Russian Winter: A Novel
Reading Russian Winter is like savoring a ripe August plum. The first bite is a lovely surprise—sweet on the tongue. The deeper you get into it, the more you realize how exceptionally good it is, and you become more excited. Soon, you’re sitting in the sun with the juice running down your chin, thinking this may be one of the best plums you’ve ever eaten. You neglect your duties in a race to strip it away to the good solid stone—only to find that there isn’t one. The center is soft, and it gives between your teeth.
Such is the experience of reading Daphne Kalotay’s flawed but nonetheless impressive debut. At first look, this is a story about mysterious jewels, a prima ballerina, a secret baby, and Stalinist Russia. To these potboiler bones the author—who cut her teeth at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony—adds an emotional backstory, a grown-up romance, a carefully braided mystery, and just the right dash of thematic gravitas.
Here’s the premise: Nina Revskaya, the once-famous “butterfly” of the Bolshoi ballet, is now an elderly woman offering to auction off her jewelry for the benefit of the Boston Ballet. Her past is full of pain and mystery. She defected from Soviet Russia, the circumstances muddy, and she hopes that the sale of her treasures will lift from her the burden of some unbearable memory.
That memory is related, somehow, to Grigori Solodin, a Russian professor who twice has tried to contact Nina concerning some old letters and photographs, only to be completely rebuffed. When he finds out about the auction, he discovers that amid Nina’s jewels are a particular bracelet and set of earrings in Baltic amber. To the auction house representative, he offers up a surprise of his own—a necklace of the exact same amber. It’s a perfect match, a missing piece of the set.
The revelation of this jewel—and all the others, introduced with luscious detail at the beginning of each section—trigger’s Nina’s memories of her life in Stalinist Russia. In this unfurling of Nina’s past, the author evokes a place where friends and neighbors go missing and no one ever speaks of it; a place where trust is lacking, and even love is dangerous.
It’s also a place where, unlike the world outside Grigori’s academic milieu, the people of Soviet Russia understand the importance of the arts, as evidenced by one character’s opining, “There are only two things that really matter in life. Literature and love.”
Fortunately, this nearly indigestible nugget comes out of the mouth of a cuddly misfit of a secondary character, a Hungarian who’d fled the 1956 uprising. He, like Nina’s poets and musicians, understand that under a repressive regime, art is more powerful—both as a potentially subversive form of communication, or as a message-bearer of the new Stalinist world. The author, with keen balance, includes both.
It’s this weaving of the ballerina’s past and the current-day mystery of the jewels where the author shows her greatest strength. She has orchestrated it perfectly: The mystery only deepens as the past is revealed, and yet, what the reader once thought was patently obvious soon becomes questionable again. It’s a lovely interplay of expectations and surprises that deserves, at its heart, a true and utterly unequivocal act of betrayal. In many ways, the author is a victim of her own talent, building expectations to a point of no return.
But every jewel has it flaws. In the final tally, Russian Winter is a suspenseful, thoughtful, and engrossing tale of emotionally compelling characters—a remarkable debut by a gifted author.