The Witch and the Tsar, by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Great characters never die. They invite us to retell and reimagine their stories for all kinds of reasons: for inspiration, for remembrance, for entertainment. It will always amaze me that some characters have been walking alongside us for centuries because they just do something for us. One of those characters, the terrifying witch of last resort Baba Yaga, gets her own feminist retelling in Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s stunning The Witch and the Tsar. I’ve always loved stories about Baba Yaga because while she might kill and eat you, she might also help you with your heart’s desire. We never know which Yaga we’re going to get until after we’ve stepped through the door of her chicken-legged cabin. You have to keep reading to find out what kind of story you’re going to get.

Gilmore keeps a lot of Baba Yaga’s supernatural elements: her herb magic, her house with its chicken legs (adorably called Little Hen here), her ability to talk to animals, her wolf and owl companions. She also drops in Koschei the Deathless, Marya Morevna, and several cameo appearances by Slavic gods. But Gilmore puts Yaga into a real historical conflict against Ivan IV, better known to history as Ivan the Terrible.

We meet Yaga as we usually do. She’s at her cabin in the woods, offering cures and bits of magic to petitioners. As The Witch and the Tsar opens, she received a visit from two old friends. The first visiter, Koschei (spelled Koshey here), stretches the definition of “friend” pretty far but the second, the tsaritsa Anastasia Romanova Zakharyina-Yurieva, is definitely a friendly face. It’s readily apparent that the tsaritsa is deathly ill. Yaga manages to cure her but follows her queen back to Moscow to find out who has been poisoning the poor woman. At the kremlin, Yaga meets the unsettling Tsar Ivan and manages to stay on his good side until Anastasia’s death and things go violently to hell.

Baba Yaga and her house, from a 1915 illustration (Image via Wikicommons)

Ivan the Terrible is a formidable foe for Baba Yaga and her allies—Marya Morevna and a bunch of fed-up boyars and peasants who want the violence of the Oprichnina to end—because no one, Yaga included, is willing to bump off the tsar and get a new one (or go totally crazy and set up a nice constitutional monarchy or something). Interludes between Yaga’s chapters slowly reveal that there is something supernatural behind Ivan’s literally bloody madness. Selica is a woman who fate and myth have very much wronged. Centuries before Ivan came to the thrown, Selica was married off to Morozko, the god of winter. Every year, Selica has to kill her husband so that spring can come…and in order to do that, Selica has to die herself (twice). Most of the time, she lives in the Underworld and dreams of living in the world again. The only way she can be free of her story is to take the souls of the living. A lot of them. So she pulls strings and ensnares powerful beings to do her will.

Gilmore knows how to spin a tale. The characterization is top-notch. The research takes us back to the mid-1500s and an endless Russian winter without ever dragging things down. (In her afterword, Gilmore explains what she took from Russian history and Slavic mythology to create her astounding re-envisioning of Baba Yaga’s story for nerds like me who want all the stories.). The plot is epic in every sense of the world. Fans of folklore retellings—especially those who like their stories with a sharp bite—should immediately pre-order this book, put themselves on the library hold list, and do whatever they can to get this book into their hands. This book is a purely incredible read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Road of Bones, by Christopher Golden

I first learned about the Road of Bones by watching The Long Way Round, in which Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman rode motorcycles from London to New York. Their route took them over the Road of Bones. Most of this 1,262 mile road is gravel and was one of the most challenging parts of the journey because of the climate, the road conditions, and the sheer isolation. The history of the Road is just as harrowing. It was constructed by gulag prisoners over the course of decades. According to Wikipedia, an estimated 250,000 to possibly one million people died during the Roads construction. If any place in the world is haunted, it’s probably the Road of Bones. So when I saw Christopher Golden’s Road of Bones listed on NetGalley, I snapped at the chance to read it.

