Russian Winter

An Excerpt

Chapter One

The afternoon was so cold, so relentlessly gray, few pedestrians passed the long island of trees dividing Commonwealth Avenue, and even little dogs, shunted along impatiently, wore thermal coats and offended expressions. From a third-floor window on the north side of the street, above decorative copper balconies that had long ago turned the color of pale mint, Nina Revskaya surveyed the scene. Soon the sun—what little there was of it—would abandon its dismal effort, and all along this strip of well-kept brownstones, streetlamps would glow demurely.

Nina tried to lean closer, to better glimpse the sidewalk below, but the tightness in her neck seized again. Since her chair could not move any nearer, she bore the pain and leaned closer still. Her breath left patches of fog on the glass. She hoped to spot her visitor ahead of time, so as to better prepare herself.

Cold rose to her cheeks. Here came someone, but no, it was a woman, and too young. Her boot heels made a lonely clop-clop sound. Now the woman paused, seemed to be searching for an address. Nina lost sight of her as she approached the door of the building. Surely this couldn’t be right—though now the doorbell buzzed.

Stiff-backed in her wheelchair, Nina rolled slowly away from the window. In the foyer, frowning, she pressed the intercom. “Yes?”

“Drew Brooks, from Beller.”

These American girls, going around with men’s names.

“Do come up.” Though aware of her accent, and of the cracking in her voice, Nina was always shocked to hear it. In her mind, in her thoughts, her words were always bright and clear.

She rolled forward to unlatch and open the door, and listened for the elevator. But it was mounting footsteps that grew louder, closer, until they became “Drew,” in a slim wool coat, her cheeks rosy from cold, a leather satchel hanging from a strap diagonally across her shoulder. She was of good height, with a posture of self-respect, and thrust out her hand, still gloved.

It has begun, Nina thought, with a slight drop of her heart; I have begun it. Knuckles wincing, she briefly grasped the outstretched hand. “Please come in.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Revskaya.”

Miz, as if she were a secretary. “You may call me Nina.”

“Nina, hello.” The girl gave a surprisingly confident smile, and creases fanned out from beside her eyes; Nina saw she was older than she had first thought. Her eyelashes were dark, her auburn hair tucked loosely behind her ears. “Lenore, our director of fine jewelry, is very sorry that she can’t be here,” she was saying, removing her gloves. “Both her children came down with something.”

“You may put here your coat.”

The girl extracted herself from her coat to reveal a short skirt and a fitted high-necked sweater. Nina assessed the short skirt, the long legs, the low boots and pale tights. Impractical, showing off her legs in weather like this. And yet Nina approved. Though most people knew the phrase “Suffer for beauty,” few truly embraced it.

“We will sit in the salon.” Nina turned her wheelchair, and a current of pain shot through her kneecaps. It was always like this, the pain, sudden and indiscriminate. “Please have a seat.”

The girl sat down and crossed her legs in their thin tights.

Suffer for beauty. It was one of the truer maxims, which Nina had lived to the fullest, dancing on sprained toes and rheumatic hips, through pneumonia and fever. And as a young woman in Paris and then London, she had of course served time in finicky gowns and treacherous heels, and in the 1960s those hopelessly scratchy skirt suits that seemed to be made of furniture upholstery. In 1978 she had undergone what was known as a “mini facelift.” Really it was just a few stitches behind the ears—so minor, in fact, that on the day that she was to have the stitches removed, it had occurred to her that she might as well do it herself. And she had, with a magnifying mirror and a tiny pair of pointy nail scissors.

Smoothing her skirt, the girl removed invisible lint with a light, flitting hand. Petersburg airs, Nina’s grandmother used to call them, these little feminine adjustments. Now the girl reached inside her satchel to pull out a clipboard with a leather cover. Wide cheekbones, fair skin, brown eyes flecked with green. Something about her was familiar, though not in any good way.

“I’m here to compose a basic list. Our appraisers will take it from there.”

Nina gave a small nod, and the knot at the base of her neck tightened: at times this knot seemed to be the very heart of her illness. “Yes, of course,” she said, and the effort made the pain briefly stronger.

Opening the clipboard, the girl said, “I have all sorts of things I’d love to ask you—though I’ll try to keep it to the business at hand. I love the ballet. I wish I could have seen you dance.”

“There is no need to flatter me.”

The girl raised an eyebrow. “I was reading about you, how they called you ‘the Butterfly.’ ”

“One of the Moscow papers was calling me that,” Nina heard herself snap. “I dislike it.” For one thing, the image wasn’t quite accurate, the way it made her seem, weak and fluttery, a rose petal blown about in the air. “It is too . . . sweet.”

