Russian Winter: A Novel

By Daphne Kalotay

This book was recommended to me by my mom, and then shortly afterwards, I saw Heather’s review at Book Addiction. I knew this was a book that I had to read!

Here is the Kobo store’s summary:

When she decides to auction her remarkable jewellery collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi ballet, believes she has drawn a curtain on her past. Instead, the aged dancer 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 before. It was in Russia that Nina first learned to dance, that she fell in love with a dashing poet, that she and her dearest companions became victims of Stalinist aggression and that a terrible discovery led to a deadly act of betrayal – and to a daring and ingenious escape that eventually brought her to the city of Boston. Nina has never shared the dark secrets of her heart. But two people – an associate director at the auction house and a Russian professor looking for the key to his own ambiguous history – will not let the past rest, and they find themselves unravelling a literary mystery whose answers will hold life-changing consequences for them all.

This was a really great book. As I’ve mentioned before, I love historical fiction, so this book really appealed to me. I also love when a story successfully weaves multiple narratives/perspectives, as this one does.

Nina Revskaya is now an old woman living in Boston, confined to her wheelchair, depending on assistance from Cynthia, her nurse, for daily tasks. She was once a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi ballet during Stalinist Russia though, and the story blends Nina’s current life with flashbacks to her development as a dancer and progression from the corps de ballet to the Bolshoi’s star, nicknamed The Butterfly.

We learn that Nina is turning over all of her exquisite jewels to an auction house in Boston. Drew, the young woman at the auction house overseeing the sale, is intrigued by Nina’s jewelry and seeming reticence to discuss how she obtained the pieces and who gave them to her. The auction draws considerable public interest, given Nina’s escape from Russia with the jewelry, and Nina is forced to recall past events that she would rather forget.

Complicating things for Nina is Grigori, a university professor, who has tried to reach out to Nina in the past in an attempt to learn more about his own past. When he hears of the auction, he is drawn back into his own search for answers.

I loved the flashbacks to Nina’s life in Russia. Life was so difficult for Nina and for her friends, but she put everything aside in order to focus on her dancing, and even receives a visit from Stalin himself during a performance. However, some of Nina’s friends fall victim to Stalin’s regime, and their fates sadly illustrate the dangers that people of that time faced. The historical aspect of this story was so well done because it was woven into the novel without feeling like an overt history lesson. It just flowed with the story.

I loved reading about Nina’s past, with her husband, the poet Viktor Elsin, his composer friend, Gersh, and her fellow dancers, Vera and Polina. Their daily lives were filled with such hardships and dangers, and yet they managed to find joy together. These chapters were, in my opinion, the best in the novel.

I also loved reading the ballet scenes. I don’t know much about ballet, but I have been to see Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, and I just loved it! The descriptions of Nina’s dancing, in practice and performances, was so beautiful and revealed the contrast between what we see in the audience – seemingly effortless, lighter than air dancers – with the true physical price paid by the dancers.

The characters were well written and, as we learn more about Nina’s past, she becomes a more sympathetic character that I cared for. Drew and Grigori, as well, were easy to like and I cared about what happened to them. In fact, they become central to unravelling the novel’s mystery, and I found it a very satisfying reveal.

This was a really wonderful book. It was bittersweet and beautifully written, and I definitely recommend it.

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