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Russian Winter: A Novel

Russian Winter - Daphne Kalotay An aging ballerina, Nina Revskaya, has a secret past. The secrets haunt her in her vintage. Born in Russia, but now living in the United States, she endures the ravages of time on her crippled body and runs from her painful memories, deciding to sell part of her jewelry collection; some of the pieces have a hidden meaning and from them, the real secrets of Nina’s life are brought to light, exposing the agony and sacrifices they have caused herself and others around her. The Russian regime of suppression and control has created an atmosphere of suspicion and subterfuge, creating misconceptions and grave consequences for those involved in this tale, which is part mystery, part love story and part historic fiction. Stalin’s regime requires complete obedience to him, the father figure; it sows the seeds of mistrust in all Russian citizens, who are kept in a state of ignorance so that they know nothing more about life, other than that contained in their own meager existences.
Everywhere, the politics of the time, here and abroad, is evident throughout each scene. The behavior of the characters is true to form for the atmosphere in the Russia of the early, middle and later part of the 20th century. We can see the progression from complete oppression to the evolution of some individual freedoms, but overlaying all of this is the inclusion of the state sponsored security forces, anti-semitism and controlled news media in an effort to control the rise of socialism and a one class society. Keeping the populace ignorant is the key to its success.
The mystery begins to unfold when Nina consents to be interviewed by a young woman, Drew Brooks, employed by the auction house she has chosen to sell her jewelry. The difference between the healthy interviewer who is possessed of a youth and vitality she can barely contain, who is just beginning to live, and the frail, former dancer whose pained and crippled body keeps her bound to a wheelchair, is stark and powerful.
Anonymously, another necklace is donated to the jewelry auction, and with it comes a question. How did this piece become separated from the matching bracelet and earrings that Nina Revskaya has given them? Unless it is a copy or a forgery, it must be related to her own pieces but Nina claims ignorance regarding its existence.
In the present, an unexpected love story is blossoming between Drew and Grigori Solodin, the donator of the mystery necklace. He is hoping to find answers to his many questions about his origin. As the story moves from the present to the past, we learn of the love stories between Nina and Victor Elsin, Vera and Gersh and Serge and Polina. All of these characters, and several others, are intimately connected to the outcome of the novel. This is the Russia of decades ago, complete with secret police everywhere. Poverty and hardship are the norm in most circles with no escape from any of the harsh policies of the regime.
Although the mystery of the necklace, in the jewelry collection to be auctioned, promises to be the thread that will make this novel exciting at some point, and pull it all together, from the beginning, the book moves slowly. I do like the premise of the novel; the mystery of Nina and her past will be revealed; misperceptions and misconceptions can lead to disaster because of a rush to judgment, and even the power of love is not strong enough to remove that shadow of doubt, once cast. Nina is an unwilling missing link to other people’s lives.
The novel is built in three books and it was not until the middle of the second, that the tension and mystery really grabbed me. There are so many characters to remember and the tale develops so slowly, as it moves from Boston to Moscow and from the present to the past and back again, over and over, that it is difficult to read more than a few pages at a time. It is a pity that the escape from Russia was not more developed. Yet, with all the drawbacks, the confusing timeline, number of characters and lack of defection details, it is the kind of book you can pick up, read a few pages and then put down, to pick up another day. It will make you want to finish it, but perhaps you won’t take it in large doses.