Nina Revskaya is an old women living in America, confined to a wheelchair because of what ballet has done to her body, when she puts her jewelry up for auction. This jewelry carries with it a lot of memories of growing up in Stalinist Russia, being a star member of the Bolshoi Ballet company, and of her best friends, her long-deceased mother, and falling in love for the first time. Nina thought the secrets of her past would be kept safe forever, but now Drew Brooks, a curious employee of the auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor who thinks he may have a connection to Nina’s jewelry, are determined to understand the mysteries behind these pieces.
Russian Winter is historical fiction at its best. My favorite historical fiction reads have certain things in common – a clear sense of place, excellent characters, and insight into a historical time period without being dry – and this novel has all those things and more.
The way that Kalotay was able to capture the essence of Stalinist Russia amazed me. I hate to admit this, but I don’t know much about that part of the world in that period of history, so it was definitely enlightening for me to read the historical aspects of this novel. The struggles the people of that time faced and the hardships they endured made me sick and extremely sad. The control that Stalin was able to have over his people astounded me, and Kalotay did such an excellent job illuminating what life may have been like for the people there. I truly felt that I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of this particular piece of history.
The novel switches back and forth between past and present, and while sometimes this literary device can be confusing, in this case it worked perfectly. I was kept on the edge of my seat to find out what happened in Nina’s life in Russia, while at the same time I got to read about Nina’s current situation in the US. I was concerned that I wouldn’t care enough about Drew or Grigori, as they are somewhat secondary to the real story, but luckily Kalotay gives the reader enough of their stories and allows the reader to get to know them as characters too, so much so that I cared just as much about the two of them as I did about Nina.
The characters in Russian Winter were crafted amazingly well – every single one of them, even Nina’s friends and family members from her past in Russia were real to me. While Nina is definitely the central character in the novel, the other people in her life play a huge part in the mysteries of her past, and I definitely came to care about all of them. It’s strange, because you know from reading the present tense portions of the novel that none of these people are in Nina’s life anymore, yet I would still read with bated breath, hoping that these people would remain in Nina’s life forever, that they would all grow up together and live happily ever after. I was that involved, cared that much, about these characters.
There is a mystery intertwined within this novel and I appreciated the way it revealed itself very slowly, in the context of the history and the characters. The mystery was secondary to the story itself, but was a huge part of how everything was resolved in the end. I was definitely surprised (in a good way) by how things ended and I have to say that for me, things were wrapped up perfectly.
Russian Winter is an absolutely fantastic novel. It is a perfect example of historical fiction at its finest, one that would be a great choice for all different types of readers. It has history, excellent characters, a mystery to solve, and solidly great writing as well. I loved this one.