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Review: The Revolution of Marina M., by Janet Fitch
Little, Brown, 2017. 800 pp. $30

Marina Dmitrievna Makarova, as old as the century in 1916, can’t wait to break free of her constrained, privileged existence in Petrograd — or thinks that’s what she wants. Change is in the air, and desperation grips Russia, an empire bleeding its life away in a world war practically nobody supports, except her parents. Refusing to accept their rules or blandishments, she has a love affair or two, one with a fellow poet; marches on behalf of oppressed workers; and glories when the revolution topples the tsar. You can guess that this family will soon fracture even more.

But though Marina has been true to herself, she pays a terrible price. What the revolutionaries promise bears no relation to what happens in reality, and this passionate young woman, whose motto seems to be, “Act first, think afterward,” finds out the hard way. To name just two problems, it’s difficult to tell which threat is worse, famine or the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police.

As a bourgeoise, Marina’s already an enemy of the state and can’t be too careful, constantly having to prove herself despite who she is, a direct opposite to the advantages she enjoyed in her youth. Taking care doesn’t entirely square with her impulsive nature, but she’s also a quick study and finds she has more inner resources and survival skills than she knew.

The novel opens in California, 1932, so there’s no question she survives the revolution. As my regular readers know, I detest prologues, but there’s a practical reason for this one. The current volume is only the first of a series; the author has apparently decided not to leave the reader hanging at the end, and I think she’s right. Further, the journey’s more about how and why than where, and Marina covers a lot of ground, emotionally and physically.

Stinton Jones’s photograph of a demonstration on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd, March 1917 (courtesy https://archive.org/details/ russiainrevolut00jone via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Throughout, however, Fitch realizes the Russian atmosphere, be it Petrograd or rural peasantdom, with bold, lush strokes and complete authority. With unflagging attention to detail, she renders the idealism and mercilessness that suffuses the air, and gives you back alleys, great houses, and, in this instance, a Cheka prison:

The smell of wet walls and mold, and a dirty animal odor, increased as we descended. A slaughterhouse stench. He [the guard] walked me down the dim hall. Muffled voices came from behind thick doors. A rising shriek snaked from the base of my spine and coiled around my heart, squeezing my throat in its knot. We passed yellow walls the color of old teeth. Black sticky floors sucked at our shoes. Bare bulbs buzzed overhead. The rest of the country was plunged in darkness, but the Cheka would have its electricity.

Like the Russian novels Marina M. evokes, this one has much more to it than a sweeping lens and epic events — it’s the characters who count the most. Marina takes center stage, but her lovers come through with brilliant clarity, as do her mother, younger brother, and a radical revolutionary friend. You understand what motivates these people, all of whom have inner lives for the reader to navigate. So much happens that it seems our heroine has lived a full lifetime by her nineteenth birthday, but that weight never feels like a burden, even at over eight hundred pages. That’s because Fitch keeps you in touch with the feelings of the moment.

Much of the novel revolves around Marina’s sexual awakening, mirroring her political cognizance, as she learns more about attraction and sex as power. Though she enjoys men as lovers, she seldom loses her perspective on who gets to make decisions, and who has to follow them; who gives the orders; and who does the work. This is particularly trenchant, because the revolution that was supposed to honor all work and eliminate the roles of master and servant clearly hasn’t touched relations between men and women. Once, when she witnesses a peasant wife completely efface herself before her husband, Marina observes privately that Marx may have believed that power belongs to those who control the means of production, but this mother, who has produced four children, is her husband’s chattel.

Marina M. is also about betrayal, involving parents, children, lovers, ideals, or merely the greed and envy of the comrade listening at the keyhole. Marina, both victim and perpetrator, wants what she wants and won’t be denied. If at times she seems excessively larger than life or has an insight perhaps more convenient than earned, these are minor blemishes on an otherwise exceptional, engrossing novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from a neighborhood free library. I’m grateful to whoever donated it.