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Novel of Russia Rushes Through 1,800 Years

'RUSSKA," a 760-page historical novel of Russia, is a stunning achievement. Whether it's a stunning achievement you will want to read, though, is another matter.The problem with "Russka" the book is like the problem with Russia the country: Its very vastness is both blessing and curse. The novel is filled with both fiction and history, but although the scope of each is huge, the reader ends up feeling as if there isn't enough of either to satisfy the curiosity Edward Rutherfurd creates. This is a compliment to his talents, but it makes for unintentional frustration. Rutherfurd is a talented storyteller, so he pulls us into each set of characters. But once we're settled in, say, to the year 1239 and the problems of young Yanka facing the invading Mongols, then all too soon it's the 1500s and time for torture with Ivan the Terrible. It's understandably hard to spend too much time in one place when you have 1,800 years of history to cover. The author usually does tell us what becomes of major characters (characters in later chapters are descendants of those in earlier ones), but after a while, interest sags as you realize you'll be into another century with another cast of characters soon. Rutherfurd (who gave England the same treatment in his earlier novel "Sarum") tells the story of Russia from practically its zygote stage through the present. To accomplish this overwhelming task, he tells the story through the events of several families, some common, some noble. As the families move (evolve?) through the centuries, they witness, cause, and are affected by events ranging from the arrival of the Alan horsemen in AD 180, to the meeting of two computer experts in 1990. Centuries of families are born, live, die, and meet their fates in a village called Russka. "For as the Slavs knew well, some of the greatest of the Alans had described themselves, in their Iranian tongue, as Rus - meaning 'light,' or 'shining. Rus they called the river; and the hamlet beside it they called, similarly, Russka." The peasants work the land; the nobles own it. As revolts and revolutions happen over the centuries, power - both personal and political - shifts constantly between them. All major people and events of Russian history are depicted here, among them the Tatars, the Mongols, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, the weak or strong czars, Rasputin, Lenin; the emergence of St. Petersburg and Moscow; the terror of the secret police through the centuries. The book stops in 1938. There is only the briefest mention of World War II, a few paragraphs labeled "1945," and an epilogue set in 1990, featuring an exchange between two computer experts (a nice, and believable, touch). Less famous people play out their lives - filled with births, love, marriages, betrayal, incest, madness, greed - against these more familiar backdrops. Naturally, it's these stories that seem the most interesting. (Why does the realization "they're just like us!" seem to amaze and reassure us so in history?) Rutherfurd realizes that making history more personal also makes it more memorable. And, of course, assuming a role of importance is the land - the vast stretches of steppe and forest that seemed literally unending to the peasants. Much of Russia's history was determined by its geography. Rutherfurd tells us: No one ever knew what anyone else was doing. Distances were too great. By the time news of one revolt (or tax reform or ...) reached the people of Russka, another was already in motion elsewhere. Although at the end of the book there is a discussion hinting at changes to come ("We shall do it. We shall rebuild Russia, you know.") there is, of course, no mention of the events the world has so recently witnessed. With Russia so much in the headlines these days, reading "Russka" does provide a sweeping overview of the land whose very vastness and complexity make it overwhelming and fascinating.

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