'Russka' gives reader a feel for Russia pTC

September 22, 1991|By Helene Lorber | Helene Lorber,Knight-Ridder News Service

RUSSKA: THE NOVEL

OF RUSSIA.

Edward Rutherfurd.

Crown.

760 pages. $25. What timing! No sooner do the review copies of "Russka: The Novel of Russia" arrive than there's a coup in the Soviet Union. A few days later there isn't a coup anymore, and now it's looking like there's barely a union. Novelists can't be expected to keep up with history, but recent events would have made a dandy last chapter for Edward Rutherfurd, who didn't have to contend with such volatile politics in "Sarum," his 1987 best seller.

But the author is more likely to rejoice than complain. For "Russka," which does cover glasnost very nicely, is a dandy way to get a feel for the region so much in the news, as many thousands no doubt will.

Like "Sarum," the new novel is James Michener-esque -- the protagonist is the location, upon which events unfold over many years. "Russka" begins in A.D. 180, with a depiction of a harvest on the steppes, a harvest whose methods and traditions are already centuries old.

Themes that repeat themselves throughout the book are established early -- the hard, short life of the peasants, who even among themselves inflict petty cruelties; the superstitions and the fear of real invaders who come galloping over the steppe from the east, and later, marching from the west; and the land itself: its vastness, its harshness and the impossibility for most people to own any of it.

Unlike "Sarum," which was concentrated in a very specific spot -- Salisbury, England -- Russian history made it necessary for Mr. Rutherfurd to go farther afield this time. The village of Russka in the early part of the book is located in the Ukraine, perfect for an emphasis on agriculture and the Orthodox church. When the focus shifts to politics, a new Russka is founded, closer to the action in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

As in most books of this sweep, characterizations can often be spotty. No sooner do we get to know a character than death intervenes. But many portraits are memorable, particularly those Ivanushka, the black sheep of a noble family of the 11th century; Yanka, a peasant woman who battles the Tatars; the Suvorin family, who rise from wretched serfdom to vast wealth and prominence, and Popov, the ruthless, scheming Bolshevik.

Fascinating, too, are the depictions of historical figures: Ivan, whom Rutherfurd paints as truly terrible; Lenin, and Alexander Nevsky, whose duplicity here is a far cry from the noble figure of my other pop culture source of Nevskiana, the Sergei Eisenstein films.

Missing is enough attention to the Soviet Union in World War II -- what drama could be found there! -- and the feeling that, yes, Rutherfurd has and has conveyed a true understanding of the Russian character. But perhaps that character, like the land, is too vast and varied to comprehend.

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