Set in a fascinating period of Russian history, well-researched and convincingly told, Julius Wachtel’s Stalin’s Witnesses brings to life that era between two world wars when Russia still needed the friendship of other nations, even as it planned to overcome them. I don’t usually read the “thanks to” at the opening of books, preferring to get to the story straightaway, but this author’s thanks pulled me in with details of serious research and an ear for human nature that promised a great story to come. The novel itself alternates between two periods, juxtaposing the convincing first-person diary of a somewhat coerced witness with a deeply involving third person description of events in his earlier life. With a convincingly non-American worldview, a genuine feel for history and peoples, and a level of detail that draws the reader in, the author wisely lets his audience ask their own questions and draw their own conclusions as the past evokes our present present world. Meanwhile the time-switches between early revolution and Stalin’s sham trials lends a sense of depth behind the prisoner’s urgency, and a surprising tension to the tale. Fascinating and absorbing, this novel follows the rise of Communism while watching the parallel rise of the Nazis in Germany. The politics of spy and counter-spy are nicely personalized in the point of view of a journalist while impressive and deeply involving details of the world between the wars keep the reader eager to learn more. Personal need and global threat are convincingly juxtaposed, giving voice and reason to those who don’t do what we expect, removing the rose-colored spectacles whereby history is only ever written by the victors, and even adding touches of wry Russian humor to the trials and tribulations of everyday life. I feel like I’ve watched a film, absorbed a history book, and met a wealth of fascinating people as this story ends. An epic, fascinating, well-researched and well-woven tale, this one’s highly recommended to anyone interested in world history, politics, the Second World War, or Russia under Stalin.
Disclosure: I was lucky enough to be given a free ecopy of this novel by the publisher.
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About the reviewer
Sheila Deeth (SheilaDeeth)
Sheila Deeth's first novel, Divide by Zero, has just been released in print and ebook formats. Find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc. Her spiritual speculative novellas can be found at … more
"Wachtel's lively fictional account offers a fresh look at the cruelty of Stalin's repression from the vantage point of one of its victims, an honest communist official and spy cast in the role of witness to sabotage at one of the three show trials of the Great Terror. The fascinating life story of Vladimir Romm encapsulates much of the Soviet experience, and the reader's natural sympathy with this attractive figure gives his cruel fate added poignancy. A powerful indictment of Stalinism and a great read besides!" --Peter H. Solomon, Jr., Professor of Political Science and Criminology, University of Toronto, author of "Soviet Criminal Justice under Stalin (Cambridge Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies Series)" and "Courts And Transition In Russia: The Challenge Of Judicial Reform"
"Jay Wachtel's Stalin's Witnesses' is historical fiction at its best—a gripping story that sheds light on one of the most shocking and egregious travesties of justice in modern times. With verve and brilliantly constructed dialogue to fill gaps in the historical record and to bring the historical characters to life, Wachtel chronicles the story of five individuals who were forced to testify against their fellow Communists and in so doing condemned not only the defendants but also implicated themselves in farfetched crimes. He shows what happens when ideology enslaves human beings, hollows out their dignity, and changes their dreams into nightmares. Along the ...