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“Daphne Kalotay captivates in a soaring debut novel. An elegant, compelling puzzle of family, memory and solitude that brings to life modern-day Boston and postwar Russia through a profound love story. Graceful, moving, and unexpected.”
—Matthew Pearl, New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club
In Russian Winter, the beautiful debut novel by critically acclaimed writer Daphne Kalotay, a famed ballerina’s jewelry auction in Boston reveals long-held secrets of love and family, friendship and rivalry, harkening back to Stalinist Russia. Called “tender, passionate, and moving” by Jenna Blum, the New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us, Russian Winter is a perfect choice for fans of the novels of Debra Dean (The Madonnas of Leningrad), Ann Patchett (Bel Canto), and Ian McEwan (Atonement).
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)
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