Lights All Night Long: Lydia Fitzpatrick

★★★★

Passing through Arrivals at Baton Rouge airport, Louisiana, is the most significant moment in Ilya Alexandrovich’s young life. On one side of the door he can pretend that this is all still a dream: that he’s still just the bookish student in his remote Russian hometown, cherished by his teacher, mocked affectionately by his peers, with a vague prospect of getting to America one day. But, on the far side of the door, his reality must be faced: his host family, the Masons, who have agreed to let Ilya live with them for a year while he attends school, improves his English and assimilates to a Western view of life. Ilya is profoundly aware of his good fortune in coming here, in escaping the dead-end lifestyle that faces so many of his friends; but that isn’t only reason he feels unhappy. His guilt is sharper, more focused, for in coming to America Ilya has been forced to leave behind the person he loves more fiercely than any other: his troubled brother Vladimir, who has recently been sent to prison for murder – a crime that Ilya passionately believes he didn’t commit. This evocative, moving story asks us what it means to belong – what we do when we don’t fit in – and how we can redeem ourselves when all hope seems lost.

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The Crown’s Game: Evelyn Skye

★★★

Russia. 1825. In the peaceful woods of Ovchinin Island, flame-haired Vika lives a quiet life with her father Sergei. Since childhood, he has encouraged her to develop her talent for magic, promising that when she’s grown-up he will take her to St Petersburg to become the Imperial Enchanter. Inborn magic is a rare thing, after all: when the incumbent Enchanter dies, it passes into a new vessel (rather like the Dalai Lama, I suppose) and it is the new Enchanter’s responsibility to put her powers at the service of the Tsar. Little do Sergei and Vika realise that, in the heart of St Petersburg itself, a young man is being groomed for precisely the same purpose. There should be only one Enchanter born in each generation, but something has gone wrong. There are two potential Enchanters in Vika’s generation and that cannot be allowed. The weakest must be eliminated… through the ancient Crown’s Game.

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Twelve: Jasper Kent

★★★½

The Danilov Quintet: Book I

It’s 1812 and Russia faces dark days, as Napoleon’s great army sweeps eastward, pushing all before it. Some are even beginning to wonder whether they might see the ultimate sacrilege: a French invasion of Moscow. For four daring young soldiers, resistance is the only answer. Plucked from their regiments, Vadim Fyodorovich,  Maksim Sergeivich, Dmitry Fetyukovich and our narrator Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov form a special ops unit – and are waiting for some reinforcements to join them very shortly. Dmitry has enlisted the help of a band of men with whom he fought against the Turks some years earlier, whom he nicknames the ‘Oprichniki’ after the bloodthirsty bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible. The Oprichniki certainly prove their worth, striking by night and leaving the French forces depleted and terrified – but Aleksei begins to feel that something isn’t quite right. Who are these mysterious warriors from the dark fringes of Europe? And just what kind of bargain has Dmitry Fetykovich made with them on Russia’s behalf?

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I Am Dragon (Он – дракон)

I Am Dragon

★★★★

(directed by Indar Dzhendubaev, 2015)

Remember those classic fantasy films of the 1980s and 1990s: WillowLegendThe Never-Ending Story; or Labyrinth? They managed to combine magic with darkness, appealing to the lively imaginations of children but also hinting at something deeper and more troubling, something that lurked beyond the brink of adolescence and adulthood. After all, these films are adventures but they’re also all coming-of-age stories. And I was reminded of them by this sumptuous Russian fairy-tale, inspired by Beauty and the Beast, which boasts a strong young heroine, an improbably gorgeous hero, and a classic story about learning to know who you really are. If I were ten years old, I’d have absolutely adored it, and even now I thought it was rather lovely. If you’re looking for a way to distract children (or yourself) on a dark, wet afternoon, and if subtitles don’t hold any fear for you, you could do a lot worse than turn to this little gem.

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Describe the Night: Rajiv Joseph

Describe the Night

★★★★

(Hampstead Theatre, 2 June 2018)

What is truth? Who decides what truth is? Does truth change depending on who is speaking? Can the truth be remade? Can we remake our own truths? And what happens if you dare to articulate a truth that the authorities would prefer not to acknowledge? These are all very timely questions, in a world where truth seems more flexible than ever before, and certain high-profile political figures seem to be confusing ‘true’ with ‘convenient’. Our relationship with the truth is constantly in flux, but this daring and sweeping play by Rajiv Joseph (directed for Hampstead Theatre by Lisa Spirling) points out that it’s far from a contemporary phenomenon. Set in three different periods of modern Russian history, linked by a common thread, Describe the Night focuses on questions of truth, lies, reality, fiction and integrity, and centres on an unexpected figure whose words resonate through history: the writer Isaac Babel.

