Russia is a country far too infrequently written about by Western novelists, but with Russka, Edward Rutherfurd helps remedy that lack. This book is practically a class in Russian history (and fun besides). I wasn't sure about the format, which is best described as ten novellas and three short stories, following two families (and their offshoots) through hundreds of years. But it really works. The chapters flow logically, so I didn't feel at all disoriented jumping from one to another. And I avoid short-story compilations religiously, so that's saying something.
What's so excellent about these novellas, though, is the character development: in many cases we know these characters as well as if we'd read an entire novel about them. Rutherfurd doesn't fall into the trap of repeating characters over the generations; everybody's distinct, and many are quite memorable. The author is willing to take risks with the characters, featuring types who would rarely star in a full-length novel--perhaps because nobody is required to be "the hero." And the way the characters change and grow over the years is exceptional. Really, there's some outstanding stuff here; one that stands out is a character's descent into evil, possibly the best and most believable story of that type I've ever read.
And the plots: maybe it's true that Rutherfurd "borrowed" ideas, because not only are the stories interesting, there's an almost mythological resonance to many of them. Some incredibly memorable scenes. And although the book is light on action despite Russia's numerous wars, at times it's still hard to put down.
A word on the history: yes, Rutherfurd inserts mini-history lessons within the stories. To me this was helpful, as I wasn't familiar with much Russian history beforehand. The detail was fascinating and he never seemed to go overboard. But since others found this tedious, I'll add that the book seemed aimed toward readers who (a) have some interest in Russian history and (b) don't know a great deal about it already. If you majored in Russian studies on the one hand, or you're looking for a historical page-turner but couldn't care less about Russia on the other, this may not be the book for you.
Finally, to clear up some factual matters. This book is said to "cover 1800 years of Russian history." Technically that's true, but after the first 42 pages (in paperback) set in 180, the narrative leaps on to the 11th century... and there are only 21 pages post-1920. (For the record, I think the first decision was a good call, since few authors can make prehistory compelling, but really, how can you write a 945-page book about Russian history and give the entire Soviet period only 6? Yeah, those final 15 are set in 1992.) In the first half the book, skipping hundreds of years between chapters is the norm, but in the second half, time slows down and we meet every generation of the families in question.
So what keeps this from being a 5-star book?
1. I found the first chapter, and to a lesser extent the second, to be tedious, before Rutherfurd finally hit his stride in the 13th century. Then come hundreds of pages of excellence until...
2. The ending was weak; I didn't feel like I had a handle on the Revolution as on the earlier eras, and would have liked to read more about the 20th century.
3. Women are somewhat sidelined, serving as love interests, wives, and mothers to male characters--even when women take the spotlight, these roles define their lives and motivations. This seems to be due partly to historical gender roles and partly to Rutherfurd's lack of interest in other aspects of women's lives (also evident in the dearth of women: the family tree listing nearly every relevant fictional character in the book includes 55 named male characters, and only 20 females). Their personalities are diverse; I just would have liked to see someone have interests or goals in life in addition to men and marriage. (One gets close, until she gives up her love of music "for health reasons"--problems that are instantly cured upon her falling in love and having a son. Ugh.)
4. Any writer has personal tics that are bound to annoy you after awhile. Here, it's the overuse of rhetorical questions and the word "remarked" to tag lines of dialogue, plus the habit of stating things readers should be allowed to deduce on our own. For instance, we're told that one character is "shrewd," and everything he says is said "shrewdly"; also, Rutherfurd has a tendency to interpret events and make announcements like, "What happened next was her fault."
This book both educated and entertained me; sadly, I've found Rutherfurd too misogynistic an author to continue reading his books, but otherwise they aren't bad.