Russka: The Novel of Russia
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Rutherfurd, Edward. Russka: The Novel of Russia. New York: Ballantine/Del Rey/Bawcett/Ivy Books, 1991.
A problem so many of us have in assessing the place of our families
in the old world is that we do not have a very good concept of the
sweep of Russian history. Formal, footnoted histories numb us with
political detail and multisyllable Russian names. Edward Rutherfurd
has given us a novel that does for Russia what James Michener did
for Poland, Hawaii, the Holy Land, the Caribbean, South Africa,
and other parts of the world. Like Michener, Rutherfurd provides
readers with windows into what happened at selected times. We see
the flow of history through the eyes of appealing (okay, sometimes
appalling) characters who live or move through two rural villages,
both named Russka. One Russka is in the Ukraine; the other further
north, not far from Moscow. Most of the characters belong to generation
after generation of families who are members of the nobility and
the serf class.
In the process of telling the story, the author answers dozens
of frequently asked questions. Examples: How did anti-Semitism get
going? When Poland ruled much of Russia, Polish landlords sent Jews
to do their dirty work. Resentment toward these "point men" festered
through the millennia. Who are the Old Believers? When the rituals
of the Orthodox Church were officially modernized, many continued
to stick with the old ways. The changes, to our western way of thinking,
were superficial. They seemed to involve little beside design of
icons, number of fingers used in making the sign of the cross, and
wording of prayers and rituals, but thousands, defending their faith,
died at the hands of armed units sent to root them out or killed
themselves preemptively by locking themselves into their churches
and setting the churches afire. The old ways continued over generations
despite the most determined efforts to eradicate them.
Fascinating aspects about Russian history are all woven quite
painlessly into the action of the story:
-The melding of political and religious institutions was never questioned.
Related to this, Russia has a long history of secret police agencies
and harsh punishments for seeming disloyalties to totalitarian regimes,
religious and political.
- Readers see the function of the nobility, who paid no taxes,
in relationship with the serfs, who were squeezed for whatever
could be gotten from them with little regard for their welfare.
The power structure was very protective of their right to impose
their will by force on the classes under them.
- There was a centuries-long appeal/hate relationship with the
countries of western Europe. Skilled persons from Germany, France,
and England were invited to Russia, then resented and feared.
The stain of backwardness clung to Russia, and modernization meant
westernization even while the Russians popular impression of the
west was that it was evil and decadent.
- The significance of ethnicity and the mixing of racial groups
went back to the earliest days. The Germans in the Ukraine were
not the only ones to resent Russification efforts.
- The rise of the revolutionary movements in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries shook Russian society to its foundations.
The freeing of the serfs, shortly before the Civil War in America,
was a major liberalization even though they were not very free
for a long time. The revolutionaries by no means spoke with one
voice. Some envisioned Russia as a western-style democracy. Ideas
related to socialism did not spring full-blown with the communists;
the villages in the countryside long had a kind of commune structure.
There was always a clinging to the tsar and a belief in his authority,
even when he was clearly incompetent and vindictive.
- The revolutionaries could not distinguish between the political
power of the church and the genuine religious devotion of the
- Major writers, musicians, and artists unified the country
in important ways.
- The sheer size of the country was responsible for good characteristics
and the difficulty of governing it.
The takeover of the country by communism is not handled in detail
in the story, one suspects, because the book was getting too long
already. Here the reader senses that important facts were omitted.
As for our colony Germans, they are mentioned only two or three
times. Catherine brought them to Russia to develop the Ukraine,
they were the source of the potato as a staple food (the Russians
did not like potatoes until Catherine tricked them into thinking
the fields were being carefully guarded), and they were probably
the only ones who had grain during a famine time.
Rutherfurd did his homework, then created characters such as Cossack
horsemen, Ox, Maryushka, Tatiana, Alexander Bobrov, Yvgeny Popov,
Savva Suvorin, and a whole sequence of Arinas who cared for children
and kept the folk tales of Russia alive. This book may not satisfy
purists, but it's great reading for the rest of us.