One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction

By Grushenka Arnold

Many moons ago, I remember attempting to read ‘The Brothers Karamasov’ by Dostoyevsky, as this was the book my mother took my name from. So limited was my reading capabilities at the time, that I remember getting quite confused with the names and nicknames used in Russian language. I subsequently abandoned the book, to be read at a later time when my ability for reading historical and contemporary literature would be more adept.

However, I digress. To me, reading Russian themed novels would get my head in quite a spin. But, this latest novel by Simon Sebag Montefiore, thankfully, did not cause such a muddle.

Montefiore is a prolific writer, having already produced numerous novels in both fiction and non-fiction genres; particularly on the subject of Stalin and his life.

The story of ‘One Night in Winter’ was inspired by true events that occurred in early 1940s Russia during Stalin’s rule.

The story ‘is set amidst the Stalinist Kremlin élite, and that means that the familiar dilemmas of family life, the prizes and perils of children, adultery and career, have higher stakes than if the story was set in Hampstead’ (Montefiore, 2013, p.451).
There are quite a number of fictional characters within the story which can be a little confusing. And, with Russian names and nicknames, a little bit more concentration is needed. The reader must ensure that they do not have even the slightest lapse in concentration or they could literally lose the plot.

For all intents and purposes, the primary theme of the story is love during a difficult era. But, there is a lot more going on within the story line itself.

In 1945, under Stalin’s rule, Moscow celebrates the end of the war against Hitler. While the celebrations are under way on the streets, shots are fired and two teenagers are killed. These teenagers attended an exclusive school in Moscow, for Moscow’s elite; Russian leaders, famous actresses etc., enrol their children there.

During an investigation into these shootings, many questions are raised as to whether or not the shootings were part of an elaborate plot to bring down the current leader, a suicide pact, or, indeed, murder. Any utterance against Stalin and the Motherland could result in death for those that dare criticise the highest ranks.

Stalin leads the investigation, and the murdered children’s school friends are forced to testify against their families and their friends. During the course of this investigation, clandestine love affairs and familial secrets are revealed with heart break along the way.

As previously mentioned, I found there were quite a lot of characters in the book to keep track of. However, there is a handy little reference provided by the author at the beginning of the book which lays out the families, the leaders, the teachers and primary characters involved.

Montefiore gives a very detailed account of happenings during that particular time when Stalin ruled, although, I did not get the sense that I was immersed in the lives of the characters during 1940s war torn Europe. What I mean by this is that usually if I get so immersed in a story, the descriptive discourse allows me as the reader to become fully engaged in the storyline, imagining the scenery, the characters vivid faces, their surroundings and their feelings at that particular moment. I just didn’t get that sense while reading this novel. Don’t get me wrong, Montefiore is a great writer and meticulously researches the topic at hand, but I just didn’t get the feel of it.

I think I was slightly disappointed with the storyline and expected the story to be a little more intense than it was. I know the story was inspired by real events that happened two years before the author has set his own story. But, adding the fictional element, it just didn’t captivate me, move me or enthral me. If anything, it left me with some unanswered questions, possibly because I missed explanations in the book itself. Given the synopses of the story on the sleeve, I was looking forward to getting stuck into it, but was left a little disappointed.

About the Author

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian and award winning author. He has written numerous novels including: Jerusalem: The Biography, Young Stalin, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Catherine the Great and Potemkin. He holds a Doctorate in philosophy from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. The author currently lives in London with his wife and two children (

Century Publishing: London, 2013.
Review by Grushenka Arnold ©

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