Russian Winter is an excellent example of how fiction can reveal truth with more resonance than historical fact. We all know that life in Stalinist Russia was frightening and often deadly, but by connecting with fictional characters that a skilled author directs with grace and restraint, we get more than an intellectual awareness, we get an empathetic awareness of the times.
Nina Revskya, a former star of the Bolshoi Ballet, is in her seventies, confined to a wheelchair, and haunted by memories. When she decides to put her collection of jewelry up for auction--proceeds to be donated to the Boston Ballet-- the memories she has repressed come flooding to the surface.
Grigori Solodin, whose letters have in a way precipitated Nina's decision to sell her jewelry, again attempts to contact her as he tries to unravel his own personal mystery, the fact that a beautiful amber necklace in his possession may have once been part of a set that Nina has inherited from her husband's family. Nina has vehemently denied the possibility.
Drew Brooks, the young woman from the auction house, catalogs and researches the pieces before the sale. When Grigori brings the amber necklace to her, intent on adding it to the auction, Drew delves even deeper into the origin of the amber pieces.
In the meantime, Nina's memories of her past continue to occupy her time with increasing vividness--her childhood in Stalinist Russia, where people disappear with heartbreaking finality; her career with the Bolshoi, her training and eventual rise to ballet stardom; her husband, the Russian poet, Victor Elsin; her friends--Vera, a fellow ballerina, and Gersha, a talented composer.
These flashbacks are the heart of the novel, and Kalotay successfully draws the reader into the atmosphere of post WWII Russia with all of the attendant hardships, poverty, and fears.
Not even the privileged are exempt from fear. The little scenes of Nina, Victor, Gersh, and Vera, these very talented young people, are touching in their simplicity. All of them have the unusual benefit of loving their professions and of friendships that offer some relief from the stark realities of life, but they are all aware that a single word or secret could destroy them.
When Gersh is targeted by the secret police, the tension mounts. No one is safe, informers are everywhere, association with those who have been targeted can be dangerous. The brief idyll of the friends is over as each one faces complications, misunderstandings, and the power of the state.
Switching between time periods is skillfully done, and Kalotay's writing is lovely, descriptive, and evocative.
I found the characters from the past "more real" than the characters in the present, but that didn't bother me. The secrets, mysteries, and eventual realization of misconceptions are revealed slowly, with consideration. Not that you won't suspect some things, but there are interesting twists along the way.
I liked this novel best for the personal, atmospheric sense of Russia under Stalin and for the sections on the ballet which includes marvelous, tiny details of a dancer's life and training, but there were many other reasons for enjoying Russian Winter.
Fiction. Historical fiction/mystery. 2011. 496 pages.