“ Here we are in our poor Russia, a country like a boiler, with the pressure mounting, about to blow, and no safety valve. “
Published in 2013, ‘Midnight in St Petersburg’ by Vanora Bennett follows the life of a young, Jewish Inna as she flees the anti-semitic culture of Southern Russia in Kiev, to the freedoms she hopes Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg will bring her. Through the novel, we see the way her life develops as Russia does also; how things change with the abdication of the Tsar, the Provisional Government’s changes, the Bolshevik takeover and the Civil War. An insight is given into the life of a Russian citizen in these times, as well as the additional hardships Jews and foreigners (known as the ‘enemy class’) experienced also. Thus, despite serving as fiction, realities are integrated into the storyline, merely emphasising the emotion the characters lives can cause.
The story starts off in the Winter of 1911; Stolypin, the Prime Minister, was assassinated in a theatre, and when a consequence of this is propaganda being produced blaming Jews for such an act, Inna steals a passport and flees North, hoping to escape a pogrom. She goes to Yasha -- the son of the family who fostered her after the death of her Aunty Lubya (caused by influenza), who she stayed with after the death of her parents (caused by an anti-Jewish hate crime). Yasha lives with the Lemans, who take an instant liking to Inna: Madame Leman appreciating her hard work around the house, and the men of the house enthralled by both her beauty and musical talent. Also charmed by Inna is an English jeweller, eager for Inna to play the violin for his Bohemian friends and even fellow classicists. Despite the disadvantages we see Inna put at in the first part of the novel -- the Jewish slurs yelled at her on her train journey, her desperate attempt to cut herself a new lifeline on the palm of her hands, not being allowed to leave the house due to her papers being illegal, and eventually having Yasha (whom she fell in love with) run away to join the revolution he loves -- the year of 1911 was certainly easier on her than the years to come. The beginning section of the story ends with Inna agreeing to marry Horace Wallick, the Englishman, after he so carefully courts her, and protects her from the malicious acts of policemen seeking out Jews to blame for their troubles.
The second part of the text is set between the years of 1916 and 1917, continuing at a time where Russia had been at war with Austria and Germany for two years. Now married, Horace and Inna discuss someone whom they once bonded other: Father Grigory, now known infamously as Rasputin. Inna, despite the stories she hears of him being a drunk who actively participates in orgies, remembers the man before he lost his innocent: when he was the peasant who helped her find her way in St Petersburg without being stopped at the train station by gendermes. Therefore, when Felix Youssoupoff -- the Prince who commissioned Horace for paintings and gifts throughout the years -- and his friends assassinate Rasputin in an attempt to save the Tasarina (who is now running the country) and her reputation, Inna feels betrayed, for Horace still takes Youssoupouff’s money. As revolution begins in February, things between Inna and Horace only become more estranged, as Inna reunites with Yasha on the day the soldiers joined in on the riots in the bread queues. Yasha tells her that he was in prison the whole time for they found illegal revolutionary papers on him -- that he never wanted to leave her. The two start an illustrious affair, ending only when Yasha begs Inna to leave Horace -- something she cannot do in fear of hurting him, and losing the security she has in their lives together. Yasha decides to move closer to the Soviets, hoping that now the Tsar had abdicated, the closer proximity will bring him closer still to revolution. He is right when he sees Lenin return one day, becoming intrigued by the Bolshevik rise to power, joining the party as he has always wanted to do. The Lemans, however, are less impressed with the new regime of government, for they lost work once the Bolsheviks began to requisition items both at the jewellers and the violin workshop. Yasha realises he has become an outsider when away from his comrades, and departs from the Lemans -- and Inna -- for good.
In part three of the novel, the year is 1918, and Civil War in Russia between the Reds and the Whites is fast approaching. Inna finds herself hating new life in Russia, from the brutal acts of the Cheka and the mob attacks on foreigners. She fears Horace isn’t safe, but when she asks for them to leave, he is unwilling -- unwilling to leave the artistic and cultural Russia he found a home in, to return to the dull England he dreads. Even when a letter arrives from Youssoupoff, saying he will help them if they come to him in Yalta (a place in Crimea dominated by the Whites), Horace decides there is no need to flee. It isn’t until February 1919 when Inna sees Yasha again -- at a meeting, sitting talking to a known Cheka officer. He tells her afterwards that he was forced into the job: that, because he was once a Bundist, they would arrest him if he refused (and no one refused the Cheka). The two share one night together, before Inna returns home. A few nights later, Inna’s fears realised themselves when Bolsheviks showed up to requisition their apartment and, upon noticing Horace’s foreign origins, ambushed him. With an injured foot and a fear of causing more upset to the Lemans, he finally agrees that the journey to Yalta is one he and Inna must make. The journey was long -- made longer by the way the pair tactfully avoided places where the war was at its peak -- and when finally close, Inna makes a discovery whilst Horace lies sick in bed (an illness brought on by the infection in the wound caused by the attack the night they chose to leave): her period is late, the days coinciding with her last night with Yasha, and thus she came to the conclusion that she’s pregnant. The discovery came at the same time Yasha himself arrived, asking Inna to go with him to America so he can help a trade union after they dropped Horace off at an English boat. Inna finds herself yet again choosing between two men she loves, though as the finally reach Yalta and the boats which will take them away from Russia for good, something else makes her decision for her: knowing she is pregnant with his child, Yasha makes the sacrifice of his life to allow Inna to safely board the boat with Horace, rather than be requisitioned and attacked by Reds that interrupted their journey. The novel ends with Inna and Horace on the deck of the boat, the glistening sea reminding Inna of the words Father Grigory once spoke to her before he lost his innocence, finding closure in the loss of Yasha knowing she was carrying a part of him in her child, and starting a new life as she watched her last Russian sunset.
Following the story with a pre-knowledge of the historical events happening in the background played a part in amplifying the great emotions provoked by the work: the realisation of the identity of the peasant man with the entrancing eyes who slowly transformed into something else; recognising the name ‘Youssoupoff’ even before he became integral to the story; having an ironic knowing that the people in the story shouldn’t be pleased with the abdication of the Tsar when another revolution and war was just around the corner. Having the characters, whose stories were evolved and discovered so intrinsically, experience the tumult of events alongside the reader, also, merely emphasised what the author was trying to display: the life in Russia for minorities and majorities alike; the similarities in everyone’s hardship and the way people can change.
However, what I enjoyed most about ‘Midnight in St Petersburg’ was the constant presence of violins in the story -- from Inna playing it herself (separated duets with Yasha at night or nervous performances in Bohemian bars) or making her own (rough, nervous pieces made with Monsieur Leman before grief broke him during the first world war, to the final Stradivarius masterpiece she helped to repair: her final work with Yasha other than their child). The way the characters treated the fiddles -- Yasha loving how the wood would forgive your mistakes and allow you to recarve the future, Horace loving how they could pave an artistic future for his wife whilst also bringing her happiness, Marcus Leman loving how he could take pride in continuing his father’s work for him, and Youssoupoff ruining his collection as a child to use in duels with his brother -- show the deepest part of their characters, and the motif of music and instruments in the novel is perhaps the most constant in the story at all.
When Inna begins to think of playing the violin again at the end of the novel, despite not having done so since Yasha first left in 1911, the reader is delivered closure too.
“ ‘I was cutting myself a better lifeline’, she said. “
“ Feeling the deadwood melt away as the curves of its true shape emerged..he brought the future into existence. “
“ These would be the sides of her violin one day -- or, in luthier’s talk, the ribs, because violins were little human bodies in the making.