Title: The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers
Author: Kerri Turner
Published: January 21st 2019
Publisher: HQ Fiction – AU
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4 stars
Petrograd, 1914. A country on a knife edge. The story of two people caught in the middle – with everything to lose… A stunning debut from a talented new Australian voice in historical fiction.
Valentina Yershova’s position in the Romanovs’ Imperial Russian Ballet is the only thing that keeps her from the clutches of poverty. With implacable determination, she has clawed her way through the ranks, relying not only on her talent but her alliances with influential men that grant them her body, but never her heart. Then Luka Zhirkov – the gifted son of a factory worker – joins the company, and suddenly everything she has built is put at risk.
For Luka, being accepted into the company fulfils a lifelong dream. But in the eyes of his proletariat father, it makes him a traitor. As civil war tightens its grip and the country starves, Luka is torn between his growing connection to Valentina and his guilt for their lavish way of life.
For the Imperial Russian Ballet has become the ultimate symbol of Romanov indulgence, and soon the lovers are forced to choose: their country, their art or each other…
A powerful novel of revolution, passion and just how much two people will sacrifice…
Ballet, Russia, revolution and a tragic love story defines the debut novel by Australian author Kerri Turner. With aspirations of becoming a ballerina and earning an Associate Degree in dance, Kerri Turner has channelled her passion for both ballet and historical fiction into her novel, The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers. This is a grand story, with history and romance both competing for your undivided attention.
The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers begins in a time of great change. The revolution and the war have come to Petrograd, but for two dancers of the Imperial Russian Ballet, it is business as usual. One of the company’s most revered dancers, Valentina Yershova, maintains her lucrative position in the ballet due to her talent and her benefactor. She is only a stone’s throw away from poverty. She has given her whole life to her career, and this includes her heart too. But when a young and talented male dancer, Luka Zhirkov, also from the same working class background as Valentina vows to love her completely, both their lives are put at risk. Luka has his own personal battles, his father does not have any faith in Luka’s career in the Imperial Russian Ballet. He would rather Luka follow in the footsteps of his brother, a soldier fighting on the front for his country. As the war continues to take its casualties, Luka’s must grapple with his guilt of not doing his part, along with his love for his art and Valentina. The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers is a tribute to revolutionary Russia, the last days of royal rule and the majestic art of ballet.
I consider myself to be a big fan of Russian historical fiction. My fascinating for Russian history peaked during the time where I immersed myself in the Bronze Horseman series by Paullina Simons (which is still my all time favourite set of books) back in 1998. This series has stayed with me many years later and I am constantly on the lookout for books that are able to capture the same time period and depth of feelings evoked by the great Tatiana and Alexander. When I cast my mind back, I have also had a long-standing personal fascination for anything Romanov related since my mother told me the sad story of the fate of Anastasia, her royal sisters and the Tsar and Tsarina as a 13 year old girl. Since my teens, I have continued to search for more literature around this time period and these royal figures. I am sure you get the impression that when I first set eyes on a copy of The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers I did a quite a book happy dance! I was keen to delve into the pages of this book as soon as I could.
Promising to be a historical fiction novel about the revolution, passion, art, sacrifice, country and love, I soon settled into Kerri Turner’s debut. Time and place stood still. I completely surrendered myself to the world Kerri Turner carefully recreated. Her research cannot be disputed. It is thorough and vivid, balancing key events and figures, all within an involving narrative.
I can’t say that I was too surprised to learn that the author, Kerri Turner, trained to be a ballerina from a young age. Turner’s passion for the art and her understanding of the techniques involved, the brilliant costumes, the feelings associated with performing, as well as the pressures on dancers was all captured perfectly. She extends this to her leads, Valentina and Luka, but also the other dancers in the company. I developed a particular fascination for Mathilde Kschessinska, a real life figure in the world of Russian ballet at the time. It actually enticed me to seek out more information and perhaps more literature on this figure.
Turner’s background in ballet and the research she has committed to bringing to the pages of her novel helped me to understand a little more about the art of ballet and systems that were in place in Petrograd during the revolution. I did not realise that there was an official Imperial Ballet and I wasn’t aware of the influence of the royal family over this company. I also learnt of Rasputin’s (a personal figure of fascination to me) mark on the company. Through The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, I was drawn to the prominence of the Ballets Ruses and what securing a place in this company meant to a professional dancer.
Turner does an excellent job of painting a picture of the Russian revolution, the political tensions and the spectacular downfall of the Romanov dynasty. Although I have read about Russia before during these times, I found Turner’s depiction of this time to be insightful. She drew my attention to the stark contrast in wealth and class. The opulence that was a life for many and the utter despair for those of the working class.
‘The building where his father lived was indistinguishable from those around it. On the stairs, Luka had to step over children with bare feet. He could smell their dirty hair, skin and clothes, and held his breath as though that might prevent him from catching germs.’
What was most interesting about this aspect was the role in the benefactors and their influence over the lives of top level ballerinas. Valentina’s life would not be as comfortable financially if she did not have the support of her protector. It comes at a price though, which we learn through Valentina’s experiences. Valentina is forever a slave to her protector. Her heart cannot be taken by another, only her benefactor. This is where her troubles begin.
“I wasn’t talking about just any kind of man, Luka Vladimirovich. I was talking about protectors-you know, men who bestow money and gifts, and influence the rankings within the company in return for exclusive use of a dancer’s body and bed. Like Victor Dandre did for Anna Pavlova, or Diaghilev for Nijinksy. You didn’t think they became so famous based on talent alone, did you?”.
I definitely gave my all to Luka and Valentina. I wanted all the feels from their grand love story. I did feel my heart beat in places for them, but ultimately not as much as I had hoped. Turner works hard at her romance, pulling out all the stops and complications. It is definitely risqué and tragic.
‘There was a pause, then Valya’s hands were around the back of his neck and her mouth against his. The warmth of her lips, the sweetness of her breath, was so familiar, and Luka tried to pull her closer even though they were already pressed together. The two of them stood enter twinned, silent and trembling, unable to tell any longer where one of them stopped and the other began.’
I came to the realisation that The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers was much more than a tragic love story, rather, it is Luka’s journey. His love for Valentina and the experiences that arise for him, allows Luka to grow as a dancer and as a man. It widens his perspective, it makes him stronger and this clarity eventually allows him to fulfil his potential. I very much connected to Luka’s parting moments in the novel, it was poignant and perfectly realised.
The characters are rendered well, the setting perfectly realised, the ballet world brought to life and the narrative is tragic. The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers will be sure to leave a stain on your mind. With plenty to keep ballet lovers on their toes, romance readers enthralled and history lovers occupied, The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers allows the reader to take an unforgettable step back in time.
The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers by Kerri Turner was published on 21st January 2019 by HQ Fiction – AU. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, Kerri Turner, here.
*I wish to thank HQ Fiction – AU for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers is book #20 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge