Review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

The word that came to mind as I was reading this lovely and touching debut novel is “introspective.” This is a quiet, inward-looking, thought-provoking gem of a book. Delicate, yet strong; tender, yet harsh in its reality.

Russian Winter is richly plotted, hopping seamlessly in time between Stalinist-era Russia and contemporary Boston, Massachusetts. The plot revolves around Nina Revskaya, a once-revered ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet and a defector from post-WW Stalinist Russia, who, throughout the course of the book, must come to terms with her dramatic and troubled past. She desires to rid herself of poisonous memories by auctioning off her exceptional jewelry collection—symbols of her past—but instead finds she is forced to relive the years that led up to the horrendous events and decisions that marred her soul. Intertwined in Nina’s drama are Grigori Solodin, a Russian professor whose past revolves around a jewel that perfectly matches Nina’s collection and a secret that continues to allude him, and Drew Brooks, a young, lonely American associate director at the Boston-area auction house at which Nina decides to hold the auction.

In Nina’s telling of the past are interwoven the heartbreaking stories of those closest to her, and their fates under the Stalin regime: Victor Elsin, the poet who captured her heart; the Jewish composer Gersh, who dangerously flaunts his disdain for the stifling of the arts in his beloved country; and Vera, Nina’s closest friend and most lethal enemy.

I turned the pages of Russian Winter as silently and steadfastly as the heavy Russian and Boston snowfalls Ms. Kalotay describes. Pages, like snowflake crystals in a blizzard, fell to one side, one after the other; I was unable to stop until the mass of the book shifted from weighing heavily in my left hand to the other. It was easy to drift into and out of these opposing worlds—the modern, affluent United States with its security and comforts  and the stark, heavy claustrophobic atmosphere of Stalinist Russia. The story was infused with Nina’s love for her home country, and for the joy she was able to capture in the midst of the fear and hopelessness; meanwhile the reader is guided gradually, subtly, and gracefully through the darkening and crushing of human souls, the slow degradation of hope and pride in what you thought you once loved…the dawning of the uncomfortable truth that was Russian Communism. This subtlety, infused with power, is quite a feat of writing and one I admire tremendously.

Not only is this book a masterpiece of a novel, it is a work of art as well. It is about the arts—the freedom of arts in this country and the competitive Soviet rigidity that produced some of the best athletes and ballerinas in the world. The story is a testimony to the ultimate price that Russia paid, in the form of senseless deaths and defections, for forcing these creative souls into cages, prisons of the mind and heart.

In my eyes, the following quote aptly describes the overall sentiment in Russian Winter: “But it was also true that the internal world was an expansive one, always growing, full of possibilities that the real one did not necessarily offer.” (270) Soviet paranoia may have sought to control the outer world and attempted to exterminate the internal spark of life, but the human need to create art, in whatever form, remained unassailable. When bleakness overtakes you, when the inevitability of tragedy rears its ugly head, the beauty of poetry, of song, of dance…of memory still remains.

Russian Winter, Daphne Kalotay, to be published in September 2010, Harper, $25.99, 480pp, 978-0-06-196216-5

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