For this month we review two very different books to take with you to the dacha; one of them about how Russians used to live in the country, and the other about the types of neighbour you don’t want.
Life On The Russian Country Estate
by Priscilla Roosevelt
It is not an exaggeration to say that this is for us the best book on the market about Russian life before the 1917 Revolution. It is both a scholarly work and an absorbing exploration of a vanished world. If your love of Russia has come by way of The Cherry Orchard, then this book will flesh out the drama.
Chapter by chapter, using as much original archival material as is available, and mixing quotations from Tolstoy and Turgenev with memoirs, diaries and pictures, Roosevelt carefully examines the rise and fall of the great and not so great Russian estates. She looks at their architecture, design and decor, she chronicles the lives of some of their owners and of the servants and serfs who worked in them. She shows how these estates formed a network of cultural, political and economic centres for the old aristocracy, and how the rising middle class aspired to join them. She is at her best when she writes about the serfs, showing how they were not all of them the lumpen proletariat popular history has labelled them, but rather that a significant proportion of them were talented craftsmen, artists, singers, actors and musicians. Not even the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 destroyed the social fabric of country life; many serfs chose to remain where they were. It was the Bolshevik Revolution that tore the walls down, as Roosevelt shows with her photographs of the ruins of what had once been the backbone of Russia.
Hardcover 384 pages (October 26, 1995)
Yale University Press
by Boris Starling
A gang war, the challenges of privatisation and a very unlikely romance make a classic cocktail in Boris Starling’s latest thriller. Vodka is set in a recent chapter of Russian history, when economic and social chaos reigned (you can work out when it was), the market opened, prices soared, the gangsters flourished, and then they became New Russians.
The heroine is Alice Liddell, an American economist who has come to help privatise the Red October vodka distillery, headed by a ruthless bandit, Lev, who runs the distillery like a godfather. When the children of Red October’s employees start to turn up dead in the Moscow river, Lev, who is the real father of the children (he runs a very paternal enterprise), is sure that his arch-enemy has done this to settle a score. Cue the shootout.
Meanwhile brave little Alice is struggling to convince both Lev and a dashing but equally tough prime minister (this one we can’t quite work out) to push through the privatisation of the factory in the way she believes will best help Russia make its transition to the free market economy. We never learn if Lev is attracted more by Alice’s spreadsheets or her beauty, but you just know from the absurdity of the plot that the two of them are fated to be the closest of lovers and the bitterest of enemies. Vodka has enough pages for a weekend away, but buy a bottle of the real thing to keep close by if you like your prose a little more adult.
Paperback 672 pages (February 7, 2005)