Book Review: Russka by Edward Rutherfurd

So, onto the next mammoth book by Edward Rutherfurd who is known – perhaps uniquely – for creating a story around the history of a place and populating it with characters and their descendants as we move through history’s most memorable events. This time, he has chosen to take on the geographically mighty Russia, telling its history from the second century AD through to 1990 and the end of Communism.

If you have read at least one of his works, you know what go expect. Each chapter is a set in a different time period; familiarity is exercised through the descendants of those in the previous chapters so continuity is maintained through the ongoing feuds, marriages, business partnerships etc. Of the work I have read, this approach is no better demonstrated than in Sarum. For me it remains his best work.

Early part has a different feel – not about events but how Russia appears as the world changes around them. Rarely do we see specific events, they arw referred to as external agencies. This was the approach he took in The Forest and I don’t feel it worked there. It works a little better here and the novel feels stronger for it. Russia is, after all, a large place and there is only so much that we can cover. The New Forest in comparison is tiny so there would/should have been greater scope to develop this.

Reading the 11th century chapter, I felt my heart begin to sink. Here was all the problems that made me almost give up on London. We follow the journey of one young boy as he grows up seeking to enter into a religious life. Unfortunately, too much time passes in too short a chapter (though the chapter is not long) and I didn’t feel emotionally engaged enough. Nor are those characters are particularly likeable. As a lover of the medieval period, this should have been one of the most enjoyable sections for me. It wasn’t.

I was pleased to feel more engaged with the story of Yanka in 1246. A difficult section to read due to the unpleasant relationship she has with her father after her brother is taken and her mother killed by Tatars. But she is soon swept off to Novgorod for a life she always wanted… but it isn’t a bed of roses. It was fascinating to see this high medieval world looked in Russia instead of the much-covered western Europe and crusades into the Holy Land.

The story really opens up in the story of Ivan (1552) and this, arguably, is where the story of Russka truly begins. Ivan the Terrible was the first Tsar of Russia who turned it into an empire worthy of the name. This then, for obvious reasons, is one of the longest chapters at around 120 pages of this 1000 page book. For such a pivotal point in Russian history, it is not a great chapter and I would have preferred to see some of these events rather than merely having characters discuss them (my major complaint about The Forest).

The next few chapters are largely about religious strife between their Polish Catholic rivals and Orthodox Russians. There is no greater discussion of this than in The Cossack before we move onto Peter (The Great). After this we move onto Catherine and as with London, this is where the book really takes off.

The 19th century was arguably the most pivotal period in Russian history. A century before the revolution, anti-aristocracy feelings were growing as the up and coming middle classes looked to successful empires westward. Napoleon sought to conquer Russia, the Crimean War and the beginnings of Communist thought. Rutherfurd deals with these chapters quite well but it is not a particularly interesting read. I find that he makes a habit of this sometimes, creating a mundane story set in what should one of the most interesting periods of the history of the place he covers.

We also see the end of the empire and the first stirrings of revolutionary thought from the 1870s. This is interesting and adds context to the final 150 or so pages even if again, it isn’t particularly fascinating as a story. What is clear is that revolution had a few false starts in this period, various uprisings within Ukraine and Russia from various factions that were suppressed or petered out and finally find success in the fateful 1916.

And finally to the incident filled 20th century and of course, it is rife with political discussion, on clashes between the Bolshevik and Menshevik before we move onto beyond the revolution and the beginning of the Soviet state. We even get to experience trench warfare as Germany attacks Russia in 1914. It is interesting to see the transition of the family lines right through the period though the Cold War is barely covered as we hope from WWI to WWII and then immediately to 1990 in the space of 30 pages. Rarely does Rutherfurd allow wider events to take over the storytelling. Again, I did not like this element of The Forest but it worked much better here, possibly because he is using the method so late on in the book when the families are established.

Overall, the majority of this book was too middle of the road, too plodding to be truly enjoyable or to truly absorb yourself into the prose. It is better as educational fiction; few people in the west have a level of understanding of Russian history that is deserving of its colourful past and that is the strength of this book. There could have been a little more in the way of experiencing events that made Russian history.

2 responses to “Book Review: Russka by Edward Rutherfurd”

  1. Your concluding paragraph is dead on. There’s a cozy little nook filled with fond memories for this book in my heart, partially because it was given to me ages ago by a long gone great-uncle and partially because the foundation of what I now know about Russian history and culture was laid down by having it woven around the fictional stories in this book. It peaked an interest that might never have been found otherwise. So startled, happily so, to see the name of one of the more obscure treasures on my bookshelf calling me to your post!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad I could provide such a service.

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