Confessions of a Russian History Geek

History was always my favorite subject in school, but my first loves were American and British history. I loved recreating the recipes and toys and clothes from Little House on the Prairie. How convenient to be a little girl in the 1970s and have a televised version piped right into my home. (Tellingly, my historical re-creations did not include anything as crazy as unplugging a television.)

For most of my high school “career,” Russian history remained an abstraction of oppressive monarchs and grim communists. In western civ classes, Russia played the role of unpleasant supporting character, its sole purpose to emphasize the more “enlightened” qualities of neighbors further west. You think the rack sounded bad? Look into what Ivan the Terrible did to people. Now, of course, that viewpoint seems like a devastating case of American self-centeredness, but at the time it seemed solid.

Besides, I grew up at the tail end of the cold war. I have faint memories of The Day After and nuclear annihilation hysteria. But for the most part, I existed in the world of glasnost and Mikhail Gorbachev’s comforting, avuncular face. Teen-agers in the Soviet Union liked to wear jeans and drink Coke. They can’t be so bad.

What changed? In 1991, a group of Soviet die-hards attempted a coup d’état. That was scary. What was happening in Russia suddenly seemed more complicated and important. I may not have been part of the generation who practiced hiding under desks in the event of a nuclear attack, but I knew enough to be terrified of a return to that world. The idea that events so far away had such an impact on my life sparked my interest.

And once you’re hooked, you’re in for life. At least, that’s how it happened for me. My current novel focuses on the fate of the last Romanovs. My work-in-progress stars Prince Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s famed advisor and former boy toy. Trust me, he is a seductive figure. I’d also like to write about the poet Alexander Pushkin (a fatal duel!) and something about Russians in Spanish California, particularly Dona Concepcion and her ill-fated love for Count Rezanov. My view is unabashedly romantic, no doubt of that. But surely there’s a place for romantic re-imaginings of history in our present.