Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Russka, by Edward Rutherfurd

Writer of big fat historical novels writes big fat historical novel about Russia.


Ballantine Books, 1991, 960 pages

Russka is the story of four families who are divided by ethnicity but united in shaping the destiny of Russia. From a single riverside village situated at one of the country’s geographic crossroads, Russia’s Slav peasant origins are influenced by the Greco-Iranian, Khazar, Jewish, and Mongol invasions. Unified by this one place, the many cultures blend to form a rich and varied tapestry.

Rutherfurd’s grand saga is as multifaceted as Russia itself: harsh yet exotic, proud yet fearful of enemies, steeped in ancient superstitions but always seeking to shape the emerging world. Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and Lenin all play their roles in creating and destroying the land and its people.

In Russka, Edward Rutherfurd has transformed the epic history of a great civilization into a human story of flesh and blood.

I read this book with a grain of salt. I know Rutherfurd does his homework and my (scant) knowledge of Russian history didn't pick up anything obviously wrong in this book, but I know Russian history is notoriously misunderstood or misrepresented by Westerners, and this was one of Rutherfurd's earlier novels. So I approached it as an entertaining work of fiction, as I suggest you approach all his works. You will pick up on a lot of history in his books, but it's probably a good idea not to assume you've actually read verified, vetted historical facts. After all, most of the characters are fictional, and even with the historical ones, Rutherfurd admits to using dramatic license.

Those caveats out of the way, I liked Russka, though so far it's my least favorite of Rutherfurd's novels.

Russka follows the pattern seen in his later books, of following a nation's history by following the rise and fall and rise and fall of several families down through the generations. Russka is about Russia — that magnificent, ancient, cold, and primitive land that has always been great but always felt itself lagging behind the West, when it was even aware of the West at all.

Running through the ages, from the Mongol invasions to the time of Ivan the Terrible, to Peter and Catherine, and into the modern day (which was, at the time this book was written, Gorbechev's Soviet Union, where change was in the air), Russka was as enjoyable as Rutherfurd's other books about England and Ireland and New York. I did think it was a bit rougher, with the family lines less remarkable, and I frequently wished I was a historian so I could be more sure of whether or not he was taking a few too many liberties with his historical speculations.

I do know that Russia has always been... well, not a very nice place. Meaning no offense to any Russians, who are proud of their country and their history, but it's always been an inhospitable land that attracts and then swallows invaders and lends itself to autocracies and pogroms more than democracy and reform. The "Golden Ages" of Russia have come on the backs of millions of serfs, whose status was no better (and sometimes worse) than slaves. Russka tells a tale of people enduring hardship, sometimes being triumphant, but often the man who is successful in one generation sees his children fall in the next.

I think the earlier chapters were better than the later ones, and as Rutherfurd approached the 20th century, the book felt increasingly rushed. The entire Russian Revolution was only a couple of chapters, World War II was barely even mentioned, and the final chapter, in the USSR of the 1990s, was basically an epilogue. Of course to fill out every generation of history with as much character drama as filled the earliest ones would have made this already thick novel longer than War and Peace, but as the author's attention and interest seemed to peter out, so did mine. Of course we expect that the great leveling effect of Stalin's purges will deliver abundant irony as the families of aristocrats and serfs alike are sent to gulags or find themselves People's apparatchiks. But Russka is definitely stronger, and displays more of Rutherfurd's storytelling, in the earlier centuries.

This is still a great, juicy, dramatic historical novel if you like those, and while I am not sure I'd recommend it for learning Russian history, it will tell you something of the grand sweep of Russian events and the peoples who have moved through, into and away from it. There are Tartars, Cossacks, Jews, Ukrainians, White and Red Russians, monks, revolutionaries, serfs, Czars, nobles, officers, all moving in and out of focus. And always bleak, white Russia looms over them and absorbs them.

Also by Edward Rutherfurd: My reviews of Sarum: The Novel of England and New York.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, edward rutherfurd, history, reviews

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