I was a Russian literature major in college, for two reasons: 1) I love Russian novels, and 2) I figured it would be a good conversation starter for the rest of my adult life (it is).
Although I can no longer speak any Russian, and certainly can’t read it, every once in a while I go through a re-obsession phase. It’s all I want to read, watch, or listen to. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and I’m currently in one of my phases.
My Bolshevik Sweet Sixteen
I just finished reading The Revolution of Marina M, by Janet Fitch, publishing on November 7. It follows Marina Makarova, a 16-year-old Russian bourgeois girl watching the Revolution break out. Her father is an Anglophile statesman; her mother comes from old Russian aristocracy; her brothers are soldiers; and Marina is a feisty redhead figuring it out.
The book continues through the first 3 years of the Revolution (a planned second volume will relate the second 3). Everything she believes in is overturned, pushing her to do things she never would have imagined. It’s an astonishing, sweeping novel, in the style of Russian literature’s golden age.
My favorite things about the book are the detailed descriptions of Marina’s everyday life. When she drinks tea, I know where she bought it. When she puts on her favorite hat, I know what style it is, and when it came into fashion. When she receives news of another strike or protest, I know what kind of paper it is printed on. And who gave it to her. The amount of research is awe-inspiring.
I interviewed Janet Fitch recently. She didn’t just want to write about what happened, how, and when. She wanted to express what it actually felt like to live through the Revolution. A 16-year-old girl wouldn’t have been reading the newspaper thoroughly every day. She wouldn’t even have access to one. But she’d know that it was hard to walk to school because of the riots, and that they had to move in the middle of the night to avoid Cheka raids.
Dictators Need Library Cards, Too
The British Library ran an exhibit earlier this year entitled “Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths” that had a similar aim: show what everyday life was like, and how it changed, during the Revolution.
I missed the exhibit by a few months (curse the eternal Russian sky!) but luckily the Library put out a companion book of the same name. Somewhere between a history book and an exhibition guide, the book contains 5 chapters, each written by a different Russian scholar on a different topic, illustrated by high-quality photos of pieces from the exhibition.
Nikolai Lokhov’s propaganda poster, “We Reign Over You” is one of my favorite pieces. It shows the peasant class supporting the bourgeoisie (“who eat for them”), the military (“who shoot for them”), the church (“who lie to them”), and the Romanov family (“who rule them”).
The Library also dug into its own archives to find Lenin’s application for a reader pass to the British Museum, using the alias Jacob Richter.
Having read these two books, I’ve got the bug for more Russian literature. Should I re-read one of my favorites (War and Peace by Tolstoy, The Line by Olga Grushin) or try something new (Laurus by Eugene Volodazkin has been on my list for a while)? Suggestions?