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Russian Winter: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 7, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 340 customer reviews

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Product Description
A mysterious jewel holds the key to a life-changing secret, in this breathtaking tale of love and art, betrayal and redemption.

When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. Instead, the former ballerina finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed the course of her life half a century ago.

It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions—Gersh, a brilliant composer, and the exquisite Vera, Nina’s closest friend—became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia that a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal—and an ingenious escape that led Nina to the West and eventually to Boston.

Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that a unique set of jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.

A Q&A with Author Daphne Kalotay

Q: Russian Winter includes a cast of fascinating characters. Were any of these diverse characters modeled after anyone specific?

Kalotay: The central protagonist, Nina Revskaya (a ballerina) and her mother-in-law (the former aristocrat) are both modeled on relatives of mine.

Nina is in some ways based on my Hungarian grandmother. Now 93 years old, she too has a very strong personality, and I see in her the same fiery strength Nina exhibits. My grandmother is a more joyous and loving person than Nina, but once she decides she doesn’t like someone, that’s it; she is very headstrong, and I’ve glimpsed the way that she decides that certain people are her enemies. It’s a quality that has long intrigued me.

Q: Your family were Holocaust survivors and escaped from behind the Iron Curtain—Hungary—in 1956. How did that background influence the story?

Kalotay: I suppose the most profound way my family’s history influenced my novel is—ironically—that I tried to avoid that history and transfer it to another place and time, rather than address it directly. Just as my father never speaks of his experience of the Holocaust, I’ve chosen not to write in a direct way about that topic or about my father’s childhood in post-war Hungary, though that experience has of course informed so much of my family’s trajectory and personality. I’ve long heard recollections of my grandmother, aunt, and father’s life in Soviet-occupied Hungary, and in the 1980’s I saw for myself what life under communism was like there. But, perhaps because that experience still isn’t “mine,” I felt more comfortable transporting those realities to the harsher world of Soviet Russia.

Q: You worked on Russian Winter for six years. What was the most difficult aspect of writing the novel? What kind of research did you do?

Kalotay: The most difficult part of writing this book was figuring out how to allow my imagination to run free when in fact the constraints of Stalinist society meant fewer possibilities for what characters might say or do, or where they might go, than in an open society. I felt very restrained by the basic logistics of a world where everyone is fearful and being reported on and can’t just go off and do whatever they like.

In order to get a better sense of this, I did a lot of reading, mostly memoirs and biographies by artists and intellectuals who had experienced that era, or by Westerners who had travelled behind the Iron Curtain during that time (though of course their experience was quite different.) I also made a visit to Russia, but that was after I’d finished writing.

Q: Russian Winter is an evocative portrait of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, a time and place where politics and art were inextricably intertwined. How did Stalin use art to further his goals, and do you see any similarities here in the West of today?

Kalotay: Stalin understood, on the most basic level, that a beautiful ballet can be uplifting even when the realities of life are very harsh, and that a well-choreographed parade with dance and acrobatics really can instill national pride and dispel doubts.

In a way it’s amazing to think that in America most artists and writers like myself never have to give a thought to whether or not their work is going get them in trouble. Our censors are the hoops we have to jump through to get published or have a show produced or a painting shown. Our gatekeepers aren’t politicians; they’re editors or producers, and the tyranny isn’t politics but what’s in vogue, or what’s cheapest to produce, or what the marketing folks think will make money. And yet it’s a capitalist society that allows us the privilege to make any sort of art we want, whether or not anyone notices it or pays attention.

Q: When you began the novel did you have the ending in mind, or did the story lead you?

Kalotay: I knew what Nina’s general trajectory would be, and that the professor’s original assumptions would turn out to be somehow incorrect, because I’d already written a short story that ended that way. But I didn’t know exactly how it would all come together, plot-wise, or what kind of rapprochement would be possible for my characters. There were also a lot of logistics I had to figure out—such as how, specifically, my dancer would manage to get out of the Soviet Union.

Q: What does artistic freedom mean to you?

Kalotay: For me it means being able to write what I want. Here our freedom is tied not so much to political realities as financial ones, and I think people like myself worry more that we won’t necessarily be “allowed” to write what we want (in my case smaller, understated novels rather than flashy, sensational or trendy ones) without losing the support of the publishing world.

(Photo by Jeremy Saladyga)

From Publishers Weekly

Kalotay makes a powerful debut with a novel about a Soviet-era prima ballerina, now retired and living in Boston, who confronts her past as she puts up for auction the jewelry she took with her when she left her husband and defected. Nina "The Butterfly" Revskaya, 79, reveals little about the past to curious auction house representative Drew Brooks as he peruses her cache of exquisite jewelry. Nina likewise rebuffs inquiries from foreign language professor Grigori Solodin, who has translated the works of Nina's poet husband and who offers an additional item for auction: the amber necklace he inherited from the parents he never knew. In extended flashbacks, Nina recalls intimate moments and misunderstandings with her husband, happy and disturbing times with his Jewish composer best friend, and encounters with her own childhood friend. Meanwhile, Drew and Grigori delve into the jewelry's provenance, hoping to learn as much about the jewels as their own pasts. While the Soviet-era romance can lean too much on melodrama, Kalotay turns out a mostly entrancing story thanks to a skillful depiction of artistic life behind the Iron Curtain and intriguing glimpses into auction house operations.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (September 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061962163
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061962165
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (340 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #587,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most beautifully written books I have read in a while. The story was lovely in its simplicity, every description dripping with meaning without being overly sentimental or pedantic. The whole way through I marveled at the language. Despite its length, the book moved at a swift pace. The plot was not one of action, but still I hardly wanted to put the book down. This is masterful writing.

