Winterland takes place at first in the 1970s in a small Siberian community in the Soviet Union. Norilsk is way in the north, past the Artic Circle, 3000 kilometers (1900 miles – ish) from Moscow, where Yuri, a devoted Communist Party member met Katerina, a successful ballerina with a very promising future. They married, moved to Norilsk where Yuri was employed in a copper and nickel mine and Katerina teaches in a ballet school. They had their daughter Anya. Katerina misses Moscow and dancing and finds little fulfillment in teaching ballet. Although she, too is a Party member, she begins to question the Party’s methods that take people to the end of nowhere. Norilsk is a place where people were once imprisoned during the Stalin era, when friends informing on friends and family could mean exile and harsh conditions and death. Ex-prisoners, like Vera, live in their building. Katerina and Vera talk frankly and Katerina questions her government and her individual circumstances more and more. She is drawn to religion. She is thinking independently. And one day, Katerina because of her increasing transformation is called in for a meeting at Party headquarters. She almost goes, then disappears, leaving young Anya to be raised by Yuri, the mystery of her disappearance imbuing the novel with sorrow and longing and confusion.
Anya is outstanding: She’s been chosen to train as a gymnast at a local center. The man who picked her, her trainer, head coach Anatoly Popov sees stars. Anya knows that her friend Sveta was even better than she is. But Seta’s father was in total disfavor with the party. These things still matter. Meadows takes us through the complete metamorphosis of a Russian gymnast, trained from a very young age under the Soviet system. This is a political story during the governance of the Soviet Union Communist Party and story about what it meant to live through the Soviet Union’s dissolution, but before it was clear what that meant. As importantly, this is a universal story about what happens to the bodies, hearts and minds of children as they grow up as the next great hope for the Olympics. Anya is shot up with lord knows what drugs when she is injured and is trained to make her body keep on going no matter what, with strict regimens and intense competition to get to the top. That story, the central focus of the book is compelling, told with just enough detail for your muscles to hurt and old injuries to come back to you. There are things we all had to assume when watching top Olympians, their coaches on the side, sometimes angry, sometimes effusively adoring their charges. The obvious and extreme pressure. Meadows does an amazing job putting a face on the gymnast and on the coach and on what makes them the “ones” for awhile. Until it is over.
Winterland is also fundamentally about the social and political experience of living in Siberia, post-Stalin in a town that existed to house prison guards and political prisoners, some of each still there long after the prison closed. It is a place that particularly moves ordinary people to learn more than they otherwise might about past violence toward fellow citizens for and to question their government in the face of such horror. Is it humanly possible to rigidly adhere to government expectations that go against one’s humanity? Maybe yes, when it comes to leaving Moscow and giving up a career to teach ballet in Siberia. Maybe no, when you learn about the experiences of Stalin’s political prisoners. Anya’s babysitter and grandmotherly figure Vera is a former prisoner. The oddball naturalist is also a former prisoner, who takes in endangered animals and cares for them. Did he work for the prison system for favor? Why is Vera so angry at him? Irina, a neighbor whose husband was a poet, but whose poetry was ultimately forbidden. What changed him to express forbidden thoughts that were too dangerous for the average citizen to read. There are other censored poets. A poem by one of them found its way to Katerina before she disappeared, a sheet of it still hidden in Yuri’s room. Its words in fact speak to Anya when she finds it, putting little crack into her obedient facade. Irina has a crush on Yuri and something is developing. How will this impact their futures as party members and what happens to them when, eventually, there is no party?
This is an incredible piece of writing, bringing us strongly into what it was like to live in the time and place from varying points of view. It is a look at what made a person valuable to the Party and the Soviet system of communism, and how quickly that could change if your wife disappears or your husband writes problematic poetry or your father publicly expresses disenchantment with the party. You can skitter along the edge, having some “bad” views just so far if you did not participate in the shameful behavior. But you can’t overcome a father who is out and out disobedient and a loudmouth. It will not do to actively stir the pot. I could not put this down, staying up till 5:00 a.m. to finish Winterland. No regrets. Coming back to it to write about it I realize that every character sticks with me and that each person’s unique humanity shines through. I do not detail Anya’s years as a more and more successful gymnast to avoid spoilers, but some famous gymnasts do have cameos and, against the odds in this highly competitive world, she makes an important friend. This period when the Soviet Union disintegrated and what led to it was a part of many of our lives. Meadows gives us a peak into how it impacted ordinary and not so ordinary people who were Soviet citizens in this period. And it is wonderful. Highly recommend!