Thursday, September 09, 2010

Book review: Daphne Kalotay's Russian Winter

Toward the beginning of Daphne Kalotay’s wonderful debut novel, a secondary character makes a perceptive observation. “You have that past buried inside you that most people can’t see,” says Zoltan Romhany, a Hungarian poet and refugee, to Grigori Solodin, his colleague and good friend. This is a theme carried through the entire book. When we first meet them, the three protagonists of Russian Winter are struggling to deal with traumatic events from their pasts. They’ve all experienced heartbreak which they haven’t quite overcome, and each has a personal connection to Soviet Russia. Their shared background becomes the drawstring that pulls them all together in a fascinating mystery with historical significance.

In the present day, Nina Revskaya, a former prima ballerina of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, lives alone in her Commonwealth Avenue apartment in Boston, with her feisty West Indian nurse her only real company. Nearly eighty, and confined to a wheelchair, Nina decides to free herself of emotional pain by auctioning off her extraordinary jewelry collection.

Taking charge of the details is Drew Brooks, a confident but lonely young divorcée who works as an associate director at the Beller auction house. One-quarter Russian, Drew has never fully investigated her ancestry. And for Grigori, the Foreign Languages department chair at a local university, Nina’s decisive action brings unsettling feelings. Since childhood, he has owned a large amber pendant that forms a matching set with two of Nina’s own pieces. He knows it can’t be coincidence, yet she’s always rebuffed his attempts to connect with her.

When Drew encourages Nina to reveal how some of the jewels were brought out of Soviet Russia, as back story for the auction house’s brochure, she runs into resistance; the details are too troubling for Nina to revisit. “People think I fled Russia to escape communism. Really I was escaping my mother-in-law,” she tells Drew. There’s some truth to this, but Kalotay gently uncovers the underlying tale by alternating perspectives and time periods. Without jarring transitions or any loss of reader interest, the novel shifts between postwar Russia and contemporary Boston, and among the viewpoints of Grigori, Nina, and Drew. The historical parts are recounted with present-tense verbs, and the modern-day bits are told in past tense, cleverly establishing that this is a single interconnected story unfolding as we go.

Nina’s tale begins in the 1940s, when as a nine-year-old child she tries out for ballet school – a privilege granted to ordinary girls thanks to "Uncle Stalin" – and continues through her marriage to poet Viktor Elsin and her rise to stardom at the Bolshoi. In addition to depicting the emotional highs of her performances, Kalotay also captures the tangible reality of Nina’s life as a dancer, from the grueling hours at the barre to the constant reinforcing of her toe shoes. Ambitious and career-driven, Nina remains focused on dance, her closest friends other artists – in particular Vera Borodina, a dark-haired ballerina, and Vera's lover, Gersh, a Jewish composer who dares challenge the status quo.

In clearly written language, Kalotay brings readers into the little-known world endured by dancers under the Soviet regime, the glamour of elegant receptions with high-ranking Party members contrasting with the deprivations of their lives at home. While in the company of her fellow artists, Nina’s eyes open to life’s uncomfortable reality: how carefully one must maneuver in a country where everyone knows someone who was taken away in the night; and what it takes to survive in a place where one’s fate can turn on perceived anti-patriotic activity, unconscious betrayals, or random bad luck. Without being didactic, the novel poses questions on the complex interplay between repressive government and the creation of art. Despite the hardships she endures, Nina’s love for Russia and its people remains, even long after her defection in 1952.

Kalotay describes the modern-day Boston art world as vividly as she does a glittery, snow-covered St. Basil’s Cathedral. Those who hunt out symbolism in their fiction will find it aplenty, and others, Russophiles especially, can sit back and enjoy a richly evocative multi-period story about love, art, and the power they have to transform one’s world. Her characters’ plight is evoked in thoughtful phrasing, and she simultaneously gives us the pleasure of a completely engrossing story. A true literary page-turner, Russian Winter also offers a heartfelt tribute to those whose lives were lost behind the Iron Curtain, and the legacies they left for us to discover.


Daphne Kalotay's Russian Winter was published on September 7th by Harper at $25.99 (hb, 466pp).  Arrow will publish it in the UK next February. Since the title fits, I'm also calling this my entry for the letter R in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.


  1. Great review - I should be receiving my review copy of "Russian Winter" in the mail any day now and am very much looking forward to reading it.

    Historical Fiction Notebook

  2. I'll look forward to your review, Katherine - I saw your blog listed as another tour stop.

  3. Sarah, thanks so much. I've been looking forward to hearing more of this one ever since you said you were going to review it.

    One Russophile, checking in! :-)

  4. Hi Lucy, I've found myself reading a number of novels set in Russia lately. Strange how that happens! Hope you enjoy the book too.

  5. This sounds fabulous, I will definitely add it to my list. It reminds me a little of Olga Grushin's The Line, which also has an aged dancer whose jewelry holds emotional resonance. In her case, the jewelry evokes pre-Revolutionary Russia.

  6. Carrie, thanks for the recommendation of The Line, which is completely new to me - I've added it to my wish list!

  7. Sarah, I just got this book and your review has made me all the more eager to read it!

  8. Tasha, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did - it's a lovely book!