Russka Review

3.5 star rating

I have mixed feelings about this book. Certainly, Edward Rutherfurd’s 760 page doorstop of a novel has its good points, but ultimately I came away unsatisfied.

“Ambitious” is a good way to describe the effort. After all, in order to tell “The Novel of Russia,” as the book is subtitled, Rutherfurd chose to cover the period from 180 A.D. to 1990. To make this Michener-esque task manageable, he follows generations of the Bobrov family (and a few others) through each major historical period of this vast country. Of course, that means that he also ends up with a vast, Game of Thrones-size cast. Generally, he handles this well: the major characters are all well developed and distinctive, which is no small task. More on the characters later.

The book starts slowly, and by the end of the first chapter, about a small village located at the edge of the Russian steppe, and the future site of one of two towns named Russka, I almost put the book down. I simply wasn’t interested in the characters or their subsistence farming life. The quality of the writing was just good enough for me to be willing to continue.

For the next several chapters, Rutherfurd follows the development of Russia through the eras of the fall of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the rise of Constantinople and the Orthodox Church. He clearly did a lot of research on these eras, and wants to make sure readers see the full result of all of it. I could have done with less. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, who was just as terrible as Ivan in his own ways, get their turns on stage.

When the book reaches the reign of Catherine the Great, Rutherfurd’s focus shifts from the historical to the personal. Alexander Bobrov, the protagonist at this time, is fairly well-to-do but very ambitious. He has his eyes set on becoming the latest of Catherine’s string of lovers. Unfortunately for him, through a combination of bad luck and insufficient ability, he never achieves his ambitions, and in fact ends up worse off than he was when he started. In this regard, Alexander Bobrov, and indeed the entire Bobrov clan, represent all of Russia: ambitious but never quite competent.

And that, it seems to me, is the theme for the entire book. Russia, Rutherfurd seems to be saying, is too big to govern, too big to succeed, too religious, too stubbornly backward (he and his characters repeatedly refer to the country as medieval), too inertia-bound, and too ignorant to ever reach its potential. Even as successive governments try to achieve something resembling democracy in the later chapters (covering the late 1800s and early 1900s), they fail every time, largely through incompetence and their inability to overcome inertia. One could even argue that the Bolshevik Revolution—the only one of at least half a dozen attempted revolutions Russia experienced over the centuries—did not succeed. While it was the first to actually change the government and take over the country, it just imposed the same kind of authoritarian rule the country had long been used to, only under a different name. And since the fall of the Soviet Union, not much has really changed except that, once again, the Russian Empire has shrunk.

I don’t know whether Rutherfurd’s assessment of Russia is one based on the work of many historians, or whether it’s his own view, based on his upbringing in England and life in the United States. I’m no Russophile, but the assessment is harsh, even if it might be accurate. History, after all, always has a political component.

Finally, the book ends with an epilogue set in 1990, in which the last of the Bobrovs, now an American citizen, returns to Russia and to the northern of the two towns named Russka, where his family had lived for so long. His guide is the scion of the Romanov family, who’d been serfs, and angry ones at that, at the time of the revolution. The meeting seemed contrived, an attempt, perhaps, to provide a sort-of happy ending to what had been, in the classical sense, a tragedy.

If you like long, historical fiction works, you may find this book appealing. I don’t normally read historical fiction, so the fact that I kept going through all 760 pages speaks well about the quality of Rutherfurd’s writing, but I doubt I will seek out any of his other books.

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