The girl gave a winking look that seemed to agree, and Nina felt the surprise of her coldness having been acknowledged. “I’ve noticed the butterfly motif in some of your jewelry,” the girl said. “I looked back at the list from the St. Botolph’s exhibit. I thought that might make our work today simpler. We’ll go through the St. Botolph’s list”—she indicated the pages in the grip of the clipboard—”and you can let me know which ones you’d like to auction and which ones you might be keeping, if any.”

“That is fine.” The knot in her neck twinged.

In truth she possessed something close to affection for this horrible knot, which at first had been just another unrelenting pain. But then one day, only a few months ago, Nina happened to recall the way her grandmother used to tie her winter scarf for her, back in Moscow, when she was still too young to do it herself: knotted at the back, to easily grab at if she tried to run off. The memory, which Nina had not alighted on for a good fifty years, was a balm, a salve, a gift long ago lost and returned at last. Now whenever Nina suffered the pain there, she told herself that it was the knot in her old wool scarf, and that her grandmother’s hands had tied it, and then the pain, though no less severe, was at least not a bad one.

The girl was already handing her the clipboard. Nina took it with shaking hands, as the girl said, conversationally, “I’m actually one quarter Russian, myself.” When Nina did not respond, she added, “My grandfather came from there.”

Nina chose to ignore this. Her Russian life was so very distant, the person she had been then so separate from the one she had become. She set the clipboard on her lap and frowned at it.

In a more confidential tone, the girl asked, “What inspired you to put them up for auction?”

Nina hoped her voice would not shake. “I want to direct the income where I like, during my lifetime. I am almost eighty, you know. As I have said to you, all proceeds shall go to the Boston Ballet Foundation.” She kept her eyes down, focused on the clipboard, wondering if her stiffness hid her emotions. Because it all felt wrong now, a rash decision. The wrongness had to do with this girl, somehow, that she should be the one to sift through Nina’s treasures. Those primly confident hands.

“Well, these pieces are sure to bring in a good sum,” the girl said. “Especially if you allow us to publish that they’re from your collection.” Her face was hopeful. “Our auctions are always anonymous, of course, but in high-profile cases like this, it often pays to make it public. I imagine Lenore mentioned that to you. Even the less valuable items can fetch a good price that way. Not that we need to include keepsakes, too, but—”

“Take them.”

The girl angled her head at Nina, as if in reassessment. She seemed to have noticed something, and Nina felt her pulse begin to race. But the girl simply sat up a bit straighter and said, “The very fact that they’re yours would bring in so many more potential bidders. And there’s of course the added allure that some of these pieces were smuggled out of Soviet Russia. In life-or-death circumstances.”

Here it came, as it always did, the part of the conversation where Nina would be molded into that brave old woman, the one who had escaped oppression and defied her government in the pursuit of artistic freedom. It always happened this way; she started out an artist and ended up a symbol.

“When you escaped, I mean.”

Those soulful brown eyes. Again Nina breathed a whiff of the past, the recollection of . . . what? Something unpleasant. A faint anger rose inside her. “People think I fled Russia to escape communism. Really I was escaping my mother-in-law.”

The girl seemed to think Nina was joking. The creases showed again beside her eyes as her mouth pressed into a conspiratorial smile. Dark lashes, broad cheekbones, the wise arch of her eyebrows . . .

It came to Nina in a swift, clear vision: that luminous face, and the shivering wave of her arms, a delicate ripple of muscle as she drifted across the stage.

“Is there a . . . problem?”

Nina flinched. The girl from Beller was watching her intently, so that Nina wondered if she had been staring. Taking a breath to collect herself, she said, “You remind me of a friend I had. Someone from a long time ago.”

The girl looked pleased, as if any comparison with the past must be a flattering one. She dealt in antiques, after all. Soon she was discussing the St. Botolph’s list with a brisk professionalism that whisked Nina past any tug of emotion, any last-minute regrets. Still, it felt like a long time until the girl finally donned her coat and went tromping confidently down the stairs, her inventory pressed tightly between the covers of the clipboard.

* * *

Warm Moscow morning, early June, school will soon be ending. “Can’t you sit still?” A yank at the top of Nina’s head, prickling tips of a comb on her part. The question is purely rhetorical. Nina learned to run as soon as she could walk and never tires of hopping from step to step in the dark stairwell of their building. She can cross the court- yard corner to corner in a series of leaps. “Stop fidgeting.”

