This is a transcription of Episode 8 — Russia: Revolution, Hope, and Vodka.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe. one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us. [music].
David: Welcome to season one, episode eight of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Russia
[piano music plays]
David: It’s the largest country in the world. It’s home to caviar and vodka and Tolstoy, Russian literature, and 29 UNESCO world heritage sites, and we will cover none of that because it’s too big. [melissa laughs]
David: Russia is too much.
Melissa: Russia is a lot of awesome.
David: Yeah, it’s a lot of awesome. Today we’re going to recommend five books we love that took us to Russia. Mel, let’s start with a Russia 101.
Melissa: Yeah, although you kind of stole my thunder.
David: Did I?
Melissa: My first sentence is ‘Russia is the largest country in the world.’
David: It deserves to be said twice.
Melissa: It covers one-tenth of all the land on earth.
David: That’s a lot of land.
Melissa: It spans 11 times zones on two continents, Europe and Asia, and it has coasts on three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic. And because I’m still a little bit obsessed with seas from episode six of this podcast, I will also mention it touches the Sea of Okhotek, Sea of Japan, Caspian Sea, Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea.
David: And it shares the Bering Strait with the United States. We’re, we’re very close to Russia. I was surprised to find that out. The coast of Alaska is about 50 miles from the coast of Russia.
Melissa: Yes. I think we can all agree that Texas is a pretty big state. Russia is 25 times the size of Texas. [david laughs] Russia has everything. There are deserts, icy coastlines, mountains, giant marshes. And in most of the country are steppes, which are treeless plains.
Melissa: You might have heard of a little thing called Siberia that covers three quarters of Russia.
David: Wow. Really?
Melissa: Yes. It’s massive. And that is mostly pine forests called taigas.
David: It sounds like tiger said with an accent.
Melissa: Speaking of tigers, Russia has the largest cat in the world. It is the Siberian tiger and it is 10 feet long, not including its tail.
David: And it’s really pretty.
Melissa: And then they’re really beautiful. Russia has Europe’s two largest lakes: Ladoga and Onega. Lake Baikla in Siberia contains more water than any other lake on Earth.
David: I was reading about that Lake and it has some incredible amount of number of species. Like, 1700 species of animals and a third of them are only found in that Lake.
Melissa: That’s amazing. Okay. So I think we’ve beaten the, ‘Russia is big and amazing’ thing to death. I want to jump into a very brief Russian history overview.
Melissa: Because I feel like we need some context for some of the books we’re going to talk about today. But I have to preface this by saying that we could do multiple seasons of a podcast on Russian history. So people who are Russian historians, I bow down in respect. I mean no disrespect by my very fast romp through Russian history. Just trying to lay a foundation for the books we’re going to talk about.
Melissa: The first human settlements in Russia happened about 500 A.D., and those were mostly Scandinavian people who moved near the Volga River and they started mixing with the Slavs who already lived there, and they built a fortress in a spot that eventually became Kiev in Ukraine. So it’s pretty far south.
Melissa: We’re going to fast forward a few centuries. Hold on! Don’t get whiplash! To the Mongol invasions of the 1200s. Mongols invaded and that friction drove the Russian people north to a settlement that became Moscow. And then just 300 short years later: Tsars!
David: That didn’t take long.
Melissa: It didn’t take long at all. It was so easy. See?
Melissa: Ivan IV, who you might know better as Ivan the terrible, was the Grand Prince of Moscow, and he became the first tsar of Russia in 1547. And he was just 16 years old. He drove out the Mongols and he unified the country. And then in the late 1600s, Peter the Great became the tsar. He was 10.
David: When he became the tsar?
Melissa: Yes. And he ruled for 42 years.
Melissa: Again, we’re going to leap forward to the Russian revolution in 1917. The tsarist government was overthrown, and in 1918, the last Russian monarch was shot by the Bolsheviks, and that was Nicholas II and his family.
David: So the imbalance of wealth and power got too much. People rose up. And shot and killed the wealthy.
Melissa: As it ever was.
Melissa: You might be familiar with them because of the mystery of Anastasia. It might be ringing some bells for people. Anastasia Romanov was the youngest daughter, and there were rumors that she and her younger brother actually escaped the execution. So there are lots of books and movies about that. You might also heard of Rasputin.
