A depressing tale about the dissolution of the Russian czarist empire—and of the human spirit.
Time: the six blood-drenched months from August 1919 to February 1920, when the Red Army and the White hacked away on more or less even terms until the shamefully mismanaged and decimated White Army was chased into the Black Sea. The Caucasus-born Karpalov (Castle Dubrava, 1982, etc.) tells most of his grim story from White points of view but makes it clear that both sides were adept at unspeakable brutality: rape, torture, indiscriminate slaughter. Yuri Skatchko, a 28-year-old colonel and the quasi protagonist, commands “Our Homeland,” one of the armored ammunition trains the Whites depend on to drive their offense. In fact, often as not, this is a war of armored trains, squared off like chivalric chargers preparing to tilt, except that the potential for damage is obviously enhanced. By the time we meet Yuri, he’s become a killing machine, robotic and unquestioning, having long since lost track of why he does what he does, aside from being good at it. The other major figure is Nata Tai, once Russia’s leading film actress, now engaged in a rather loopy, though lethal, vendetta to murder the 13 members of a satanic cult she blames for the death of her father. Nata is irresistibly beautiful and largely worthless. “You are a whore, my dear,” an admirer tells her, “but you are a magical whore.” Yuri and she meet, fall instantly into what passes for love in their dehumanized set, part, reconnect, then part again, figures in an overheated fantasy. Yuri continues killing—and also swilling vodka. Nata goes on taking lovers—an astounding number—and sniffing cocaine as if her “beautiful nose” would last forever. Neither they nor anyone else in this dispiriting story provide reason for empathy.
Red, White, a plague on both your houses.