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Check It Out

Courier Article by Kate Linderman
Sunday, April 3, 2011

Russian novels offer personal side to epic tales

Russia is a fascinating place. The classic Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky detail stories of love, lust, murder and revenge amid the backdrop of the frozen, unforgiving Russian landscape.

Too often, when readers think about Russia they probably think they'll have to reread "War and Peace" or "Crime and Punishment" to find a great, sweeping Russian story. Right now, EVPL has several great books about Russia and her people for those die-hard Russophiles (like myself) out there.

"The Madonnas of Leningrad" by Debra Dean is a story about a Russian immigrant, Marina, who at 82 years old, is battling Alzheimer's. While her short term memory (her granddaughter is getting married) is all but gone, the memories of her youth as a docent at the Hermitage in Leningrad as the great 900-day siege by the Nazis is undertaken in 1941. The book explores Marina's memories of the siege, and of the great artworks of the Hermitage that she and 2,000 others took great pains to hide from the advancing German forces.

"City of Thieves" by David Benioff is also about the siege of Leningrad. Lev Beniov (the account is loosely based on the experience of Benioff's grandfather) is arrested for looting and thrown into jail with a deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed the two are tasked with finding one dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a powerful Soviet colonel whose daughter is getting married - a preposterous, but deadly and epic, task.

"Russian Winter" by Daphne Kalotay is the story of a retired Bolshoi ballerina who, upon auctioning off her significant collection of jewelry, reflects upon her past in Stalinist Russia, and her defection to the west. Another novel that interweaves the past and the present, Russian Winter is a sweeping novel of love, death, betrayal, life-changing secrets amid the backdrop of a stark Russian world.

"The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival"by John Vaillant is an incredible true story - haunting, creepy and on the verge unbelievable - about a manhunting (and eating) Siberian (Amur) tiger in the frozen wasteland of Siberia. Vaillant's narrative includes interesting particulars about the history of the Siberian tiger, and details on the Russian attempts to save it. Interwoven with the story of the tiger's plight is the incredible story of the tiger in question - its uncharacteristic human hunting spree, and the amazing, almost human lust for vengeance that this particular tiger had. The Tiger is a fascinating read - and I'll be honest - I was rooting for the tiger most of the time. The book brings up some very timely issues on conservation - the Russian government has worked hard to preserve the Siberian tiger, even going so far as to create a task force to ensure the mutual protection of the tigers and humans who share habitats.

Finally, for an original take on Russian history and culture, try Molotov's "Magic Lantern," written by Rachel Polonsky. Polonsky, who is British, moved to Moscow and into an apartment building that once housed Russia's elite - including the notorious Vyacheslav Molotov (one of Stalin's henchmen). In Molotov's former apartment, Polonsky finds an extensive library and a "magic" lantern, which sends her on a trip across the country, reviewing the cities and landscapes viewed by some of Russia's most famous literary figures.