Melissa: He was a Russian mystic who was acting as an advisor to Nicholas II, and again, any one of those topics could be its own podcast season. Anyway, now the tsars are gone. It’s the early 20th century. The people have taken power and after lots of scrapping between the various groups, the Bolsheviks eventually wrested power away from the rest of the revolutionaries. And they were led by Vladimir Lenin. That led to the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That was made up of Russia and 11 other countries.
Melissa: During World War II, the Soviet Union joined the allies to defeat Hitler. But then after that, we got the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union.
Melissa: And this is the creative spark that led to such eighties classic movies as Rocky IV and War Games. This is also the Russia of my childhood. In 1991 the Soviet Union broke up. Boris Yeltsin was the first president of the new Russian democracy until 1999 when he resigned. And Vladimir Putin was president from 2000 until 2008. And now he has again been the president since 2012 and his term expires in 2024.
David: But he’s unlikely to not be the president anytime soon, according to, like, The Washington Post. Okay. That was the 101. Are you ready for two truths and a lie? I am going to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is true.
David: In 2008, Vladimir Putin produced a DVD called Let’s Learn How to Wrestle a Bear with Vladimir Putin. That’s one. Two: For a brief period in the ’90s, because of their relationship with Russia, Pepsico was one of the largest military forces in the world.
Melissa: These are both sounding true to me.
David: And three, according to Forbes, when it comes to cities, housing, and billionaires, Moscow was second only to New York city.
Melissa: That also sounds true. Okay. Once again, you’ve made this really challenging. I feel like I really want the Vladimir Putin wrestling a bear how-to video to be true, so I’m going to say that one’s true. Okay. I’m going to say number two is a lie. The PepsiCo…
David: That is true. So it all started in 1959. Then-vice-president Richard Nixon and Khrushchev are at an American exhibition in Moscow. One of the Pepsi executives gets Khrushchev to try Pepsi. Somebody takes a picture of it. That picture gets distributed and now everybody wants to try Pepsi.
Melissa: Of course!
David: Pepsi becomes a huge thing in the Soviet Union. The problem at the time was that the Soviet Union didn’t have a tradeable currency. They had rubles, but those weren’t worth much outside of the Soviet Union. So PepsiCo built plants in the Soviet Union in trade for vodka.
Melissa: Whoa! That’s a pretty good trade. I would definitely take a shot of vodka over a can of Pepsi.
David: So that goes well, and the Russians have their Pepsi. By the late eighties, the Russians are operating 21 Pepsi plants, but they want to open up a bunch more. And again, there’s the question: How do we get our money out? So the Russians traded to Pepsi a fleet of submarines and boats. The agreement included 17 submarines, a cruiser, a frigate, and a destroyer. The combined plea was traded for $3 billion worth of Pepsi.
Melissa: Do you think that the Pepsi CEO just, like, got himself a captain’s hat? And went to one of the submarines and was, like, ‘Toot toot! This is my boat.’
David: Maybe so. At the time, that made Pepsico the sixth-largest military force in the world and they pretty much turned around immediately and sold all of that for scrap, which they made a ton on. At the time, one of the Pepsico executives said to somebody who worked for the Bush administration, ‘We are disarming the Soviet Union faster than you are.’
Melissa: Oh… burn.
So, and that one was true. That means there’s Putin wrestling a bear and —
David: And the billionaires in Moscow.
Melissa: Okay. The billionaires in Moscow thing seems true. I say true.
David: Billionaires in Moscow is true. So you’re right.
Melissa: I was right, but I’m really disappointed about the DVD.
David: Yeah, we’ll talk about that in a sec. So, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a lot of wealth creation. They just sort of split up their assets and divided those among top business executives. In 2015 Forbes magazine said that New York City had 78 billionaires, and then, Moscow had 68 billionaires and then Hong Kong was in third place. Keep in mind that the Russia has a per capita income of about $14,000.
David: Yeah, so there’s a lot of wealth disparity in Russia. But on the upside, maybe? It created a lot of like five star hotels and high end restaurants and fashion stores —
Melissa: Which people in Russia cannot enjoy.
David: Well, the billionaires and millionaires.
Melissa: Is it the beginning of the 20th century again? What’s going on?
David: There’s a burgeoning modern art scene in Moscow. There’s something called the Millionaire Fair, which is an exhibition where they gather together high-end products. And that leaves us with Vladimir Putin. So in 2008, Vladimir Putin did not produce Let’s Learn How to Wrestle a Bear with Vladimir Putin.
