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Originally published November 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 13, 2008 at 6:26 AM

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Book review

A riveting triptych of a Russian heroine — and horrors

"Sashenka," the new novel by Russian historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, tells a riveting story of a woman whose life spans Russia's three 20th-century incarnations — tsarism, communism and the crony capitalism of the 1990s.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Sashenka"

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon & Schuster, 522 pp., $27

When Dr. Valentin Vinsky learns that his daughter Katinka, a young graduate student in history at Moscow University, has been hired by a Russian oligarch to help uncover the mystery of his mother's missing family, he urges her to turn back. "In Russia," he muses, "it was always better to leave the past alone. Here it has a way of poisoning the present."

But Katinka cannot stop, and she finds herself becoming obsessed with these strangers, "people who had nothing to do with her, yet whose stories consumed her." The same could be said for readers of Simon Montefiore's "Sashenka," an evocative, affecting and profoundly tragic novel filled with richly drawn characters whose fates cannot help but move us.

At the center of this mystery lies Sashenka, the novel's eponymous heroine, born in 1900 to a pair of Jewish parvenus, Baron Samuil Zeitlin, a wealthy capitalist, and his wife Ariadna, a faded shtetl beauty notorious throughout Petrograd for her many lovers.

While the other society girls her age are flirting with boys, Sashenka leads a secret life as a Bolshevik organizer under the nom de revolution of Comrade Snowfox in the final years of the Romanov dynasty.

Constructed as a triptych, Sashenka spans Russia's three 20th-century incarnations — tsarism, communism and the crony capitalism of the 1990s. Part two, set in 1939, finds Sashenka and her secret-police husband as members of the new Soviet elite richly rewarded for their loyal service with a huge apartment, villa and servants.

Yet their lives are neither as stable nor secure as their luxurious surroundings would suggest, and when Sashenka, a disciplined daughter of the party, succumbs to the charms of a writer with a dubious reputation, she unwittingly unleashes a chain of events that will consume her entire family.

A best-selling British historian, Montefiore is a masterful writer and a marvelous storyteller, and the way he slowly peals back the layers to reveal Sashenka's fate propels the reader onward, eager to learn the key to the mystery.

Yet Sashenka is more than a compelling story. Montefiore has spent years in Russia, first as a journalist and later researching two biographies of Stalin, and his deep knowledge of the country and its history is evident, especially so in his depictions of Stalin's regime.

To some readers the book's bizarre twists of fate and unlikely coincidences might seem like mere devices, when in fact they were the stuff of life in the grotesque reality of 1930s Russia.

Katinka eventually does discover the rest of Sashenka's story, but so horrific is the truth that she decides to save the oligarch's mother from its devastating impact. Sometimes the present does indeed deserve to be protected from the poison of the past.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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