By Chet Yarbrough
After reading Simon Montefiore’s “Young Stalin”, more is expected than delivered by “Sashenka”.
“Young Stalin” is an interesting history of the infamous Russian leader as a young man. It is written in the 2000s
(published 2007). “Young Stalin” reveals a future U.S.S.R. leader as a little known, relatively uneducated, Georgian that manages to promote and stabilize, even magnify the power of Russian communism after 1917. Stalin may have been a paranoid sociopath but his brutal genius is revelatory in Montefiore’s book about his early life.
In contrast, “Sashenka”, is less interesting because it deals with a fictional character that is a pawn in a much larger game. Sashenka is a political activist prior to 1917. She is a 16-year-old rebel of a wealthy Jewish family that has ties to early revolutionary party members. Her father’s brother lures Sashenka into the communist party. Sashenka is at a stage in life when rebelling against parents is a way of establishing independence. The communist party’s allure is irresistible. Sashenka becomes “Snow Fox”, a low-level communist agent that resents her father’s wealth and success in bourgeois, middle class Russia.
The revolution occurs and “Snow Fox” becomes one of Joseph Stalin’s personal secretaries. The story then jumps twenty years. Sashenka marries a Russian peasant. Her husband is promoted in the communist party; he becomes a KGB’ investigator/torturer. Sashenka naively ignores her husband’s job but skillfully manages her family’s safety during the great purge (1936-1939) of Stalin’s reign. Sashenka’s willful ignorance of her husband’s role in government exposes an affair she has with a Russian writer. The consequence is disaster.
Several life times elapse, and modern Russia looks back at the great purge. The mystery of exactly what happened to Sashenka and her family is investigated by a Russian history graduate hired by an orphaned woman who does not know who her parents were.
The mystery is mildly interesting but somewhat predictable. The “best seller” aspect of Montefiore’s book is its glimpse of the mind-set of Russian government officials during the great purge, and later, their descendent’s mind-set and perspective in modern Russia.
The stealth, brutality, and secretiveness of KGB agents and bureaucrats during the 50s are repeats of what other historians have written. But the surprise is that Russian’ bureaucracy continues to guard secrets of that time. Secrets are guarded by archivists and truth is obscured by written words that mean something different from what they say.
Many people lost in Stalin’s paranoid investigations and kangaroo court convictions remain buried in dark libraries and secretive minds of those who understand “double speak” or know what really happened. Years of life experience in Stalinist Russia pervades thinking of current leaders and bureaucrats. A few are men and women that lived through that time. Others are sons and daughters of leaders and bureaucrats of that time.
Secretiveness is a habit formed by life experience, inculcated by Stalinist’ Russian culture. Historical truth is obscured by entrenched habit and obscure symbolic fragments of false accusations, confessions, and convictions. After reading Montefiore’s story, one wonders how many generations it will take to overcome the effects of Stalinism.