Daphne Kalotay's "Russian Winter," a saga about the Cold War and ballet
By Daphne Kalotay
Harper. 466 pp. $25.99
"Russian Winter," Daphne Kalotay's first novel, is a magnificent tale of love, loss, betrayal and redemption. Shifting between Moscow and Boston and alternating the past with the present, the story centers on Nina Revskaya, a star of the Bolshoi Ballet, known as "the Butterfly." Her fame peaks during the dark days of the Cold War when all Russians were aware that "anyone could turn in anyone else, for any thing. Small things. . . . Speaking the wrong thing, telling the wrong joke. . . . It was impossible not to know someone who was arrested." In 1952, despite warnings that "they find you and break your legs," Nina defects and goes on to have a celebrated international career.
Now old and infirm, she lives in Boston's Back Bay and has decided to sell her treasured jewelry collection, including some particularly valuable amber pieces. Drew Brooks, the associate director of fine jewelry from the auction house, visits to compose a list of the gems and begins to ask Nina questions that open a Pandora's box of memories and mysteries.
Characters appear like an endless stacking nest of Matryoshka dolls, one more fascinating and intriguing than the next. Among the cast are Nina's husband, the celebrated poet Viktor Elsin; Viktor's insidious mother and her French-speaking bird; the professor and translator Grigori Solodin, who wishes "he knew the truth. [It was] impossible ever to be fully himself until he knew his own history"; the ballerina Vera Borodina, Nina's childhood friend whose parents had "been taken"; the provocative Jewish composer Aron Gershtein, who is in love with Vera.
Kalotay describes her players with clarity, empathy and understanding: Nina sometimes "feels rapture, becoming one with the music, no longer a person but simply movement, euphoric, a complete obliteration of the crises of the world." Vera is "graceful yet fragile, something distant and haunted about her."
The complex story is multi-layered and labyrinthine so that the reader, just like these characters, does not know whom to believe or distrust. And while there is fascinating information and insight about ballet, jewels, music, art and politics, the emotional center of the book holds everything together. Toward the end, with many unanswered questions swirling, the author lets the truth ebb and flow until a final riptide of revelations leaves the reader profoundly moved.
Zukerman is a flutist, writer, arts administrator and founder of http:/