Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Winter 1951. Moonlight stretches the warped shadows of buildings, enormous and looming, over the square. Nina feels their presence like a weight above her as she crosses, shivering, toward the Bolshoi. Already the building is swarming with security guards. The ones at the entrance hold bayoneted rifles across their chests and, though Nina has become a recognizable face, make her show a special pass with her photograph on it, which they scrutinize coldly before allowing her in. For the rest of the night she will be made to show this pass, again and again, to enter her dressing room, the makeup room, the bathroom…..even before stepping onstage (when she will have to tuck the stiff little card somewhere under costume and pray it doesn’t slip out.)

I have long been inexplicably entranced by Russia. I have collected the little black boxes painted with a single haired brush, taken more Russian literature courses in college than English, read Anna Karenina more times than I can count.

Last night my friend and I went out for coffee, and I told her how much I loved this book. “It’s not one of those like that Pasternak guy,” she said, “who was it that wrote Crime and Punishment?”

Dr. Zhivago,” I said, “He wrote Dr. Zhivago, and this is nothing like it.”

“Oh, good,” she replied, “I had to give that up after the first four pages with all those crazy names…”

No, this novel is not filled with ‘crazy names’. But, it is filled with the way that people had to live under Stalin’s leadership. Interspersed with that time period and today is the story of Nina Revskaya, a prima ballerina, who refuses to talk about the past let alone the amber jewelry which she has offered for auction. The other characters who enter in are Grigori Solodin and Drew Brooks who help unravel the mystery behind Nina’s dreadful, and heart-wrenching, secret.

When I taught in Germany, in the mid 1980’s, the wall was still up between the East and the West. We were required to visit The Wall and found it to be multi-layered. The fence was laced with hidden mines, the road behind it was patrolled by soldiers in jeeps, the towers over all had searchlights and armed men. “It’s to protect you from the West Germans getting in,” the people on the East side were told.

Only, no one was ever caught trying to enter the East side of Germany. They were only shot trying to get out.

That experience, and the way I now feel America could become a country under leadership which is meant to protect us but only takes our freedom, echoed throughout my mind as I read this most fascinating novel.