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Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay



Russian Winter by Daphne Kolotay 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.

Read more . . .

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.Interweaving past and present, Moscow and New England, the backstage tumult of the dance world and the transformative power of art, Daphne Kalotay’s luminous first novel—a literary page-turner of the highest order—captures the uncertainty and terror of individuals powerless to withstand the forces of history, while affirming that even in times of great strife, the human spirit reaches for beauty and grace, forgiveness and transcendence.
HarperCollins (September 7, 2010)

Book Club Party Ideas for Russian Winter

Decorations

A ballerina figure and red roses (ballerinas are showered with flowers after their performance) make a pretty table centerpiece for a ballet-themed party.

Russian Winter Red-Roses

You can find some really beautiful ballerina statues online to decorate around your dozen roses.

Music

“Making her way across the wet asphalt of the square to the Bolshoi, Nina feels none of the usual excitement of such nights, though tonight she is to dance, again, for Stalin. This time it is a visitor from Laos he is entertaining; like all foreigners, the envoy wants to see Swan Lake. Melodramatic, show-offy Swan Lake. What did such things matter, frivolous fantasies, when all around horrible, inexplicable events were taking place? So long ago, the days when Nina found nothing more lovely than the swan-girls stretching forward to bow over their legs as they surround Odette…Now it just feels like a sham”. (Page 326)

This night Nina meets Stalin during the intermission, ‘”Butterfly,” he says slowly, “a most impressive performance. You make us proud of our great nation.”‘ Swan Lake is a perfect music to have playing at your book club party for Russian Winter.


Book Club Menu for Russian Winter

Hors d’oeuvres

Russian Eggs are served with caviar on top. My mother-in-law always started her Christmas Eve party with everyone having a Russian egg in one hand, a shot of chilled vodka in the other and then a toast was made. The intense flavor of the horseradish and the salty taste of the caviar deliver a surprising flavor. The shot of vodka is just an added bonus. A great way to get a party started!

russian-eggs

Crudites (pronounced krue-dee-tay) were served to the bidders at the jewelry auction. These are raw vegetables cut into bite-sized strips and served with a dip. I served these crudites below with Lisa’s Vegetable Dip Recipe.

Crudites

Main Course

This tasty Barley Soup will warm the heart and soul during the cold Russian winter.

legumes, carrots

Dessert

My mom has made these Russian Tea Cakes from Betty Crocker for as long as I can remember. These buttery melt-in-your-mouth cookie balls go by many names in recipe collections, including Mexican Wedding Cakes. They always contain finely chopped nuts and are twice rolled in powdered sugar. Serve these Russian Tea Cakes with a cup of coffee for a perfect ending to your book club party.

Russian Tea Cakes

I found this recipe for Gozinakh (Walnut Honey Candy) on RusCuisine which features authentic Russian recipes.


Book Club Resources for Russian Winter

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 3.7 stars (7,224 ratings)
Amazon: 4.2 stars (339 ratings)
LibraryThing: 3.7 stars (169 ratings)
My Rating: 4 stars I thought the story started slow, but was completely engaged once it going. Interesting plot twists and I thoroughly enjoyed learning a bit about Cold War Russia and the Bolshoi Ballet.

Discussion Questions

Warning: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. How would you describe Nina Revskaya? What kind a person was she? Do you sympathize with the way events shaped the woman she became? And how would you compare her with Vera Borodina? What exactly was the nature of their friendship? What held them back from sharing their deepest secrets?
2. How does living in a repressive society like Stalin’s Soviet Union affect human relationships? Can real trust ever be formed between friends, spouses, colleagues? What risks do people face in revealing their true nature?
3. Each piece of Nina’s jewelry denotes a particular memory. Why do you think she waited so long to finally part with her jewels? Are there memories we have that are too painful to face, yet too dear to let go of? Do any of your possessions hold a special memory for you?
4. In your opinion, did Viktor Elsin truly love Nina? Did she love him? What about Gersh and Vera? What sacrifices were each willing to make for love?
5. After she defected, Nina believed she had shed the first third of her life. To what extent was this true? Can we ever truly rid ourselves of parts of our lives—or ourselves—that we don’t like? What is the price of forgetting?   Read more . . .


6. Nina cherished the solitude of her later years. “She relished the very texture of her privacy, its depth of space and freedom, much of an entire day hers alone. Her early life of always sharing, never a private moment or corner or closet shelf of her own, had left her hungry for this.” Was her solitude a release, or was it a fortress she used to keep others—and the past—away?
7. Was Nina a victim of the society in which she was raised—or a perpetrator of its worst abuses? Would her ambitions have eventually led her to behave the way her jealousy ultimately caused her to act? Was Nina’s jealousy justified? Did Viktor, Gershstein, and Vera have a hand in their own demise? Are the choices Nina made forgivable?
8. Themes of art, politics, and love are intertwined throughout the novel. How do art and politics influence each other? Can art be a release from political oppression? In what ways can it be oppression’s tool?
9. Can art flourish in a repressive state? How does repression influence the creation and expression of art? In a repressive state like the Soviet Union, must artistic success be accompanied by compromise? Compare the choices that Viktor, Nina, Gersh, and Vera made.
10. Were Gersh, Viktor and Vera radicals? What makes someone a dissident? Why do nations like the former Soviet Union insist on silencing all criticism?
11. What did art—the ballet—mean to Nina? Did she have to make a choice between dance and love? Could she have balanced both? What about women today? Have choices become easier or more difficult as opportunities for women have expanded?
12. Zoltan, also a refugee from the Iron Curtain, tells Grigori, “I remember before I left Hungary understanding completely that literature could save me as much as it could get me killed. Of course it’s not like that here. But isn’t it funny, that in some ways the price one pays for freedom of speech is…a kind of indifference.” What does he mean by this? What do you think of his viewpoint? Must an artist suffer in some way to produce art?
13. After Nina defected to the West, she found she could not enjoy all of its freedoms. “Even when she tried to will it open, Nina’s heart would not budge.” Why couldn’t she open herself up to new love and new friends? What held her back—habit, or guilt?
14. What do you think of Drew Brooks? Do you see similarities between her and Nina? What are your impressions of Grigori Solodin? How are he and Nina alike?
15. What did Drew and Grigori offer each other that others could not? Do you think their personalities and experiences made them more attuned to Nina’s unconscious longings and regrets?
16. Why did Nina refuse to see Grigori on the occasions he tried to contact her? How were their assumptions about each other wrong?
17. On their third anniversary, Viktor tells Nina, “love is all we have.” But for Nina, it is dance and love. And years later, Grigori’s colleague and friend Zoltan remarks, “There are only two things that really matter in life. Literature and love.” Can art change the world—change who we are? Can love? Has love or a passion transformed you or someone you know?
18. Have you ever met anyone who has lived under repressive circumstances? How did discovering their story affect you or your outlook?
19. Did Grigori ultimately have a better life—though it was fraught with uncertainty—because of Nina’s selfishness? How might his experience have been different if he’d grown up in the Soviet Union rather than Europe and eventually America?   
(Discussion Questions from HarperCollins)


Purchase Russian Winter at your favorite bookseller

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The Author and Awards

Visit the author at Daphne Kalotay.com

Russian Winter, published in 2010, is Daphne Kalotay’s first novel and was a finalist in the James Jones First Novel competition. She grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Vassar College. She then attended Boston University’s Creative Writing Program where she won the school’s Florence Engel Randall Fiction Prize and a Transatlantic Review Award from The Henfield Foundation. She remained at Boston University to complete a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature. She now lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.



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