Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Books Are Getting Very Russian Around Here

My reading bed in the loft is covered with Russian history-related novels and nonfiction right now. After all, it is 2017 and the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Since age 14, I have been a Russian history and literature wonk. It all came about when on a dull, rainy Saturday in March, in my fifteenth year, my older brother took me to see David Lean's film Dr. Zhivago. My mind was blown away. After that, not only did I go out and buy a paperback copy of Boris Pasternak's masterpiece, I also became insatiably curious about Russian history from the Tsars through the Russian Revolution to the 1930s, a fascination that continues to this day. 

On the loft bed today I spent the day reading The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport (2014), which I purchased, but which I never got around  to settling down with until now. So now I am deeply within. It is the history and biographies of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, the daughters of the Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Because Alix (Alexandra) was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, and the third-cousin of the Tsar Nicholas II, I find myself in dire need of a number of family trees. Relatives of the Grand Duchesses are frequently mentioned, but without a family tree map, I am a bit lost. Perhaps I'll search online. At 387 dense pages, with dozens of pages of footnotes, and an extraordinary bibliography (!), it will take me time to finish it, especially considering I have novels I'm choosing to read at the same time. 

I have nothing but accolades to lay upon Helen Dunmore's The Betrayal, which I described in a previous post.  I finished it this past weekend and I am amazed by this book. It is not only an extraordinarily well-written novel with fully developed characters, exquisite dialogue, and settings, but the history is absolutely true for 1952-53. How do I know? In my early teaching years, in my 20s, I spent a year teaching 5th grade reading and writing and social studies in a Boston-area Jewish K-8 school, housed in a synagogue, in which 25 percent of the students were Russian immigrants, knowing very little English.

I'd had a post-graduate year of college Russian, which helped, and I became very friendly with one family, who had a son in my class. Over the sharing of mutual dinners, picnics by the sea, and coastal hikes, I learned that Yuli (nickname for the Russian equivalent of Julian), my student's father, had witnessed both his father's and mother's arrests, in their home, in the middle of the night, in Moscow in late 1952, at a time when many professional Jews were rounded up and sent to Siberia to labor camps. Yuli was a very young teenager (12-13), suddenly left on his own, out-of-his-mind bewildered. Fortunately, after several days, friends of his parents came and took him in to their home. His parents eventually returned, a couple of years after  Stalin's death in 1953.  From all of his stories, and my reading,  I know that Dunmore's The Betrayal is accurate, painstakingly so, if you consider her bibliography and contacts and websites that informed the background of the novel.
All very interesting. Dunmore is truly one of my favorite authors.

So! Update! Just today, Carson, our UPS friend, got stuck on the ice in our driveway, yet delivered a very recently published novel Patriots by Sana Krasikov, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. as a youngster and is now a writer living in Brooklyn with her husband and children.  This is "a sweeping, multi-generational saga" that begins in 1934 with the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants living in Brooklyn, who returns to the Soviet Union, along with many other former immigrants to the U.S., because the Soviets have promised jobs and golden opportunities in their country. At this moment, I don't have the title of the work of history that details this reverse exodus during the Great Depression and its dreadful consequences. Due to the stellar reviews of this book, I snatched it up and have started reading it.


  1. I'm joining in with your Russian/Soviet reading as I've just borrowed The Betrayal, I'm sure I'll enjoy it too.

    1. I'm glad you were able to find it. You probably have access to more Dunmore novels than I do, because I don't think one or two of her earliest novels have been published in the U.S. She lives in Yorkshire.