“Red Sky at Noon,” is fiction, although its author Simon Sebag Montefiore, intersperses the novel with historical characters and events in Russia in the early years of World War II.
Those of us of a certain age can remember the cowboy shoot-‘em-ups from the late 40s and early 50s, in which a group of beleaguered settlers would somehow get word to the Army, and then the cry would go up, "Here comes the Calvary!" thereby mixing Biblical with military.
This is the story of events of which I was completely unaware: the use of horse cavalry in battle between Russian defenders and Nazi invaders. This would seem to be an anachronism, but both sides maintained thousands of horse cavalry at the beginning of the war, and they were quite effective until they came up against modern, deadlier weapons of war, but even then there were scattered engagements.
In the story, Benya Golden is a Jewish writer of some fame in Russia. He makes the mistake of writing an article that is interpreted as a political statement against Stalin's government and is exiled to the camps, where criminals and political prisoners are worked at hard labor, often to their deaths.
A chilling aspect is the casual ease with which the "lucky" prisoners are exiled to the camps while the unlucky receive a bullet in the head, both apparently carried out in random decisions.
When things are going badly for the Russian army, Stalin and Lavrenti Beria devise a scheme to send the prisoners into battle to "earn redemption by shedding their blood." Benya becomes a part of this, and though he has no experience with riding, he is placed in the cavalry. The book chronicles a 10-day period in which Benya undergoes what seems like a lifetime of experiences, including being severely wounded, falling in love with the nurse tending him and developing a short but intense relationship.
The end – almost – of the story outlines the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad. Most readers will be familiar with this debacle and understand the importance of this loss: had the Nazis won, their armies would likely achieve victory in Europe and quite possibly in the war itself.
The touching dénouement of the book describes the joy/despair Benya experiences in an unexpected meeting.
This novel is an important and gripping description of conditions early in World War II in Russia, particularly the extensive use of horse cavalry, of which – I suspect – most of us have been unaware. I highly recommend it, though it will be of more interest – I suspect – to men.