November 10, 2014

Review of "Russian Dance"

By Andrée Aelion Brooks

This library book has the Dewey classification of 947 - History of Russia and neighbouring East European countries – but is written in that increasingly common style called “creative non-fiction” and really should also be included in the general fiction section. (This must be a real problem for librarians.)

In 1928 Helene (Bluet) Rabinoff has everything.  She is married to one of the great show business impresarios of the age, she moves in the top echelons of New York society, she has a lovely daughter, and money enough to buy anything she wants. But her husband is serially unfaithful and while she does her best to live with the humiliation she is emotionally vulnerable. When she meets the charismatic doctor, Marc Cheftel, who has come from Russia ostensibly to raise money through the Red Cross, Bluet is ripe to fall hopelessly in love. However, Marc, who is also married, is not what he seems and is secretly a Soviet agent, one of many sent out around the world to infiltrate societies on behalf of the new Soviet order.

When Marc is abruptly transferred back to Russia, Bluet is compelled to follow him and so her nightmare begins. Marc fails to divorce his wife and their relationship is soon under strain. Their life in Moscow is the exact opposite of what Bluet knew in New York and descends into deprivation, despair and above all, danger. No-one can be trusted, not even best friends.  

The historical and political background to these times is absorbing, in particular the chapters that deal with the origins of the Jewish Marc and how he became involved in what he thought was a new world order of social equality under Lenin but that soon turned into a deadly game under the whims and paranoia of Stalin. 

You have sympathy for Marc on some levels - that is, if he really was as idealistic as the book portrays him - but then you can’t ignore the number of people who were imprisoned, tortured and murdered as a result of his activities. Even though his own ending is inevitable, his character remains enigmatic and perhaps not quite as attractive as both Bluet and the author found him.

As for Bluet herself, there is an odd coyness about her. It feels as if a veil has been drawn over her origins and parentage. Born in France but raised by a foster mother she allegedly still received an excellent education. The book states that she met her husband, Max Rabinoff, when she worked in a luxury hotel in Paris and was called upon to assist in translations for him. Yet according to Wikipedia (usual cautions apply), she was a dancer called Helene Gaubert, nicknamed “Bluet” because of her fondness for blue eye-shadow. The source of this information is not shown but one suspects that, like Marc, she was not all she said she was. 

Bluet plays the somewhat naïve card in spite of being an educated woman moving in sophisticated expatriate circles where the real situation in Russia must have been well-known. Yet, dewy-eyed, she still abandons all her comforts and rushes headlong into the Stalinist embrace. 

It  doesn’t take a genius to guess that going from a privileged lifestyle in a plush New York mansion to a cold water tap, eating the Russian equivalent of gruel and being hounded by mysterious men in shabby macs is going to do much for keeping romantic passion alive. Also, for a woman who prided herself on her wide command of languages, it is strange that she makes no serious effort to learn Russian and thus can’t understand a document she is given to sign that will have life-changing consequences for her and Marc.

In the latter part of the book Bluet longs to be reunited with her daughter but as her self-absorption shows she had no compulsion in abandoning her in the first place so, as with Marc, the reader’s sympathy for her is limited. Another veil is drawn over what really happened after Bluet took her last train out of Moscow. Her ex-husband had washed his hands of her, so how did she manage to establish a new exclusive salon patronised by movers and shakers, as well as a luxury apartment filled with antiques? There are other truths to these stories other than those explored in this book.

Rating? A soupçon under 4 stars.

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