- - Wednesday, November 22, 2017

ORPHAN AGENT PRIMA PAWN

By Elizabeth Kiem

Soho, $18.99, 320 pages

The infinite beauty of the ballet and the infinite cruelty of the methods of Soviet communism are expertly explored in this unusual and memorable thriller.

Elizabeth Kiem vividly portrays the misery and tragedy that enveloped Russian life in the wake of its revolution. As she tells it, no one was spared, from children to their parents as the country was left bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the savagery of Stalin, which did not even end with his death. She provides a poignant picture of the destruction of innocence and the bitterness that dominated the lives of those who at least survived or survived as long as they never argued with the mindless arrogance under which they lived.



What makes the book especially fascinating is Ms. Kiem’s knowledge of ballet, the difficulties of such a career and the price that had to be paid for its success as the government agents tortured talent in their constant search for terrible goals. Svetlana Kravshina, at the age of seven, is a ward of the Russian system, which means she is a daughter of Enemies of the People and a member of Orphanage Number 36.

That means her father was a loyal general to Stalin who went to his death before a firing squad as a result of one of the dictator’s many purges of the defenseless. His wife Vera escaped execution only because she wound up in one of the grim camps in which so many Russians spent most of their lives and was separated from her daughter for years.

The opening passage of Svetlana’s story almost tells it all. “It was a strange coincidence, the news coming on the same day there was smallpox in Moscow and my mother was back in town.” She tells how Matron had told her the morning that her mother had been released from the camp where she had been imprisoned for eight years, and the daughter muses unemotionally that she realizes it was possible she would not see her at all.

“Her name was unmentionable. Not since I was seven years old had I heard it pronounced.” Nor was it her mother’s right “as a rehabilitated citizen” to reclaim Svetlana from the orphan’s ward. But the 15-year-old knows that she had no control over the reunion. It is the decision of the matron at the orphanage whether mother and child see each other at all, due to her “compromised history.”

Looking back years later when she has remained a citizen of the hideous system as much as she became a prima ballerina in the magnificent Bolshoi ballet, Svetlana recalls this as “a moment when I was about to be thrown to the wolves.” And she is. There is no happy reunion with her mother who is forever psychologically disfigured by her experience in the camp and by the memories of how her husband died.

Not even Svetlana remembers that. But what she does remember are strange trance-like moments that are coveted by the KGB as the basis for the building of a spy. She becomes a subject known as “prima” who is specially trained by KGB technicians to develop her strange talent of mind reading in a manner that will benefit their objectives of imposing Soviet control of the minds of others. This is the psychological intelligence unit and there are no lengths to which it will not go, including the use of chemical control.

It seems almost incidental that Svetlana does become a world-renowned ballerina, even drawn into the Cuban Missile Crisis with a solo performance before President Kennedy at the White House where her reward is a single red rose tossed at her feet after her dance. Svetlana exists in this strange half-world of glorious dancing and the horror of what can result from the psychological training inflicted on her throughout her childhood.

She marries, has a child, makes the most and the best of what she must deal with and in the end makes a gesture of defiance that is probably the most dangerous move of her life. The tragedy is that it is most likely the only action of its kind she will ever take and the risk is great. Yet there is the ballet and that is her only escape from a ghastly regime that knows no scruples and no compassion.

Ms. Kiem has written a truly remarkable book and has built it around a spectacularly interesting woman. Svetlana survives to become her own kind of immortal.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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