Janet Fitch’s novel The Revolution of Marina M., spotted at random on a bookstore shelf (so I totally judged a book by its cover) swept me away into the world of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of a young middle-class Russian girl, stepping into adulthood in St. Petersburg just as her city and her country is about to be plunged into unimaginable changes.
Marina Makarova is the same age as the century, turning 17 in 1917. She’s a poet, the daughter of an Anglophile father who is immersed in the politics of First World War Russia under the Tsar. Her older brother is away fighting the Germans; her younger brother is a dreamy artist who resists their father’s efforts to make a man out of him by sending him to military school. Her mother is … complicated, as is Marina’s relationship with her. With her two best friends, Varvara and Mina, Marina explores the edges of the revolution that’s in the air; with her older brother’s friend Kolya she explores the first tastes of adult passion. Then revolution comes — first the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government, in which Marina’s father is active, then Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution which completely tears down and seeks to rebuild Russian society.
Marina’s world, too, is torn apart — her family shattered, her first love affair quickly ended and replaced by a second in which she becomes part of a circle of radical young poets and artists along with her boyfriend Genya. Meanwhile the Revolution careens along, promising a workers’ utopia but unable to provide food or clean water to the majority of St. Petersburg’s poor, and Marina’s life careens along with it, from one unexpected adventure to another.
This is an epic novel on both the personal and political levels — Marina is caught up in huge events, but the events of her personal life as she navigates family, friendship, two love affairs and a horrific brush with a violent gangster, are, if anything, even more turbulent than what’s happening in the streets of St. Petersburg. Some of the disasters Marina faces are of her own making — she makes terrible choices about men at least three times in the novel when, the second and third time, she really should know better — but she is a passionate woman led astray by what she believes, over and over, is a love she cannot resist. (She’s also still in her late teens, not a time of life best known for people making smart decisions). She is frequently a frustrating character, but also a compelling one: by the end of the novel her determination to survive, no matter what tragedies strike her personal life or the country she loves, is overwhelming.
I found this novel hard to put down, both for Marina’s personal story and for the depiction of Russia in the throes of revolution. Russia is very far from being my area of expertise so I cannot judge how accurate Fitch’s depiction of it is, but the streets of St. Petersburg during the Red Terror certainly felt real, and the layers of complexity around who supported revolution and why, what the different parties and factions were, revealed a far more intricate story than the brief summary version of the revolution that I teach my students in our overview course of 20th-century history.
The novel opens with a prologue set in the early 1930s, with an older Marina living far from Russia. As the story progressed, it ranged widely over the Russian landscape around St. Petersburg and across a wide variety of relationships and experiences for Marina — but time-wise, the story stayed focused on the revolutionary years of 1917-1919. As I drew near the end and Marina was still only 19, I began to wonder how Fitch was going to wrap up this incident-filled story and give us a hint of how Marina ends up where she does in her thirties. It seemed impossible to tie up the loose ends of her story so quickly — and sure enough, at the end of the last chapter came the fateful words: End of Book One. I’m pleased to know there’s going to be a sequel but frustrated that I have to wait to find out what happened to Marina.
For a book that gives you the feeling of being immersed in a different time and place I recommend this one very highly — even if once in awhile you want to give Marina a good kick in the pants to remind her that a guy who’s broken your heart once will definitely, definitely do it again, and also, it’s not worth risking your life for the possibility of great sex. Hopefully the second volume will reveal that Marina has learned some of these lessons.