Lost in Leningrad
I read Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century after a strong recommendation from fellow blogger Alasdair Czyrnyj. He’ll join me in the next series of posts as we air our thoughts on the Wolfhound Empire trilogy one book at a time.
First, some background. Wolfhound Century takes place in the Vlast, a country bearing the heavy mark of the Soviet Union, manifested particularly in the city of Mirgorod, a swampy cement-covered place that evokes St. Petersburg back when it was called Leningrad. Vissarion Lom comes to Mirgorod to investigate the activities of erstwhile revolutionary Josef Kantor. This thriller-esque procedural plot largely takes a back seat to the cosmology and fantastic weirdness of the Vlast, caught in a struggle between stone angels and an endless forest, industrialized but in a way that incorporates the preternatural. Giants and golems wander the streets as labourers, unremarked but haunting in their normalcy.
I greatly enjoyed Wolfhound Century but I suspect that I was drawn to different aspects of the novel than Alasdair. So, to start off, Alasdair, what did you find so overwhelmingly compelling about Wolfhound Century, and why did you insist so strongly that I give it a go?
Alasdair: Well, as longtime readers of my blog may know, I’ve had a fascination with the Soviet Union for most of my adult life. Naturally this interest has trickled into my genre reading, which has given me something an appetite for stories that reinterpret the USSR through the rubric of fantasy. At first glance, such a concept seems ludicrous. After all, the rulers of the Soviet Union always defined their nation and its historical mission in strictly materialist terms. However, I have come to believe that there are some aspects of the Soviet Union that the language of fantasy is uniquely suited to capture. In a way, the USSR was a separate reality. It had the same demands and troubles of any modernizing state in the 20th century, but those issues were interpreted and dealt with far differently in the Soviet Union than they were in the West. The Soviet Union was a nation whose leaders and citizens had their own interpretation of history, economics, and human nature that separate from the Western consensus of liberal democracy and free markets. Indeed, the Soviet leaders formulated their ideals in direct opposition to Western thought. The Soviet Union was not just one nation-state among equals; it was a redeemer society that saw itself as the first step on the road to world communism. Seen from the far-off perspective of 2017, the country itself seems a bit like some distant fantasy kingdom.
Now, Soviet history has not exactly been of great interest to most Western fantasy writers, but there have been some experiments. Just off the top of my head we have Christian Gossett’s The Red Star comics and Liz Williams’ Nine Layers of Sky. Even China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books could be read as allegorical reworkings of the Soviet experience. However, the Wolfhound Empire books are a different kettle of fish. When I started Wolfhound Century, I found it depicted a much more thorough reworking of both Soviet history and Soviet personalities than I have ever seen done before. On top of that, the world Higgins created melded Soviet history and reality with Slavic folklore (and a few authorial inventions) far more deeply and intricately than any work I have ever encountered. About the closest I’ve seen is Nine Layers of Sky, but even that work pales in comparison next to the scale of Wolfhound Century. Now, while I had a decent handle on the book’s reinterpretation of Russian and Soviet history, I must admit that my knowledge of Eastern European folklore and mythology is not that strong, so I wanted to hear the opinion of someone who is a bit closer to the culture milieu the book is drawing from than me.
Michal: It feels like I’m quashing some hopes here, but while Wolfhound Century draws some of its fantastical elements from Slavic folklore, most of the magic and mythology woven through the novel are unique to Higgins’ world. Oddly enough, I found this to be a strength.
Other western fantasy works that reference Russia tend to dwell only on Russian fairy tales rather than culture and history, and in a way that I don’t find all that satisfying—they re-frame those fairy tales through very English understandings of how fairy tales work. It reflects on a larger problem, a tendency for fantasy authors in the last few decades to treat fairy tales as thematically meaningful in of themselves instead of expanding or exploring their narratives any further.
Higgins doesn’t do this. Wolfhound Century isn’t about Slavic fairy tales, myth or folklore, it’s about 20th century history. The fantasy creatures and magical doings of the novel are all geared towards casting that history into harsher relief and take inspiration from the iconography and contradictions of the era. The stone angels bring to mind Soviet monuments more than the angels of Orthodox Christianity. The angels’ goals are oriented towards rapid modernization (5-year plans, let’s say) and bringing about a literal end of history. The old magic of the endless forest just beyond the Vlast’s borders is hazily defined and presented, but so is the entire history of the Vlast before the angels fell to the Earth. The giants are clearly inspired by leshy (the only creatures besides rusalki in the book that I could pin down as uniquely Slavic), but Higgins uses them to illustrate this sudden break from the past as well, robbing them of mythic significance by drafting them as a slave class in Mirgorod doomed to shortened, miserable lives.
