Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This is the third in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Moscow trilogy. I have read the second one, One Night in Winter, but not the first, Sashenka; the books are only loosely connected and it’s not essential to read all three in order. Montefiore is better known as a historian and writer of non-fiction, but these three books are fictional – although based on real events from Russian history.

Red Sky at Noon tells the story of Benya Golden, a Jewish writer and former teacher who, in 1940, is given the death sentence for “terrorism, conspiracy to murder Comrades Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and Satinov, and membership of a counter-revolutionary Trotskyite group”. At the last minute Benya is given a reprieve and instead of being executed he is exiled to the Gulag of Kolyma and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour in the gold mines. Life in the camp is harsh and miserable, so when a chance comes two years later to join a penal battalion (a shtrafbat) formed to fight the Germans, Benya is quick to volunteer. The reward will be the opportunity to win redemption by the shedding of blood – either his own or the enemy’s.

The rest of the novel follows the adventures of Benya, his beloved horse Silver Socks and the assorted group of murderers, Cossack gangsters and fellow political prisoners who fight alongside him in the Soviet cavalry. Together they undertake dangerous missions behind enemy lines, facing death, capture or betrayal – or all three – and for Benya, there is also a romance when he meets a widowed Italian nurse, Fabiana. Of course, with Russia and Italy on opposite sides of the war, it’s clear from the beginning that their love affair is unlikely to run smoothly.

With so much happening and with such an action-packed plot and interesting historical setting, this could have been a wonderful novel, filled with drama, romance and excitement. However, I think Montefiore is probably a better historian than he is a novelist; although I have no doubts that he knows his Russian history, he never quite managed to bring the characters and events in this novel to life. The dialogue didn’t feel entirely convincing and there were only a few moments in the whole book when I felt any real emotional connection to Benya or the other characters, despite the horrors of war that were being described. I remember having similar thoughts about One Night in Winter, which was a more enjoyable novel in my opinion, but another one which made little emotional impact.

I haven’t mentioned yet that there is another thread to the novel, involving Svetlana Stalina. As Stalin’s daughter, sixteen-year-old Svetlana is a lonely and isolated figure, who has experienced little in the way of love and friendship as people are afraid to get too close because of who her father is. Svetlana’s story doesn’t really have anything to do with Benya’s, but it offers insights into life in the Stalin household and does add another layer to the novel.

I’m not sure if I would want to read more of Montefiore’s fiction – although Sashenka does still sound tempting – but I’m curious to know what his non-fiction is like. Has anyone read any of it?

19 thoughts on “Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore

    • Helen says:

      It seems to be an increasingly common trend for historians to turn their hand to writing novels. I can think of Alison Weir, Lucy Worsley, Neil Oliver, Ian Mortimer – and I’m sure there must be many more.

  1. Carmen says:

    I have Sashenka on my TBR, and it has outstanding reviews on Amazon. A reviewer compared it to one of the Russian classical novels. I guess I’ll find out whether that’s the case or not.

  2. FictionFan says:

    I haven’t read his non-fiction but I did look into it a little when I was researching books about the Revolution, but he seems to take the approach of concentrating on individual people from the elite rather than politics. Nothing wrong with that, of course – it can often make for a more fun read, but it wasn’t what I was looking for, and a lot of reviews I read suggest he’s not always too careful about historical accuracy. I had thought I might try his fiction though, so I’m sorry it sounds a bit disappointing.

    • Helen says:

      That approach actually sounds much more appealing to me than a book that concentrates on politics! It’s a shame about the historical accuracy, though – maybe I’ll give his non-fiction a miss.

  3. Sally Miller says:

    We read some of Montefiore’s non-fiction at school when we were studying Russian history – I remember enjoying his writing more than some of the other texts we had to read! As others have said, he focuses more on the personal stories of individuals than the intricacies of politics – I personally enjoyed that aspect of his writing, though.

  4. cirtnecce says:

    I have read his non friction narrative on Jerusalem and I loved it and I was really looking forward to reading the Moscow Trilogy but now I am not sure. He is a great historian and a wonderful writer, but that may not always equal to a great storyteller. Thank You for an insightful review!

  5. Calmgrove says:

    I nearly borrowed his study of Jerusalem to read — that’s as close to his writing that I’ve got! — but I’ve watched some of his tv documentaries. I have to say I found him a bit of a poseur walking around with a trademark hat, and there was a lot more of him in shot than what he was talking about; there was also a lot of talking down to the viewer which irritated me. After all this would I read his stuff? Possibly; it’s certainly doorstop material.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think I’ve actually seen any of his documentaries, but maybe that’s just as well as I would have found what you describe quite off-putting! The book on Jerusalem does sound interesting – I’m not in any hurry to read it, but might try it at some point.

  6. Aparatchick says:

    I think you’re quite correct about his abilities as an historian vs. as a novelist. Sashenka, I’m sorry to tell you, was bad. Cliched, cardboard characters, quite predictable. There are far better novels out there: The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov; The Siege, by Helen Dunmore; The Big Green Tent, by Lyudmila Ulitskaya to name just a few.

    • Helen says:

      I thought Sashenka sounded better than this one, but maybe I’ll give it a miss. I would like to read The Siege as I’ve enjoyed other books by Helen Dunmore, and the other two you mention sound interesting too.

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