Melissa: I’m really disappointed.
David: It is disappointing. He did produce a DVD called Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin.
Melissa: I mean, that’s almost as good.
David: Which apparently led to a massive and bizarre press conference in which Vladimir Putin who, by now had been president four eight years, demonstrated his judo moves and talked about the importance of the martial art to him. He also admitted that the title was an advertising trick and that viewers will not be learning from your humble servant, but from real geniuses.
Melissa: At least he exercises, I guess?
David: Yeah, he moves. But we may not ever get to see Putin actually wrestle a bear.
Melissa: Although don’t you kind of feel like he has at some point?
David: Just for fun? Yeah, probably.
Melissa: And then they drank a Pepsi after.
David: Yeah, but that’s two truths and a lie. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am.
David: Mel, what’s your first book?
Melissa: I chose City of Thieves by David Benioff. And his name might sound familiar to people because he is the showrunner for Game of Thrones. But before he was That Guy, he wrote City of Thieves in 2008. I read this book when it came out and I really, really enjoyed it. And then when it was time to prepare for this episode of our podcast, I reread it and loved it just as much and that’s why it’s in this show.
Melissa: This is a historical novel set during the siege of Leningrad in 1941. So, in real life, the German and Finnish armies surrounded Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg.
Melissa: And they cut off the city from the rest of the world. That started on the 8th of September in 1941 and lasted until the 27th of January in 1944.
David: So that’s three years.
Melissa: It is 872 days.
David: Of siege.
David: By that you mean food was cut off, water was cut off. Sewage was cut off. There was nothing to be had.
Melissa: In addition to them being out of food — medical supplies, they couldn’t talk to people who lived outside the city. They were completely cut off. In addition to all of that, there were also air raids and bombings.
David: And these are not soldiers trapped in the city.
Melissa: No these are civilians. One million people died.
Melissa: It was bad
David: Just being in a city with a million dead people and trying to figure out what to do with that — if that was you’re only problem — that would be awful.
Melissa: So that was what was happening in real life. And that’s the setting against which this whole story plays out, which I realize as I’m saying it out loud, makes it sound like it’s not a fun story —
David: But it’s a laugh riot.
Melissa: Well, here’s the thing about this book.
Melissa: Before I get into the characters and tell you more about the plot. If this was a movie that was not set during the siege of Leningrad, it would be a buddy comedy.
Melissa: So, a dark buddy comedy, I guess. We meet 17 year old Lev. He’s Jewish, which was not a good thing to be at the time. And he’s starving because there is no food to be had in Leningrad. And he and his friends see a German soldier drifting down out of the sky with a parachute, and he looks really weird and they realize that he’s dead. So they follow the parachute drifting down into the city and they find his corpse. And they’re looting the corpse to see if he has any food or a gun or knife or anything that could be useful.
Melissa: And they get arrested. Because even taking something from a corpse is illegal. Because it belongs to the state. So he’s thrown into jail and he meets Kolya, who is a really handsome soldier who’s only 20. So Lev is 17 and Kolya is 20. They’re children, basically.
Melissa: And Kolya is in jail because he’s been accused of deserted from the army. So they’re in jail, but they’ve got a roof over their heads, and it’s not really clear that being in jail is actually all that much worse than what they were doing outside because of the siege. They spend the night. They kind of chit-chat a little bit and the next morning a Colonel makes them an offer that they literally cannot refuse. His daughter is getting married and his wife is insisting that his daughter has to have a proper wedding cake. And to make the cake, they need a dozen eggs. So he tells the two boys that they have to find 12 eggs in the next six days or they’re dead.
Melissa: So of course under normal circumstances, no big deal. A dozen eggs, they’re available anywhere. But there was literally no food in Leningrad.
Melissa: People are boiling the paste in the binding of books and eating it because it has protein in it.
Melissa: It’s called library candy.
Melissa: I know. Terrible. There’s a description of a New Year’s Eve celebration that they have where they divide half an onion between four people and they feel like they’re having a feast. Yeah. One more depressing note about the food. They ate what was called ration bread, which was really not bread at all. It was just made from everything that they could find that would bind together and wouldn’t poison anyone. And there were some rumors that people had resorted to cannibalism. I would imagine. So that’s the situation. And they’ve got to somehow find a dozen eggs like magicians or something, but they want to stay alive. So they set out on the quest. Kolya, in particular, is very optimistic. And there is this kind of sense of a little bit of buoyancy and freedom when they set out because they have a mission and they’re on their own and they’re young men and they’re gonna figure it out.
