One Night in Winter
Nikolai and Rosa are both killed when a play turns deadly. The students re-enact a scene from Pushkin’s famous poem, “Eugene Onegin,” which features a duel with pistols. The pair are members of the Fatal Romantics Club, a secret club set up by Nikolai, a boy who loves romance and theater. The participants all think the shooting is pretend, until the guns that are used shoot real bullets. Then the question becomes: Was it an accident, a suicide pact, or murder?
The story takes place in 1945 Moscow, just after Stalin has defeated the Nazis. The war isn’t over, but the people of Russia are celebrating this major victory. On the night of the shooting, the streets are crowded as people line the road for the Victory Parade. When the shots ring out, no one can say for sure who shot who.
"...a tale of love and passion, friendship and betrayal, wealth and privilege, mistrust, rumor, paranoia, Communism and 'the truth,' told in a riveting manner that grips readers until the very end."
Thus, an investigation is started. Nikolai kept a notebook, covered in red velvet, in which he wrote things about his favorite poet, Pushkin, as well as about the Club. He included plans for a “secret” government takeover, in which the members of the club would participate. It was all written in jest, but after Nikolai and Rosa die and the notebook is discovered, the deaths become grounds for Stalin to investigate for possible treachery or treason.
Both victims attended the well-known Commune School 801, where Stalin’s children had been students. One of them is an acquaintance of Stalin’s son, Vasily. With the exception of one boy, the children’s parents are all wealthy, high-ranking officials in Stalin’s regime.
Because this is a time of rampant paranoia for all involved in Stalin’s regime, a full-scale investigation is launched to uncover the “secret” plot to overthrow him and his government. Friends of the victims are taken to the infamous Lubyanka Prison for questioning. First, only a couple of students are involved, but then the net is cast wider, and more and more are brought in, the youngest of whom is only six years old. The investigation eventually expands to include teachers at the school. As accusations are thrown around, and threats are made to the students and their families, the children begin to “tell the truth,” and seemingly harmless secrets are misconstrued as something much more. Stalin suspects a real conspiracy against him, engineered by the pupils, their teachers and their parents. Even though there is no conspiracy, the secrets and their consequences change the lives of the students and their families forever.
ONE NIGHT IN WINTER is fictional, but based on an actual case that involved children of high-ranking Soviet officials. Simon Sebag Montefiore does an exceptional job of recreating the time period, using real-life historical figures as characters, such as Stalin and some of his officers. It’s a tale of love and passion, friendship and betrayal, wealth and privilege, mistrust, rumor, paranoia, Communism and “the truth,” told in a riveting manner that grips readers until the very end.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on May 23, 2014