Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter is a beautifully written book. The pacing is a bit slow, but that somehow fits with the book’s reflective, nostalgic nature. And once in a while, Kalotay injects a cheeky line or two into an otherwise serious scene. Take for example a character whose ex-fiance’s new woman had “all her ducks in a row.” The character’s mother “let slip” that the ex-fiance was moving to Seattle with “the woman with the ducks.” It’s a toss away phrase, but one that turns a cliche into an opportunity to giggle. Later, a solemn TV interview scene includes a nurse who sneaks into camera view, waves, and scurries back off screen. It’s farcical, and definitely welcome, keeping the book from taking its heavy subject matter too seriously.
Nina Revskaya is an elderly former dancer from the Bolshoi ballet. Now living in Boston, she has decided to auction off her jewelry. This dredges up memories she would rather forget, of her life in Stalinist Russia. The auction also reveals a mystery in the present — why is Nina so reluctant to meet Grigori Solodin, a Russian professor with an amber necklace so apparently part of a set Nina owns?
The Russian scenes are beautiful and captivating. I loved reading about Nina’s rise to principal dancer. Kalotay describes ballet with a storyteller’s eye. We are drawn into Nina’s dancing because Kalotay goes into such detail that we can almost imagine we’re watching the ballet and feeling the magic of live theatre. Take for example:
Nina revels in the leaps and kicks and high jumps her body loves. […] She greets her Spanish girlfriends in mime and flirts with some of the young men, all the while aware that Stalin is watching–yet even as she makes her sequence of leaps around the square, slapping the ground firmly with her fan, Nina feels fully in control. When she dances her first variation, clicking her castanets defiantly, her sissonnes are fully split, so that as she arches her back in midair, her head points back parallel to her leg and her arm behind her almost touches her outstretched back foot.
We can practically see Nina happily flirting with men onstage. Her joy is marred by the presence of Stalin in the audience, the man responsible for her friend Gersh’s fall from grace and eventual arrest. Yet, with that final pose, Kalotay presents us with such a beautiful image of triumph. It may not mean anything in practical terms, but, reading that passage, we can believe that Nina has defeated Stalin, that she is free from his regime’s control. And we realize, isn’t that the power of art? Doesn’t art provide us with a sense of freedom, of transcendence? It’s idealistic, and as Nina’s story reveals, only temporary. But in passages like that one, we not only believe in this power; Kalotay makes us feel it.
I was drawn into Nina’s story: her romance with the poet Victor Elsin, the complexities of her friendship with Vera, and, in the present day, her overwhelming desire to both confront her past and forget it. I loved reading about her friends in Russia. Set against the backdrop of the Stalin regime, yet full as well of personal drama, their stories drew me in.
Less compelling are the scenes in the present. Kalotay does a good job fleshing out the other two main characters, the Russian professor Grigori and Drew, the woman organizing the auction of Nina’s jewelry. The mystery of why Nina refuses to acknowledge Grigori’s necklace as part of her collection is intriguing, and certainly what kept me interested enough in the present day scenes. Grigori and Drew are likable enough characters; they just pale in comparison to Victor, Vera, and even Nina’s nurse Cynthia. I was more interested in Grigori, mostly because his necklace shows some kind of link between him or his family and Nina. Drew’s story mostly just bored me.
That being said, it was a present day character, Zoltan, an immigrant in America, who said one of my favourite lines in the entire novel:
This country has been good to me. But it doesn’t hold the indentation of my body on the mattress, if you see what I mean.
What a beautiful, striking image! An immigrant myself, I do see what he means. I don’t necessarily feel that way all the time, but when I read that passage, my immediate thought was: that’s it exactly.
Russian Winter is very much Nina’s story, and she’s a fascinating woman with an even more exciting past. Zoltan’s sense of not being truly home is an echo of Nina’s own situation — a woman who has broken free from Stalin’s government, yet in doing so, has also given up the life of dance that had come so naturally to her. Elderly, with arthritic knuckles, Nina is as much a stranger in her own body as Zoltan feels in his current home. We feel Nina’s pain, as she remembers the wonder of being able to dance even as she struggles now to walk. We fret with her when she realizes mistakes she’s made and feels it’s too late to fix them. And we hold on as tight as she does to the memory of that young dancer, triumphant in her pose mid-flight.