The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers…
About the Book:
Petrograd, 1914. A country on a knife edge. The story of two people caught in the middle – with everything to lose… A stunning debut from a talented new Australian voice in historical fiction.
Valentina Yershova’s position in the Romanovs’ Imperial Russian Ballet is the only thing that keeps her from the clutches of poverty. With implacable determination, she has clawed her way through the ranks, relying not only on her talent but her alliances with influential men that grant them her body, but never her heart. Then Luka Zhirkov – the gifted son of a factory worker – joins the company, and suddenly everything she has built is put at risk.
For Luka, being accepted into the company fulfils a lifelong dream. But in the eyes of his proletariat father, it makes him a traitor. As civil war tightens its grip and the country starves, Luka is torn between his growing connection to Valentina and his guilt for their lavish way of life.
For the Imperial Russian Ballet has become the ultimate symbol of Romanov indulgence, and soon the lovers are forced to choose: their country, their art or each other…
A powerful novel of revolution, passion and just how much two people will sacrifice…
What a glorious cover this novel has! It caught my eye immediately and then the lure of history within the context of ballet and a revolution all sealed the deal for me. There were many elements present to make this story a great one but they didn’t quite all mesh together for me. The story itself was very much a surface tale, the romance between the two main characters overshadowing all else, and while I believe it was intended as a grand love story, there just wasn’t enough characterisation to pull this off and the way it all played out was predictable in the extreme. However, I do think my disappointment with this novel stems in part from a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. For a start, I’m not a fan of romance. I don’t mind some romantic elements, secondary to the main plot, but where the romance is the plot, with no other forces driving the story, I lose interest. A grand love story is a different kettle of fish, but that’s not the same as romance and unfortunately, the two are often presented as one and the same. I approached this novel with an historical fiction lens, not a romance one, so that was my mistake, not the author’s. Secondly, this is the third novel I’ve read on the Romanovs and the Russian revolution. I haven’t liked any of them, so it stands to reason that this slice of history might just not be my cup of tea.
Now, I did pull a few things out of this novel that beg for greater attention. The volatility of Petrograd, and indeed the whole of Russia, during this era was particularly well rendered. On a whole, this novel was very well researched and the sense of atmosphere just crackled with authenticity. It was very much a place where people had all or nothing, no in-between whatsoever, and WWI magnified this discrepancy all the more.
‘It was true that beggars were rarely seen in this area. There was an unwritten law in Petrograd that, until now, had always been obeyed: the poor would stay within their own areas, moving from home to work to markets, and never venturing into the glistening inner-city world of the rich and privileged. They belonged where the tram tracks stopped and you had to wade through mud to get anywhere; where there was no electricity, and the nights were as black as the insides of your eyelids. Both rich and poor had silently agreed on this so long ago that no one noticed the division any more— until now, when that border was suddenly crossed by one that didn’t belong there.’
‘He walked away before she could argue or try to follow him. He couldn’t stand to be there any more, with people who were so ready to ignore those who had already lost so much and were desperately trying to survive off less food than was left over on the silver plates they dined from. What was more, he needed to get away from them so he could try to convince himself that he wasn’t becoming one of them. That he wasn’t ignoring his hungry, hurting country just because his own life had been made easier thanks to the ballet.’
Anyone interested in the history of ballet will enjoy this novel. Kerri Turner is a ballet dancer herself and this is very much evident in the way ballet has been brought to life here on the page. The mechanics, the grace, the hard work, the competitiveness, and, much to my delight, the ugly side. I do like it when an author shows us the ugly side of something so beautiful. In this case, it is the way in which female dancers were ‘protected’, which is just a another way of saying: kept as a private prostitute. Valentina’s utilisation of this system is a big reason why I didn’t feel that connection to the love story between her and Luka. I also really wasn’t convinced by anything that she ever did that she was even worth the risks Luka was taking to be with her.
‘Baudruches weren’t an option, of course. They were supposedly effective at preventing babies, but had a reputation for being low class because of how widely used they were by prostitutes. They were also said to dull the man’s pleasure. Valentina couldn’t ask that of Maxim— why would he pay a fortune for her if he couldn’t fully enjoy her? Rather than make her his wife, he’d just find some other dancer all too willing to satiate his desires. Maxim wouldn’t like being kept waiting for so long. It didn’t matter that she was tired, that she didn’t enjoy the way his lovemaking became forceful and almost violent after a temper. She wasn’t paid to satisfy her own wants.’
