Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian, television host and erstwhile journalist and banker whose non-fiction works include Jerusalem: The Biography, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and The Romanovs 1613-1918. His novel, Red Sky at Noon, is the last in a trilogy of Russian-set historical thrillers. He lives in London.
Why did you write your new book?
My novel Red Sky at Noon is the last of The Moscow Trilogy but it can be read on its own. All these novels are really love stories, but also thrillers. I love to write about the redemptive power of love in a time of war and repression. Red Sky is an adventure story set on horseback in the boiling grasslands of southern Russia during the height of the Second World War. No one has really written about this time of the last battles of cavalry in world history – one reviewer calls it a western on the Eastern front.
Whose sentences in your book are your favourite?
I like the old Cossack Panka, who looks out over the great hot golden steppes and tells Benya: "This is big country. You've got to stretch yourself just to keep up with it." And Benya, who says: "We in this country were raised with death, tutored in killing. Death was the booted, belted joker whose heels we heard clicking up our stairs, stomping through our woods. Killing is the one thing Russia does well."
Do you remember when your interest in Joseph Stalin began?
It started when I was about seven years old at my boarding school in England. I started reading about him. I always wanted to write a biography of him. As I studied him, I began to feel even in my teens that he'd always been studied in a very ideological way and I wanted to study him more like an absolute monarch. So the idea of writing Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar was really an early one.
Do you think that interest will ever wane?
One interesting thing about the new novel is that you can write more accurately about Stalin in fiction than one almost can in history books. You can invent, you can join the dots. But I think this might be the last book I write involving Stalin.
Now that the trilogy is complete, do you feel any relief?
I really loved writing the trilogy, because these books first of all are about love, private life and marriage. They're universal themes. But they're also about history and about Russia. I've loved writing them. Really, I think they're my favourite books.
Given that you wrote a history of Jerusalem, how did you respond to the U.S. decision to shift its embassy there?
My first point is that, historically, there's no doubt that the Jews have an ancient reverence and a totally ancient connection to the holy city of Jerusalem – more ancient than anyone else's. Second, there's also no doubt that the Palestinians, Muslims and Christians also have an ancient claim – less ancient than the Jewish one, but still 1,500 years.
My third point is that, in one sense, [U.S. President} Trump is recognizing a reality that Jerusalem is and has been the Israeli capital for decades, but I'm totally against recognizing it unilaterally like this. It's extremely unwise in the Middle East to give away anything without getting something in return. This would have been an ideal confidence-giving measure to give the Israelis when they made some concessions to the Palestinians, and it's been given away. It will clearly undermine America's role as mediator and undermine Trump's own peace process. So I'm very much against it.
As an expert in Russian history, the past year must have been captivating.
Well, carrying on from Jerusalem, one effect of Trump's clumsy policies in the Middle East will be that Russia's become the Middle Eastern power that it always longed to be, from Catherine the Great onwards, right through the Soviet period. The writing I've done about the Russians, especially The Romanovs, is so relevant now, because President [Vladimir] Putin's Kremlin works so similarly to the absolutist courts of the Romanov emperors in many ways and, of course, he's known as the Tsar by his entourage. And lastly, of course, Donald Trump longs to be the first American Tsar, dynastically and in terms of his absolutist autocratic power. So the Romanovs and Russian history have never been more relevant than in American politics at the moment.
Do you still box to relieve stress?
I've just been boxing this week. I do a lot of boxing. We spend so much time sitting on our own. Boxing is so restorative, so invigorating and it's great exercise. I think writers really need to feel the physical as well as the cerebral. So I'm still boxing.