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Bite-Sized Russians

Bite-Sized Books

Penguin’s Little Black Classics series includes a number of works by Russian writers, who haven’t figured very prominently in my reading to date. It was time to correct that. These short stories gave me the chance to have brief encounters with Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Chekhov, none of whom I’d read before, as well as renewing my acquaintance with the towering Tolstoy. It has felt rather like speed-dating with Russian authors. Along the way I’ve been introduced to ambitious officers, unhappy wives, unscrupulous peasants, mentally unstable dreamers and an errant nose with a penchant for disguise. My appetite has certainly been whetted and, in due course, I’ll be looking into some of these authors in greater detail. By the way, I must stress that I’m well aware Gogol is Ukrainian by birth, but I hope I can be forgiven for including him here, as he’s often cited among the great Russian-speaking writers. Now, don your fur hat, grab your tot of vodka and hie ye to your troika, as we delve into the 19th-century Russian mind…

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The Madness of Moscow: Cary Johnston

★★

One Man’s Journey of Life and Love in Russia

I was attracted to this book by its promise of revelation. Even in the modern age, Russia is still ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, and its role on the international stage is becoming ever more complex, fascinating and not a little worrying. Recent news has cast it as a country of hackers, oligarchs, corruption and assassins; but how true is all of this? What’s it actually like to be in Russia right now, as a Westerner? What makes the Russians tick? How open is modern Russia to the West and what it stands for? I hoped to find the answers to some of these questions, and hopefully many others, in this book. Unfortunately, though, I was disappointed. Johnston’s account offers little beyond a memoir of partying, vodka-drinking and his eternal and somewhat wearying quest to find his ideal ‘Russian Bride’. For a reporter, it shows a profound lack of curiosity.

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The Five Daughters of the Moon: Leena Likitalo

★★★

The Waning Moon Duology: Book I

In a towering glasshouse at the Summer Palace, a new marvel is unveiled to the Crescent Empress and her five daughters. The Great Thinking Machine will be able to calculate numbers at incredible speed and will simplify the administration of this vast empire. But this is more than a scientific demonstration. Little Alina, the Empress’s youngest daughter, feels the danger rolling out from the vast contraption and fears what it may bring, and what it might have to devour in order to work. And she also fears its promoter: her mother’s unsettling, ambitious adviser, Gagargi Prataslav. In this novel, Leena Likitalo reimagines an alternate universe based on the world of the Romanovs, in which magic and visions go hand in hand with the first deep stirrings of revolution.

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Deathless: Catherynne M. Valente

★★★★

Impatiently waiting for the third novel in Katherine Arden’s Bear and the Nightingale series? This is just the thing to tide you over until it’s published, but Catherynne M. Valente’s novel is no mere stopgap. Indeed, it’s more of an experience than a book, bulging at the seams of its 350 pages. Valente reworks Russian folklore into a dark, dense and compelling narrative which skips in and out of tragic reality. Unlike Arden’s books, it’s also firmly adult, encompassing war, death and desire, while its folklore is the unbowdlerised kind, drenched in sex and blood. The curtain rises at the dawn of the 20th century, in St Petersburg, as the old order collapses, the boundaries between worlds grow thin, and a young girl receives an unexpected suitor.

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The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk: Daniel Jamieson

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

★★★★½

(Kneehigh Theatre at Wilton’s Music Hall, 18 January 2018)

On 6 July 1915, a few weeks before their wedding, Bella Rosenfeld arrived at Marc Chagall’s house in Vitebsk, carrying a bouquet of flowers wrapped in several colourful shawls. It was his birthday – not a day he’d ever particularly celebrated – but she was determined to make it special, not least because her wealthy family had been grumbling about the match between a master jeweller’s daughter and a penniless artist. This moment – a gesture of love and acceptance; an offering – would resonate throughout both their lives and it forms one of the key scenes in Daniel Jamieson’s colourful, playful, poignant, meltingly romantic play, which is currently on tour. J and I saw it in the faded glory of Wilton’s, where it seems to fit perfectly: a magical glimpse of a lost age, a two-man show dominated by splendid performances and simplicity.

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