Book Stuff, Writing Life

*A Taste for Russian

All lives are interesting, and one of the jobs of fiction is to prove it. Still, that task is easier if they are Russian – which helps to explain why, as well as spewing out renegade oligarchs and rogue spooks, Russia has recently inspired an abundance of novels. I mean, specifically, novels set there by English-speaking authors, from thrillers such as Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko mysteries, to Helen Dunmore’s Leningrad books

So said AD Miller in The Observer. I found this especially interesting because the novel I started 8 years ago, and subsequently dropped in favour of another, was to have taken place in the Soviet Union.

My first experience of researching Russia was quite some time ago when I was reading about 19th century gangs in Eastern Europe for my first novel. In Russia, in the 1890’s, villagers were still accusing each other of witchcraft, and trial by water was still determining the matter. (If an accused witch drowns, then the person is exonerated) It struck me then how isolated Russia was, how non-European.

Russia has for centuries been a distorting, fairground mirror for the west. It is both like and unlike the tamer nations. Throughout the cold war, it was alien, unknowable, the other, enemy world, and an easy setting for thrillers.

When I do research, I start out with a wide net, catching everything in it, politics, economics, fashion, culture, recreation, architecture, social structure, manners. At first I feel ignorant and overwhelmed by the strangeness and incomprehensibility of another time and place. Gradually, though, I get the feel for it, the sense of it. New material I come across fits into what I already know. The puzzle has a picture.

I spent a year researching the Soviet Union as it was from 1925 to 1945 and another year trying to assimilate and put into writing everything I’d read: first person accounts, a PhD dissertation (quite marvelous by Anna Shternshis), fiction, detailed military histories, training manuals, social histories, silent films that were impressive in their artistry, biographies. I listened to the Leningrad Symphony (# 7, Shostakovich) while I took notes. But in the end, it felt as alien as in the beginning.

WWII Poster

It defeated me, as General Winter was said to have defeated the German army.

Instead I set my last novel in my own time and my own neighbourhood. It doesn’t have the sweep or the grandeur of Russia. But it is what I came home to–my present place, my present time, my belief that drama is in the ordinary as much as dharma, that evil happens here, and miracles happen here, and heroism is all around us.

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2 thoughts on “*A Taste for Russian”

  1. Several of my friends lived in Russia (we were all modern languages students and some lived abroad for their course, or one married a Russian she met and went there to live with him). It seems such an internally contradictory country, which may be why it works so well in fiction. Have you read Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, The Beginning of Spring? Best novel about Russia ever, I think. But you’re quite right that the drama of human nature doesn’t confine itself to one country or another in a zero sum game!

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