Moscow in 1941 is the unusual setting for Paul Dowswell’s latest historical novel. It is perhaps not the most obvious of settings but the bleakness and the fear of Stalin’s Russia grips the reader like the cold of a Russian winter. Misha’s father works as one of Stalin’s secretaries and as part of his inner circle, they live in an apartment within the Kremlin His mother however has been arrested, declared an enemy of the people and sentenced to ten years they know not where. Misha goes to the Soviet named School 107 and regularly walks there with Valya, who also lives within the Kremlin walls. There are spies everywhere, even within the school. The Germans attack Russia and so she enters the war which heightens the atmosphere within the Kremlin, and leads to rumours inside and outside the walls. Misha and his father receive news that his mother has been moved to a camp near Noyabrsk and as a result of this information, Misha’s father asks him to go and remove some incriminating documents and photographs from the family dacha in the country. Meanwhile the Germans appear to be getting closer to Moscow, and at one point Misha and his father get on a train to leave Moscow only to have the journey cancelled. Then Valya’s father is arrested and while he is sheltering Valya the two are arrested, tried by a court and sentenced to death. They are saved by a German bomb and flee, finding help to leave Moscow and start a new life.
Fear creeps through the story giving the reader a real sense of life in communist Russia, with the misinformation, the control of the secret police, and paranoia of Stalin pervading every page. Misha and Valya must represent the few young people who did question the authoritarian nature of their lives, but most had any spark of resistance ground out of them. The story ends with a note of hope for the two young people, but leaves the reader stunned by the atmosphere Paul Dowswell has recreated. For most young people nowadays Soviet Russia is in the past but recent events remind people all too well of how things were so this is a timely novel.