If the weather where you live is anything like it is here in Cleveland, you’re probably ready to grab a hot cup of tea and a good book. I recommend Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay to cure the winter time blues.
Years ago I fell ill and remember staying in bed all day with the book Granny Dan by Danielle Steel. Laugh and say what you will about Danielle Steel, but the book, as told through the perspective of a woman who was a ballet dancer when she was young, was captivating. It included a quote that has always stuck with me, “We just assumed she had always been there, part of our lives, just as she was. As one does about old people, we assumed she had always been old.” Granny Dan, as well as Russian Winter, tell the stories of women that have lived lives that no one would believe, lives that prove that the face of an elderly woman is the face of courage, experience, and mature beauty, as attained through a life of hard work.
The protagonist of Russian Winter is Nina Revskaya, a revered ballerina in a prestigious Russian ballet company. Nina falls in love with the poet Viktor Elsin, and they marry. She works to balance traditional married life with the nontraditional lifestyle of a dancer, and all the while tries to do so under the same roof as her mother-in-law and under the iron fist of Stalin.
Similar to good choreography, Kalotay exhibits a strong sense of interconnectedness among the characters in the novel. She effectively demonstrates that the lives of its primary personalities are not only linked, but somehow strangely similar. The author achieves this authentically, which in itself drives the plot as well as reader interest. The interplay between the characters is not the only thing that is seamless, as the transitions between Iron Curtain Russia and modern-day Boston also flow smoothly and keep the reader engaged. As the story ebbs and flows between the Nina of the past and the Nina of the present, a clear relationship is made between the mannerisms and attitudes she exhibits in old age due to her own personal mental and physical traumas.
By releasing her jewel collection to benefit the Boston Ballet Foundation, Nina is not only supporting the art that sustained her in life, she is releasing a beautiful, yet painful attachment to her past. Some of the beloved jewels are amber, which is known for its sticky composition and for capturing debris which will ever be preserved inside once it hardens. In many ways, Nina is stuck in the amber of her life in Russia, and is trapped there by the dissonance of the intensely positive and negative emotions she experienced from childhood through her defection.
I was intrigued by Russian Winter not only because of its characters, but because its basic storyline centered around the auction of jewelry for which the proceeds would help maintain a ballet company’s foundation. As the director of a nonprofit ballet presentation company, I am constantly stuck in my own amber of fundraising challenges. Every day my thoughts center around how to fund our daily operations in order to present the art I love. Nina was an artist working under a repressive regime, and I am as well. Although I think I’d rather battle the realities of the economy than Stalin… no matter how bad things get.