"Ice Road" tells the story of two Russian women from very different circumstances but whose lives contrive to become linked under "Stalin's Terrors". Set in Leningrad, the story covers the period from 1933 until the siege of Leningrad during the war Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War as it is known outside of the USSR).
Irina Davydovna's life is changed irrevocably when she is offered the opportunity to work on the Chelyuskin, a scientific ship bound for the frozen north. Irina is a cleaner at the Smolny Institute and the man who offers to sponsor her is Boris Alexandrovich, a well-respected party official. The expedition ends badly and, although the ship hits ice and sinks, a series of daring rescue flights ensures that nearly everyone on board the vessel survives. When Irina returns, not only has she learned to read but she feels empowered to take control of he life and decides to flee from her abusive husband. Again Boris Alexandrovich steps in to help her. A bachelor friend of his, historian Anton Antonevich, wishes to adopt a young stowaway he found on a train but he knows that without the help of someone in authority he will not be allowed to do so. Boris helps his friend and arranges for Irina to move into the historian's apartment as a housekeeper and to look after the child.
Natasha is the daughter of Boris Aleksandrovich; she is a beautiful young woman, much admired by one of Boris's junior staff but Natasha is in love with a factory worker, Kolya. Kolya is the archetypal Soviet hero, earnest, committed and one of the fastest workers on his production line; he dreams of one day being invited to join the Party. The couple get married and live happily in a tiny apartment but, not long after the birth of their first child, Natasha returns to the flat one day to make a startling discovery. Kolya is gone and the doorway to the flat has been sealed up. It becomes clear that someone has denounced her husband to the authorities. Who would do such a thing? And why?
While "Ice Road" cannot come close to the epic Russian novels, it does have some similarities. One was the interesting combination of the personal and public spheres and how they can come into conflict. Take Boris Alexandrovich; this honourable man is loved by his family, trusted by his friends and much admired by party colleagues but he find his priorities challenged by a number of events. The first is the request for help from his old friend Anton Antonevich when he wants Boris to pull some strings to allow him to adopt the young waif. Then he finds himself further compromised when his son-in-law disappears and his daughter begs him to find out what is going on. At a time when even those close to Stalin lived in fear, to start making enquiries about the disappearance of someone who has been denounced could be a dangerous move.
Another similarity was the length of time over which the story takes place. "Ice Road" is almost "saga-like" in the length of time it covers but I thought that this was cleverly tackled and managed to link key episodes without endless padding and yet never seemed to be skimming over important parts of the story. Given the number of dramatic events woven into the plot, both real and fictional, Gillian Slovo manages on the whole to avoid the telling of this story becoming a soap opera.
There are a number of aspects to this book to make you think it shouldn't work as a novel as well as it does. One was the inclusion in the story of direct references to and accounts of actual events; it would have been easy to set the story during Stalin's reign of terror without specifically referring to real events that readers may be very familiar with. Personally, I find novels that try to give an account of a particular historic event or focus on a famous person from history quite a turn off. I already know the facts so I find any dramatic tension contrived and I feel quite cynical about the putting of words into the mouths of real people. Gillian Slovo doesn't just do that in a sub-plot that points to the assassination of Kirov but she also writes in the present tense something which causes the words to become very clumsy and make the whole episode sound like a scene from a pantomime.
The account of the assassination of Kirov lends little to the overall story. It merely adds more weight to the setting and reminds the reader just what kind of place Russia was at the time. It's not necessary really; Slovo brilliantly captures the mood at the time, especially once Russia enters the Second World War and the citizens of Leningrad endure a bitterly cold winter with barely any food. The "Ice Road" of the title is a reference to the treacherous road that was used during that terrible winter to get food to Leningrad.
Overall the characterisation is excellent though there are one or two little oddities that had the corners of my mouth twitching. I fell in love with Irina immediately. Irina is the only character who speaks for herself which is good because she really is the most interesting character of all. Irina is a woman after my own heart; when she accepted the chance to go to sea I felt very proud of her and when, during the long hours of inactivity on the ship, she learned to read I gave a silent cheer. Irina is tough and resourceful and just gets on with life no matter what comes her way. Unfortunately there was one major flaw with Irina's character and that was her penchant for rather philosophical ideas and introspection that didn't seem at all characteristic of a cleaning lady who couldn't read. When Irina turned to navel-gazing it made me giggle.
Another character I liked immensely was the beleaguered academic Anton Antonevich who feared that he would be next in the purges on the intelligentsia, a man so afraid for his life that he would even consider fabricating history in order to gain the approval of those in power. The portrait of Antonevich is that of a decent man who has little experience of life outside the walls of academia and who desperately wants but doesn't really know how to have a normal family life.
The only character I really couldn't get on with was Koyla and I suspect that may be because he was more the ideal Soviet worker than those young men depicted on the propaganda posters. How can such a man feel real when he is the living embodiment of an ideal? Jack Brandon, an American businessman seemed at first a superfluous character only there to allow Slovo to start talking about Stalin's economic policies but there is more to this man than meets the eye.
In spite of some annoyances, I found "Ice Road" a really gripping read and one has so many layers of meaning. The story is engaging in its own right but there are also questions raised about the Russian Revolution and Communism, how history is interpreted and how individuals responded to the events of those decades. What is most striking about the story is that Irina who has never held any political opinion manages to change her life for the better while those people who have been involved in politics, either directly or in proximity, are the ones who find their idealism the cause of their woes. For all she is exposed to the propaganda machine - when the survivors of the Chelyuskin affair come home they take part in a parade though the city's streets - Irina, the woman who is the least educated and in theory one most likely to be swayed by what she is told - is the most cynical character in the story.
I would recommend "Ice Road" to anyone who enjoys a good story, particularly fans of historical fiction. I found this novel quite moving yet humorous at times and thought-provoking at others with a surprisingly successful combination of drama, history and human interest.