As a novelist, I’m drawn to stories concerning the impact of sudden change. Under the pressure of large upheaval, reversals of fortune, losses, and societal disruption, people reveal their true natures, perhaps hidden even from themselves. Why are some able to keep their balance, while others fall under the steamroller, or discover new strengths and unconsidered new paths? People said of the Russian poet Mayakovsky:
“He walked into the revolution as into his own home.”
I first met Marina Makarova (Ma-KAR-ova) in the early 2000s. She was a minor character from a novel that failed, a Russian exile living in California in the 1920s. With that novel safely boxed away, I made Marina the protagonist of a short story, “Room 721,” which appeared in the journal Black Clock
. I was captivated by her, her sensuality, her toughness and humor, her worldliness, and the tinge of sadness around her. But when I tried to expand that short Los Angeles story, I found I didn’t know enough. I needed her dreams, her memories.
I had to go back to Russia, to the Revolution, to uncover what she had experienced in those turbulent years, and how they had marked her.
Some have said that this book is quite a departure for me. But nothing interests me more than the inner lives of young women as they assemble their personal understanding of the world, often under the pressure of sudden change, where the deepest encounters with the self occur.
In White Oleander
, Astrid Magnussen loses her mother and is thrown into foster care. She’s forced to adapt to each new circumstance, and develops a strength of character and sense of the world she might never have needed otherwise. Josie Tyrell, in Paint It Black
, suffers the suicide of her beautiful lover, who showed her a better vision of herself. In her grief, she struggles to define for herself what comprises truth and the authentic self.
Marina’s coming of age, her own personal revolution, occurs in the midst of incredible disruption — the remaking of an entire country. Nothing is stable, there is nowhere to retreat to. She has to make a stand, and then another one, and another. Which she does, with tremendous resilience, intelligence, ingenuity, stubbornness, and sometimes, pure wrongheadedness.
The novel begins at a grand New Year’s Eve party at the dawn of 1916, in the elegant apartment of the Makarov family, a center for the liberal intelligentsia. Marina, nearly 16, a poet and romantic, is telling fortunes with her best friends and her sulky younger brother. We’re halfway through the disaster of the Great War, and change is in the air, but no one can imagine the scope and scale of the disruption that is coming.
A short year later, two revolutions, a bourgeois one in February 1917, and a radical, Bolshevik one in October, will have swept this world away.
Like my protagonist, I’m mesmerized by life’s unnecessary beauty — the way a child looks bundled up in the snow, a line by a favorite poet, a bit of music in the air.
Thrust headlong into a radically new life, this vibrant, romantic 17-year-old rises to the challenge of living and pursuing her poet’s dream in revolutionary Petrograd — a world changing by the moment — while at the same time, negotiating the maze of her own complex passions and divided loyalties.
I’m fascinated by Marina, a bourgeois girl who champions the Revolution, because she stands on the line between the new world of revolutionary visions and the old world of culture and received values, which she despises, yet which have shaped her. She’s what the Bolsheviks call "an adventurer" — someone with a romantic view of revolution, not a scientific, programmatic one. But she’s also observant, and grows increasingly aware of the contradictions between her hopes for society and what is actually occurring around her. In the meantime, it’s a challenge simply to survive.
I was a history major at Portland’s Reed College. I even considered a career as a historian. I love research, I love the huge canvas, the outsized personalities. But in the end, I’m too much a lover of the small things of this world, the things that make life rich and resonant. Like my protagonist, I’m mesmerized by life’s unnecessary beauty — the way a child looks bundled up in the snow, a line by a favorite poet, a bit of music in the air. I believe in the magic of small moments, the tangible world.
So an important part of my research wasn’t just investigating the events of the day, but recovering the feel of the sensual, lived life of the past. In a time of sudden change, ordinary people don’t know what’s going on at the top. There’s a feeling of uncertainty in the air — it’s palpable. I wanted to replicate the experience of living in history, the sense of tremendous uncertainty as the world changes all around you. You keep your ear to the ground, pick up clues and rumors, read between the lines of newspapers.
The historian often sees the stuff of daily life as the detritus that he or she must sift through to get the gold of real information. But for me, the detritus is the gold. It’s what allows a reader to enter the body of a character and experience the truth and the texture of her story, from the inside.
Like many writers, my research was tuned to sensual understanding. I had to know how it felt to live then. I had to know how phones worked, how much a pound of horse meat cost when you bought it on the stairs. I had to know where, and how, and what it felt like.
I found my answers over several years, reading memoirs, histories, novels, and biographies. I talked to scholars, historians, and translators. I gazed, bleary-eyed and rapt, at YouTube videos and websites well into the night. And I took myself to Russia, where I hadn’t traveled since I was a Russia-obsessed student in Leningrad in 1977.
I found myself in a new century once again on the shores of the Neva, a ghost of that young student, wandering a powdered January in 2007, breathing in the damp Baltic air, drinking in the low winter light, memorizing the roughness of ice, taking notes with freezing hands.
In 2009, I was fortunate to receive a Likhachev Cultural Fellowship to St. Petersburg. Now, cultural institutions opened their doors to me. I met with curators at the Akhmatova Museum, the Museum of Political History, the Museum of the City of St. Petersburg, the Dostoevsky House Museum — always on the trail of detail. What did a “bourgeoika stove” look like? Could I see a labor book, a bread card?
At the Akhmatova Museum, I was told the neighborhood I’d chosen for my elegant family was wrong. “Too close to the train station,” they said. With their help, I found the Makarov’s neighborhood, I found Marina’s school, I located the poets’ communal apartment, called the Poverty Artel, in Raskolnikov’s neighborhood in Crime and Punishment
, a tribute to the author who first interested me in Russia. I sank into the world of revolutionary Petrograd.
By the time I returned home, seven single-spaced pages of questions had been answered.
For me, as a novelist, the best stories come not from the neck up, not from an idea, but from the neck down, out of the foundry of one’s unconscious. I write because I’m drawn to understand something, and these are the best tools I have. Annie Dillard once said, “the self is bearer of the paintbox of its own inherited contents of obsessions and fascinations.” So, these are a few of the obsessions that led me to write Marina’s story. I hope you enjoy the result.
Suggestions for further reading on the Russian Revolution (more are listed on my website):
The Italics Are Mine
by Nina Berberova
by Vladimir Nabokov
by Viktoria Schweitzer
Anna of All the Russias
by Elaine Feinstein
In the Shadow of Revolution
by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Yuri Slezkine, eds.
1917: Stories and Poems From the Russian Revolution
by Boris Dralyuk, ed.
The Bolsheviks in Power
by Alexander Rabinowitch
The Russian Revolution
by Sheila Fitzpatrick
Listen! Early Poems
by Vladimir Mayakovsky
Poems of Anna Akhmatova
by Anna Akhmatova
by Marina Tsvetaeva
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's first novel, White Oleander
, a #1 bestseller and Oprah's Book Club selection, has been translated into 24 languages and was made into a feature film. Her most recent novel, Paint It Black
, hit bestseller lists across the country and has also been made into a film. She lives in Los Angeles. The Revolution of Marina M.
is her most recent novel.