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The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers by Kerri Turner

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This absorbing book took me completely by surprise. Not only is it a skilfully told story of a time in Russian history (the final years of the decadent Romanovs, and the rising rebellion among the workers as dissatisfaction and real anger towards the ruling classes, economic instability, food shortages, dreadful working conditions and war, grew worse), using two ballet dancers employed by the elite Imperial Russian Ballet as foils, it’s also a tragic tale of class difference, and the lengths those who were born with nothing will go to in order to ensure they don’t lose what they’ve gained. 

Luka Zhirkov is a young, up and coming dancer who has been given the chance of a lifetime when he’s asked to join the Imperial Ballet. For his father, a staunch member of the proletariat, who has already given one son to the civil war tearing Russia apart, Luka’s dancing career, where he mainly entertains capitalist elites, is a betrayal of class, family and country. 

When one of the principal dancers, Valentina Yershova, a woman born into poverty and whose talent and dalliances with rich protectors has allowed her to climb the ballet ladder, spies Luka, even she recognises his talent. But Luka hasn’t yet learned the rules that govern the ballet dancers behind the scenes – how who you know and associate with and who you share your body with is almost as important as skill. Disgusted and confused by the careless wealth of some of the dancers and those they choose to align themselves with, as well as their wilful ignorance about deteriorating social conditions for those who cannot afford to change them, Luka is nonetheless drawn to Valentina and his feelings for her begin to grow.

As great opportunities for both Luka and Valentina manifest, war and revolution follows, meaning they’ll soon be forced to make choices that will either grant them their every wish or tear them apart. 

Beautifully written, evocative and moving with characters both strong and flawed (which I love), this wonderful book and the ballet dancers at its heart explore a period of history and a country that for many of us remains mysterious. Petrograd (St Petersburg) is brought to life in all its hedonistic and dangerous glory. Ballet becomes a powerful metaphor for the struggles, passion and sacrifice the Russian people themselves make as their country plunges deeper into poverty and war, and those at the top attempt to continue with a decadent lifestyle that is fast becoming as dangerous as it is deplorable. Using the story of one of the most famous ballets, Swan Lake allegorically, Turner weaves the romance and tragedy of Odette and Prince Siegfried and the villainous Von Rothbart, cleverly throughout the novel. 

This is a photo I took inside the Alexandrinsky Theatre (mentioned in the novel) in St Petersburg (formerly, Petrograd). It is simply stunning. I saw my very first ballet there as well – appropriately, it was Swan Lake. Kerri’s novel brings all this to life.

One of the hallmarks of good historical fiction is that the author doesn’t only craft a marvellous tale, but you learn something about the past and the human condition in the process. Turner has done these things seamlessly and, in doing so, written a book that will, like its lead characters, dance its way into your heart. 

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