When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. Instead, the former ballerina finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed the course of her life half a century ago.
It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions—Gersh, a brilliant composer, and the exquisite Vera, Nina’s closest friend—became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia that a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal—and an ingenious escape that led Nina to the West and eventually to Boston.
Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that a unique set of jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.
Interweaving past and present, Moscow and New England, the backstage tumult of the dance world and the transformative power of art, Daphne Kalotay’s luminous first novel—a literary page-turner of the highest order—captures the uncertainty and terror of individuals powerless to withstand the forces of history, while affirming that even in times of great strife, the human spirit reaches for beauty and grace, forgiveness and transcendence.
As soon as I first saw this book being talked about, I knew I wanted to read it. There is something about Russian history, particularly 20th century Russian history, that makes for compelling reading for me, and this book was no exception. I was however a bit concerned that my lack of knowledge about ballet might be problematic, but in the end, this was a minor issue. Most of the time, I was lost in the world that the author created in both Moscow and Boston.
The three main characters in this drama are Nina Revskaya, a former ballerina and star of the Bolshoi Ballet, Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian, and Drew Brookes who works in a prestigious auction house.
The story begins when Nina, who is now wheelchair bound due to her physical afflictions gained through many years of dancing , decides to sell off many of the jewels that she has accumulated throughout her years as a famous ballerina and to donate the proceeds to the Boston ballet. Some of the jewels are gifts received since her defection, but there are others that she bought with her from Communist Russia, and it is really those that are the catalysts for the stories that we hear about Nina's life.
We first meet Nina as a young child who is taken to try out for the famous Moscow ballet school. From that time on, Nina lives and breathes ballet, determined to work her way up through the ranks of the competitive and prestigious Bolshoi Ballet.
When Nina meets poet Victor Elsin, she not only falls in love but also loses some of her political naivety. This is the second novel I have read in the last month that is set in Stalinist Russia (the other being The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore). Both books do a great job of showing readers, who in most cases can only begin to imagine, what it is like to be constantly on edge, worried about which ones of your neighbours or friends is informing on you, and knowing that it doesn't take much to lose a person in the notorious prisons of the time.
When Nina agrees to sell her jewels, the auction house sends Drew Brooks to try and garner more information from the famous ballerina - photos, anecdotes, anything that can be used in the auction catalogue. Nina, who has never really learnt to trust anyone, is resistant to sharing those memories, despite the fact that each day she (and the reader) is transported back in time to spend time with her friends: Gersh, a Jewish composer, and Vera and Polina who are also dancers. Drew is devoted to her work, often going above the call of duty, but she is not quite as successful in her private life, much to her mother's consternation.
The third strand of the story is that of Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian at a prestigious university, and a man who has a strong professional interest in the poetry of Victor Elsin (Nina's husband), for reasons known initially only to him at the beginning of the book. When Grigori decides to also donate a necklace that appears to match some of Nina's jewels, Brook is left with more questions than answers. Is the necklace part of the same set, but most importantly, what is the connection between Nina and Grigori?
At it's heart, Russian Winter is a story about reevaluating what you think you know about your life,. For Nina, this means reevaluating her life through the lens of her memories of her life with her husband and in the oppressive regime where no amount of success guaranteed safety. For Grigori, it is not only his past as a recent widower and his struggle to move on with his life, but also a search for identity, for belonging, for answers he has been searching for his whole life. And for Drew, questions about her grandfather's life, about her failed marriage, and her future happiness - about looking back, but also about moving forward.
I love it when story lines are interwoven with each other, and going backwards and forwards in time, but it has to be done well. With all three of the characters looking back at their lives, there could have been capacity for Kalotay to lose some of those strands, but she managed to weave the various story lines together with aplomb.
I also really liked that between each chapter there was a description of some of the items that were going up for auction, and I especially liked it when we got to see how it was that Nina came to own that particular piece.
If I was to make a criticism of this novel, it would only be a small one, and that relates to the way the novel was wrapped up - it was too soon! There was one event that was telegraphed but that the reader didn't get to see, and I really wanted to experience that moment with the characters! The other thing is that, there was one particular relationship that felt too convenient. Without giving too much away, the chemistry was good between the characters, but I am not sure that I necessarily felt that the connection between them was as strong as it was implied to be.
In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it, especially if you enjoy reading about Russia, ballet, jewellery or if you are in the mood for a fascinating story that you can get lost in for a few hundred pages.