Fittingly enough, Road of Bones is about a hellish road trip. Teig and Prentiss have arrived in Siberia to film some kind of documentary in the wilderness. Teig has experience working on ghosthunter-type shows and hopes to find something similarly spooky in the taiga. Prentiss is along because Teig is his best friend. Also, Teig owes him a lot of money. But things are not going well right from the first page. Teig falls asleep at the wheel and almost kills both of them before they even meet their guide. Only a few hours after meeting their guide, things get even worse when they come across a village deserted except for one child who refuses to speak. Then the wolves come out of the forest.

I wasn’t expecting a chase story when I picked up this book. Frankly, I didn’t think the road conditions could support high-speed chases. Teig and Prentiss—plus the silent child and a stranded woman they picked up—are chased for miles through snow and deadly cold. No one knows what’s happening or why. All they know is that something woke up in the forest and that it won’t rest until they’re all dead. Meanwhile, a very elderly woman is making her way down the Road of Bones, praying that the ghosts of the people who died making the road will rest in peace.

This lightning-fast book doesn’t rest for a minute. It didn’t let me rest, either; I inhaled this book in a single evening. This book could’ve used some pauses. There are some fascinating elements pulled from the beliefs of the Indigenous peoples of Siberia, plus the region’s bloody history that I would’ve loved to learn more about. I also wanted to learn a lot more about Ludmilla, the woman whose life’s quest is to free the trapped souls in the Road of Bones. I suspect that this book is too traditional horror genre for my tastes. I enjoyed the thrills, but I wanted something more to think about than outrunning the strange, deadly things in the forest.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Sunset in southern Siberia, over the Kuznets Alatau (Image via Wikicommons)

The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories, by Alexander Pushkin

Why did no one tell me Alexander Pushkin was funny? Before I read this collection, The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories (solidly translated by Anthony Briggs), my only knowledge of Pushkin was that he wrote the epic tragic poem Eugene Onegin and that he died at a young age in a duel. The Captain’s Daughter revealed to me that Pushkin also had a fine eye for satire. All three of the stories in this collection—”The Captain’s Daughter,” “The Queen of Spades,” and “The Postmaster”—all have moments of tragedy or near-tragedy, but it’s all balanced with light touches of absurdity and satire.

“The Captain’s Daughter” is the longest story in the collection. Its plot is so compressed that it could easily have been turned into a picaresque novel. This novella opens with some Tristram Shandy-like phrases: “Mama was still pregnant with me when I was enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonovsky Regiment,” (ARC Kindle edition). Pyotr Andreyvich’s father is very disappointed with his spoiled son and has him transferred from his St. Petersburg regiment to one out in the wild east of Russia to toughen him up. The plan works a little bit better intended when Yamelyan Pugachov launches his rebellion against Catherine the Great. Pyotr has a knack for being kind to people who later feel beholden to him, including Pugachov. This bare summary doesn’t capture Pytor’s madcap adventures on the front. Nor does it capture Pushkin’s pointed digs at pompous officers who don’t know how to fight a war, at weasel-y officers who switch sides at the drop of a hat, and aristocrats who spend money like water. I really enjoyed this satirical slice-of-life look at life where high society crosses with serfs and rebels.

The next two stories are shorter, but also skewer high society and the ways that the high abuse the low. In “The Queen of Spades,” we see into the world of wild gambling, in which aristocrats gamble away estates or win millions of rubles at the turn of a card. The Queen of Spades is an old countess who claims to have a secret to always win. Unfortunately, it’s a secret that ultimately causes her death when another aristocrat with a lot of debt hounds her to give it up. The last story, “The Postmaster,” begins with a lament to the ways that couriers and travelers abuse the postmaster for never having horses ready, not having comfortable enough waiting places, and so on. But the narrator urges us to try and put ourselves in the postmaster’s shoes before launching into the most tragic tale of the three. In this story, the postmaster’s kind, lovely daughter is kidnapped by an aristocrat. In the end, she chooses a life of luxury instead of coming home to her poor, harried father.

