Email this review


From Estonian writer and Gulag veteran Kross (The Czar's Madman, 1993): a meticulous exploration of the proposition that evil flourishes if good men do nothing-as he limns the life of a famous jurist who served the Czar. The narrator, Professor Martens, introduces himself as he embarks on the train journey that is to take him from his childhood home in Estonia to a resort beyond St. Petersburg. The day is June 7, 1909, and the German and Russian Emperors are meeting to sign treaties that might avert war. The Professor, a famous jurist and retired Imperial privy councillor, recalls attending earlier summits as a legal expert, and as the train travels on, these recollections become increasingly somber and confessional. Throughout his life he has been haunted by another G.F. Martens, also a distinguished jurist, who lived in Germany in the late 1700's and made similar accommodations with his conscience as he served what he always thought were the interests of the state. The present Martens, who helped the Czar raise loans from France to stave off a famine, has never spoken out -- his only substantive criticism of Russia was buried in a lengthy work where only the most astute would notice it -- and he failed to help a socialist nephew. He now realizes that he has merely helped a corrupt regime survive. But he has also had his own sorrows: humble parents, who died young; education at a school for orphans; marginalization by the Russians, who have always treated him as an outsider. The confession is cathartic, and as the journey ends he resolves to be candid at last, noting that ""in our country, at our age we really can't start to change anything except for ourselves."" Pedantic-like detail sometimes overwhelms the story, but this same steady accretion crafts both the indictment and the plea for mercy: a stunning portrait of a moral trimmer.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1994
ISBN: 1565841115
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: New Press