A review of The Girl From Moscow by Julia Levitina

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Girl From Moscow
By Julia Levitina
Pantera Press
Feb 2024, ISBN: 9780645757811, Paperback, $32.99

I read The Girl from Moscow in one day. It was an unusually relaxing day for me in which I was able to devote time to my favourite activity, but I also found myself stealing time from other tasks to finish the book. That’s how engrossing The Girl From Moscow is. The book opens in 1976 with two children, Ella and Vlad, listening to forbidden foreign radio – Voice of Liberty and the BBC together under a blanket. This is the perfect setup for what follows—a tense and fast paced historical fiction set against the increasingly oppressive Russia of 1983 as tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were at their Cold War peak. Ella Ashkenazi is a twenty-one year old actress in her final term at the Moscow Theatre Academy. She is also pregnant to Roman, a young man who shows no sign of wanting to keep the child. She needs help getting an abortion and goes to meet her old friend Vlad at a Freedom of Speech Protest to ask him for help. It might sound like the opening of a romantic drama, but what happens to Ella from this point on is a series of twists and turns that encompasses the Cold War, displacement, motherhood, what it means to be a Russian Jew and to belong nowhere, love, loss, freedom and an oppression that seems as relevant as ever with Putin’s current war on Ukraine. 

Levitina draws on her own experiences growing up in Moscow in the 1980s and the book is rich with verisimilitude, following the trajectory of Ella as her dreams of playing the role of Natasha Rostova from Tolstoy’s War and Peace dissolve into fear and a desperation to leave Moscow to escape the KGB and protect her unborn child. Though she is young, innocent and well-meaning, her choices begin to diminish surrounded as she is by bad actors, antisemites, and those who would seek to take advantage of her. The writing is rich and evocative, with a hint of nostalgia illuminating the country that is on the cusp of transformation – full of train journeys, food, sounds and visual reminders of history: 

The carriage jerked and her head hit the glass. Behind the fogged-up windows, the domes and minarets of the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy floated past. She squinted to see the famous fountain. As a child, she used to come here with Olga to play. The fifteen gilded statues, all female, that surrounded it represented the Soviet republics. (20)

Bisecting Ella’s story is the story of her grandmother Olga, told in individual chapters set in the 1940s. Olga’s narrative reveals a series of secret liaisons from the past that impact on the present. Levitina’s writing is assured and Olga’s revelations create a link between the way in which Olga was manipulated in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the reverberations of trauma and oppression that flow through to Ella.

Though most of the people in Ella’s life are unreliable and self-serving–Roman and his family are particularly unpleasant–Ella remains a focal point for the book and the reader becomes invested in her escape from a range of abuses, some state-sanctioned, some personal. Ella’s Judaism is handled with subtlety, though it is one of the many recurring threats in the Soviet Union if Ella remains, and a constant reminder that she is an outsider in the country of her birth, which is not only becoming more oppressive but also less liveable for everyone:

The volume of his voice surprised her and she surveyed the area around them. The alley ran alongside a black pond with a smattering of sickly ducks. A few timber benches that surrounded the water looked wet from the recently melted snow. On the other side of the pond were naked trees in front of the spikes of the oo fence; the noise from the road beyond was muffled to a mere rustle. (147)

Julia Levitina has created a powerful debut full of detail, with a tension that keeps the reader glued to the page from start to finish. This is a book that draws on Levitina’s own deep-seated knowledge of history and place to create a story that is very much relevant to today’s readership.