Melissa: But then they realize that they have to head into German controlled territory because there is absolutely no food to be found anywhere inside of Leningrad. They’ve got to get through the barrier, get out into the countryside, and see if they can find some eggs out there. So that should all be really, really grim.
David: It sounds rough.
Melissa: But these two characters are so great. You’re so happy to be spending time with them. If you’ve got to go on an impossible mission, these are the people you want to do it with.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: So Kolya, the soldier, just refuses to be pessimistic. Just absolutely refuses to give up his swagger and to give up the belief that he is going to somehow triumph. And he’s really, really funny. And then there’s Lev, in contrast. He’s the younger one. He is very sweet and gentle and he desperately, desperately wants to be brave, especially taken in context of hanging out with Kolya.
Melissa: But he’s really worried that when the big moment comes, he will be a coward. So there’s a lot of him thinking about those things as there tromping through the snow trying to find the eggs. As I said, if this was not set during such a harrowing time, it would be like a road trip movie. And there are moments that are genuinely funny, but there are also scenes that are just really, really sad because it’s war time and bad things happen.
Melissa: As they literally sneak around the countryside, they get to know each other and we get to know them. They run into Germans, which is really terrifying. Yeah, they run into partisans, which is also pretty bad. There’s terrible cold, snowy weather. And through it all, they keep up this quest for the eggs.
David: Who are the partisans?
Melissa: The partisans were kind of guerrilla militia who were also fighting the Germans, but they were suspicious of everyone. So when Kalia and Lev who are just out in the countryside and on their own show up, they’re very suspicious of them. The militia is suspicious of them.
David: They’re kind of the local good old boys.
Melissa: Yes. And they’re shooting first and asking questions later.
Melissa: One of the things I really loved about this book is that I didn’t know, I think anything, about the siege of Leningrad before I read it. And that historical context was really, really fascinating. But then on top of that, there are these incredible characters who I’ve thought about all these years, and I read it the first time 12 years ago. Like these to me are real people who existed, and the story is moving and funny and adventurous and suspenseful and yeah, I just really enjoy the whole ride. That is City of Thieves by David Benioff.
David: Awesome. My first book is The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra.
Melissa: I love that title.
David: The Tsar of Love and Techno is a collection of short stories that traces Russian history from 1937 into a an imagined future.
Melissa: Cool. It’s a very kind of ‘late nineties, early two thousands’ title.
David: Yeah. And it has that feel as a book. There are a number of people and items that keep coming up throughout these various stories, which is also very cool and I really liked. One of the items that keeps coming up and becomes like a touchstone for the entire book is this mixtape that somebody made.
Melissa: So the mixtape travels through the different stories?
David: Yeah. Yeah. Different characters have different relationships to the mixtape and what it means. One of the biggest characters in this book is the city that it’s set in. It’s a place called Kirovsk, I think. It’s a city up near the Arctic circle. It houses a nickel-smelting plant, and one out of every two residents contracts lung cancer.
Melissa: That is kind of devastating.
David: It’s a real place, too, and you start there. There’s a good chunk of the book that’s set there. You get to know the people who are there and what they’re doing. You see some of them escape and get out. Others don’t. The book itself starts in Leningrad in 1937. You are sort of over the shoulder of an artist censoring photographs for the state. He’s blocking out images of people who are no longer associated with the party, who the State wants disappeared for one reason or another. It ends with a solitary Russian in a space capsule. And between those two things, is everything. There is the bizarre and heartbreaking and bitter history of the Soviet Union, pre- an post-Glasnost and pre- and post-communism. And it’s all sort of told through these interconnected stories and you see it from a human scale.
Melissa: And what is the tone? Are they different?
David: So the book itself is also a mixed tape.
David: The short stories have different tones, different voices. So will go from first person or third person. There’s a story that’s told from multiple perspectives, so all of the friends of this one girl are talking about this girl. The writer Anthony Marra is, he’s a graduate of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so he’s got that literary going. This book has so much depth and flavor to it. He has this quote about putting together a mixtape that was in one of his interviews that I really liked.
