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 ordinary churchgoer.

    - 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.

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