On her arrival in Russia in 1914, Gerty Freely finds it refreshingly liberal compared to her native Britain: here servants are treated well, parents encourage self-expression in children, poor students are given support, and intellectual discourse flourishes. Gerty comes to Moscow as the governess to a rich aristocratic family and stays through the war, the revolutions and the Red Terror. A free spirit, she embarks on her adventure with an enthusiasm which only grows in the face of the dramatic events she comes to witness.
Gerty falls for the futurist of the title, Nikita Slavkin, an aspiring physicist, and both become ardent supporters of the revolutionary cause. Though their romance doesn’t last, they remain members of a commune set up by Slavkin called the Institute of Revolutionary Transformation.
The communards’ daily routine, which has ‘all the excitement of a railway time-table’, is enlivened by sexual tension, Siberian magic mushrooms and petty squabbles (inevitable when everything is collectivised, including underwear). The Propaganda Machine, designed to deliver anti-bourgeois ‘vaccinations’ by means of montage and special effects, also brings some variety, providing free entertainment for the public. Not a surefire way of re-educating it, this ‘very fine piece of circus’ is soon abandoned. The archetypal mad scientist, Slavkin throws himself into a new project, building a Socialisation Capsule — a time machine intended to speed up the advent of Atomic Communism. He soon disappears without a trace, leaving everyone to wonder whether he is lost in space or time, or simply eliminated by the authorities.
Charlotte Hobson’s first novel is narrated by the 80-year-old Gerty, who writes her account in London surrounded by boxes of old papers. While her own voice is convincing, the conversations she recalls sometimes sound contrived. ‘Pineapple-munchers’ doesn’t quite work as an insult unless one remembers Mayakovsky’s once-famous couplet, ‘Eat your pineapples, chew your grouse,/ Your last day draws near, you bourgeois louse!’; occasional Russian words, even when used correctly, fail to breathe life into the dialogue.
The book’s strength, though, is its portrayal of the Russian avant-garde scene, with its futurist performances and poetry, seen through the eyes of a newcomer. Gerty’s fascination with the short-lived movement stems from her firm belief in its underlying ideology: ‘The modern aesthetic was always a means to a far greater goal — a just society.’ The disappearing act at the centre of the plot serves as a powerful metaphor for the demise of revolutionary art. The fate of the idealist inventor anticipates that of the Russian avant-garde, best described by Bruce Chatwin in his 1973 essay: ‘The Party did squash it. But it also died of fatigue.’