David: He said, ‘And I love this idea of a mixtape, because like many adolescent boys, I spent a long time making them for people I had crushes on. And what were you trying to do with a mixtape, you weren’t just putting love songs on, you were trying to tell a story with a mixtape, you were trying to have these individual songs build up to become something that is much larger than the sum of its parts, that becomes an emotional narrative in and of itself … and it’s also a bit self-referential in that one of the characters creates a mix tape for his brother, who carries it with him, and it sort of becomes this totem for everything he fears losing.’
David: And that is definitely the feeling you get from this collection of stories.
Melissa: That’s really cool. Also, I miss the days of mixtapes. There’s something about the act of having to sit in front of the tape recorder and stop it and start it and think about the order and listen to the music in real-time and then give that to someone and be like, ‘I was thinking of you the entire time I was making this.’
Melissa: It iss really special. It’s not the same as creating a playlist.
David: Yeah, so this book kind of has that vibe. It is a mixed tape that he’s made for Russia or about Russia.
Melissa: I love that.
David: Yeah. That is The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra.
Melissa: My next book is Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick. This is a coming-of-age character study and a full-on murder mystery. Two of my favorite book genres mashed together beautifully. The story is set in the fictional Russian town of Berlozhniki, and it would be a mostly unremarkable place except for two things. One: There’s an oil refinery in the town that dominates the landscape and everyone’s lives. Like, everywhere you are in the town you can see it and the lights are on all the time, which is a reference to the title Lights All Night Long. And the second thing is that it’s kind of a small town, and there’s been a shocking, brutal murder of three young women. It’s turned the town upside down.
Melissa: Our hero is 15 year old Ilya and he and his brother Vladimir are best friend. They do everything together. They go to the internet cafe and they play games. They watch American movies on VHS tapes. Jean-Claude Van Damme is their a favorite actor. They’re inseparable except that Ilya is very gifted for languages and picks up English almost instantaneously as he’s watching the movies. And Vladimir. Vladimir is a little troubled. He’s dabbling in drugs. He’s kind of going nowhere with his life, but he’s putting all his energy into Ilya because Ilya has been chosen for an exchange program. He’s going to go to the United States and study and improve his English and everyone hopes, have a much better life. Get out of this oil refinery town in Northwestern Russia. So that is the setup for the book.
Melissa: So Ilya lands in the town of Leffie, Louisiana and the section of the book that’s basically his ride in the car from the airport to his host family’s house is really amusing and also really heartbreaking because he’s seeing these incredibly huge big-box malls and just the abundance of everything everywhere. Anything you could possibly want is available to you all the time.
Melissa: He goes into his host family’s parent’s bedroom and sees the TV and it’s described as being the size of a door, and he’s not seen anything like this before, but the author does a really nice job of not making it kind of a goofy, fish-out-of-water story. The whole thing is infused with grace, so he’s kind of marveling and judging and surprised and empathetic and curious all at the same time. Ilya is an amazing character because he’s really intelligent, but he’s a teenager, so he sometimes does things that, as an adult you think, ‘What is he doing? Why would he do that?’ And then you have to remember: he’s just a teenager.
Melissa: So even though Ilya is now on a better path, there’s also a problem. And that problem is: his brother has confessed to committing the murders of the three girls in their small town. And Ilya very strongly believes that is not true. So he devotes himself to proving his brother’s innocence.
David: From Louisiana?
Melissa: As the story unfolds, the chapters go back and forth between his current life in Louisiana and what’s happening in Russia. I can’t really say —
David: Parallel in time?
Melissa: Yes. I can’t really say any more than that because I don’t want to give it away. But this is a very well-structured murder mystery, and that’s kind of at the core of the story. But then the wrapper around it is this really wonderful coming-of-age story about Ilya kind of deciding what kind of person he’s going to be and taking advantage of being in the United States and his relationships with the people he’s meeting there and his relationship with his brother back in Russia.
Melissa: So there are a lot of big, big feelings. And then there’s also the suspense of just the process of him figuring out what happened with these murders. I have to say that emotionally really snuck up on me. I liked Ilya and I liked Vladimir, but it kind of presents at the beginning as a mystery thriller.
David: Yeah, I’m kind of surprise there’s an emotional core to this.
Melissa: So much. It really explores big themes on the way to solving this murder mystery. The emotion that it, that it really digs into his hope and how hope is the thing that keeps you going. But can also be the thing that kind of eats away at you a little bit — if you can’t change the circumstances you’re in.
