Marina Makarova is in high school and has a crush on Kolya, an officer and a friend of her brother, both serving in the Russian army. A furtive kiss when she is 15 in the cloak room at a ball leads to seduction a year later. The guy is charming, intelligent, a little sneaky, and good-looking. Hand it to Fitch, she knows how to write a sex scene. But early on we suspect Kolya might be a cad. Later Marina learns he has established a side business selling jewels for the former aristocrats, known without irony as, Former People, so they can eat.
Marina befriends fellow student, Varvara, only to learn she is a fervent revolutionary. Although the daughter of nobility, Varvara echoes Marx and Lenin and criticizes Marina’s upper-middle-class lifestyle and her literary ambitions. What is the use of poetry when Russia is losing the war, the workers are going hungry, the peasants in the countryside are withholding their food production, and the Czar is a complete nincompoop? Varvala gradually draws Marina into radical leftist politics. When they join a peaceful protest marching on the Winer Palace, they witness innocent people gunned down by Coassacks, and barely escape themselves. Marina becomes a communist.
As a committed Bolshevik, Marina breaks with her bourgeoise family, burning bridges with her father, a member of the Russian Parliament. He has been labeled a reactionary by the revolution. Marina moves in with good-for-nothing poets and falls in love with the most talented of them. A girl who grew up in luxury finds herself in a lice-infested hovel which makes a counter-culture commune from the 60’s look like a four-star hotel.
Marina is a female version of Dr. Zhivago, a poet who welcomes the revolution but then finds himself(herself) conflicted when the terror begins and eventually is arrested himself. What horrible times—when anybody insufficiently Red risks imprisonment or execution. Fitch allows us to smell and see the blood, gunpowder, sewage, and terror.
Revolution brings chaos and even more hunger. Kolya returns to Petersburg and Marina must choose between the voracious speculator and the radical poet. Pure lust prevails, and Marina flees the city with the handsome Kolya. Fitch gets Marina into one crisis after another, battling for survival, although we know from the opening narrative that our heroine somehow makes it to California after the Russian Civil War. It’s riveting. Poignant and vivid.
However, I found some historical errors. For instance, there were no “armored diversions” in Russia in 1919. The Russia army had no tanks. Sometimes Fitch’s use of 21st century lingo ripped me out of Revolutionary Russia and was distracting. No man was a “womanizer” in that era. I doubt anyone called another “a piece of work.” I found myself skimming the last hundred pages, perhaps tiring of the pace, but dying to see how Marina escapes. Unfortunately, that question was left lingering for the second book. All in all, worth the time!