I don’t quite recall how I heard about this book. I think that it was a publisher’s non-ad on NPR. They mentioned ballet and jewelry and a mystery, maybe, and I thought it sounded like an ok read. What can I say? However it happened, it worked. Russian Winter is, in fact, a good read, and has much more to offer than just ballet and jewelry.
Russian Winter tells the story of Nina Revskaya, an elderly woman who was once a dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet in communist Russia. She is in the process of setting up an auction of her fabled collection of jewels, which dredges up memories of her experiences as a younger woman. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about her rise within the ballet, her marriage to populist poet Viktor Elsin, and the difficult life of artists during Stalin’s rule. Nina’s world is one in which neighbors and family members will inform upon each other, and friends can vanish into thin air. It’s also a world that is strangely divided between abject poverty and glittering wealth. The story of her past, leading up to her defection from Russia, is pieced together by Drew Brooks, the young woman organizing the auction, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian literature who is an expert on the poetry of Nina’s husband, who was arrested and died in a work camp. Solodin also thinks that he has another connection with Revskaya and Elsin, and his story provides the mystery that threads throughout the past and present-day settings of the novel.
Again, this was a very enjoyable read. I found the writing to be lovely; descriptive without being verbose, which is always a hit with me. Like the narrative, the characters were solid but not overdone. Obviously, communist Russia is not the most pleasant setting for a novel, but I found the depictions of life in a restricted society to be fascinating, perhaps because it’s not a part of history or civilization that I know very much about. I think that Kalotay captured the tensions, the longing, and the guilt very well. That the main characters were all artists in various ways seemed to add a dimension to the feelings, in that they were not only being stifled economically, but also creatively. The modern-day stories were slightly less compelling, but still very well-constructed. Solodin’s mystery is more complex than you think it will be, which is a good thing. All in all, a nicely composed piece of work, compelling, not too stuffy, and fairly thought-provoking. I’d recommend it.