Saturday 13 May 2023

Book Review — Stalin's Door by John St. Clair

Stalin's Door
By John St. Clair

In the dangerous time of Russia’s Great Terror, a knock on the door late at night could mean only one thing!

Moscow, 1937. 

As mortal fear engulfs the capital city, a singular man cements his lethal grip of absolute power over an entire nation. Accusations, mass arrests, executions, and deportations become de rigueur. Stalin’s cult of personality is so fearsome, that even a simple question could get you killed—or worse. Stalin’s dreaded secret police, the NKVD, would pit neighbor against neighbor in the insatiable hunt for the spies and saboteurs which threaten the supreme leader’s tyranny. The crisis will irrecoverably overwhelm the body politic—just on the eve of World War II!

Stalin’s Door is the unforgettable story of three extraordinary individuals who lived during the time of Russia’s Great Terror. They share a terrible fate which will forever intertwine their lives. Zhenya is the strong young daughter of an important government official, who is growing up fast in a privileged government enclave. Sava is a devoted husband, unceremoniously dismissed from the Soviet Navy, who considers a new opportunity. Lera is a wise grandmother who bears a crucial responsibility, while forced into exile in the outland of Siberia.

All will discover the heinous secret of Stalin’s Door!

Zhenya is a young girl when her father receives a promotion and her family moves to an apartment in the House on the Embankment. There are some strange things about the place, like the fact that the furniture is nailed to the floor, but Zhenya doesn’t care about things like that. Instead, she focuses on her friendship with Zina and working at being the best Young Pioneer she possibly could. 

Sara’s career came to an abrupt end when he was dismissed from the Soviet Navy, but another option presented itself. To join the NKVD would be a big change, but it was an opportunity that had been presented to him, and his choices seemed limited. With his wife, Lera, he finds himself moving to the House on the Embankment, and his duties are something he could not have foreseen.

Lera is a supporting wife to Sara, following where his career change takes him. When circumstances change, she is the one to step up and take control, and she excels at it. Thinking quickly under pressure is a skill that proves useful, but there are some things you simply could not think your way out of. 

Three different people, all tied together in one way or another. This book tells all three stories, and slowly, brings the characters together. It does not, however, flip back and forth between the characters. We begin with Zhenya, until Sara takes over the story. At a point, Lera then takes it over. The change in characters is prevalent, for Zhenya is very young for the majority of this novel, and there are things that would not have made sense, or been explained, without the perspective of an older generation, one who understood the workings of the world, and who had knowledge Zhenya did not.

I was unaware of what the title, Stalin’s Door, actually referred to when I picked up this book. While I studied this time period for a history exam, my studies were of vague details, spanning a wide time period, and I did not go in-depth to certain subjects or years. I had never heard of the House on the Embankment before, and I only had a vague sense of knowledge about some of the parts of this novel. This did not hinder my reading at all. You do not have to know Russian history to enjoy this novel, for the author explains everything wonderfully. You can easily read this book and come away with more knowledge than you had before. 

I adored Zhenya and Lera, for they were both wonderful characters. Sara’s perspective is, unfortunately, not as long as Zhenya’s or Lera’s, so we did not get as much time to properly get to know him in this book. Both Zhenya and Lera are incredibly brave, especially considering everything that happens to them both. The House on the Embankment seems to be the beginning for all the characters, and once they have lived there, their story really begins. I do not want to talk too much about some of the aspects of this novel, as I would be giving away too much of the story to even bring some things up, but the author has made this time period come back to life. You feel like you are in Russia yourself, alongside these characters. Another thing is that the events that occur in this novel actually happened, and people went through these things. To think about it, about people suffering as some do in this book, is enough to bring tears to your eyes, and make you feel incredibly thankful for even just the basic necessities of life.

Something I really liked was that things such as Russian names were written as they would actually be used. People did not simply have their first name and then their surname, they were addressed differently in different circumstances, and by different people. While I do not wholly understand it (there is an author’s note at the beginning explaining it, but I was too excited to start reading to actually study it properly) it wasn’t too difficult to keep up, and I always knew who was being addressed, even if I didn’t properly know the intricacies of the names. This is a detail that I am happy was included, as it immerses you in the story even more.

If you have any interest in Russian history at all, this is a book you should read! It puts you in the story, so you can watch the events happen, rather than simply reading about it. I read this book two weeks after buying it, but I wish I had started reading it straight away, because then I would have had two extra weeks of having read this fabulous book!

Review by Ellie Yarde

John St. Clair 

John St. Clair started his career as a novelist after spending 25 years battling fraud and abuse in the cyber realm.

John St. Clair lives with his wife in the northern Virginia suburbs. Stalin's Door is his debut novel.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx