AT 280,000 WORDS, The Revolution of Marina M., Janet Fitch’s new, virtually monumental work of historical fiction, is long enough to find a place in the Russian canon, which boasts mammoth masterpieces like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The novel is both story and history, which prove inseparable, as the young life of our heroine, Marina Makarova, is upended first by the Russian Revolution and later by the Civil War. But despite the book’s size and the headiness of the material it tackles, Marina’s unlikely bildungsroman — her growth, her loves, her dreadful losses and disappointments, but, above all, her enduring hope and determination to survive, against all odds — proves so gripping that it’s hard to put the book down.
Fitch launches us into the novel from the vantage point of exile in San Francisco, so that we know her heroine must have survived it all, somehow. But as we plunge into Petrograd in the first chapter, that opening prologue is the only reassurance we have. A student of Russian history and literature, Fitch weaves her narrative into the cultural tapestry of Petrograd during World War I, in the waning days of the Romanov dynasty and the so-called “Silver Age” of Russian poetry. Marina, an aspiring poetess, traverses this rich cultural landscape, at one point even meeting famed poet Anna Akhmatova inside the famous literary watering hole and cabaret, the Stray Dog Café. Akhmatova’s advice to young Marina could not be more appropriate, given the liminal, shifting reality both women inhabit: “Bravery, in love as in art.”
These early moments in the book, when schoolgirl Marina is being pursued by her brother’s friend, the older Kolya, read very much like the calm before the storm — they exude a fleeting innocence and sense of normalcy, on both a personal and historical level. Marina is just a girl, and all she thinks about is Kolya, who finally takes notice of her as they share a kiss, right before he goes off to defend his motherland in the World War. During his brief return, the two finally consummate their passion in a lusciously erotic scene, which Fitch stages almost cinematically, from the furious kissing and fondling in the back of a sleigh, to the richly adorned apartment Kolya has arranged. “This is what a woman who has just made love looks like,” says Marina as she examines herself in the mirror, while wiping away blood from her nether regions. This moment leads her into what she calls “[t]he next room of the self”; she now approaches the world with new strength, in a body that has known love.
Marina’s half-bloodied, half-elated look into the mirror is the first instance of self-reckoning in the novel, and by far the most benign. The moment brings to mind Akhmatova’s famous poem, “We’re all boozers and floozies here” (trans. Margo Shohl Rosen), with its ambiguous tone of self-castigation and self-pity for one’s shattered innocence: “And the woman dancing now / is bound for Hell,” read its last, seemingly prescient lines. Marina may begin the book with a more or less humble goal — to chart a woman’s path in the world, looking for love and a little poetry — but at each turn, the brewing revolution brings her fresh hells.
Unknowingly but not altogether accidentally, Marina stumbles out of the comfortable cocoon of privilege in her parental home and right into the cauldron of the revolution. She is partly influenced by her best friend, Varvara, who, as a disaffected member of the nobility, gravitates toward political activity and rallies. In Varvara’s company, Marina’s passion for revolution and a better world grow incrementally. She even sours on her old lover, Kolya, for his indifference to the social cause.
At this point, entirely of her own volition, Marina’s story of sexual awakening turns into one of social emancipation; indeed, the two stories become imbricated, and soon the revolution shows its own bloody face. Fitch does not spare us from the terror of the events of February 1917, which led to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication from the throne. Marina and her friends find themselves stranded in a rally — a scene as captivating and dizzying as Eisenstein’s October (1928) — and Marina witnesses someone crushed by a horse. Upon returning home, she again gazes in the mirror. In her first post-coital moments, she felt like a grown-up, a powerful woman, but now, bloodied in a different way, she feels frail, a little girl in over her head. “In the mirror’s reflection, a fool,” thinks Marina. “No heroine, no revolutionary. Only a pale, frightened girl, so much younger than I thought I was.”
This first encounter with the blood of revolution provokes a crisis for Marina, which will develop over the course of the novel: whom does she want to become? She is the daughter of a wealthy family, whose father is a member of the Provisional Government that comes to power after the tsar’s abdication. But she is also, to some degree, a daughter of the revolution, like her friend Varvara, committed to more radical social change. How can she divide her loyalty between two families? This dilemma haunts Marina as she experiences, and initiates, a series of painful abandonments, and as Russia steadily lurches into the bloodier months of 1917, which Fitch depicts with devastating accuracy and imaginative power.
Marina is a Russian woman of the first part of the 20th century, and we see both the revolution and patriarchy act on her body in brutal ways. To the modern mind, Marina’s break with her old love Kolya in favor of the Bolshevik poet Genya seems like a natural part of her sexual and social evolution, but her father declares her a whore for her promiscuity. At later points in the narrative, the young woman’s body is her only asset, as her story of awakening turns into one of basic survival. In its most harrowing passages, The Revolution of Marina M. shows us the full extent of female vulnerability in chaotic times.
Revolutionary women, like Alexandra Kollontai, who became People’s Commissar for Social Welfare after the Bolsheviks took power in October, powerfully advocated for sexual freedom. Kollontai was outspoken and deeply influential in Lenin’s largely male government. “Bourgeois morality, with its introverted individualistic family based entirely on private property,” she wrote, “has carefully cultivated the idea that one partner should completely ‘possess’ the other.” Yet when Kollontai and her fellow commissar Pavel Dybenko ran off for a weeklong tryst, her comrades were shocked and demanded some kind of punishment. Lenin decreed that this punishment should be to marry Dybenko — which she did, with not very happy results.
Marina experiences harsher punishments after her parents throw her out into the streets, partly because of her unseemly sexual behavior, but also because she has been spying on her Menshevik father for her Bolshevik friends. She runs off to Genya and discovers the poverty that accompanies the life of the true revolutionary. As she recounts her hushed sex with Genya in their communal apartment, she can’t help but note the irony: these Bolsheviks, who passionately declared sexual freedom, were just as prudish as everyone else. And when she briefly breaks with Genya and rekindles her affair with Kolya, her new comrades shame her mercilessly; possessiveness is a hard habit to break. Eventually she and Genya marry, but Marina’s words do not foreshadow great happiness. “We’d learned in school that a wedding always signaled the end of a comedy,” she thinks, “but this suddenly felt like the first act of a tragedy.”
Indeed, as Genya heads off to war and Marina is left to care for her mother when her father goes underground, we come to understand that conjugal happiness is not her fate. Genya’s later escape to Moscow — without, it seems, giving Marina a thought — suggests that the new Bolshevik sexual morality might perhaps only work to the advantage of men, who can come and go as they please. Marina has no choice in the matter; at times it seems she has no choice in anything. People drift in and out of her life, while the world she has known is turned upside down, with her family maid now more powerful than her mother, and her friend Varvara working for the secret police.
And soon, what had been Marina’s only refuge, the realm of sexual love, is fully infiltrated by revolutionary violence, as she resorts to bartering her body. Desperate for money to support her mother and aging nanny, Marina finds herself falling prey to bourgeois smuggler Baron Arkady von Princip, who has a predilection for sadism. In a development that sounds especially familiar these days, when scores of women are speaking out about sexual assault, Marina’s at first consensual sexual encounter with Arkady quickly turns into rape; consent to one thing does not translate into blanket consent. After their first, painful rendezvous, Marina becomes Arkady’s prisoner; he completely dehumanizes her and even carves a poem on her back, to make his mark permanent. Through Marina’s experience, we come to see how savagely female desire can be thwarted and abused in the revolutionary world, perhaps in the world at large.
After Marina finally escapes from Arkady, the old world and the new seem no different from each other in the pain they mete out to the individual. She winds up in the prison cells of the secret police — from one objectification to another. This time, it is Varvara who rescues Marina, but this salvation also comes with its share of physical demands. After Arkady, Marina is more willing to consent to Varvara’s advances. The young woman’s degradations bring the private and the historical realms together. After all, in communal apartments and other cramped quarters, even the private act of sex is unavoidably public.
There is enough pain to go around in Fitch’s sprawling, majestic book, as people shed old identities like snakeskins. At various points, Fitch cites Alexander Blok’s epic poem The Twelve, in which a woman is killed by her jealous lover, a Red Guardsmen, in post-apocalyptic post–Revolutionary Russia. This subtext does not prove prophetic, however, and by the end of the book, most of the main characters remain alive, even if not always accounted for. Even Marina’s mother, completely stunned and clueless in the new Bolshevik world, finds her place as a seer in a religious cult. At the end, Marina is left to confront the Russian Civil War almost completely alone, and the modern reader — like the readers of Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s serialized novels — is left itching for the next installment.
Ani Kokobobo is assistant professor and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas, where she teaches Russian literature and culture.