Russian Winter, by Daphne Kalotay
Nina Revskaya is a retired ballet dancer and teacher. When she decides to sell her jewellery collection she does so in the hope that it will put the past behind her once and for all. Much to her distress she finds that her action achieves the complete opposite though. Suddenly memories she has been able to keep at bay for decades won’t be silenced anymore and she starts reliving her past in Stalin’s Russia. She remembers how she got accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet as a young girl, her slow climb up the ranks of dancers until she was a famous star, the hard work and the great pleasure dancing brought her. She thinks back to the time when she first met her great love, Victor, their courtship and marriage, and her difficult relationship with Victor’s mother. Less happy memories come back to her too, those of constant fear under Stalin’s oppressive regime, of jealousies and of a terrible discovery that lead to heartbreak and betrayal.
Now living in Boston, Nina wants to get the sale of her jewellery over and done with and be left alone, but two young people can’t leave the past or Nina alone. Drew Brooks works for the auction house and finds that compiling the sale catalogue for Nina’s jewellery throws up a lot of questions the ballerina is reluctant to answer, while Grigori Solodin, a professor, believes that the jewellery is the key he needs to unlock and answer questions about his own past. While Nina’s memories become clearer and clearer, Drew and Grigori get closer to the answers they are looking for, answers that will have shocking consequences for all three of them.This is a fascinating story. The parts of the narrative set in 1950’s Moscow had me enthralled. On the service it is just a story about ballet, love and jealousy. It is almost possible for the reader to forget that the ballet and the meeting of two lovers is taking place in an atmosphere of suspicion and constant danger. And that makes sense, because people living under such circumstances do have jobs they are passionate about, do fall in love and feel all the emotions connected to sharing your life with someone else. They wouldn’t constantly think about the political system under which they happen to be living, they would mostly just try to get on with life and be as happy as they could possibly be.
But between the lines the suppression of people, the fear those people live with and the constant vigilance they had to keep up just to avoid being arrested and exiled are evident. Once the reader stops to think about it, it becomes clear that the setting and the political situation at the time are as much a character and driving force in this story as the humans involved in the story.
The Bolshoi Ballet made for a very interesting setting, even for me who doesn’t know a lot about and isn’t very interested in ballet. With Nina Revskaya the reader initially concentrates on dance and love only to slowly discover and recognise the evil and duplicity of Stalin’s regime. And through Nina it is possible for the reader to understand why and how a person would be so caught up in their passion that the knowledge of that evil would remain in the background most of the time.
I wasn’t as impressed with the modern-day part of the story. It is good, and it provides a great handle for unravelling what exactly happened in the past, and why Nina has stayed silent about that past for so long. The Boston background however, just didn’t provide the same tension or level of interest that Stalin’s Moscow gave.
While Nina and her Victor had me rooting for them from the moment they met, even though it is clear that there won’t be a happy ending, I just didn’t care as much about Grigori and Drew. The magic attraction I could feel between the dancer and her poet wasn’t quite there for the professor and his auctioneer.
Overall though, I really enjoyed this book. With Drew and Grigori I wanted to find out what exactly had happened and why. And I was glad and impressed that, although I had a good bit of the answers figured out before the end of the book, it didn’t work out quite as I had suspected.
I think this is a very impressive début novel by an author I will be keeping an eye on from now on.