“Every city contains secret places. Moscow in the tumultuous 1990s is no different, its citizens seeking safety in a world below the streets – a dark, cavernous world of magic, weeping trees, and albino jackdaws, where exiled pagan deities and fairytale creatures whisper strange tales to those who would listen.” – From the back cover of Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow
Bill: Are all of the mythological beings in The Secret History of Moscow based on actual Russian legends, or did you invent some of them?
Ekaterina: All of those are actual folkloric creatures — I tried to stick to the ones that have been mentioned in folklore, although some are more obscure (Zemun) than the others (Koschey and rusalki).
Bill: In your Acknowledgements you include “the wonderful old professors of the Biology Department of Moscow State University.” Did those professors influence The Secret History of Moscow in some specific way?
Ekaterina: The character of Sovin was very much based on a composite image of those professors. Most geneticists have been through labor camps, and when I was a student there were still a few of those old men — they swore like sailors, smoked in class, and knew everything there was to know about everything under the sun.
Bill: What were your favorite books as a child?
Ekaterina: I had a shameful and abiding love of Fenimore Cooper and Mayne Reid novels. I was eight, okay? I didn’t know any better. Oh, The Headless Horseman — I read it so many times, I could recite entire passages.
Bill: For some reason, when I was reading The Secret History of Moscow, I kept thinking about the art of Elena Figurina. I became acquainted with her work at the University of North Florida, sometime around 1990, at an art exhibit called “What Is Not Forbidden is Allowed” featuring contemporary art by members of the Tovarishchestvo, the Fellowship for Experimental Art (from Saint Petersburg, Russia). I went into my file cabinet and found the gallery booklet from that exhibit, which says, “Figurina creates an unreal world in her paintings – a world inhabited by birds, fishes, cows, and people out of touch with time.”
Are you familiar with Figurina’s work? What artists do you like?
Ekaterina: I am not familiar with her work, although I do know the Tovarischestvo. As far as art is concerned, I am very fond of Bosch and other painters of late Gothic school. I do like a number of twentieth-century artists — especially Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani… I don’t really know a lot about art, I just find some of it appealing.
Bill: What about the artist Zurab Tsereteli, who did the sculpture called The Wives of the Decembrists?
Ekaterina: Yep, Tsereteli is all over the place. Haven’t yet seen the Decembrists’ wives composition in the flesh, so to speak, but probably will next year.
Bill: Your depiction of The Decembrist’s Wives, in your novel, intrigued me so much, I was moved to read up on the actual historical event, The Decembrist revolt in 1825. Were you, on one hand, lauding the bravery of the wives who followed their husbands into exile or death, while at the same time, giving voice to the women’s point of view? Did I detect a feeling that men are impatient to rush into war while women are more longsuffering and prudent?
Ekaterina: Well, the revolt and the Decembrists’ wives are so iconic in Russian culture, especially the wives depicted as the epitome of female virtue. It was interesting for me to think a bit about how such icons influence expectations — the failure of heroic self-sacrifice on Elena’s part is a failure only in this context. I do not pretend to know what those women thought, or dismiss their heroic acts. I was rather trying to talk about people who are not heroes — that is rather a central theme in the book, I thought.
As far as men rushing into war and their long-suffering wives — this is certainly the cultural expectation, yes. I think it doesn’t have to be that way: I certainly wrote about women being quick with a shotgun and quiet, suffocating suffering of men (again, not-heroes). My feeling is that while people are expected to act in a certain way, it is certainly possible to deviate from a cultural norm and yet be a good person. I also feel that by glorifying certain virtues (ie, Decembrists’ wives’ self-sacrifice and silent suffering) it is possible to impose very restrictive codes on people — Elena is an outcast because she decided not to self-sacrifice. Which is a decision every person should be able to make for her- or himself, without being pressured into sacrifice by public embarrassment.
Bill: The ending of Secret History surprised me. I won’t give it away here, but I was wondering, did you plan to end it that way from the beginning?
Ekaterina: Yes, the ending was preplanned. The story as I wrote it took some detours from the original outline, but the ending stayed. It was meant to be surprising — to the protagonists as well as the readers, so I tried not to drop too many hints. Surprising ending is a good thing, isn’t it? (As long as it’s not “And then they all were hit by the truck and died.”)
Bill: Are you interested in the study of alchemy? I don’t necessarily mean, do you study alchemy, but are you interested in the history of it?
Ekaterina: After writing two books about it, I can’t possibly argue that I’m not interested, can I? I do not believe that it works, of course, but I do find the history of it fascinating. And hey, it’s not too difficult to imagine an alternate reality where laws of physics and chemistry are different, and atoms can transform into those of other elements.
On the other hand, European alchemy and witchcraft does tend to get a short shrift in much of fantasy. Somehow, people tend to focus on pseudomedieval settings and Celtic/Germanic myth, even though tradition of folk witchcraft, alchemy, and magic is very interesting — it’s almost like science crossed with urban legends. Certainly makes for fascinating reading as well as interesting variation on European-based fantasy.