Westerners hardly paid attention when the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky thanked the Russian government for jailing him in the part of Siberia where the Decembrists were exiled, after a failed uprising against the czar in 1825. But Khodorkovsky, who was fishing for public sympathy closer to home, knew exactly what he was doing: there’s no event in Russian history that has been more romanticized.
In fact, few experiences have been as seminal to the Russian sense of national — and especially literary — identity as exile, often to a remote penal colony. (Siberia made Dostoyevsky into a Christian and forever changed him as a writer. Solzhenitsyn’s banishment to Kazakhstan produced “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”) But a Westerner takes great risks when wading into this thicket of national martyrology, rooted in the purifying properties of suffering and its capacity to confer a kind of sainthood on a convict punished far beyond the magnitude of his “crime” by an implacable state. This makes the British journalist and novelist James Meek’s achievement in “The People’s Act of Love” all the more remarkable.
His richly informed and imagined novel takes place in 1919, as the Communist Reds wear down the monarchist Whites in the denouement of Russia’s civil war. In a remote Siberian town called Yazyk, the turmoil has thrown together not only a reclusive Christian sect and a unit of Czech soldiers stranded in the aftermath of World War I but also cannibals and escaped penal inmates. Meek uses the extremist convictions of some of these characters to prefigure the Communists’ tragic aspirations to transform human nature. (“Communist man,” a Red commander succinctly explains, “will be the master of his passions.”)
Yazyk is an eerily appropriate name (the word means “tongue” in Russian) for a settlement inhabited by a group of castrated Christians who believe all sin grows from lust. The Czechs with whom they share this barren land have fought their way across Europe, first for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later merely to survive. Into their midst comes Samarin, who claims to be a convict from an Arctic labor camp fleeing a fellow escapee, who had intended to murder and then eat him on the journey back to civilization.
By machinations too clever and ironic to spoil by detailing here, Meek gradually reveals Samarin’s true, and much more sinister, identity as a barbaric puritan, a force for the destruction “of everything that stands in the way of the happiness of the people who will be born after I’m dead.” Though the pacifist leader of the religious sect, Balashov, is in many ways Samarin’s opposite, they represent two versions of the same Russian millenarian impulse that would find such brutal expression under the Communists, whose units are steadily advancing on Yazyk.
The great danger of such zealots is their willingness to carry out, in the name of humanity, the most grotesquely inhuman acts. The alternative — embodied here by the Czechs’ second-in-command, a Jewish lieutenant named Josef Mutz — is the muddled imperfection of liberal humanism. Mutz is a decent person, but he is also weak and self-deceiving. “Was a man to be admired because he recognized the wickedness latent in himself, and knew to keep it hidden, and mainly contained,” he asks himself, “or did right conduct demand that the wickedness should not even be there?” Such equivocation lacks the appeal of the fundamentalism advocated by Balashov and Samarin, with its rejection of “the lies and the dirt and the cruelty, the disappointments and the ugliness” of the world as it truly is.
Not since Lina Wertmuller’s semi-pornographic Holocaust farce, “Seven Beauties,” has a creative work so deftly explored the erotic undercurrent of revolutionary violence. In one scene at the Arctic labor camp, which has been without supplies for months, a crazed inmate gently fondles another, less from sexual desire than in anticipation of a meal: “At night when he couldn’t sleep he’d kneel by my bed, put his hand under the blanket and stroke my ribs, running his fingertips in the troughs between them, rubbing the pit where my stomach’d been with the palm of his hand, kneading the hollow from hipbone to hipbone like a baker smearing dough. . . . Sometimes his tears fell on my face and I opened my mouth. He couldn’t see in the darkness that I was drinking them.”
Meek succumbs to only a single one of the pitfalls of writing about Russia, whose geographic sweep and supposedly inscrutable “soul” incline some writers to reach for the epic: “We all had gray faces but his was the gray of a veil blowing across the outlines of wisdom carved in stone.” Mostly, however, this ingenious, intricate novel, a meditation on grand ideas that is also a suspenseful page turner, avoids that too-easy wonder Russia often inspires in its admirers. At the end of the book, Mutz leaves for Prague, taking his beliefs with him. Russia, for its part, continues doing what it does best: Consuming its own.