Melissa: Anyway, that part of it was really, really moving. There’s also a lot of interesting parallels that she draws between this town in Russia and this small town in the United States. They are not as different as you might think.
Melissa: You know, we have the opioid problem in the United States and in Russia, the kids in this town are addicted to synthetic heroin called krokodil, and it kind of stretches its tentacles out through the whole community. As everywhere, there are people who have things and people who don’t, and you see that kind of played out in both towns. It kind of made the world seem a little bit smaller. It’s just a really fascinating look at small town life and brotherhood. And, a rip-roarin’ murder mystery.
David: That sounds great.
Melissa: When I finished reading it, literally, I finished the last sentence — I sat there for a moment in the little cloud of the story, and then I went immediately to my computer and sent an email to the author and told her how much I enjoyed it. And she was kind enough to write back to me.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: So I just want to say to our audience, you can do that. You can Google the author, find their contact info and just send them a short note and let them know when you enjoy their work because even if they don’t reply to you, I can guarantee you that would be a welcome message to get. Everyone likes to know that their work is reaching people. And that’s a way to be a good book citizen in the world. Tell someone you know when you love a book and sends a little note to the author and let them know that you liked it
That is Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick.
Melissa: These books are hard to talk about.
David: These books are hard to talk about.
Melissa: Because they’re complicated.
David: They’re complicated. And so far, I think they’ve all danced around the theme of hope. Here’s another one.
David: My next book is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
Melissa: One of my all-time favorite books.
David: It’s such a great book. I really love this book.
Melissa: Just thinking about this book makes me want to go pick it up and read it again.
David: Let’s do that.
[sound of footsteps and a door creaking open]
Melissa: It’s like one of those movies that comes on when you’re flipping through the channels and no matter where it is in the movie or what you’re doing in your life, you sit down and watch the whole thing. It’s true. This book is like that.
David: Yeah. There were parts of this when I was figuring out what I was going to say, there were parts of the book where I was just, ‘well, I’m going to read this and this and then this part,’ and then it just ends up an audio book and that doesn’t seem right.
Melissa: So let’s tell everyone what it’s about.
David: Okay, so this book starts in 1922 at the very end of the Russian civil war. The Bolsheviks have risen and they’ve taken over and they’re now in the process of establishing communism. This is not a good time to be wealthy in Russia. Heads are literally rolling.
David: It may be the where we got the phrase heads will roll from, and it’s not a great time to be Russian. They’ve just been through World War I and the civil war. During which much of the Russian countryside and infrastructure has been destroyed. So there’s factories and mines and the farms, and they’re all devastated. Things are looking bad. I have one data point to tell you how bad things are. In 1922, there were 7 million children living on the streets of Russia.
Melissa: I’m just feeling really sad now.
David: Right. That stat is just like —
Melissa: That’s an entire city’s worth.
David: That’s a very, very large cities worth of of kids. So into that setting walks our hero, the Count Alexandra Ilyich Rostov, and at the beginning of the book, he’s on trial. The expected outcome of this trial is his execution because he’s part of the old nobility. But the Count has written a poem about the revolution that makes it clear that he understands and has sympathy for the inequalities that have existed. So instead of killing him, they decided to place him under house arrest. And since his house has already been given to the state, they make him stay where he had been staying, which is a luxury hotel in Red Square called the Hotel Metropol .
David: Now the book is a piece of fiction, but the Hotel Metropol is not, it’s a real hotel. It’s on Red Square. It’s right across the street from the Kremlin. You can go stay there today, if you’d like.
Melissa: You can go to stay there and go on a ‘Gentleman in Moscow package weekend,’ which is now on my wishlist.
David: When I was doing research, I found Bill Gates’ entry on this book, he has blogged about A Gentleman in Moscow and he stayed at the Metropol hotel.
Melissa: There’s a really nice picture of Amor Towles online, sitting at a desk in front of a window at the hotel.
David: So the Count is under house arrest at the Metropole hotel and he’s moved from his lavish suite into a very small attic room, which may have then a storage room. It’s got a window or it may have been just a very, very small hotel room. But that’s where he is and he stays there in that hotel for the next 30 years. That’s the premise. The book has a very strong sense of place. It could not happen anywhere else other than the Hotel Metropol in Russia, and you get a sense of what the hotel was like at different times in its life and how Russian history continues to sort of come in the front door and changes everything and how it affects the characters inside the hotel, usually for the worse.
