Sunday, December 13, 2009

December trip to Russia: Midpoint

For my magic carpet ride to Russia, I had the overly ambitious plan to read books from my shelves set in Russia during the month of December. It's not even the middle of the month and I can see already that this will take me much longer. It should probably be a year long challenge as I keep finding more books that look interesting. Maybe one on Siberia, Catherine The Great or Rasputin. Since The Russian Concubine is actually set in China, I took that one off the list. Who knows, maybe I'll steer the magic carpet towards Asia one of these days.

I didn't plan on doing a full review on each book separately but just give you my overall impressions and recommendations. The first book I started with was:

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. This book definitely put me in the mood with it's gorgeous descriptions of Imperial Russia and depictions of Russian life starting in the year 1894. Massie portrays Russia as a dichotomous society in which peasants would take the thatch off their roofs to feed the livestock during the famine while others were decked out in furs and jewels attending opera, lavish balls and numerous other cultural events.

When Nicholas's father, the autocrat Alexander III, passes away at 49 years of age, 26 year old Nicholas becomes Tsar of all the Russias; a role he is not prepared for nor does he really want. A week after the funeral, Nicholas marries Queen Victoria's granddaughter; Alexandra, Princess of Hesse Darmstadt. Theirs is a true love match instead of a political alliance marriage that were common at the time among royalty.

The story takes us through the reign of Nicholas II witnessing the ever changing face of Russia. Massie gives us a complete picture of the evolving political scene as the fabric of Russia unravels, the country hurtles toward revolution and a tragic ending to the Romanov dynasty. Behind the scenes we see the internal thoughts of the characters as simply human beings in a family not just as mighty rulers. I felt like the proverbial fly on the wall seeing this all happen in such fascinating and intricate detail, heart wrenching though it was. I absolutely loved this book! Highly recommended reading .

My second choice was:

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translated by Jessie Coulson and with an intro and notes by Richard Peace.

From the back cover: Crime and Punishment (1866) is the story of a murder committed on principle, of a killer who wishes by his action to set himself outside and above society. A novel of great physical and psychological tension, pervaded by Dostoevsky's sinister evocation of St. Petersburg. It also has moments of wild humor.

Dostoevsky's own harrowing experiences mark the novel. He had himself undergone interrogation and trial, and was condemned to death, a sentence commuted at the last moment to penal servitude. In prison he was particularly impressed by one hardened murderer who seemed tohave attained a spiritual equilibrium beyond good and evil: yet witnessing the misery of other convicts also engendered in Dostoevsky a belief in the Christian idea of salvation through suffering.

After Raskolnikov commit the murder he considered his punishment to have started immediately; the fear that he would be found out. He's convinced the police know the whole story but are toying with him to drive him insane; a psychological game of cat and mouse between murderer and the police. Several times he is so tempted to just turn himself in and "get it over with".

I guess I must have missed the wild humor part because I didn't find any in this story. It was an okay read but if I hadn't read it, I wouldn't feel that I had missed anything special. I know, I know ; it IS one of the world's classics, but still it dragged a little too much for me. Melodramatic overkill would be two words I would choose. I also have The Karamazov Brothers by Dostoevsky on my list. I hope it's a lot better than this one.

One of the more interesting parts of the book, though, was in the introduction about Dostoevsky himself. Like his character, Raskolnikov, he was an abjectly poor student who fled abroad to escape his creditors. While in Wiesbaden, he turned to gambling and lost what little he still had. This is when he conceived the idea for Crime and Punishment.

Needing a break from reading about the Russians, I managed to read a few other books in between but then watched two travelogues on Russia. One of them was Russia: Moscow, St. Petersburg and Murmansk. The close ups of St. Basil's cathedral, Red Square and the Kremlin were particularly beautiful but the rest of the video was amateurish and could have had a lot more depth to it.

The second video was A Russian Journey. This one was much more professionally done, had some beautiful photography and was very interesting. Did you know the trans-Siberian railway crosses through 8 time zones or that there are 129 different ethnicities in all of Russia? Or the fact that the onion domes actually have a purpose other than just being aesthetically pleasing? The shape of the roofs deters snow from collecting on them and possibly causing roof damage. I really enjoyed this one.

Since I just came across the Chunkster challenge for 2010 I decided to save the other books on the list for that challenge. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is 1,455 pages long. That's three chunksters in itself! That's okay because I really like Tolstoy. After all, he wrote my favorite book, Anna Karnenina. The Karamazov Brothers is up in the air as to whether I am going to read it or donate it somewhere.

Disclosure: All of these books are from my personal library and have been purchased by me.


  1. I remember reading Crime & Punishment but can't remember WHEN! I have Anna Karenina on my shelf and hope to read it in 2010. My favorite Russian novel is Dr. Zhivago. Read it while taking Russian History in college and loved it! And that was after seeing the film. It doesn't happen very often that I read a book after seeing it on the big screen. Had a fantastic professor, though. We read the book as a class. Wonderful.

  2. Russia is quite beautiful, so glad you're throwing in some video. I have a friend on DeviantArt that post the most gorgeous pictures of his Russia!

  3. You had an ambitious month planned. I think you are doing quite well with your reading. I too loved Dr. Zhivago..of course the movie took my breath away.
    Crime and Punishment has always been one of my favoites.

  4. Hats off to you. This is impressive Kaye. I loved Dr. Zhivago (book and movie).

  5. Hi Kaye :) Wow, your blog looks sooooo beautiful. You've decorated so nicely for the holidays!

    Nicholas and Alexandra sounds really fabulous! Great reviews! I'm going to add Nicholas and Alexandra to my reading list :)

    Hugs to You and Warm Wishes :))

  6. I love your holiday blog look and the snow!!

    O.K.- Russia sounds so incredible and interesting. My husband wants to visit Russia big time!! Thanks for letting me know that my life will still be good without having read Crime & Punishment!! I have to read Anna Karenina in 2010...I Must!!

  7. What an amazing post! Excellent conversation and choices to read. I haven't read Crime and Punishment but I own it along with W & P. I did read Anna K in the past and the writing was remarkable.....and yet it was so long.... Tolstoy is so detailed... and yet it was so "clean." Ha .. guess I wanted Anna K the raunchy version..just kidding. Keep on Trucking across Russia and sharing it is good stuff!

  8. Years ago I read Nicholas & Alexandra & loved it! I agree you really feel transported back to the era (and what a time)! Nice review!

  9. That is an ambitious challenge. I have been interested in reading Anna Karenina....maybe one day.

    off topic: I really like the look of your blog. Very seasonal.

  10. Very impressive list. I haven't read much Russian fiction b/c even the shorter classics seem so daunting.

  11. This is SO impressive and you are amazing! Good for you Kaye! Glad you're having a good time in Russia and the Chunkster Challenge sounds like the perfect fit. Steer that magic carpet up to NY state sometime would ya? ;)

  12. I read this when posted and had to go and look up The Concubine at once. It does sound good.
    Oh and I do should brave those huge classics

  13. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I found The Karamazov Brothers to be much, much, much, much (are you getting the picture), much, much worse than Crime & Punishment. I enjoyed Crime & Punishment, but never did finish the The Karamazov Brothers! I think my bookmark is still in the book at page 60!


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