Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett


A lot of historical novels have been written about the Russian Revolution, and a lot of historical novels have been written about Jews fleeing pogroms in the Russian Empire … so it’s rather nice to find one that’s a bit different. It isn’t the best-written book I’ve ever read – too many split infinitives, too many sentences beginning with conjunctions and far too much use of the second person instead of the third person! – but it certainly makes interesting reading.

The fictional characters freely intermingle with real people – Rasputin (presented, unusually, in a very positive light), Maxim Gorky, Anna Akhmatova, Felix Yussupov, Carl Fabergé – and, strangely, one of the main characters is the author’s great-great-uncle, although she gives him a different life from the one he really had. Also, the author makes the point which so, so few people do or get – that the pogroms didn’t take place in Russian proper. Everyone thinks that Fiddler on the Roof is set in Russia proper. It isn’t. It’s set in Ukraine. Maisie Mosco talks away about persecution in Russia, when the city she’s referring to is actually in Latvia. The “famous” pogroms, the worst of them, were in Kiev/Kyiv (Ukraine), Odes(s)a (Ukraine), Bialystok (Poland) and Chisinau (Moldova). Not Russia – and not Lithuania either. I thought at first that St Petersburg was an odd choice of location for a book about a member of the Bund, that Odes(s)a or Vilnius would have been more logical, but it worked well precisely because things were so much calmer in Russia proper.

Our heroine, instead of fleeing to New York or Manchester or Leeds or wherever, ends up in St Petersburg, staying with her distant cousin, and he’s the one who’s a member of the Bund. The brave, politically aware members of the Bund and, ironically given how much they were talked about in Russia. the Jewish Bolsheviks are usually overlooked in English language novels, because they don’t fit the image of the persecuted “Russian” Jew being reborn amid the American Dream. She becomes involved both with him and with an Englishman, the character who was actually the author’s great-great-uncle, and with a rather bohemian circle in St Petersburg. Revolution breaks out … and then she does do the standard thing and leave, but it takes her a long time to get there.

A lot of different threads run though the book, and I’m not sure that all of them were as developed as fully as they could have been: maybe the author tried to do too much. However, it’s well worth reading, and it’s good to see a slightly different take on some very familiar themes.

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