As I write this post, Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified aggression against its neighbor Ukraine has entered its second year. With President Vladimir Putin apparently set on turning the country he leads into an international pariah, it is simultaneously dispiriting to recall and difficult to believe that just over thirty years ago, the Soviet Union dissolved into its constituent republics—the very agreement that Putin seeks to overturn, although at the time it sparked great joy and hope.
Thus it seems fitting that Kristen Loesch, the author of The Last Russian Doll, begins her debut novel in that period of celebration but quickly reverts to the Soviet experiment that preceded it, deftly intertwining the two threads as they build to a dramatic conclusion. I would have loved to chat with her for the New Books Network, but an overcrowded schedule made that impossible, so read on to find out more.
In the current climate, it’s hard to remember the optimism sparked by the changes that Russia underwent in 1991. What made you decide to set your story there and to contrast it with the preceding century?
It may have all started when a friend of mine showed me her handwritten correspondence with someone she knew who was living in Moscow in 1991. The sense of destiny, of inevitability, in those letters was wondrous to behold. This was around the time I had completed a YA thriller set in contemporary Moscow, a manuscript that wasn’t in any way fit for publication. I’d already been toying with the idea of pivoting to a historical novel—I studied history with a focus on Russia and Eastern Europe for my undergraduate degree, and in my postgraduate work I looked at civil society in post-Soviet Russia. Profoundly moved by those letters, I decided to pluck the main character out of that present-day YA thriller and place her in 1991 Moscow instead. Needless to say, she became very different by the end of that process (she is Rosie, and more on her below!).
As for choosing revolutionary Russia (and the ensuing decades) for the second narrative, I think whenever you examine the end of an era, it’s always illuminating to look at its genesis as well. It’s like holding up a mirror: Much of the optimism, as you say, for true political change, for an overhaul of society, for the disruption of the status quo, also existed in 1917. And I think I liked the idea of the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the collapse of the USSR acting as bookends. In between these two major events, of course, is a unique and devastating period of Russian history, the lessons of which should never be forgotten; that is where the majority of the novel takes place.
You have two heroines and two heroes, one each for past and present. Tell us what we need to know about Rosie at the beginning of the novel.
At the outset of the story, Rosie is in incredible pain, and she is in denial of it. She’s a workaholic who keeps herself busy, keeps herself distracted, to avoid feeling that pain, confronting uncomfortable truths, and engaging with her trauma overall. She maligns her mother for always turning to fairy tales, but Rosie tells herself her own stories about her life and her future as a coping mechanism. To Rosie, her mother is a prime example of how pain can overwhelm a person, can drag them under, and on some level Rosie is terrified that that will happen to her.
You could say that she’s someone who’s very out of touch with her true self, with her desires, with her deeper emotions, and that’s by design. Having become what her father (whom she idealizes) wanted her to be, Rosie’s real quest is not only to understand her family, to grapple with the past, or even to heal her wounds, but also to discover who she wants to be.
And who is Antonina? What is most vital to know about her?
First of all, Antonina was named after Tonya in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago! (I always liked Pasternak’s Tonya; I feel she gets the short end of the stick.)
Tonya is, at the beginning of The Last Russian Doll, somebody who has no idea of her own strength. As a privileged young bride, she starts out innocent and a bit dreamy, sort of mournfully drifting through life without much agency or ambition. Until she meets Valentin, the greatest passion she ever feels for anything is for poetry, long walks, and reminiscing about her childhood home. In a way, she seems like a “doll” both inside and out. But Tonya is, as we learn throughout the novel, capable of so much more than she appears to be on the surface. Her challenges are incredible, but so is she.
Rosie’s counterpart is Lev, although she also has a boyfriend in London. Antonina’s is Valentin, and she initially has a husband. How would you characterize these male characters of yours?
Lev, as a member of the military in 1991, is the embodiment of many of the tensions that existed in Russia at that time. I think on the one hand, he’s been brought up to fear change; but on the other hand, deep down, he knows that the time has come. Part of his struggle is reconciling his upbringing, his lifestyle, his whole identity, with the often troubling reality of the military, the secret police, and the regime itself. His family are hardliners, but they’re losing their grasp on him, and alongside Rosie we begin to see the cracks appear.
Valentin, who begins the book as a Bolshevik orator in prerevolutionary Russia, is one of my favorite characters. You could call his idealism, his politics, his devotion to the cause very naïve, in the same way that his initial infatuation with Tonya is naïve. Valentin is a romantic; he believes in a utopia, he believes in happy endings (partly in response or reaction to a lonely childhood). In drafting his character, I had the thought that he’s not unlike Victor Laszlo from the film Casablanca; like Laszlo, he has the ability to stir great emotion in people; his passion is often contagious; but also like Laszlo, he can be blinded by his principles.
The final version of The Last Russian Doll contains much more of Valentin’s perspective than the original version(s), and I loved writing those scenes.
Another important connecting force—although we won’t say what connects him!—is Alexey Ivanov. Sketch his character and his role in the story, please.
As a famous writer and historian in 1991, Alexey starts off as an unobtrusive if enigmatic presence. He’s elderly, he’s mild-mannered, and he’s easily dismissed and overlooked by Rosie, who only sees him as a means to an end; he’s her ticket back to Russia. But as the story unfolds, we understand that there is more to Alexey than what he chooses to show to Rosie in the opening scenes of the novel. Alexey is one of the threads that binds the two narratives (Rosie’s and Tonya’s) together—but it takes time to discover how. I will add that people who know the landscape of Soviet dissident literature may pick up on a few biographical similarities between Alexey Ivanov’s character and the real-life figure of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but these similarities are superficial and arbitrary. Alexey is not based on anyone in real life.
As the title suggests, dolls play an important role in Raisa’s quest. The image of nesting dolls does appear, connecting the female characters to one another. But most of the dolls are rather creepy porcelain look-alikes. Talk to us about them, and why you decided to use them in your story.
Matryoshkas are lovely and inherently interesting, with their many layers, but I’ve never found them creepy or uncanny. Porcelain dolls, by contrast, have always unsettled me. That’s probably why I was first drawn to writing about them! But in terms of using dolls in the story, Tonya’s character was originally inspired by the Russian fairy tale “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” which features a talking wooden doll. Wanting to use dolls as a motif in the novel and to explore related themes (the interior versus the exterior; outer beauty versus inner; surface versus substance), I started to research them, and discovered that there is quite a proud tradition of porcelain doll making in Russia, one that receives almost no attention (by contrast to nesting dolls, which have come to symbolize Russia to the rest of the world, for better or worse). The more I learned about porcelain dolls, the more fascinated I became, and when I realized that their heads are often hollow—and that you can remove the top of the scalp to look inside the head—I just knew that that was where Rosie’s mother was going to hide her darkest secrets.
For further reading on Russian porcelain dolls, check out the fantastic nonfiction book The Other Russian Dolls: Antique Bisque to 1980s Plastic by Linda Holderbaum.
This novel has just come out. Are you already working on something new?
I’m currently revising my second novel, which is a gothic murder mystery set in 1930s Shanghai and 1950s Hong Kong. It’s partly inspired by my grandfather’s tumultuous early life in northern China and his harrowing escape following the Communist Revolution, as well as my grandmother’s experiences under Japanese occupation. I also wrote a tiny, 200-word “microfiction” story for the online journal Flashback Fiction about a young Chinese woman who swims from the mainland to Hong Kong—and that young woman has become the main character of my second novel! (A bit of parallel, there, with what happened with Rosie!) Overall, it’s been a joy and a revelation to draw on my family history and heritage for this project, and I’m incredibly excited for what will come next.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Kristen Loesch holds a BA in History, as well as a Master’s degree in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge. The Last Russian Doll is her debut historical novel. Find out more about her at https://kristenloesch.com.
Images: Leaders of the Soviet republics signing the Belovezh Accords, which dissolved the USSR, by U. Ivanov, RIA Novosti archive, image #848095, CC-BY-SA 3.0; Boris Kustodiev, Bolshevik (1920), public domain; collection of bisque dolls from St. Petersburg by Ninara from Helsinki, Finland, CC BY 2.0, all via Wikimedia Commons.