I enjoyed reading this collection and would definitely recommend it, not just to fans of Russian literature, but to anyone who likes stories that can transport them to an era. Pushkin very much captures his time and place, and he does it with an unexpected sense of humor. This is one of the best republished classics I’ve read yet.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova

When my dad passed away in 2019, my sister, my mother, and I spent hours going through family photographs. We scanned a lot of them to share online with relatives. Others—the best ones, the ones that really captured who my dad was—were put on a memory board for the memorial service. The year before, in 2018, when my last surviving grandparent died, my mother and I traveled to Wisconsin to do something similar with the Latsch family photos. Both times, I quizzed my mother endlessly about who all these people were, what they were doing, what else she remembered about them. Sometimes she could answer and I got great stories about how my uncle annoyed my mother by playing “Cat Scratch Fever” on a loop or about driving the family Cadillac out onto the frozen lake or how my parents managed to meet each other in Rome, of all places. I’m still saddened by the loss of all the stories that went with my dad and my grandmother that we never managed to record. Maria Stepanova has some of the same feelings and questions as she goes through her sprawling family’s archive and belongings, recounted in In Memory of Memory (solidly translated by Sasha Dugdale), but Stepanova is far more intellectual than I’ve been in my thinking about family memories and trying to recreate lost pasts.

I think I would have appreciated In Memory of Memory a lot more if I had been better able to follow Stepanova’s jumble of thoughts. Like her aunt’s apartment in Moscow, everything reminds Stepanova of something else. Thinking about a family meal sends her off to think about Proust, which sends her to thinking about her male forbears’ experiences during World War II. Thinking about faded photographs leads Stepanova to think about high photographic art, which turns into a Salvador Dalí anecdote. There are many chapters that I just skimmed because I couldn’t make myself interested in meandering streams of consciousness about how we memorialize the dead or who owns the past.

The parts of this book that I enjoyed best are the parts where Stepanova actually talks about her family and when she shares what she’s learned about the past to recreate their milieux. Although she claims that her family is very uninteresting, I would rebut that my Latsch relatives are far more boring because they weren’t at least adjacent to big events in history the way the Stepanova’s ancestors were. Her family might not have experienced the lowest lows or highest highs of twentieth century Russian and Soviet history, but at least she had a great-grandmother who was arrested for distributing socialist leaflets in the first Bolshevik rebellions and a great-great-grandfather who lost his factory to the Communists only to have his name later given to a de-Soviet-ified street in Odessa. My ancestors from Germany sat out the Civil War in Canada, then came down to Wisconsin to farm. The episodes Stepanova relates and the letters she shares in In Memory of Memory are among the most detailed, most real expressions of actual life in the Soviet Union that I’ve ever read, even if they are fragmentary.

Readers who can appreciate Stepanova’s references to and musings about literature and art are probably the mostly likely to enjoy all of this book. Readers who want a big family history should look elsewhere for a less frustrating, more focused read. I was definitely in the latter group and, although I hate to fault a book for not being what I wanted it to be, I really wish that Stepanova would have realized that her prose would have been more effective by letting her actual journey through the family archive and her family tell their story. By intellectualizing so much, any subtext that I might have worked out for myself was obliterated by all the thousands of things Stepanova wanted to think about instead.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina

There are certain periods of history that, when I read fiction or primary source accounts of them, I marvel at anyone’s ability to survive them. The Soviet Union during the 1930s (and the late 1910s and World War II) is one of those times. Guzel Yakhina’s hypnotic novel, Zuleikha, captures part of the upheaval and deadly politics of the1930s in the Soviet Union. The eponymous character, a Tatar woman, is deported to Siberia during “dekulakization“—a practice in which the Soviet government rounded people up because of their social class, ethnicity, or other reasons and sent them far from their homes to labor until they died or had their status as a kulak revised and they could regain their freedom. As I read Zuleikha’s story and the stories of other characters who, mostly because of bad luck, ended up creating their own prison-settlement along the Angara river, miles from any kind of civilization. This novel is one of the best, most accessible, books I’ve ever read set in this time and this place. Lisa Hayden did outstanding work translating it.

