Book review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

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When former Bolshoi prima ballerina Nina Revskaya decides to auction the fabulous jewellery she famously smuggled out of Stalin’s Russia, her purpose is to bring down the curtain on her past.

Approaching 80 years of age, wheelchair-bound and virtually a recluse in her Boston apartment, the dancer once known as ‘The Butterfly’ has kept dark secrets close to her heart for 50 years and she has no intention of giving them up now.

But events have a way of catching up and there are two people determined not to let the grand lady take old truths to the grave.

Daphne Kalotay’s magnificent multi-layered debut novel takes us from a smart quarter of one of America’s oldest cities to the claustrophobic artistic community of 1940s Moscow where a careless look, word or gesture could bring terrible retribution.

Written with passion, vision and a genuine empathy for the Russian people, Kalotay’s well-paced story interweaves historical intrigue with a modern-day enigma, allowing the past to shine a light on the present.

The result is a satisfying and sweeping saga full of all those time-honoured ingredients – love, loss, mystery, tragedy and period detail – that are the hallmarks of a successful historical novel.

To the public, Nina is a dancing legend, the star of the Bolshoi who escaped oppression and defied the government of Soviet Russia in pursuit of artistic freedom.

Privately, the prickly Nina is determined to discard forever the first tumultuous third of her life and to that end, she is selling off her legendary jewellery collection, reputed to have been brought to the US in life-and-death circumstances.

Among the glittering items are an amber bracelet and earrings...and now Grigori Solodin, a 50-year-old professor of languages at Boston University, has turned up with a missing pendant to complete the three-piece set.

A lonely widower, he is a man who can ‘never be fully himself until he knows his own history’. There is a link to Nina somewhere down the line but she is not prepared to even talk to him.

There is only one person willing to delve into the mystery – Drew Brooks, the young woman associate director at the Boston auction house selling Nina’s jewels, who has her own family link to Russia.

As Drew and Grigory start unravelling the past, we are taken back to Soviet Moscow where Nina has fallen in love with the poet Viktor Elsin and her childhood friend and fellow ballerina, Vera Borodina, is being courted by the maverick Jewish composer Aron Gershtein.

It is here that a terrible discovery leads to a deadly act of betrayal, one that will have consequences for those now closing in on the past.

Kalotay’s thoughtful novel captures the highs and lows of a ballerina’s life, reveals the powerful role played by the arts and pays homage to the indomitable nature of the human spirit in times of adversity.

An impressive debut.

(Arrow, paperback, £12.99)