can help the Red cause. She is soon deeply absorbed in the Revolution and eventually rises to the top of the Communist ranks. She is a premier example of Bolshevik womanhood, exemplifying the dutiful mother, devoted wife, and industrious Comrade. She marries another devotee to the cause and together they achieve the heights of popularity within the Party; Stalin even joins their dinner parties. One evening, however, she meets a young man, an artist vibrant with life, and someone unlike any she has ever known. What evolves from this first meeting will impact not only her life, but the lives of her family for generations to come.

Montefiore suffuses this absorbing plot with details from history that bring the entire landscape of danger, love, and philosophical obsession to life. The multi-generational saga allows us not only to follow Sashenka and her family, but to observe the evolution of Russian history from an intimate perspective.

This is a tour de force of a novel, one I that will read again and again.