‘It was a common practice in pre-revolutionary Russia for ballet dancers to take an aristocratic or influential protector to cement their position in both company and society. Given the Imperial Russian Ballet’s requirements for a high level of health and cleanliness, their dancers were considered a safe and, perhaps more importantly, respectable alternative to prostitutes.’ – Author notes
Like I said above, the ballet world was meticulously rendered and the history well laid out for ardent enthusiasts to appreciate. I wasn’t familiar with the differences between the Ballets Russes and the Imperial Ballet prior to reading this novel. I also didn’t realise just how much devastation the collapse of the Romanov dynasty had on the entire art of ballet.
‘There’s a freedom in the Ballets Russes you won’t get in most other companies. They aren’t afraid to break boundaries. Yet they also desire to drill into the very soul of what each ballet means. That is why Diaghilev attracts the best. Not just dancers, you understand. Alexandre Benois and Bakst have each painted scenery for him; Stravinsky was disregarded in Russia until Diaghilev made his name; and you’ll find Jean Cocteau running around and making the dancers laugh during rehearsals. You work hard, though; perhaps harder than in the Imperial Russian Ballet. The Ballets Russes is not a job but a lifestyle.’
‘Sadly, the Russian Revolution saw the end of the Imperial Russian Ballet. There have been other companies bearing the name in the decades since, but they are not a direct descendant of the original; it was disbanded, and ballet was shunned post-revolution as a reminder of the hated elite the country had overthrown.’ – Author notes
Luka, as a dancer with the Imperial Ballet, was protected from conscription, and despite the relief this brought him, it was also a heavy burden that he carried. Particularly since his brother was a soldier at the front. It was also the cause of friction between Luka and his father. In terms of characters, Luka was fleshed out more thoroughly than Valentina, but then, he was also a more appealing character to become invested in. He opened the novel and also closed it. Valentina remained more distant throughout and I can’t help but wonder if the novel wouldn’t have been strengthened if it had been exclusively told from Luka’s perspective. He certainly felt things more deeply, not just at a personal level, but at a civic one as well.
‘The woman was dressed in a worn sheepskin shuba, and Luka knew instinctively she was a factory worker. She had that perpetually underfed hollowness to her face and a lack of hope in her eyes that made her fit in with this crowd in a way Luka no longer did. He offered her a smile, wondering if perhaps she had seen him dance and wanted to say hello. It would be the first time anyone had ever recognised him and it coming from the area he’d grown up in would be some kind of validation. But the smile died as he saw what she held in her hands, and his stomach flipped like he might vomit. It was a white feather, so like the one he’d handed to Valentina at Mathilde’s country house. But this was not a symbol of a dream waiting to be fulfilled.’
‘Have you heard what the men lucky enough to return from the front are saying? The things they’ve had to do out there, the decisions they’ve had to make? There’s nothing noble about this war like we were told when it was first declared. I believed that lie; I was proud of one son for fighting in it, and ashamed of the other for not. But what those men have seen and done … no ruler who cares for his people could force men to go through that.’
I’ve included a lot of quotes within this review in the hopes that it will help you form an impartial view on this novel and be able to decide for yourself if it’s for you. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it, particularly if you favour Russian history and/or love the ballet. And if you’re a fan of romance, then this story likely has all the feels for you. I just felt that there were all of these stepping stones crafted but none of them had been lined up to make a solid path. But it is a first novel and I feel it does hint at great things to come from Kerri Turner.
‘I’d been on my own stage forever, and suddenly I saw the world for what it is—its potential for pain and loss, yes, but also for love that isn’t defined by any parameters. A world where a woman who once had everything could lose it all, but still find something to give to those that were forgotten or ignored. I had always believed Mathilde to be the very worst example of what was wrong with Russia— I guess the revolutionaries and I had that in common. It took two revolutions, a civil war and countless deaths for me to realise: we can be so much more than our circumstances make us appear.’
Thanks is extended to HQ Fiction via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers for review.
About the Author:
Kerri Turner is a writer and a dance teacher, and has an Associate Degree in Dance and a Diploma of Publishing. Some of the highlights from Kerri’s dancing include being cast in a solo role by the filmmaker and choreographer Rosetta Cook and learning pas de deux with the former Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet, Harold Collins. Kerri is now based in Sydney’s North Shore. The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers is her first novel.
The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia – HQ Fiction AU
Released on 21st January 2019