A Ballet in Slow Motion

Russian Winter is a weighty, melancholy novel that weaves together the stories of three very different characters in two very different locales. In this, her second work of fiction, Daphne Kalotay manages to make cold war Moscow and present day Boston equally real and equally mysterious. The ghost of the fallen Soviet Union haunts Russian Winter, much like Kalotay’s characters are haunted by their own pasts. The star of the book is Nina Revskaya, an aging ballerina who defected from Soviet Russia in the 1950s.

When I met and interviewed Daphne Kalotay in 2005, she was promoting a very different book—her debut, Calamity and Other Stories: a comedy of sorts, which looks at the strange aspects of so-called normal suburbia, a world she grew up in. Yet Kalotay saw that world from a unique perspective because both her parents were immigrants. Her mother is Canadian. Her father and grandmother, both Hungarian, survived the Holocaust and the early years of Soviet occupation of Hungary. When I asked about her choice of subject matter, Kalotay said, “The stories on [the Hungarian] side of my family are so huge and powerful and overwhelming that it seems like a whole novel in itself. You have to be ready to do that, and I don’t think I was ready.” Russian Winter shows us that somewhere in the last five years, Kalotay became ready. More recently, she has said that Nina Revskaya is reminiscent of her grandmother, though her grandmother was not a dancer.

Russian Winter begins with jewels: An auction house sends a young woman, Drew Brooks, to Nina Revskaya’s Boston apartment to facilitate the auction of some jewelry Nina smuggled out of Soviet Russia when she defected. These jewels, passed down through generations of Nina’s husband’s family, are the last remnants of this aristocratic family’s former wealth. The family lost almost everything in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Nearing the end of her life, Nina Revskaya decides to auction off the collection and donate the proceeds to the Boston Ballet Foundation. Given the opening scenes, I expected the narrative to center around Nina Revskaya and her memories. But early on, four distinct storylines emerge, and it’s a surprise to see which characters we follow.

One storyline follows Nina Revskaya’s life in the present: She is confined to a wheelchair and in a lot of pain. Another weaves through her memories of her youth in Moscow via flashbacks. A third narrative follows Grigori Solodin, a Russian-born professor and translator who has a mysterious link to Nina. He enters the picture when he reads about the auction in the newspaper and donates an amber pendant that matches a set of jewelry in Nina’s collection. Grigori believes that these pieces originally belonged together. The fourth storyline follows Drew Brooks, an unexpected main character. Even Nina is surprised. Drew takes her job very seriously. She is a detective of sorts, less interested in the proceeds from the auction than in the stories behind the jewels.

While the rest of the book is told in the past tense, the flashbacks of Soviet Russia are told in the present tense. With the auction approaching, Nina is overwhelmed by memories, many of which she would rather forget. The people in Nina’s memories—her husband Victor, her childhood friend Vera, her mother, and many others—are more important and tangible to Nina than the people in her present, her nurse Cynthia, for example. The flashbacks of Nina’s early life are rendered in vivid detail. Kalotay has done her research impeccably well, on Soviet Russia, on what it is really like to be a ballerina, as well as the precarious lives of artists when art must follow party lines. The result of this careful research is that Stalin’s Moscow feels heartbreakingly real to the reader. 

Throughout Russian Winter, the past proves itself more powerful than the present. All three main characters are trapped in their memories to the extent that none of them are really living in the present. Nina’s jewels embody this idea of entrapment: over a century old, they still impact the present. Both Drew and Grigori obsess over one part of the collection: Nina’s amber bracelet and earrings and Grigori’s matching pendent. When he donates the pendant, Grigori gives Drew very little information. In fact, he has little information himself, but we soon learn that he has a lot of theories about the pendant’s origin, pieces of a puzzle he attempts to put together.

Several mysteries fuel Kalotay’s intricately constructed novel. Grigori’s adoption is one of them. Early on, I suspected that Grigori thinks Nina could be his birth mother. The connection between these two characters fuels the reader’s interest in the jewelry. Their relationship justifies the whole structure of the book, and explains why we need to follow not just Nina, but Drew and Grigori. As a reader, I became another detective, piecing bits of information together and making my own guesses, my own theories.

Russian Winter is a book about people trying to understand other people, and trying to understand themselves. Kalotay’s characters attempt to construct stories or explanations using whatever facts they know, along with their imaginations, their hopes and their fears. The novel is full of assumptions, guesses, and theories. Sometimes the characters are correct and sometimes they aren’t. Whichever character we are following, the story is told in a third person voice close enough to get into a character’s head but distant enough to keep the reader from knowing everything the character knows. In addition, Kalotay’s characters aren’t quick to share information with each other. Everyone has secrets.

It’s no coincidence that the idea of information as a powerful, dangerous, precious thing, becomes a central theme in a book that spends many of its pages in Stalin’s Moscow. As a young woman, Nina lived in a world where a friend might be an informant to the government or sent to prison for saying the wrong things. Her husband Victor Elsin is a writer, and other major characters from that time include a musician and other dancers. These artists struggle to remain safe, yet maintain their own ideas and integrity. Information and ideas are powerful, dangerous, and precious in a fascist state. But Russian Winter demonstrates that this is a universal truth, no matter where or when a person lives.

This book was not a fast read for me. In the beginning, I found myself occasionally frustrated, thinking, “Okay, okay, let’s get on with it. Let’s get to the good stuff.” This slow start and the continuing pace of the novel are flaws and strengths at the same time—the further I read, the more captivated I became. I don’t think I would have had the same experience of discovery and excitement, of being wrapped up in these strange worlds, had I stayed up all night to read Russian Winter in one sitting. I needed to think about the book before I read some more, mull over the characters and their connections. The novel heats up, as the disparate storylines of our characters converge. I tore through the last 100 pages, and I think that the ending was all the more fulfilling because of the slow beginning and the length of the book.

Russian Winter is like a ballet in slow motion, the dancers coming together, moving apart, returning to each other in intricate designs. Gradually, the novel catches up to itself until I felt like the action was happening in real time. Kalotay’s use of language in this novel is also reminiscent of the art form: ballet is meant to look effortless, but instead its beauty is carefully crafted, the result of years of training and an obsessive attention to detail.

It’s true that the audience gasped when Nina did her thirty-two fouettées. … With each whip of her leg she spun faster, beads of sweat flying, stinging her eyes – and yet she finished cleanly, precisely, and counted calmly to five before releasing her pose. Secretly, though, Nina finds it cheap, these technical feats. … Nina wants to do more than fancy tricks; she wants her body to sing….

Like ballet, Russian Winter is meticulous and precise. An obvious metaphor, but one that is inescapable given the novel’s beautiful, delicate imagery that shows us people and ideas that are powerful and fragile all at once.

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