In his novel "Revolution," Belarusian author Viktor Martinovich tells of corruption and the intoxication of power in Moscow.
Without scruples: The beauties of the Moscow night Photo: Daniel Biskup/laif
Speeding along Moscow’s streets under a steel concrete gray sky and being sure: no one will stop a car like this one. Plus vodka, caviar and The Prodigy at full volume, music "for all evil spirits, for killers, for denunciators." Viktor Martinovich’s new novel tells of Russia’s evil spirits, the intoxication of power and pervasive corruption.
With the right connections, anyone can be innocently sent to prison, because evidence can be faked and witnesses can be bought. Even a false expert opinion is no problem when a listed house stands in the way of the lucrative new office tower construction. Those who do not profit from this system look the other way. And the few who resist and protest change nothing and in the end only harm themselves.
"Revolution" is the title of Martinovich’s third novel, which is now being published in German. In his native Belarus, this book title has a particularly symbolic meaning right now, which not everyone likes. Last week, Martinovich’s publisher was arrested in Minsk, as the author reported in an interview with the Suddeutsche Zeitung.
600 copies of the novel were confiscated. Martinovich supports the protest movement against the Lukashenko regime, but "Revolution" is only indirectly about that. His novel deals with power and obedience in a post-Soviet society – and this allows readers to better understand what is happening in Belarus.
Martinovich has packed this theme into a story that, taken as a whole, seems rather abstruse, but whose details contain apt observations and analyses. Mikhail, the novel’s main character and narrator, is a moderately successful academic. Bored, he lectures on architectural semiotics at a Moscow university; he does not expect to make any career leaps. He doesn’t have much money, and his car has seen better days, but together with his girlfriend Olja he leads a quite content life.
Viktor Martinovich: "Revolution." Translated from the Russian by Thomas Weiler. Voland & Quist, Berlin and Dresden 2021, 400 pages, 24 euros.
The tranquil muddling along comes to an end when Mikhail is accused of a crime he did not commit. He is threatened with prison or a heavy fine. Suddenly, strangers appear who promise to rescue him from this hopeless situation. In return, he is to become part of their "circle of friends". Thus the young man falls into the dependency of an obscure secret organization with great influence on the political and economic events in the country. The cynical motto for the members is: "Don’t think. Don’t wonder. Shut up."
First pangs of conscience
Mikhail complies with the organization’s instructions at first out of fear, but later he voluntarily sticks with it out of curiosity and convenience. The promotion feels too good, the new car, the luxury apartment. While at first he suffers from remorse when his orders result in the conviction or even death of innocent people, he soon comes to like more and more another motto of the organization: "What’s right, you decide alone."
Mikhail only stands up to his employers when they demand that he leave his girlfriend. A "naive waitress" is not appropriate for a man like him, who is now the university’s vice-rector and the owner of a chauffeur-driven limousine. He begins to plan a revolution. In the process, the ruthlessness he has trained himself during his service to the organization comes in handy. Revolution" cannot keep up with the usual pace of a political thriller, but that would also cause the novel to lose the very thing that makes it so worth reading: the wonderfully accurate descriptions.
Martinovich takes time for detailed descriptions, pointed comments and small digressions, the characters are skilfully exaggerated and the scenes are full of situational comedy. The fact that the female characters either embody naive innocence or serve as sexual objects is annoying, but it fits the male world that the novel describes. And Martinovich doesn’t leave a good mark on it.
"Revolution" is also a Moscow novel in which "the best and most terrible city in the world" immediately comes alive. One gets a feeling for the strange mixture of Soviet fustiness and decadent luxury, provinciality and brutal hypercapitalism. The novel’s exaggerated account of a secret society points to real problems in a society that lacks independent institutions, where money and power are closely intertwined and it is customary to submit to authority. While reading, one gets an idea of why it is not so easy to bring about political change and democratization in Russia or Belarus.