Communism never took human nature into account, which meant that the workers’ paradise was always going to be just a pipe dream. Of course, in the Russia of 1917, the Bolsheviks were willing to go to any lengths to force the rest of their countrymen to try to create that paradise. For people like Marina Makarova, protagonist of Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., this meant that they had to shift for themselves as best they could while trying to get around the increasingly complex and discriminatory bureaucracy. Throughout the book, Marina encounters person after person who is only out for themselves. It is the worst place at the worst time for a passionate, naive girl who doesn’t know what she wants and is used to being cared for by servants.
After a prologue that takes away some of the tension by revealing that she survives and escapes the nascent Soviet Union, we meet 16-year-old, St. Petersburg native Marina at a party for her aristocratic set early in 1917. She is struggling with her strong physical attraction for Kolya while also flirting with Communism via her friendship with the sharp-tongued Varvara. She doesn’t have any political convictions herself, but she empathizes with the poor. Her parents seem willing to let Marina and Kolya flirt, they are increasingly angry with her for her slumming with Varvara and the teeming millions of the city.
The Revolution of Marina M. covers 1917 through 1919. Marina is caught more than once by the rapidly developing violence of the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. She might have been able to keep her head down once she moves in with an anarchic group of Futurist poets, but she’s caught between jealous lovers, revolutionary friends, and aristocratic, anti-Bolshevik parents. The other people in her life never seem to show their best sides when Marina’s life is in peril. Granted, it’s hard to stick one’s neck out when the price might be starvation, imprisonment, or execution. On top of this, in Marina’s case, is the fact that most of the people in her life grow exasperated with her fickle heart and ineptitude. Something about Marina brings out the worst in a lot of people and they’re reluctant to do much for her.
In spite of all this, Marina somehow soldiers on. She survives hunger, kidnapping and rape, imprisonment, and treat of summary execution. Because of her attachment to her parents and her friends, she never becomes a devoted revolutionary. She does become a devoted survivor, though never in a way that stretched my credulity. What I did have a hard time believing was the strange ending sequence of the novel, when Marina falls in with a group of people practicing some kind of transcendentalist hooey. I could see this section as an internal revolution for our protagonist, in which she finally learns to stop relying on others to bail her out. But it’s so weird that the last 100+ pages just didn’t work for me. (The ending also leaves a big question unanswered.)
The Revolution of Marina M. is probably too long. It’s definitely too histrionic. But I’ll admit that I was hooked for most of it. By the time I got to the part I didn’t like, I was so close to the end I couldn’t quit. What I liked most about this book was the way that Fitch brought 1917 St. Petersburg back to life through the eyes of a bewildered girl. I imagine that Marina’s experience of politics was a common one; unlike dedicated Communists, most of what happened politically in those years seemed like one unexpected blow after another. Fitch has a deft hand with the research. So while The Revolution of Marina M. is definitely an imperfect book, it does have some things to recommend it to readers who are willing to put up with a heavy dose of melodrama in their historical fiction.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.