When we meet her, Zuleikha lives a life that wouldn’t look very much different if it had been set in 1830 or 1730. She does her best to faithfully keep house for her brute of a husband and his mother (who is always called the Vampire Hag, a very appropriate nickname) in spite of frequent verbal and less frequent physical abuse. She’s been raised up in this culture and doesn’t expect any different. Zuleikha mourns the loss of her four daughters, who died in infancy, more than she laments her own situation. Life might have gone on like this forever if Zuleikha’s husband hadn’t snapped after yet one more demand from the Soviets for the family’s food. On their way back from hiding their grain stores, Zuleikha’s husband is shot. In short order, the family home is confiscated by the local soviet and Zuleikha is deported to Siberia as a kulak. The rest of the book shows us how Zuleikha adapts and finds herself in the cold, famine-ridden land of Siberia.

Zuleikha isn’t the only one who has to adapt. We spend a lot of time with two other characters who have to remake themselves to survive in a settlement that becomes known as Semruk (named for seven of its prisoner-founders). Volf Karlovich is a surgeon and gynaecologist who rode out the upheavals of the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed by retreating into his mind, behaving and talking as though he was still a star member of the Imperial Kazan University. Being the only person with medical training for miles around forces him to come back to reality. More time is spent with Ivan Ignatov, a Soviet official who is ordered to shepherd hundreds of Tatars, suspected kulaks, and other members of ethnic minorities to Siberia and then oversee the building and running of their prison-settlement. He asks over and over to be returned to regular duties, only to be told to stay put indefinitely.

Zuleikha spans 1930 to 1946 as Semruk and its inhabitants survive hungry, freezing winters; voracious insects; and the vagaries of Soviet dictates. It’s a miracle that anyone lives to create the thriving little town that Semruk becomes. But while the book details an eventful plot, there are many chapters in which we are privy to Zuleikha and other characters’ thoughts about what they left behind and the environment we live in now. In so many novels, I’ve only seen Soviet life from the perspective of characters who managed to hang on in the big cities of the Russian Wes—St. Petersburg/Leningrad, Moscow, and Kyiv—while being threatened with deportation, imprisonment, or execution. Characters would disappear and maybe return, years later. It’s only rarely that I get to see what life might have been like for the people who were put on the trains.

Because Yakhina spends so much time developing her characters, I had sympathy for nearly all of them. (The character who set himself up as a lackey for the regime was an asshole, though.) I felt particularly badly for Ivan. Ivan just wanted to serve his country. He just wasn’t enough of a wheeler-dealer to keep himself out of Siberia. I also pitied Zuleikha…at first. I hate to say it but being sent thousands of miles from Tatarstan was the making of Zuleikha. This is not to say that being deported was forgivable. It absolutely wasn’t. But being separated from her in-laws and pushed to drop much of her religion and culture meant that Zuleikha was free to reinvent herself, to a certain extent. She kept what worked for her: her belief in the wild sentience of the taiga, her devotion to her sole living child, her insistence that no man would take advantage of her body ever again. The impractical gender segregation and the subservience to a husband could all be jettisoned. I daresay that the Zuleihka of 1930 would never imagine the woman she would become by 1946.

Zuleikha is the kind of historical fiction that I would recommend to readers who like big books that allow them to immerse themselves in history. This book was an incredible read.

