You might have heard of the labour camps Soviet Russia used to send its own citizens to (gulags). How hard they worked the prisoners and how inhumane they were. The Red Scarf tells a fictional story of Sofia, a young woman sent to one of these camps. She is forced, along with other undernourished women who have been declared enemies of the people for one reason or other, to build a railroad in Siberia. While there, she develops a friendship with Anna, once the daughter of a successful doctor in Leningrad. Anna keeps things lively with her tales of her childhood, and her childhood love, Vasily. In return, Sofia keeps a close guard on Anna, helping her through blizzards and staving off leering guards. She also helps Anna keep her strength up. A strength which is rapidly declining. Knowing her friend will not survive for much longer in the camp, Sofia plans an escape. And against all odds it is successful.
Sofia heads to a small, rural town called Tivil. She had promised Anna that was where she would go, because Anna told her that was where Vasily was hiding out, with a different name and a different identity. When she finally reaches Tivil, she finds a man who matches closely with Anna’s descriptions of Vasily. She gets to know him, placing herself in his life, and surprise, surprise, finds herself falling in love with the guy. She knows this is a betrayal of Anna, but she knows it could save her friend’s life as well.
Along the way, Sofia meets other characters; the gypsy Rafik and his daughter Zenia, the chairman of the collective farm Aleksei Fomenko, the stern schoolteacher Elizaveta Lishnikova, and a few others who will either help her in her quest or hinder her. There is also a hint of magical realism in this story. The gypsy has strange powers, something Sofia catches on to, but really can’t explain. It is all connected to her.
The book does a good job, I think, in bringing back to light that horrible time in Soviet Russia’s history. Stalin’s rule was a hard one. Nobody trusted each other. One whisper about you or from you reaching the wrong ears and you could find yourself declared an enemy of the people. Propaganda was rampant and it almost seemed as if everyone was brainwashed, a thing this book plays on well, in for example, Pyotr’s continued confusion as to whether or not everything he had been told was in fact the right thing. He is constantly torn between being a good citizen and doing what is right.
One thing that did annoy me was the fact that Sofia doesn’t even bother to change her name. You’d think an escaped enemy of the state would want to change their name to keep from being detected, but I guess it’s not that big of a deal in the end. I mean, it’s not like the OGPU had google or computer databases to cross reference names and stuff. Yet, Vasily did change his name. Anyway, that’s just a minor gripe (I’m nitpicking, I know, I’ll stop… soon).
Another thing I did not really care for in this story, was the whole gypsy powers and mind reading sort of magical realism. I think it would have been a great story without that gimmick. There’s enough drama and tension in Stalin’s Russia to go around without weaving mystical powers into it. That is just a personal opinion though. I don’t generally enjoy it when that sort of stuff pops up into historical fiction. Its fine in fantasy but not in historical fiction.
One more thing that sort of bothered me was the constant flashbacks. They were done well in that I was never confused that it was a flashback, but at times I just wanted the main storyline to go on and not to hear another story about Vasily and Anna rowing on the lake. I guess they were important to the story, so I am fine with them.
All in all, I was interested enough in this story. It took me a while to read through, even so. I guess I liked it, but was not in love with it. It’s hard to say where I stand on this book. I liked the history in it; Kate Furnivall clearly invested a lot of research in it. The story was all right, though a little farfetched at times (how many people actually escaped those camps? I’m not sure, but perhaps not a lot). There was a hook that had me turning pages furiously, but unfortunately it comes more towards the second half of the book. And as to that hook, I just have to say: I knew it.
So, I would recommend this book to people who have an interest in Russian history and to those people who enjoy a dose of magical realism to what they’re reading (seventh son of a seventh son kind of magic).
The final verdict: 3/5
· See The Whisperers by Orlando Figes for an historical study of that time period, with harrowing and true tales of Stalin’s injustices.
· The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons is another historical fiction piece set in Stalin’s Russia, but during the Second World War. It also features secrets and a grand love story. Tatiana & Alexander, the sequel, is also worth a read.