Melissa: Yeah. There was not a lot of good stuff going on outside the doors of the hotel.
David: No. Tthe writing is beautiful. There are gorgeous bits in this book that I wanted to spoil, but I will not, the ending is also incredibly satisfactory. Towles lands this thing just so hard, just: 10-point landing. BAM!
David: But none of those things are what made the book really memorable for me. Really compelling. But to talk about that, I want to diverge for a second. So I read this book on writing once. It’s called Beating the Story by Robin Laws.
Melissa: Beating… like ‘beating it up’?
David: Figuring out the beats of a story.
Melissa: So the rhythm of the story.
David: Yeah. It’s how to construct it. Robin Laws introduced me to the idea of the iconic hero. The iconic hero is a hero that doesn’t change, but instead changes the world around him. So Superman is an iconic hero, so is Sherlock Holmes, and for the most part, like the cast of Law & Order.
David: They’re doing their thing. They have a code. They have a system of beliefs, and the world changes around them. That is compared to, like, a transformational hero, which is somebody like Luke Skywalker or Frodo or Eleanor Shellstrop, Kristen Bell’s character from The Good Place.
Melissa: Someone who’s going on the hero’s journey.
David: Yes. They change. Yeah. The journey changes them. The Count is an iconic hero and in the wrong hands, he’d be so off-putting.
Melissa: I mean, if you look at his description on paper, actually say this in the write up on our website, based on his description on paper, we shouldn’t like him at all. Yeah. he’s wealthy and privileged.
David: Exactly that. Right? He’s rich. He’s upper-class. He knows all there is to know about wine and music and Russian politics and all of that. But Towles makes the count for me an iconic hero of the spirit. The Count is a good man. He does good things. He changes the world around him for the better. He takes agad situation — barely even recognizes that it’s a bad situation — and he’s already on his way to sort of improving the lives of the people around him. And he does that over and over because he has a code, and he knows who he is. And while he’s doing that, he’s also charming and funny and delightful. But that’s almost beside the point. There’s this core to this hero that, for me, was just great. The hero, the Count really resonates with me and there aren’t that many heroes where I read the book and I think, ‘Man, I wish I knew that guy. I wish he would show up. I wish I could call him and be like, Hey, what should I do about this thing?’
David: And he is absolutely one of those heroes. And I felt like — I mentioned Superman earlier. It kind of felt like when I was eight, I would love to know Superman because he’s big and strong and powerful and can fly and he can do all this stuff. And now that I’m 55, I would love to know the Count because he’s sophisticated and charming and wise and knows what to do and even the worst of situations and how to make the best of it. And that’s why I love this book so much. That’s _A Gentleman in Moscow by Amore Towles.
Melissa: My last book is Deathless by Catherine M. Valente. I really wanted to find a novel that included Russian folklore, and this book delivered in spades. It’s so good. It’s so much fun. And it’s kind dark. So this is a retelling of the tales of Koschei the deathless, who is a figure in Russian folklore.
David: That’s a great name.
Melissa: In the traditional stories, he is a powerful man who cannot be killed because he hides his soul inside objects to protect it. And this is a very complicated mechanism. For example, he could hide his soul inside of a needle, which is inside an egg, which is inside a duck that can fly away if anyone tries to get it.
Melissa: Yeah, very powerful. And he often woos innocent young women and then destroys them.
David: Emotionally or physically?
Melissa: Both. But depending on the tale, the version of the story that you’re hearing, he has different physical characteristics. So he might ride a horse that has three or seven legs. So if you see a horse coming that only has three or seven legs, heads up.
David: I mean the seven would be a giveaway.
Melissa: That’d be super creepy. Sometimes he has tusks or fangs. In this story, he’s very handsome and seductive and he knows just what to say to win over the heroine, whose name is Marya. So she is a young girl who is longing for romance. And one by one, she watches her older sisters fall in love and get married. One day, a black bird turns into a man and comes up to the door and starts to woo her. And she trades everything she knows —
David: Does she see the black bird turn into a man?
Melissa: She does.
David: And she’s, like, ‘Sounds good. Let’s do this’?