Source of the Angara River in winter, by Boris Levakov (Image via Wikicommons)

The Imperial Wife, by Irina Reyn

I supposed that most women will come off the worse when compared to Catherine the Great, as Irina Reyn’s novel The Imperial Wife does by telling the empress’s story alongside the story of a young art specialist in modern New York. To be fair, Tanya Kagan Vandermotter holds her own for much of the novel. I genuinely thought that I was reading twin tales of women realizing their own power over their destinies. Catherine obviously did. Tanya, however, makes a decision at the very end of the book that infuriated me. The ending of this novel made me so angry that I’ve needed almost an entire day before I felt like I could write this post. In an effort to not spoil this book to other readers who may have a different opinion of Tanya’s actions, all I will say about the ending is that I think it undercuts her entire plotline.

Catherine the Great’s rise to power is one of the most remarkable in European history. Catherine was born an obscure German princess who, though a lot of wheeling and dealing above her head, was married to Tsarevich Peter, the heir to Russia’s Empress Elizabeth, in 1745. By 1762, Catherine had overthrown her husband and become empress in her own right. She would rule for more than 30 years. Tanya Kagan Vandermotter has much less lofty goals. She just wants to, first, save her job as Russian art specialist for Worthington’s auction house, and, second, save her marriage to her moody New York-blue blood husband. The two women are connect by two chance occurrences. Tanya’s husband happens to have written a novel of Catherine’s early life. The second occurrence is more important for the plot. Against all odds, it appears that Catherine’s own Order of St. Catherine medal has been found after being lost for more than 200 years.

As the novel progresses, we see Catherine’s rise to power and growing confidence as a future autocrat. There are a few moments where Catherine doubts, but they are quickly overcome. For Tanya, finding her confidence is a more difficult task. She’s intimidated by Americans and Russians alike. As a Russian Jewish immigrant, Tanya doesn’t feel like she belongs to either group. She imagines how people are judging her otherness whenever she finds herself in a group of people. Imposter Syndrome doesn’t listen to reason and this is definitely true for Tanya. Although she is clearly very good at her job—buying and selling Russian art—she constantly frets that her world will come crashing down.

A 1762 portrait of Catherine the Great, by Vigilius Eriksen (Image via Wikicommons)

Tanya’s Imposter Syndrome is not helped by the fact that her husband is going through something (something we don’t understand until much later). Carl Vandermotter is giving off signs that he is unhappy. He accuses Tanya of judging him and of feeling superior to him. Carl, to be blunt, bugged the shit out of me. Even when I realized what Carl was wrestling with, I still didn’t feel much sympathy for him. Throughout The Imperial Wife, Tanya says that she wants a relationship that is a partnership. Everyone she tells this to scoffs, but I understand. For a woman who spends so much time taking care of everything and everyone, it would be nice to have a partner who is strong enough to take charge for a while. Carl’s lack of initiative and waffling always prompt Tanya to act. Even when Tanya stresses about her tenuous position at work (the Russian art department might not be profitable enough to maintain), Carl only seems to care about himself. He never offers any kind of support to the overworked Tanya.

For most of The Imperial Wife, as I said, I thought I was watching two women discovering their own power and independence. Catherine seizes power in Russia. Tanya labors mightily to save the Russian art department and keep her integrity in the face of oligarchs asking for favors. Tanya finds her power. It’s the independence part where she falls down, I think. But! I am in danger of spoiling the end of The Imperial Wife again. To close before I totally blow it, I will say that reading this novel was a curious experience. I really enjoyed 95% of this book. I would recommend that 95% in a heartbeat to people who like books with parallel narratives in different time periods. That last 5%, though, is so troubling, aggravating, and puzzling that it makes me question whether or not I can recommend the book. How can I tell someone, “Read this! You’ll like it until the ending pisses you off”?

The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

What better book to accompany me on the twenty-hour round trip from my home to my brother’s house for my annual Christmas trip, than a gargantuan history of the Romanov dynasty? Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs, as billed, takes us through the family’s history as the rulers of the Russian empire from 1613 to 1918. Not to be too metaphorical about it, but the twists and turns of the family were a fantastic accompaniment to the twists and turns of the old highways I prefer to use on long road trips. I was hooked for the full thirty-odd hours of the audiobook. My only quibble is that the narrator sometimes pronounces things oddly (egotism was always pronounced as eggo-tism* for some reason), though I appreciated not having to figure out for myself how to pronounce all those Russian names.

