Born the daughter of a minor Russian noble, Nadia Shulkina comes of age in the social upheaval of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. To protect her brother, an officer in the collapsing Imperial Army, she marries Alek, a committed Bolshevik who was an acquaintance of her uncle prior to the Revolution. She tries to survive as the USSR is established, finding work as an artist and translator. Then she meets Lee Cooper, a young Englishman who introduces himself as a socialist journalist, and begins to feel free.
Elizabeth Blackwell structures Red Mistress by splicing Nadia’s life as a Soviet wife with the correspondence of the British pre-war intelligence service. The novel moves from the Shulkina country estate to post-revolutionary Moscow to 1920s Paris and 1930s England, and spans Nadia’s life from her preteen years to her late thirties. It is loosely a coming-of-age novel, and Nadia develops subtly in her marriage. The reader can feel close to her and distant from her, all at once. The foreshadowing set up by its structure propels the story along and balances the first-person narration.
Red Mistress is a gem of a historical novel, accessibly offering one possible perspective on the aftermath of a historical event, the Russian Revolution, that is less examined among Western readers. It is a perfect balance against the “lost princess Anastasia” narratives. Blackwell has built a detached and realistic, but sympathetic heroine. I found myself wishing the story didn’t have to end.
Recommended for fans of early 20th-century history, and for those who wonder what followed the fall of the Romanovs.