In 'Red Sky At Noon,' A Western On The Eastern Front | WYPR

In 'Red Sky At Noon,' A Western On The Eastern Front

Jan 6, 2018
Originally published on January 7, 2018 2:41 am

Benya Golden is a Jewish Cossack. Which is not the setup for a Mel Brooks movie, but the new novel Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Golden is a prisoner in a Soviet gulag during World War II, and he ends up pressed into a kind of Dirty Dozen battalion of horse-riding Cossacks and convicts who detest Stalin — but revile the Nazis even more.

During 10 eventful, violent and wrenching days, this passionate lover of freedom also finds time to romance a beautiful Italian nurse. Meanwhile in the Kremlin, Stalin frets over the invasion of Mother Russia, the seige of the city that bears his name, and the romantic entanglements of his beloved daughter, Svetlana.

"My name is nothing, my surname is nobody," says Golden — a phrase which Montefiore describes as almost the mantra of gulag prisoners. "Because in the camps, the politicals — as they were called, and Benya Golden was one of those, the less of a past they had, the less people could destroy them."


Interview Highlights

On why Benya loves being a Cossack

Well, the Cossacks of course were the horsemen of the frontiers of Tsarist Russia, who were often escaped serfs or peasants. And they became the enforcers of the Tsarist regime, the Romanovs. But after the Bolsheviks came to power, the Cossacks — who had been the most anti-Semitic and brutal supporters of the Romanovs, some of them fought for the Bolsheviks, and they were known as the Red Cossacks.

On Benya's most important love ... his horse

Silver Socks is the one person he can trust, you know, he's in this penal battalion, and this is the story of these punishment battalions that Stalin set up. And they were full of criminals, mainly kind of vicious gangsters, murderers and Cossacks who'd served time in the gulags and in prisons. And they were told if they fought hard and obeyed all orders, they could achieve redemption, if they shed blood for the motherland. Now oftentimes, the only way they could shed blood was being killed, and Stalin knew that, and so this was a sort of battalion of the damned, if you like ... and in cavalry, if you read about cavalry war, there's a great respect for the horse, because the horse is the difference between life and death in battle, and they all know that.

On the cavalry war between Germany and the Soviet Union

In 1942, the Germans were running out of fuel. They were advancing so fast across the grasslands, the hot grasslands of south Russia, and the Russians were running out of tanks. And so both of them turned to cavalry, and there were great cavalry battles on the grasslands. Of course, when I read about this — I'm an enormous fan of American literature, and especially the great novels of Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard ... and suddenly it occurred to me when I was reading, studying about this war in the grasslands of Russia, how similar it was, and in some ways this is a Western on the Eastern Front. And it's an exciting and desperate ride for survival that these people had to take.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Benya Golden is a Jewish Cossack. This is not a Mel Brooks movie but a new novel. Benya Golden is a political prisoner in the gulag who is pressed into a kind of dirty dozen battalion of horse riding Cossacks and convicts who detest Stalin but revile the Nazis even more. During 10 eventful, violent and wrenching days, the passionate lover of freedom also finds time to passionately romance a beautiful Italian nurse, while Papa Joe Stalin and the Kremlin frets over the invasion of Mother Russia, the siege of the city that bears his name and the romantic entanglements of his beloved daughter Svetlana. The novel - "Red Sky At Noon." And Simon Sebag Montefiore the historian and best-selling author joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE: Lovely to be with you.

SIMON: What does Benya Golden say, my name is nothing, my surname is nobody?

MONTEFIORE: That was almost the mantra of prisoners in the gulag camps because in the camps, you know, the politicals - as they were called, and Benya Golden was one of those - the less of a pulse they had, the less people could destroy them.

SIMON: I was surprised and, if I might put it this way, charmed that in the course of the novel, this Jewish man Benya Golden loves becoming a Cossack.