Montefiore keeps the focus of his history tightly on the immediate Romanov family as much as possible. If he hadn’t, it would have been impossible to contain the story in one volume (or even five volumes). He begins with a prologue that bookends the rise and fall of the family by describing how Mikhail Romanov was asked (coerced) into becoming the Tsar after the end of the Rurik dynasty and how Alexei Romanov was murdered with his family in 1918. These historical bookends set the tone for much of this bloody, sensational history. Seriously, there are parts of this book that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of the Game of Thrones novels. Montefiore even plays up the theatricality of the Romanovs’ history by dividing the sections into acts and scenes.

Being an American, in the third century of the American experiment, I don’t have the mental framework for understanding autocracy (in spite of the efforts of some politicians lately). I was alternately fascinated and appalled by the way that, over and over, the tantrums and obsessions of various monarchs were tolerated. Peter I and Peter III, for example, were allowed to turn their courts into drinking clubs (Peter I) or Prussian companies (Peter III). Anna and Elizabeth did terrible things to courtiers who hurt their feelings. Where other nations were limiting the powers of their absolute monarchs—or even doing away with monarchies entirely—the Romanovs were only curbed in the twentieth century. The psychotic violence of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War make a lot more sense to me know, even if I still don’t understand how the Romanovs were allowed to be complete tyrants for 300 years. It was clear to me that the author loved diving into the psychology of the tsars and tsarinas and the effects of personality on Russian history. (If nothing else, this book could be a manual for how not to parent.)

Now that I’m done with The Romanovs, I kind of hope that Montefiore will take on the Rurik dynasty or the history of pre-Bolshevik revolutionary movements because this excellent history just fueled my fascination with Russia and Russian history. The Romanovs is an incredibly rich book, packed with details and wild personalities. I think other fans of histories who love books that take on big topics will enjoy The Romanovs as much as I did…although I will say to readers who are thinking about picking this one up, brace yourselves for an astonishing amount of sex and a lot of creative violence.

*I realize some Brits pronounce the word this way, but to my American ear, it sounds like an obsession with a particular brand of frozen waffles.

Savage Feast, by Boris Fishman

My favorite kind of family memoir is one that is as much about food as it is about the people and their experiences. Years ago, I read and loved Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen. I’ve been hunting around for something similar since. When I read an excerpt from Savage Feast, in which Boris Fishman discusses the mix of smugness and shame he feels when he is the person on a plane with dozens of tinfoil bundles of profoundly garlicky food, I knew I needed to read the rest of the memoir. Like von Bremzen, Fishman offers recipes and memories from Russian history. He adds his own journey through cultural schizophrenia, heartbreak, and depression to acceptance and love along with the memories and recipes. Like all good food-based memoirs, this one made me hungry; I flagged a few of the recipes to try out in my kitchen.

Fishman’s family left the Soviet Union in one of the last waves of emigrating Soviet Jews during the late 1980s. Young Boris accompanied his parents and maternal grandparents from Minsk to New York, via Austria and Italy. (Another grandmother came later.) Because he was old enough to have attended primary school in the Soviet Union, Boris had to start over in America, with a new language and an entirely different culture. His parents and grandparents are so accustomed to life in the USSR that they never really shake their habits and superstitions. So much of that carries over to young Boris that spends a lot of his life trying to decide what to keep and take from Soviet and American culture. For a long time, he is unable to be either Russian or American or find a happy place between the two cultures.