But Nina swings her legs and taps her heels against each other, as Mother’s fingers, precise as a surgeon’s, briskly weave her own hope, her own dreams, into two tight plaits. Nina can feel her mother’s hope folded into them, the tremor of quick fingers, and rapid heartbeats through the thin fabric of her blouse. Today is of too much importance to allow Nina’s grandmother, with her poor eyesight and sloppily knotted headkerchief, to fiddle with her hair. At last the braids are done, looped up onto the top of her head and fastened with a big new bow to secure all the hopes and dreams inside. Nina’s scalp aches.

Vera too, when they meet in the courtyard, has new ribbons in her hair. Strong gusts of wind flop them back and forth and worry the morning glories on the sagging balconies. In mere days the weather has gone from a cold drizzle to so hot and dry that Nina can’t help being concerned about the dust, that it will ruin the cotton dress Mother has sewn for her.

Vera’s grandmother, dark eyes glowering from below a white headkerchief, keeps frowning and pulling Vera close to her. Like all grandmothers, she is permanently displeased, calls Gorky Street “Tverskaya,” and gripes loudly about things no one else dares lament even in a whisper. The skin of her face is all tiny broken lines, like the top layer of ice when you step on it for the first time.

“We were up very late last night,” Vera confides to Nina. The way she says it suggests Nina ought not ask why.

“How late?” Like Vera, Nina is nine years old and always being put to bed too soon. But Vera just shakes her head, a movement so small and terse her auburn braids barely move. On one of the balconies a woman who lives in the same apartment as Vera leans over the railing, shaking out bedding. With an upward glance, Vera’s grandmother conveys something to Nina’s mother so quietly, it could be another language. Murmurs, back and forth, nothing Nina can make out.

She worries the day will be ruined—and after such a long wait, ever since Mother first explained about the ballet school. The vague, dreamlike description might have come straight from a fairy tale, a land where little girls wear their hair in high, tightly pinned buns and study not just the usual reading and geography and history but how to move, how to dance. In the old days, girls like Nina would not even have been allowed to audition. Now, though, with thanks to Uncle Stalin, any child old enough can apply for an entrance exam.

But not everyone will be accepted to the school, Mother has explained. She has taken this morning off specially, asked for permission from the doctors’ clinic where she is a secretary. When at last she looks back to Nina and Vera—”All right, girls, it’s time to go”— Nina is relieved.

Vera’s mother was supposed to ask to be excused for today too, but off they go without her, following Mother through the courtyard gate into the alley, a scrawny cat sneaking away as Vera’s grandmother calls after them, “I know you’ll be the best!” Her voice seems to catch behind the iron bars as the gate clangs shut.

Hot, windblown street. Wide boulevards coated with dust. Each gust brings the gray fluff of poplars, and Nina and Vera have to keep plucking it off their hair and their dresses, as Nina’s mother walks briskly ahead.

“I’m cold,” Vera says glumly, despite the sunshine and warm breeze. “I don’t feel well.” Mother slows down and puts her hand out to feel Vera’s forehead. Though she seems worried, she tells Vera, with a sigh, “It’s just nerves, my sweet little chick.” She gives Vera a squeeze.

Nina wishes Mother would put her arm around her, where it belongs. But soon enough they are at the corner of Pushechnaya and Neglinaya streets, looking up at a four-story house with a sign posted over the entrance:


The Bolshoi is where Nina’s father worked before he died, when Nina was still a toddler. He was a painter of stage scenery. Mother’s voice whenever she recalls this sounds proud, as if she wishes she too worked at the theater, instead of at a desk in the polyclinic. But neither Nina nor Vera has ever been to the Bolshoi. The first time Nina saw ballet was just this year, at a pavilion in Gorky Park. That too was Mother’s idea. After all, Nina is always jumping and twirling, trying out cartwheels and handstands—and then one day last year, playing in the courtyard, Vera went up onto the top of her toes. Not the balls of her feet; the very tips of her shoes. Of course Nina had to try it too. The glorious sensation of balance, of taking little steps and not falling. All afternoon she and Vera went up onto their toes like that—until Vera’s grandmother yelled at them for ruining their shoes. By then Mother was home from work and, instead of scolding, told them her idea.

When Nina told the other girls at school she might be going to a school for ballerinas, they didn’t seem envious. None of them has seen ballet, and Nina didn’t quite know how to describe what she saw in the dance pavilion. Sometimes, on nights when she lies in bed trying to fend off the frightened feeling—a dark chill that blows through the building and dims the grown-ups’ faces, colder and darker the later the hour becomes—she pictures the ballerinas on the stage in the park, their gauzy skirts rippling out like waterfalls, and imagines her own hair in a tight little crown on her head, and the ribbons of pointe shoes wrapped around her ankles.

