The Book: Russka by Edward Rutherfurd
The Challenge: A book with more than 500 pages
I first encountered the writings of Edward Rutherfurd when my Aunt suggested I read one of his books. Like me, she is a avid fan of history, and Rutherfurd's specialty is historical fiction. Typically, his novels run towards door-stoppers in length, and always follow a similar set up: he picks a region, creates two to three fictional families, and then follows the lives of the members of those families through history and into modern times. Up until now, I had only read a few of his English novels, my favorites being Sarum (about a fictional village near Stonehenge) and The Forest (about a village on the southern coast of England). It was Russia being in the news so much lately prompted me to pick up his Russka, which is about that region.
Russka starts in 108 A.D. and goes all the way up to 1990. The families--the aristocratic Bobrovs and the peasant Romanovs (no relation to the ruling family) and the industrial Suvorins--struggle through famine, church disputes, tyrants, invasions, revolutions, and eventually Communism. I'll admit, I am not terribly familiar with Russian history, so I won't comment on how historically accurate this story is. What I do know is that the Russia Rutherfurd depicts in the novel is a land plagued by almost never ending violence and oppression. First there are the invasions of the Alans and Sarmatians, then the Tatars, then the Cossacks, then the reign of Ivan the Terrible, followed by Peter the Great and his fight with a Russia that was effectively in the Dark Ages when compared to the rest of the world at the time, then Catharine the Great, and finally the revolutions that lead to the Bolsheviks and the founding of the USSR. Perhaps most striking are the chapters set in the times that readers would be most familiar with in terms of European and American history, simply because the cultural differences between the Russians and the countries we are more familiar with are so wide as to be almost stunning. Throughout it all, there runs a strain of almost stubborn dignity, as the characters often refuse reforms and changes because "It isn't Russia", to which Rutherfurd has one character point out that he doesn't know what is.
To properly review this book would, I think, take me quite some time (it does clock in at just over 1000 pages). In the hopes of being somewhat brief, I will say this: Russka is not his best work. As usual, Rutherfurd does manage to immerse the reader into a brilliantly imagined story about people and the events which shape/shaped their lives. However, in this book the characters are on a whole not as well rounded and fleshed out as in his other novels. The impression that I got was that he knew his readers would not be particularly knowledgeable about Russian history, and in the hopes of emphasizing and conveying the importance of the events and scenes depicted, he tried a little too hard to create a straw-man character that would speak for a broad swatch of society at the time. Unfortunately, this causes quite a few of the characters to get lost among the events and historical details.
All in all, I would recommend Rutherfurd's novels, but would suggest starting with The Forest or Sarum.