As Boris wrestles with his identity, we get short histories of his wily grandfather’s past as a wheeler-and-dealer and his father as a stolid man who burns with anger at the anti-Semetism he received from his fellow Soviets. His maternal grandmother carries the emotional scars of the Holocaust and near starvation. Because his forebears went hungry so often, Boris grew up with tables covered with rich, filling food made from whatever his parents and grandparents could get their hands on. He has eaten innumerable potatoes, beets, onions, bliny, and endless bowls of borsch and ukha. The root vegetables, meats, breads, and salads are all seasoned with vinegar and spices, cooked for hours so that every dish has layers and layers of flavors. (Is it any wonder I want to try these dishes?)

For most of his life, other people prepare food for Boris. First, his mother and grandmother feed him the dishes they learned from the women in their family. Then, he eats at the table of Oksana, who is hired as a home caretaker for Arkady, Boris’s grandfather. Late in the book, Boris describes her as a stove magician. The title is perfect. The woman can, as Boris says, “cover” a table in amazing food in an hour. With more time she can create such amazing food that Boris gushes over it in Savage Feast years later and make me drool over just the words. When Boris collapses into a deep depression in his mid-30s, one of the things that helps him heal is learning to cook from Oksana. Learning Russian cooking, serving food to others, helps Boris get out of his own head.

Readers who are curious about Russian food or are fans of stories about the healing power of food or just like stories about quirky families will probably enjoy Savage Feast. This is not an overtly inspirational book. Fishman is more than willing to show his foibles, bad behavior, and neuroses. I chuckled more than once at his sarcastic observations. Like a good borsch, this book is full of all kinds of different flavors that blend together to make a satisfying experience.

Proto-typical borsch (Image via Wikicommons)

A Sportsman’s Notebook, by Ivan Turgenev

A Sportsman’s Notebook (also called A Sportsman’s Sketches) contains short vignettes and stories by Ivan Turgenev, written in the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike many of the Russian classics we’re familiar with in English, this collection is not packed with Sturm und Drang. Rather, Turgenev’s narrator takes along on his travels around the Russian countryside, from forests to marshes to meadows, inviting us into his conversations with the strange people he meets while hunting.

The “stories” in A Sportsman’s Notebook are rarely complete stories in the way we’re used to. Most of them center on a conversation the narrator has with landowners and serfs. (The stories are all set before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.) As the narrator rambles around the Orel Oblast in western Russia, he is frequently invited into the ramshackle manors of down-at-their-heel gentry. Sometimes darkness or bad weather lead him to seek shelter in sheds and offices with the lower classes and serfs. These are some of my favorites in the collection because the narrator often pretends to be asleep, so that he can listen in. My absolutely favorite story in the collection is one where the narrator “sleeps” under a bush near some teenaged serfs as they swap knowledge, half of which is folklore but treated as useful woodlore by the group.

While the narrator provides a bit of authorial distance, the introduction to this republished edition of Turgenev’s stories explains that they are based on the author’s own life at Spasskoye, where he lived with his tyrannical mother. It’s not surprising, then, that many of these stories show the bleakness of serfdom. Many of the serfs the narrator meets have been subject to bizarre acts of autocracy: sudden transfers, dictated clothing, refusals to allow them to marry, constant attempts to change how they work and farm with disastrous consequences. And yet, the narrator only finds one person who is willing to help right wrongs in the hinterlands—and he’s only willing to do so for a fee. Everyone else the narrator talks to falls into two camps. There are the ones who are, if not content, unwilling to change things. The others, thankfully more rare, take advantage of the stagnation and bewildering bureaucracy to make little kingdoms for themselves where they can skim off any profits. The system is so broken in rural Russia it was no surprise to me how fatalistic everyone was.

