Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Back to the USSR

If you aren't likely to travel to Russia this summer, I can recommend a couple of books that will take you mentally not just to Russia, but to that country in Soviet times. The first is "Russian Winter" by Daphne Kalotay, a young American writer. As a debut novel, it is a stunner, beautifully written and with believable, sympathetic characters.
It tells the story of a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi in the later Stalinist years, and offers a picture of how relatively ordinary members of the intelligentsia and artistic circles managed to survive during dark times when people regularly disappeared for no apparent reason. Mostly, they did it by concentrating on their work and keeping their heads down, but also by forging close friendships and other personal relationships that could easily be disrupted by betrayal or suspected betrayal.
Thus, many people managed to find some joy and beauty even in very difficult circumstances.
I had a few minor quarrels with the book, such as the fact that the heroine lived conveniently in a communal apartment that just happened to be right across Theatralnaya Square from the Bolshoi where she worked, and that her relatively elevated pay allowed her to employ a servant. Thus, she was spared some of the most difficult conditions of life during those times, riding the often overcrowded Metro and standing in endless queues to buy the barest necessities. (Or perhaps I'm projecting modern overcrowding of the Metro to earlier times--it probably was actually less crowded then.)
In any case, "Russian Winter" is a book well worth reading, especially for those of us who find summer is a season that needs a little contrast.
The other book, "Red Snow" by Edward Topol, is a crime novel that is a lot more difficult to read. Written and set in the 1980s, it is well-written but depicts a society that was almost unbelievably violent and corrupt. There are no heroes and little beauty in this book.
Topol was a highly-placed Soviet journalist before emigrating to North America,
so I suspect he must be painting a relatively accurate picture of what things were like then.
The Russian police and officials come across as venal and generally stupid, as well as incredibly misogynistic. Sexual violence is rife, and the native tribe (the Nenets) are shown to be both victims and perpetrators of crime.
Set in the oil fields of northwestern Siberia, this is not a book for the faint of heart, but it is nevertheless fascinating because it was written before Chernobyl and before anyone suspected that the whole Soviet system would collapse in less than a decade.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home