28 Nov Small Acts of Kindness by Jennifer Antill
Intrigue and romance in the Russian Revolution of 1825
When I think of the Russian revolution, I think of 1917 and 1918, of Communism, and of Trotsky and Lenin.
But of course there was another revolution against the Tsars nearly a hundred years before, when idealistic Russians of all classes were beginning to realise that an empire built on serfdom, ruled over by often cruel and distant autocrats wasn’t fit for purpose in this more enlightened age.
Jennifer Antill’s story takes us back to that time, to 1825, introducing us to Vasily Belkin, a twenty year old aristocratic Russian returning to St Petersburg from a European tour.
He’s an object of interest to two shady characters, Colonel Pavel Kalinin and Count Fedulov, both government ministers who see the fresh-faced young man as someone they can use to their own ends.
But Vasily is nobody’s fool. At first he settles back into his easy life as the protégé of his uncle’s powerful friend, a Russian prince, but then he becomes closer to army officer Mikhail Stenovsky, who has seen at first hand the exploitations of the serfs and is part of a revolutionary movement hoping to overthrow the Tsar.
Vasily begins to notice the plight of the serfs himself – especially when young kitchen boy Matyev comes to his attention. He takes the uneducated, neglected lad under his wing, despite the protestations of his uncle and the prince.
And he witnesses at first hand the horrific beating of an innocent workman by the Tsar’s men, which hardens his resolution to help right society’s wrongs.
Romantic as well as idealistic, Vasily then falls in love with Count Kalinin’s sister Irina, a married woman who is separated from her cruel husband.
Can there be any future for them? It seems not, when Vasily is caught up in the events of the failed Decembrist revolution against the Tsar and sent back to the family’s country estate.
From there, he must pick up the pieces of his life – can he find a way to be true to his ideals, and to his heart?
It took me a few chapters to get into this story, not least because of the plethora of Russian names! There’s a reason War and Peace editions are often accompanied by a bookmark listing characters’ different names. Not only are they difficult to pronounce, each character is often referred to by different names, including titles and nicknames and it is hard to keep track.
I have to confess I found that the case with the opening few chapters of this story, where we’re introduced to so many different people, each with their own often obfuscated agenda.
But it is worth persevering as the characters do quickly fall into place, and I was soon caught up in Vasily’s story. At first he seems a shallow young man, ruled by his love of the ladies and his desire to continue dabbling in art rather than settle down to any meaningful career.
But he quickly develops into a sympathetic and worthy character, a strong and loyal friend, and a passionate lover, true to his beliefs and willing to follow them in face of society’s disapproval.
This is a beautifully researched book. Vasily’s story offers a real insight into life in early nineteenth century Russia, for aristocrats, the middle classes and serfs alike. It takes us from the city of St Petersburg to the country estates to the outlying provinces, with even a glimpse of the conditions in Siberia for the unfortunate people sent there.
Each setting comes to life with descriptive portrayals of sumptuous palaces, ice-covered country roads and serfs’ small cottages. The author has a good eye for detail, and I really felt I’d stepped into a past Russian life.
Without ever labouring the theme, the story also keeps the reader’s attention firmly on the “scourge of serfdom” seen through the eyes of Vasily, Matyev and characters like Boris, a talented artist forced to wait on tables by his uncaring owners.
I do think the book was overlong and, for me, the linear narrative dragged in places, but nevertheless this was a satisfying read, that definitely piqued my interest in Russian history.
Small Acts of Kindness is published by Universe in paperback
About the Author
Jennifer Antill studied Russian Language, Literature and Politics, at UCL SSEES, and has travelled widely in the country, often living with Russian families. She gives talks on Russian cultural topics to a wide variety of organisations. In a former life she worked in the City of London as an Investment Analyst and for eleven years served as a local councillor. Jennifer is married to Nick, has two sons and lives in Suffolk.