I can understand the affection that this collection still has for readers, even more than a century. Unlike so many of those Russian classics that we know of without having read them, with their high drama and philosophy, A Sportsman’s Notebook is a slice of life in a vanished world. As I read it, I was charmed by the descriptions of the wild places the narrator visits. It’s clear that the narrator and Turgenev loved nature. I was less charmed by the people, who are rarely shown to their advantage, but I feel like I learned a lot about the conditions that lead to the terrible upheavals of the twentieth century. The men that the narrator meets are the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of revolutionaries. There’s so much more that can be said about A Sportsman’s Notebook, but I don’t want to blather. I’ll simply say, if you’re looking for something that will show you the real, vanished Russia of the Tsars, give this book a try.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Illustration by Peter Petrovich Sokolov for one of the stories in A Sportsman’s Notebook (Image via Wikicommons)

The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov

It’s funny that we talk about settling down in a place as putting down roots. Roots go deep and, once established, are hard to tear up. It can be done, but pulling up roots can kill whatever is being transplanted. (I took up gardening this summer. Can you tell?) This metaphor is apt in the case of The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov. In the mid-1930s, Florence Fein pulls up her roots because she can’t stand the hypocrisy the United States and moves to the Soviet Union, to be a part of building the new socialist future—and also to track down her lover. Decades later, her son returns to Moscow to try and uproot his son, who has moved back to the “motherland” to make his fortune. Russia just won’t let the Fein-Brink family go.

When I first started reading Florence’s journey to Moscow, I was strongly reminded of a book I read a long time ago. The Forsaken, by Tim Tzouliadis, remains one of my favorite works of nonfiction that I’ve ever read. It tells the story of the thousands of dissatisfied Americans who moved to the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Most of them were dead within a decade, between purges, deprivation, and war. Florence is just such a dissatisfied American. Her hope doesn’t waver when she arrives in the heart of the new Soviet empire, looking for a man who loved her when he visited America on a trade mission. Her hope is a little bit shaken when she is assigned communal housing, wrangles a measly job, and tangles with Soviet bureaucracy. Thankfully(?), her stubbornness and determination not to give anyone an opportunity to say, “I told you so,” keep her in the country until her American passport is taken away and she’s stuck. The Patriots turned out to be a great fictional counterpart to the true story told in The Forsaken.

Florence’s decision results not just in her own downfall (and a trip to the gulag), but also traps her son in an orphanage for almost a decade and a thwarted future due to latent Russian anti-Semitism. Where Yulik (Julian) Brink is determined to get all generations of his family out of the country, his mother and his son, Lenny, are almost equally determined to stay in Moscow. They can see opportunities and obligations that Yulik just can’t. All Yulik can see is the corruption, prejudice, alcoholism, and lack of freedom. America is his land of opportunity.

The Patriots moves back and forth and time from the 1930s to the early 2000s, with brief stops in the 1940s and 1970s. Florence (whose story is sometimes told with a biographical voice from Yulik’s perspective), Yulik, and Lenny all have plenty of time to meditate on their choices and the consequences of those choices. They also have some hard lessons in learning to navigate life in the Soviet Union and the oligarchy that followed. Yulik, the most cynical of the lot, seems to be the only one who knows how to fight fire with fire. Florence and Lenny, weirdly, hold on to an American naïveté. They assume people are operating in good faith and that justice will prevail. Yulik, to his great frustration, cannot convince his mother or his son that the Soviet Union/Russia (from where he’s sitting) will just chew them up and spit them out.

I found The Patriots to be a fascinating portrait of a family caught up in history, looking for a home in all the wrong places, always absolutely convinced that they are doing the right thing. There were times that I thought it was going on a bit too long—mostly because I thought Lenny was a pain in the arse and didn’t particularly enjoy his chapters. I was completely hooked by Florence’s sections and to the parts of Yulik’s story when he was trying to get his family out during the mid-1970s. Florence is an astonishing, complex character. She is well worth the effort of reading about her grandson because she lives through such extraordinary times; she should have died more than once. The Patriots is a challenging but rewarding read, especially for readers who, like me, are a sucker for books set during the early decades of the Soviet Union.

A Moscow street, c. 1920s (Image via Wikicommons)