MONTEFIORE: Well, the Cossacks, of course, were the horsemen of the frontiers of czarist Russia who were often escaped serfs or peasants. And they became the enforcers of the czarist regime - the Romanovs. But after the Bolsheviks came to power, the Cossacks, who had been the most anti-Semitic and brutal supporters of the Romanovs - some of them fought for the Bolsheviks. And they were known as the Red Cossacks.

SIMON: I was flabbergasted to read, I guess, in the - when you bring us up to the history in your novel - a lot of us think of horse-mounted cavalry in World War II as the desperate French battalions hurdle in themselves against German tanks. But apparently, there was a vast mounted-cavalry war between the Russians and Germans on the steppes of Russia.

MONTEFIORE: Well, this novel is really set in that cavalry war - you're absolute right. In 1942, the Germans were running out of fuel. They were advancing so fast across the grasslands, the hot grasslands of South Russia. And the Russians were running out of tanks. And so both of them turned to cavalry. And, of course, when I read about this - I'm an enormous fan of American literature and specially, you know, the great novels of Larry McMurtry - "Lonesome Dove."

SIMON: (Laughter).

MONTEFIORE: Cormac McCarthy. And suddenly, it occurred to me when I was reading - studying about this war in the grasslands of Russia - how similar it was. And in some ways, this is a western on the Eastern Front.

SIMON: Among the romances in this book, I must be said - is Benya Golden with his horse?

MONTEFIORE: Benya Golden and his horse Silver Socks. Silver Socks is the one person he can trust. He's in a penal battalion. And this is the story of these punishment battalions that Stalin set up. And they were full of criminals. They're murderers. They're cutthroats. And, you know, the only person he can trust, really, is his beautiful horse.

SIMON: How do we reconcile the monstrous Stalin from real life and history, responsible for killing so many millions, including some of those closest to him, with the almost comically doting father he is to Svetlana?

MONTEFIORE: Well, the interesting thing about writing about dictators, whether it's Stalin or probably Kim Jong Un or whoever it is, is that if we turn them into absolute Frankenstein-like monsters, we learn nothing and understand nothing about how they come to power and how they operate. So yes, Stalin was an absolutely brutal dictator, especially in World War II. I mean, these poor punishment battalions were often used to clear minefields. And they just had to run across the minefield, for example.

But at the same time, he was a doting father who adored Svetlana, who was a pretty, freckled, redhead girl who looked very like Stalin's mother. And he adored her until she stood up to him at a moment in World War II that I recount in the novel. So this is a story, in a way, of two love affairs. And at the very height of Soviet society, you have the dictator's daughter. And down among in the depths of the punishment battalions, you have Benya Golden, who meets this Italian nurse. And, of course, the Italians were a huge presence in the Russian war. Again...

SIMON: Which I also didn't know.

MONTEFIORE: Yes.

SIMON: Apparently, tens of thousands of Italians lost their lives.

MONTEFIORE: Something like 100,000 to the more - even 150,000 did not come back. And, of course, none of them wanted to be there. They had no business being there. Mussolini sent them. And the bizarre thing is they were so Italian. Even in the middle of this brutal Russian war, they were constantly talking about pasta. All their code words were operas or wines or girls they were in love with. They remained unashamedly and charmingly Italian.

SIMON: Let me put to you, Mr. Montefiore, a question that somebody poses to Benya Golden when he determines to fight for the Red Army, Stalin's army against the Nazis. He's asked, why do you want to fight for the bastard?

MONTEFIORE: Yes. That's one of the sort of questions that many people in the Soviet Union asked themselves. And the answer was that Hitler was worse. I mean, first of all, he was a fascist. He was killing the Jews. And they were gradually learning about the Holocaust. And, also, he'd invaded the Russian motherland. So as a Russian and a Jew, Benya Golden was desperate to fight Hitler. And this is his story. I mean, it's also about, you know, human nature, courage and the redemptive nature of love itself.

SIMON: Simon Sebag Montefiore's novel - "Red Sky At Noon." Thanks so much for being with us.

MONTEFIORE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAUJIKA'S "CITY OF TWILIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.