Now, with a whole troop of girls, she and Vera are taken to a large room where a row of men and women sit behind a very long table. A slip of paper with a number written on it has been pinned to each girl’s dress; when their numbers are called—in small groups, by the thin, strict-looking man seated at the very end of the table—the girls must step into the center of the room. The wooden floor slopes down toward a wall lined with tall, framed mirrors.

Already, without having danced at all, some of the girls are being dismissed. But Nina and Vera are in the group that is ushered to one corner of the room, where the strict-looking man explains that they are to walk, one after the other, across the floor so that their footsteps match the music. That is the only instruction they are given, and now, seated at a shiny piano, a woman with her hair piled high on her head begins to play—something pretty but also somehow sad, the tinkling of the piano keys like drops of rain splattering.

One by one the girls make their way across the room. But at her turn Vera remains still, eyes wide, and Nina, waiting behind her, begins to worry. “Come on.” Nina grabs Vera’s hand, and the two of them move forward together, until Nina feels the tension in Vera’s fingers relax. When Nina lets go, Vera continues ahead, airy and at ease, while Nina returns to her slot behind her.

Now that everyone has reached the other corner of the room, they are asked to go across once more—this time with one large step and two small ones, over and over. The music has changed to something faster and very grand. Hearing it, moving along with it, Nina feels herself shifting into a new being.

Back outside afterward, the air carries the scent of lilacs. Warm sun through the cotton of their dresses. Ice cream scoops from a street vendor. For a short while Vera, too, seemed happy about the dance exam, aware that, like Nina, she performed well in the end. But now she is oddly quiet, and Mother’s thoughts are clearly else-where, so that Nina feels it creeping back, the dark nighttime feeling—so unlike the visible lightness around them, the sunny June freedom, everyone outdoors without a coat or hat. She tries to will the feeling away, thinks about the ballet school, about the man who came to her at the end to yank her leg up, this way and that, and examine the soles of her feet, asking her to point and flex her toes, and was pleased with what he saw. Vera too, unlike most of the other girls, was inspected from head to toe with approval.

When they pass the grand hotel at the corner, the sidewalk café is open, the first time since the long winter. “Look!” Vera says, pausing. A woman is exiting the hotel, ushered through a wide glass revolving door—the only revolving door in the city, pushed round by two dour-faced men in long jackets.

The woman is unlike any Nina has ever seen, wearing a dress suit of a fine pale gray-blue color, with a small hat at a slant on her head, and on her hands short clean white gloves. Gloves in springtime! And the delicacy of that grayish blue shade . . . Nina knows only a few fabrics, the same dark plum colors in winter and cheerily ugly patterns in summer, nothing in between.

And then Nina sees the most remarkable thing: the woman has jewels in her ears. Diamonds, small yet twinkling mightily. For a moment Nina is almost breathless. The only earrings she has seen are big dull beads that hang down from clips: pearls, heavy-looking, or glassy lumps of brown or marbled green stone. And so these tiny glittering diamonds are startling. And they are in her ears!

Nina’s mother looks away as the woman passes, but Vera asks, “Who is she?”

“American, I suppose.” Mother reaches her hand out to Nina to show that it is time to continue on. But Mother’s perfect oval face and slender waist must have impressed the guards—or perhaps they are bored and want to show off. They gesture to Nina and Vera, to allow them a turn through the doors.

Utter silence as the men solemnly escort them round. Nina glimpses, for mere seconds, the hotel’s immense lobby, its gleaming floor and thick runner of carpet, and an enormous mirror with a heavy gilt frame. The ceiling is impossibly high, with glittering lights shining down. It is the first time Nina has seen such things, a whole other world—but the slow rotation continues, and now the marble floor, the plush carpet, the gold mirror and chandelier, are already behind her. That twinkling shower of lights—and the American woman’s diamonds right there in her earlobes, tiny and bright, like stars.

Outside again, the tour over, Nina asks, “Did you see the lady’s ears?”

Mother just gives a look that reminds her to thank the doormen.

“Thank you very much.” Nina and Vera curtsy as they were taught at the audition, one foot behind the other, hands lifting the edges of their skirts, and turn away from the fascinating door, that entrance to a whole other world, and only then does the understanding come to Nina, strongly, acutely—much more than at the Bolshoi school—that something momentous has occurred.