The portrayal of Nina's past in Soviet Russia was fantastic. I have studied the Soviet Union quite a bit, particularly through the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Kalotay did a good job portraying the way Soviet citizens likely felt about their lives. She shows the reverence for Stalin, even in the worst times. Never once does Nina see him as anything but a savior; the problems come from others and he does not know. Shocking though that may be, anything else would probably have been inaccurate. The faith that she had in the country and the small things that lead her to question that are done well. Kalotay confronts rough issues with subtlety, with no overarching need to make her point clear by bashing you over the head with it.

I recommend this one extremely highly (in case that wasn't clear from the above). Do yourself a favor and read this.
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Format: Hardcover
There are some books that, when you first sit down with them, you're unsure of what is going to happen. Will you fall in love with - or even like - the characters? Will the story move you, or is it simply a way to pass time? Will the tale itself briefly amuse, or will it haunt you like a ghost of the past?

These were my concerns when I first began reading Daphne Kalotay's "Russian Winter". Ostensibly, the book is about th auction of a jewelry collection that belonged to famed ballerina Nina Revskaya. Throughout the novel, the lot numbers detail several important pieces, and the most hyped items are an amber necklace, bracelet, and earrings. However, this is not so much a tale of a jewelry sale as it is a tale about life, love, struggle, betrayal, and the determination of the human spirit. There are two main stories at work here: Nina's life in Stalinist Russia just after World War II as a dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet, and Gregori Solodin's struggle to find out about his past in twenty-first century Boston. We also see Nina as an old woman in Massachusetts, preparing to sell her collection, and learn of Drew Brooks, a young woman from the auction house who is looking to answers for the jewels' secrets.

The book often jumps among all of these stories, and initially I was frustrated by this. I was far more interested in Nina's life in the USSR than any of the other elements. I was fascinated by her life as a dancer, the bleak yet ignorant picture painted of Soviet Russia, the struggles she simply assumed were "normal" in postwar Europe. Her family and friends are so vivid I could see them in my mind, hear their voices, and yet I had a sense of foreboding, as the novel makes it immediately clear that Nina defected to the West in the early 1950s.
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Format: Hardcover
Russian Winter is an engrossing fiction novel from Daphne Kalotay that combines personal history with notorious events in human history. Flashbacks from Stalin-era Russia combine with the modern life of a Russian defector, Nina Revskaya, once famous as a Bolshoi ballerina. As she enters her final years, she decides to have a Sotheby's-style auction house sell her gems...purportedly to donate the funds to the Arts. However, it soon becomes clear that she has more personal reasons to divest of the jewelry-some of the pieces harbor memories that are too painful to hold on to.

In the meantime, Drew, the auction house assistant, is charged with the task of determining the provenance of the pieces. A mystery arises as a new pendant is anonymously donated...one that would appear to be linked with Nina's set. The significance is clear: there's more to the story than Nina is willing to reveal. And it is the verification of the jewels history that becomes a story of assumptions and lies, and the betrayals that come as a result from them.

The story was well paced, and plot twists developed that kept the mystery going. I also found the in-depth portrayal of the auction house's job of verifying historical jewelry fascinating. However, I had a few issues with the substance of the novel overall. One, I got the impression almost that a formula was being followed...'reveal this much detail at a time, then hold back, move on, and sprinkle foreshadowing liberally'. It worked, but once completed, the novel felt a bit manipulated. Another thing was I think the author wanted to show two powerful, independent women in action; and yet, both women (Drew and Nina) lacked warmth and were really kind of boring.
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The cover of Russian Winter beguiled me, but did not answer the many questions that hammered at my brain as Nina's story unfolded. I paid diligent attention to the carefully spun-out clues in the novel and was spellbound until the end. Sometimes we savor a book--read a bit, then put it away until tomorrow so that it may be pondered. Not so with Russian Winter. I was swept away and contentedly disconnected from the rest of my life for the hours I spent within its pages.

I reveled in author Daphne Kalotay's use of language. She juxtaposes present day Boston with post WW II Soviet Union where artists struggle with their private turmoil and fears behind the iron curtain. Her flashbacks are expertly cast in the present tense. So much of what is beautiful in this world--ballet, poetry, music, love, creative expression, hope--is intertwined with betrayal, fear, loss, poor health. Detailed descriptions of the jewelry to be auctioned are uniquely placed between chapter headings. Kalotay has a way of bringing simple images to life with phrases like "a squadron of hairpins."

"Dancers must remember everything." Retired ballerina Nina Rebskaya, who has defected to the United States and seeks to sell her jewel collection to benefit the Boston ballet, suffers such a fate. Nina, who visualized the optimum performance of the next step in her choreography as she felt the floor beneath her feet, becomes the retired benefactress, body rigid and wheelchair-bound, tracing the lines of the past in her memories.

The career of a ballerina is ephemeral but the value of a gemstone endures. Intrigue seduces. Art is transforming. Ponder all of this in the captivating novel, Russian Winter.

Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
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