Spotted a unread book in the pile. How could I have missed it?! It's the exact kind of book I pounce on. It was Simon Sebag Montefiore's 'One Night In Winter'.
Written in 2013, the book was set in Moscow 1945, during the terrifying times of Stalin's final paranoid decade of power. The story drew upon real-life characters of the Soviet elite, and their presumed 18-year-old children. The author cleverly weaved real historical figures and fictional names into the plot, making it vividly eerie. (Reviews here, here, here and here.)
At the exclusive School 801, among the children of the who's who of the Politburo and the Kremlin leaders, there was a new boy Andrei Kurbsky who was a son of "the enemy of the people". He had been granted permission to return to Moscow. He quoted Alexander Puskin, and seemed to stand for all the lost romance of Russia. There was an initiation and a Game reenacting the duel scene in Eugene Onegin. In any Game, contemporary readers will know that there will be deaths. (Not referencing 'The Hunger Games') Two such deaths occurred in the Game, shot each other with real guns that had replaced the fakes. The deaths brought in the dreaded venue of Lubianka, headquarters of the KGB. Something about unwanted "bourgeois sentimentalism". No parents dared to defend their children. The Kremlin got involved because Stalin didn't stand for any whiff of an anti-Stalin plot and everybody wanted to keep their secrets. Games within games within the Game.
Plenty of power play. There's a list of Characters right at the start of the book before Acknowledgments and Prologue. I kept going back to the list to be sure who's doing what. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read in all its twists and turns. Plenty of love stories going on. It came to pass that the main two characters seemed to be Andrei Kurbsky and Serafima Romashkina, the daughter of a famous actress and a film writer, she harboured a secret which was a boyfriend-then-fiance who was an American diplomat. But politics intervened. Cold War. Happy that the book concluded after the death of Stalin onward to 1970s, and gave us a peek into the characters that survived and how their lives turned out. I was curious enough to google the song that was referenced to in the story more than twice- 'Katyusha' ('Катюша', or Ekaterina or Catherine). It's a 1938 wartime song written by Mikhail Isakovsky and composed by Matvei Blanter.
Later, when she gives her testimony, she wishes she had seen less, knew less. 'These aren't just any dead children,' slurs one of the half-drunk policemen in charge of the scene. When these policemen inspect the IDs of the victims and their friends, their eyes blink as they try to measure the danger - and then they pass on the case as fast as they can. So it's not the police but the Organs, the secret police, who investigate: 'Is it murder, suicide or conspiracy?' they will ask.
What to tell? What to hide? Get it wrong and you can lose your head. And not just you but your family and friends, anyone linked to you. Like a party of mountaineers, when one falls, all fall.
Yet Serafima has a stake even higher than life and death: she's eighteen and in love. As she stares at her two friends who had been alive just seconds earlier, she senses this is the least of it and she is right: every event in Serafima's life will now be defined as Before or After the Shootings.