It isn’t often a Western writer takes readers into Moscow, at least not in the triumphant period after VE Day. It’s easy for Americans to forget how much the Soviet Union lost in World War II, yet the vast death and destruction that dwarfs the very real sacrifices Americans made.
The author, Simon Sebag Montefiore, doesn’t just take us back to the joy, relief and satisfaction at having vanquished Hitler — and the blocks of rubble from the German siege of that city. He takes us into the homes of some of the Soviet elite - members of the Politburo and leading military men, many of whose families live in the same complex and whose children have grown up together.
Most important for the purposes of his fascinating story, the author takes us into a very special school. He takes us into Josef Stalin Commune School 801, which Stalin’s children had attended and which now the privileged children of the Soviet Union’s leading citizens attend.
It is there that a harmlessly romantic game made up by an 18-year-old boy and based on the poetry of Pushkin, particularly “Eugene Onega” embroils some of the students — the ones readers get to know — in trouble they couldn’t have imagined.
The “game” is a reenactment of a tragic Pushkin scene, except that the two students who play it — the one who came up with the game and a girl who adored him — are left dead on the night of Moscow’s great Victory Parade.
Because these aren’t just any students, the state “organs” get involved, and first one, then a handful, of them are taken without warning to Lubyanka Prison. They fear it, and they should; it’s a notorious house of torture and execution of both the guilty and the innocent.
The students have been warned by their parents for as long as they can remember to be circumspect and to never even joke around in ways that could be misinterpreted. In prison, the students are spared physical torture, but they endure abundant intimidation. And just as officials conclude that the killings were a murder-suicide, they come into possession of a personal notebook kept by the dead male student.
It’s enough to convince officials that the students wanted to overthrow the government.
One of the students is Serafima, a beautiful 18-year-old daughter of a member of Stalin’s inner circle. She knows the instant her friends die that her life will never be the same. So does Andrei, a talented Pushkin fan who was admitted to School 801 despite being the son of an enemy of the state and despite the objections of at least one member of the faculty. Andrei knows better than his privileged friends what being interrogated in Lubyanka means.
Some of the children withstand the pressure of interrogation better than others, yet none of them have any idea of the forces they’ve set in motion— forces that not only disrupt their lives but the lives of some of their friends and their families.
Montefiore has written a captivating novel, one based loosely on the shooting of two students at the same site in Moscow in 1943.
He incorporates enough actual figures — Stalin, Lavrenti Beria, who runs the NKVD; Victor Abakumov, a rival of Beria’s who is the chief of Military Counterintelligence, and several Politburo members — to lend credence to the story and the fictitious members of the elite.
Among the most fascinating parts of the story were the depictions of classes and office politics in School 801. Also intriguing was the oppressive fear that left so many characters — as well as most Muscovites — looking over their shoulders.
Montefiore’s novels and nonfiction works have been published in more than 40 languages. A critically acclaimed novelist, he also is a historian whose works include “Stalin: The Court of the Red Star” and “Young Stalin.”