SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE OCT. 20, 2017, New York Times
image from article
Review of THE REVOLUTION OF MARINA M.
By Janet Fitch
816 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $30.
“I was in love with the Future, in love with the idea of Fate. There’s nothing
more romantic to the young — until its dogs sink their teeth into your calf and pull
you to the ground”: So says the young Marina Makarova early on in Janet Fitch’s
third novel, “The Revolution of Marina M.,” a vast, ambitious historical tale in which
the coming-of-age of a quintessential revolutionary heroine dovetails with the events
of October 1917.
Marina ticks all the boxes for the prototypical heroine of novels set in this
period: Her parents are liberal aristocrats, while she is a radical poetess — gorgeous,
red-haired and curvaceous. Her friends, who include a dashing counterrevolutionary
officer lover, a lesbian Bolshevik girlfriend and a bank-robbing baron with a taste for
S-and-M, straddle all sides of the struggle.
Over the course of more than 800 pages, Fitch conveys the importance of sex for
a young woman’s development with Rabelaisian earthiness, and Marina’s liberation
(at least until the novel plunges into the aforementioned S-and-M) reflects ideas and
experiences that were quite common for her generation. Like Marina, the real
women who became revolutionaries often hailed from noble families, perhaps the
most famous of them being the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, the Communist
daughter of a czarist general. Women in this milieu endured prison sentences and
Siberian exile but also enjoyed love affairs with male revolutionaries (some of whom
Kollontai especially was a trailblazer who, in tracts such as her 1921 essay
“Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations,” advocated free
love in powerful, forward-thinking axioms: “Sexuality is a human instinct as natural
as hunger or thirst.” She believed that marriage was an oppressive bourgeois concept
based on the presumption of female dependence on men, a notion that would be
rendered obsolete under socialism, when both sexes would depend only on society.
After the revolution, female Bolsheviks like Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of a
Soviet foreign minister, and Dora Khazan, the wife of a Politburo member, became
People’s Commissars (or their deputies), or ministers in the Soviet government.
Even so, Russian male chauvinism was deep, and Stalin distrusted these female
activists both for their Jewishness and for their gender, ultimately firing and
arresting several of them, including Zhemchuzhina.
In Fitch’s fictional version of this historical moment, following a confusing
prologue set in Carmel, Calif., we begin in World War I Petrograd where Marina
escapes her father’s salon to be kissed in the cloakroom by an attractive officer and
childhood acquaintance named Kolya Shurov. Afterward he goes back off to war, but
in feverish Petrograd, revolution seethes. Their romance does not end there: When
Kolya returns once again, he picks Marina up outside her school and takes her on a
sleigh ride that leads to her first sexual experience. The passage inaugurates
Marina’s awakening; from here on out, she says, “I could not stop thinking about
As hunger, war and government incompetence herald the February Revolution,
the teenage Marina joins the crowds in the streets, feeling the thunder of history in
the making. “What is history?” she asks. “Is it the trace of a footstep in wet cement?”
She goes on to answer her own question: “History is the sound of a floor underneath
a rotten regime, termite-ridden and ready to fall.” She witnesses everything from
women’s protests for food to the toppling of Czar Nicholas II. But never has the pace
of the Russian Revolution progressed more sluggishly than it does in Fitch’s hands.
“Gunfire sounded throughout the following day,” and we learn all the quotidian ways
Marina finds to pass the time: “I played poker with the girls” and “rounds of chess
with Mina”; “taught Dunya to waltz”; “won a bet with young Shusha by walking on
my hands”; and “stood in the small kitchen, chopping cabbage.” The metaphors
come like Cossack charges, and one is never enough: “The crown of Russia had gone
from most precious object to poisoned apple, a rotten, stinking potato nobody
Since Marina plays no part in high politics, we learn of major events indirectly.
The leader of the new provisional government, Premier Prince Lvov, proposes a
document that “granted freedom of speech and assembly, the right to strike, a
constituent assembly elected by universal and secret ballot, men and women alike,”
and much more. The author kindly lists all the measures outlined by this “daring
piece of work,” which nevertheless touches our protagonist’s life only obliquely.
But Marina does stand in the audience at the Cirque Moderne to hear Leon
Trotsky herald Russia’s “new epoch,” describing him as “a caldron melting the crowd
into a single substance, and we threw ourselves in.” In the chaos of mid-1917, as the
provisional government minister Alexander Kerensky becomes the dominant figure,
Marina falls in love with a radical (but, for the reader, uninspired) poet named
Genya, although Kolya remains the object of her true passion. Her best friend, the
frizzy-haired aristocrat Varvara, becomes a Bolshevik activist whose speeches the
book relates in full: “Far from improving the situation of the common people, the
revolution in February has only increased your suffering,” Varvara pontificates
before a line of women on the street. “We, the Bolshevik Party, say down with the
imperialists!” Varvara persuades Marina to inform the Bolsheviks of her father’s
political secrets. When he finds out she is sleeping with a poet and is a Communist
spy, he disowns her. As Kerensky loses his prestige because of a series of military
defeats and an attempted coup, Marina realizes the imminence of a Bolshevik
takeover in a succession of familiar metaphors: “The world was cracking — I could
hear it — like ice that had grown too thin to hold us.” On the night of the October
Revolution, she and Genya burst into the Winter Palace to find a “Blakean hell” of
Red Guards’ debauchery after they’ve just wrested power from the ministers of the
In the months after October 1917, Petrograd under the new Soviet Republic is
increasingly threatened by not just famine, chaos and disease but also
counterrevolution, factional betrayal and foreign intervention. Lenin (who will soon
move the Russian capital to Moscow) deploys murder and terror to keep power.
Amid all this public turmoil, Marina’s personal life spins even more wildly out of
control. She is kidnapped by the ruthless rapist and aristogangster Baron Arkady von
Princip, who smells like “decaying pines.” He lures her to an apartment for an
excruciating 10-page sadomasochistic marathon, during which Marina experiences a
disturbing amalgam of pleasure, shame and fear. When Arkady subsequently tries to
use her as a hostage in his criminal dealings, Marina’s horrid father outs her as a
Bolshevik spy. For all her progressive defiance, Marina is still treated by the more
politically empowered men in her life as merely an object for degradation — the
details of which are perhaps a little crass even for the most jaded reader.
Marina, the reader concludes, is not a true revolutionary; she is tossed like
flotsam by great events, and the novel would benefit were she more of a participant.
Although Alexandra Kollontai’s own free, dramatic love life shocked not just the
bourgeoisie but also other revolutionaries, she still disapproved of precisely the kind
of casual promiscuity in which Marina engages.
In publicity materials, Fitch reveals her own lofty aspirations in her declared
worship of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”: “I opened it, and there was my
world.” Yet somewhere in the middle of its 800 pages, this novel loses any
semblance of her 19th-century forebear’s sense of narrative control. That said, the
feral descriptions of sex provide some of the novel’s most amusing, if decidedly
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s most recent history book is “The Romanovs: 1613-1918.” His
latest novel, “Red Sky at Noon,” will be published in January