Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy: A Guest Post by Elizabeth Kiem

Dancer Daughter Traitor Spy


When I began writing Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy in the summer of 2012, I thought that I had chosen a fusty backdrop for my young adult novel: The Soviet Union in its doddering old age? Could there be a less glamorous period to write a period piece about? (Perhaps only Brooklyn in the pre-hipster era. And I was using that one too, in Act Two.)

Then I considered my protagonists: a whistle blower in a police state; a defecting ballerina; Russians on the run with their blurred notions of crime and capitalism. I worried that I was writing historical fiction about a history that teenagers aren’t even taught today.

But then a funny thing happened: My esoteric, time-bound story found company.

First there was the TV series “The Americans,” which hooked a small but obsessive fanbase on its kick-ass KGB agents in Guess jeans and its assassination montages tracked with Roxy Music. Next came a lurid scandal at Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet – a violent and mysterious drama that still hasn’t ended and that makes Marina’s defection look like an easy out. Then finally, came the manhunt for Edward Snowden, culminating in the whistleblower’s inexplicable decision to seek refuge from the FBI, CIA and NSA in Vladimir Putin’s Russia of all places, sparking a global conversation about police states, prisoners of conscience, treason and asylum.

What a trifecta! Cold War chic on television; The Bolshoi Ballet all over the tabloids; pundits on all the talk shows referring to intelligence contractors and their computers full of state secrets… A year after I began DDTS, my “historical fiction” is all dressed up in  21st century garb. Impossibly, I’ve written into not one one, but three cultural zeitgeists. Next thing you know, DDTS will be required reading for civics classes turning a fresh eye on the cold war, the politics of privacy, and the perils of high art!

About the author:

Elizabeth Kiem Elizabeth Kiem studied Russian language and literature at Columbia University and writes novels, essays, reports, reviews, grocery lists and more.​ She has lived in Brooklyn for more than 15 years, and before that she lived in Moscow as it entered a new era, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Besides Brooklyn and Moscow, her favorite places are Alaska (where she was born), Istanbul (where she understood that all great cities straddle the water), and Haiti (where life itself straddles the water). In Russian, she is Elizaveta Ivanovna. Dancer Daughter Traitor Spy is her first novel. Visit Elizabeth at her website or on tumblr.


They thought they had run far enough…

 Marina Dukovskaya is poised to make her debut as the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina, an Artist of the People hand chosen by Leonid Brezhnev’s regime, just as her mother Sveta was years ago. But that was then. Now, Sveta spends her time loudly claiming knowledge of a sinister government secret (that she acquired through “visions,” no less). When she disappears, institutionalized by the government, they tell Marina “It’s for her own good.”

Fearing arrest as Sveta’s sympathizers, Marina and her father defect to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. But it seems the worst of old Russia’s crooks and con men have followed, and Marina finds herself suddenly alone when her father’s entanglement in the burgeoning Russian mob ends in tragedy. Tragedy Marina foresaw. Maybe Sveta’s visions weren’t all in her head after all.

Either way, Marina has a deadly mystery on her hands.

DANCER DAUGHTER TRAITOR SPY, Elizabeth Kiem’s debut novel, draws on the author’s years living in the Soviet Union just after its collapse. Combining the Cold War intrigue of The Americans, the cutthroat atmosphere of the elite ballet academies at the Bolshoi and Lincoln Center, and the frenetic pulse of New York City in the early ’80s, Dancer Daughter Traitor Spy is a new breed of spy novel.


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