I really enjoyed “Russian Winter”!
Nina is a ballerina who rises to fame in the mid-fifties in Russia. Her story is contrasted along with that of her close childhood friend Vera, who begins ballet school together with Nina. Vera’s story is a tragic one. While still young, Vera’s grandmother became her ‘family’, since her parents were ‘sent away’ (for unknown reasons), and never seen again.
As Nina’s ballet career progresses, Vera begins a relationship with Nina’s husband’s good friend Gersh, (a Jewish musician-composer), who, although married to a political figure probably for his own personal safety, is also ultimately arrested. Nina’s struggles to understand herself, the actions of her friends and those loyal to Stalin, and her own husband, are the crux of this novel.
“Only when the men have left does Zoya fully begin to fret. “They found his diary, did you see? Oh, I just hope he hasn’t written anything unwise! Oh dear, oh dear. You know Gersh. He doesn’t mince words!”
“He kept a diary?” Nina asks, wondering if it has anything about Vera in it.
“Oh, not like you and I would keep. More of an artist’s notebook, actually, thoughts on art and music and all that – oh, I just hope he hasn’t written down anything imprudent. You know how silly he can be!”
Nina stares at her. Because what could Gersh have written that would be bad enough for him to be taken away? For all she knows, Zoya herself, – crazy, patriotic Zoya with her recordings of Stalin’s speeches – could be the one who told those men about the journal. And yet she really does seem upset. Well, of course she is: How incredibly hard it must be to love two opposing things, to want so badly to believe in them both, simultaneously.”
Interspersed with Nina’s present-day situation (she is now aging and bound to a wheelchair), is the story of Grigori, a poet/translator, and Drew, who works for an auction house. Nina has decided to sell her very valuable jewelry. Grigori possesses an amber pendant that no one seems to know where it came from, but can be traced to part of Nina’s collection. How did Grigori come to possess it and why is Nina so unwilling to discuss it with him?
I found the listings of the jewelry that were included at various points as ‘breaks’ in the novel to be unnecessary and a distraction. But otherwise I really enjoyed this!
“In the end there was just you and your heart.
In that way, it occurred to her, she and Grigori Solodin had their work in common: behind-the-scenes, unglamorous but necessary, and best undetected. All that effort, to deliver something beautiful to the public. Of course Grigori Solodin’s work took real talent, while Drew’s mainly took patience… The thought made Drew feel less alone, or perhaps more happily alone, sitting there cross-legged on the sofa. It was the comfort of knowing that she was not quite so strange, that there were other people who found delight in private challenges and quiet lives. People who lived in their thoughts as much as in the real, physical world. It was a reminder that true dedication to one’s work, to one’s art, was in fact – no matter how quiet or minor it might seem – a show of faith, a commitment to life.”
Ultimately Nina makes the choice to defect to America, but there are still many memories that she learns to deal with and has to reconcile with her past.
How eye-opening it was for me to read about the Stalin dictatorship years in Russia… the food shortages, the constant surveillance and having to watch yourself and be careful with what you said or even how you said it… wondering if a neighbor who bears a grudge might turn you in for something miniscule and untrue but still a threat with no recourse to defend oneself. How did they bear it? Free speech is a gift we should never take for granted.
Part of the tragedy in this story for me personally in my reading was realizing that the freedoms that I sometimes forget to be thankful for, are not easily offered to others. Choices we all make also in our personal lives often stem from merely trying to cope within our circumstances, and the greatest tragedy to me is when there is no moral foundation underpinning those choices and offering a ‘place of safety’.
Freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press… all the freedoms that are sometimes forgotten in our day to day lives, but nonetheless are irreplaceable, wonderful gifts to us.
“Quietly she asks,” ‘Did he really need to put the cushion over the telephone?”
“Oh, you know,” Viktor says, “people have been doing that for years.”
“But why?” As much as she knows to be careful of what she says, she is ignorant, from so many hours of ballet, just ballet and home to bed, and little else.
“Rumors,” Viktor tells her. “Of recording devices left over from the war. Confiscated from the Germans.”
There are many themes in this historical fiction novel; loyalty, betrayal, art and devotion to it, endurance, patriotism. What was really brought home to me in reading this novel, was how a society that accepts a totalitarian government (and resultant losses of freedoms), will ultimately affect personal lives leading to suspicion, self-preservation, and decisions made with tragic consequences.
Even though Nina’s story is a sad one, I enjoyed reading about life in post-war Russia. I enjoyed the suspense of discovering exactly where the amber pendant fit into the story and Grigori’s past and was pleasantly surprised to discover that my pre-supposition was only partly correct.
Nina makes a discovery that her conclusions, that led to choices she subsequently made, have been incorrect for many years and that harboring bitterness and unforgiveness have tragic consequences.
“Of course,” Zoltan was saying, “you can’t be wary in poetry. In any art. Just like with love. It’s all or nothing.”…
“That’s why love too is dangerous. We stand up for love. We take risks. Well, you of all people know about that – your own Soviet Russia, an entire nation rearranged to discourage love for anything other than one’s country.”
Because love caused people to think for themselves, to look out for themselves and their loved ones. Nodding, Grigory said, “Love makes people strong, we do all kinds of crazy things for love…”
“Exactly,” Zoltan said, triumphantly. “That’s what makes it more important than anything else.” He chewed a bit and added, “Except literature, of course.”