Book review: The White Russian by Vanora Bennett

When White Russian anti-Communist forces were driven out by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution, nearly 200,000 of them fled to Paris where they took up an uneasy residence.

Monday, 9th June 2014, 10:00 am
The White Russian by Vanora Bennett
The White Russian by Vanora Bennett

Twenty years later, the restless, stateless Russian community was still plotting to overthrow the deeply entrenched Soviet government and return in triumph to their never-forgotten homeland.

A sense of loss and resentment festered amongst the older émigrés, many of them ex-officers who had fought against the Reds, while Moscow’s ruthless secret agents infiltrated and sabotaged White Russian organisations at every possible opportunity, making plots, kidnappings and even assassinations a grim reality.

But for a new generation of émigrés, sons and daughters of the disaffected Whites, Russia was an unknown country and, torn by divided loyalties, many felt yoked to their parents’ past lives and impossible dreams.

Then in 1937, as a second war against Germany seemed inevitable, the possibilities of new alliances and collaborations provided the White Russians with fresh hope that they might yet oust the Reds forever.

Vanora Bennett, an author steeped in the history and language of Russia, has always been fascinated by the shifting, duplicitous ‘world-within-a-world’ of these desperate exiles and set about writing a novel depicting their ‘sheer cussedness.’

The result is The White Russian, a soul-searching tale of love, passion, family secrets, conspiracy and deadly danger which captures perfectly the lost world of the wistful, wilful émigrés and the frustrating vacuum of a new generation marooned between past and present.

Blending fiction with a small cast of real-life characters and events connected to the White Russian All-Military Union (ROVS), Bennett recreates a closed, claustrophobic expatriate society fuelled by conspiracies, suspicion and double-dealing.

Evie Vanderhorst has always had a difficult relationship with her distant, defensive mother so when she starts receiving gifts from her estranged grandmother, the mysterious Countess Constance Sabline who lives in Paris, the rebellious 20-year-old leaves New York to seek her out.

But Constance, whose American family ‘tried to write her out of their story,’ suffers a devastating stroke hours before Evie arrives and only has time to scribble down a few words for her granddaughter before dying at her Paris apartment.

Constance, who was married twice and spent many years in pre-revolutionary Russia, wants Evie to find a man from her past called ‘Zhenya.’

Evie’s search leads her to her grandmother’s ground floor apartment where General Yevgeny Miller, leader of the ROVS, spends his days vainly plotting the overthrow of Communism rather like ‘a person with absolutely no ear for music trying to be a violinist.’

He needs constant security protection from Red agents who have already assassinated his predecessors, and chief amongst his guards is his son Jean, an aspiring young writer who feels increasingly remote from his Russian roots but is bound by ‘blood and family, duty and honour.’

Miller, whose past seems somehow linked to Constance, has a perilous new scheme in hand which will involve his shadowy ROVS intelligence officer Nikolai Skoblin and his wife, the gypsy singer Nadya Plevitskaya, a one-time Russian court favourite known as the Tsar’s Nightingale.

Increasingly drawn to Jean, Evie discovers in him the love and excitement she has yearned for but the world is on the brink of war, Russian feuds are escalating and the two of them become caught up in murder plots, conspiracies and betrayals.

And even as Evie and Jean – increasingly eager to forge a new future – finally begin to make sense of the past, the present explodes into terrifying action…

Bennett’s fiction always reflects her painstaking research and passion for history as well as offering intelligent, insightful explorations of how the past shapes our present.

The White Russian, a slow-burning, atmospheric mystery with an illicit romance at its heart, charts a carefully constructed course between the machinations of Russia’s warring factions and the more reflective dual narratives of Evie and Jean.

In a city which sees thousands of restive exiles ‘hugging secret sorrows to their heart,’ Miller, Skoblin and the billowing, blowsy Nadya embody the old guard, ‘clinging on tightly to their memories’ and dreaming of a future that can never happen.

Ranged behind and alongside them are ruthless, border-hopping enemies, exasperated Parisians fast running out of patience with their disaffected neighbours and a new generation tired of living with ‘ghosts.’

With its superb characterisation, enigmatic storyline and gripping dénouement, The White Russian is a dark and fascinating slice of little-known history.

(Century, hardback, £18.99)