Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Clue by Four of History



Reading a book with equal parts irritation and dread is an odd experience. Sashenka, a young Bolshevik aflame with Revolutionary fervor in the days before the Revolution, has no idea that she's about to get nailed with the clue by four of history, but the reader does.

Montefiore's Sashenka is the daughter of a Jewish manufacturing tycoon and a drunken, promiscuous mother. Sashenka's parents and their unique history is more interesting than Sashenka herself, who, under her intellectual uncle's influence, starts spouting babble about the revolution of the masses, etc. But Sashenka is on the winning side (for now) and after the Revolution is over, her mother is dead, her father in a gulag, and she's enjoying a position of privilege in the Party ranks as the editor of one of a propaganda magazine and the wife of another loyal Bolshevik.

Sashenka and her husband even survive the Terror, and 1939 finds them living the privileged life of high-ranking apparatchiks, complete with dacha and servants (and not that unlike her life before the Revolution). Any sympathy one can scrape up for Sashenka dissolves during this chapter, with her willingness to accept the 'disappearance' of so many colleagues and her platitudes about the wisdom of the Party and its leader, Stalin. But perhaps this is what makes the rest of the book so effective. Sashenka and her husband, Vanya, are ideal Party members and committed Bolsheviks, personal favorites of Stalin, and legitimately believe in the rightness of the brutal methods of the Party, which makes their downfall simultaneously all the more satisfying and horrific.

Sashenka's one misstep, an affair with a writer, begins a complex web of deception that ends with her and her family arrested and on trial. Desperate to save her children, Sashenka confesses to a ridiculous and convoluted scheme to assassinate Stalin. The narrative picks up again when a young historian from the Caucasus is hired to excavate the mysteries of a client's past, one of the innumerable orphans of the post-Revolutionary period, and begins untangling the threads that led to Sashenka's arrest and its aftermath.

Montefiore does a competent job of capturing the details of post-Soviet era Russia, down to the tacky clothing and clash of ideologies, as well as the labyrinthine bureaucracy facing those who try to discover the truth of what happened to so many who disappeared during and after the Terror. Sashenka and Vanya's dedication to the Party ultimately means nothing in the face of a force that grinds them, and thousands of others, into dust and lists of names in the files of an archive.

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