Melissa: Because she’s seen her sisters’ suitors. Birds fly up, they turn into a handsome man, and then they come and take away the girl.
Melissa: So she wanted that too.
Speaker 1: So she trades everything she knows for a chance at romance with Koschei. And things get super dramatic really quickly. What I love about this story is that it’s a fairy tale and it’s, like, very over-the-op with romance and melodrama that makes fairy tales fairy tales, right? They’re larger-than-life. But the author does a really, really cool thing, and she sets all of the action of this book against the real history of 20th century Russia. So she’s taking elements from the fairy tale and kind of drawing parallels to Russian history and connecting them to the real world history.
David: Is it written fantastically or —
Melissa: Yes, it definitely has the tone and language of a fairy tale. So we get the Russian revolution and Stalinism and we see what happens to Marya during the siege of Leningrad, which we already talked about a little bit. We see the rise of modern communism and through the whole thing, Mario is traveling back and forth between Koschei’s fantastical world and the reality of Russia and the mechanisms for how the author makes that work: fantastic. I’m not going to give it away, but it all hangs together really beautifully. It’s very readable. It’s very easy to know where you are in time and place. It’s amazing, and even though we’re getting all of this real-world Russian history, there is a very heavy dose of magic dust sprinkled over everything.
Melissa: In Koschei’s world, there are seven aspects of reality that are ruled over by Tsars and Tsarinas. The aspects of reality are life and death. Those makes sense. Obviously. Water, salt, night, birds, and the length of an hour.
Melissa: Yeah, so, like, there’s a Tsarina who’s in charge of the length of an hour. And all of these things become really important to the story.
David: The actual length of an hour or the perceived length of an hour?
Melissa: You have to read the book, Dave.
David: So this fits in with the definition of magical realism that we talked about in our Mexico episode.
Melissa: It does! The magic is just part of the world. No one is really raising their eyebrows at the unusual things that are happening. This is just the kind of fantasy that really works for me, which is a heavy dose of magic dust and very strong connections to the real world. Because I really like to pretend that there is a magical underneath to our everyday lives.
Melissa: This book is also really beautifully written. Parts of it are almost like poetry, and it can be very whimsical and playful and then boom! Your heart just breaks into a bunch of bits. It’s really, really well done. There are also some really amazing food descriptions. Marya is very hungry because they don’t have a lot of food, particularly during the siege of Leningrad. And there are times when she’s confronted with huge tables laden with amazing food, so that part is really fun. And there’s some sexy bits. There’s nothing too over-the-top or graphic, but there’s some sexy stuff going on.
Melissa: I listened to this on audio. It’s narrated by an actress named Kim de Blecourt. It was fantastic on audio because of all the Russian names and her accents and the voices that she gives to the supernational creatures. So if you enjoy audiobooks, this is a great way to consume this book. It really came to life.
David: Why don’t we listen to a little bit of that?
[clip of audiobook]
Melissa: This book is an emotional and really engaged my imagination, and it is Deathless by Catherine M. Valente.
David: Those are five books we love set in Russia. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you tell us about the blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: Yes. So even though we aren’t covering Russian literature in this podcast, we have a brief introduction to Alexander Pushkin’s work and some stunning photos of the cafe Pushkin in Moscow and a literary cafe in St. Petersburg that are both dedicated to Pushkin. We’ve got a simple delicious recipe for Russian appetizers to nibble on while you read all of your favorite books set in Russia. So knock yourself up a plate of goodies. Set up a little vodka and break up into your favorite Russian book.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. For more on Russia, including the books we discussed today, more book recommendations, and literary landmarks, visit our website at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: Be sure to sign up for a free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book- and travel-related things and please follow us on Instagram for photos, illustrations, short book reviews, and other things we love. We are @strongsenseof.
David: If you sign up for a newsletter, you get the Reading Atlas.
Melissa: Our Reading Atlas. It’s got 14 books to take you around the world, audio books with a strong sense of place, and book series with a strong sense of place. Plus so many amazing travel photos.
David: If you like the podcast, it would mean a lot to us if he could tell a friend, if you have a friend who reads, let them know about us. That would really help us out. Another thing you could do is go to Apple podcast and leave a review. That helps other people find us. Thank you for doing that. Mel, what are we covering in our next show?
Melissa: We’re heading to the windy city of Chicago.
David: Ah, we’ll talk to you then.
Top image courtesy of Wei Pan.
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