Thursday, May 24, 2018

Russia in Historical Fiction: A Journey of Sorrow and Strength, a guest post from Mary Anne Lewis

Today I have a guest essay by a fellow blogger, Mary Anne Lewis of Magic of History, which is a terrific new site focusing on reviews of historical fiction and history in books and on screen. There are a few novels mentioned below which were new to me, and I hope you'll find some worth adding to your own TBRs, too.


Russia in Historical Fiction: A Journey of Sorrow and Strength
Mary Anne Lewis

From the icy winter steppe to the towering palaces in St. Petersburg, Russia never fails to enchant as the setting for a historical novel. While there are many novels from numerous eras set in Russia, it generally isn’t considered as popular as, say, books set in the Tudor era, or the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps it’s the fact that Russia has such a repressive, bloody history, or that the Russian people tend toward a dark temperament because of all they’ve endured. Or, perhaps, it’s the lack of novels emanating from Russia since the Soviets took over in 1917.

For all of these reasons, the novelists who tackle Russia are a brave lot. It’s a huge country that’s hard to get to. Traveling the land has never been easy. The language is difficult. And, few nations have experienced the political machinations and bloody regime changes that Russia has. It’s difficult to keep the history straight, partially because there’s so much of it, and so much of it is so hard to believe.

Even readers need courage to consume Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Their books aren’t necessarily difficult, but they are sometimes hard to finish. Current day authors have also written about Russia, from the time of Ivan the Terrible to Catherine the Great to the Romanovs to World War II.

If you want to experience Russia of the old days, begin with Anna Karenina. It’s a tragedy, but also a reflection of what happens when infidelity impacts a Russian marriage and family in the nineteenth century. It’s the story of a young woman, Anna, who decides to leave her husband for the infamous Count Vronsky. Anna Karenina is perhaps the best book to showcase the Russian personality, long before the tsar was deposed and the Soviets took over.

 Some would like to go back even further, to the reign of Catherine the Great. Many excellent non-fiction books deal with this topic, such as Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. One novel that stands out is The Winter Palace, a novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak. It’s written from the perspective of Varvara, a serving girl who becomes a spy in the Winter Palace. She’s trusted by Catherine the Great, but the two can’t truly be said to be friends. Catherine’s life contains so many highs and lows that a book about her can’t help but be exciting.

Another book that takes place approximately at the same time is Push Not the River, by James Conroyd Martin. It’s the beginning of a trilogy about the wars fought for Polish independence in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Much of the book takes place in Poland, which was part of Russia on and off for many years. The book is supposedly based on a young girl’s diary from the period. Filled with scandals, the book has a soap opera quality about it, but when I wrote a review on Amazon and said that, the author responded to note all of it was in the diary. But books two and three come from his own imagination.

Now to move forward to the end of the Romanov dynasty. Again, numerous books have been written to detail this period. Most people interested in history know about the assassination of the tsar and the tsarina, their four daughters and their hemophiliac son. All their remains have been recovered, and DNA tests show that indeed, all seven were in two graves.

A couple of books I’ll mention aren’t necessarily among the best books about the tragedy, but I enjoyed them. The first is The Passion of Marie Romanov. Written by a Russian, Laura Rose, it’s a rather preposterous story of how third daughter Marie loses her virginity the night before she is murdered. Again, it’s supposedly based on diaries and letters, this time from the Romanov family. Unlikely or not, it’s very readable and imaginative.

 The second book, Anastasia, by Colin Falconer, is set in the 1920s, when rumors were rife that the youngest daughter of the tsar had survived the slaughter. This is another “light” book which can’t be taken seriously. It’s about a woman who claims to be Anastasia and how others try to discover the truth. Colin Falconer has written more than forty books about a variety of historical locales and has a big fan base.

Another book set in the immediate aftermath of the assassinations is White Road, A Russian Odyssey, 1919-1923, by Olga Ilyin. I loved it. Technically, this isn’t fiction, but rather the story of a young woman caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution, written more than sixty years after the fact. The woman who wrote it lived it. She describes how she fled through Siberia in the midst of a Russian winter with her infant son, all because her husband was an officer in the White Army, which lost to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. She was a member of the gentry, and her book is filled with inspiration and hope. She also details her grief at Russia losing its great artists: its authors and musicians after the revolution, something I had never considered before.

Moving forward to World War II, I’ll recommend a book that’s part of a great series by the recently deceased author Philip Kerr. It’s A Man Without Breath, about intrepid German detective Bernie Gunther. While he isn’t a Nazi, he is sent to Russia in 1943 to investigate the murder of Polish troops, and manages to escape certain death in a labor camp. While most of the series is set in Germany, this book shows that the Nazis weren’t the only cruel ones in the conflict.

I’ll mention one more book in a more modern setting. It’s Stalina, by Emily Rubin, the story of a Russian woman who travels to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. While she wants a new life, she’s conflicted. She used to be a chemist in her homeland, but now she’s working in a seedy hotel. Again, it’s a great portrait of a Russian character.

All these books are dark, at least a little. But they open a vista into a mysterious land and the people who have called it home.


Mary Anne Lewis is a former journalist, a historical fiction fan, and the blog mistress of  Once, long ago, she worked in a library.

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