In short, the fantastical framework for Wolfhound Century is a historical one, which I think is a more interesting approach than trying to mesh Soviet history and its historiography and ideology, which you already noted as materialistic, with a corpus of fairy tales that are only loosely connected to Slavic myth. Any connection with a real or imagined “deep past” has been severed; the history of the Vlast goes back a mere 300 years. Little is known about the household gods or nomadic lifestyle that characterized society before it was founded.
Of course, the history of the Vlast twists the history of the Soviet Union in several ways, and I’m hoping you could get into that aspect a bit more.
Alasdair: Interesting point about the angels; I must admit that I read them as more traditional Lovecraftian entities, but there is something appropriate as imagining them as public buildings, monuments, and memorials of the sort that sprang up all across the Eastern Bloc in the postwar decades come to malevolent life, burrowing into the ground and transforming all they touch into concrete.
As you mention, the Wolfhound Empire trilogy does fold and warp the history of the Soviet Union to an impressive degree. If I may make a confession, the reason it took me so long to finally read beyond the first volume was because I couldn’t figure out the method to Higgins’ madness. Wolfhound Century starts off with Vissarion Lom on a stakeout, waiting for two agents to make a contact. It’s a very spy thriller opening, and the echoes of John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park lead you to expect something Brezhnevian in tone. However, the following chapters switch to Mirgorod, where Josef Kantor is organizing the robbery of an armored bank coach, an act more reminiscent of the revolutionary terror of the 1890s. As the book progresses, the Vlast slowly settles into this odd liminal space, seeming to have both tsarist and Soviet elements present at the same time. On top of that, while most modern authors working in secondary fantasy tend to blend and disguise their sources to create self-contained worlds, Higgins leaves his sources bare. It’s fairly easy to pick out characters and events from the trilogy and match them up with such-and-so from the real world.
Still, each book in the trilogy has its own particular blend of sources. For Wolfhound Century, the Vlast seems to be in a period that mixes elements of Russia from the 1910s, the late 1930s, and the early 1950s. The government of the Vlast has been purging its noble class, known as the Lezayre and herding them into ghettos, a conflation of the tsarist treatment of the Jews and the early Bolshevik’s treatment of “former persons” of the old regime. However, the government does not really seem to mandate the same sort of ideological conformity the Soviet system did, and is indeed at the start of a succession crisis clearly based on the crisis that followed Stalin’s death. The Vlast is also engaged in an war with the Archipelago, Higgins’ stand-in for the West, that it is slowly losing, but in Wolfhound Century the conflict is very much in the background. Overall, this mixture of events and people creates a sense of expectancy within the story. The old order is starting to crack, and new possibilities are starting to seep through.
This sense of decadence and emergence is also manifested literally in the novel in the form of the Pollandore. Hidden in the basement of the Lodka, the Vlast’s combination of the St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress and Moscow’s Lubyanka Building, the Pollandore is a great artifact created centuries ago by the eastern forest to preserve a remnant of the world that existed before the angels came. However, by the time of the Wolfhound Century, the Pollandore is breaking down as well, creating visions of alternate futures for the citizens of Mirgorod.
The point you make about the Vlast having lost its connection to the “deep past” is an interesting one, since the novel is filled with characters who have lost their pasts. Vissarion Lom has no memory of his childhood, Maroussia Shaumian is introduced searching for her birth father, and Lom’s friend Raku Vishnik is a dispossessed Lezayre who barely gets by as a city historian. While these dispossessions are the results of the policies of the Vlast government, there is also a greater element in play. Throughout the novel, the eastern forest wages an endless war against a single stone angel, alive and buried in the earth. While the forest wishes to maintain its dominance over the continent, the angel seeks to escape the world, and in humanity it finds the proper tools to assist it. There is a subtext to the novel that the history of the Vlast, particularly its drive to modernize, has been engineered by the angel to provide it a suitable technological base to construct a means of escaping the world. In a sense, the angel becomes a monstrous image of a modernizing Russia, driving the nation forward, changing everything in an instant, the wishes of the people be damned. It is worth noting that while there are Stalins in Wolfhound Century, there is no Lenin figure. There is a “Founder” who lived three centuries prior who founded Mirgorod and created the basis of the modern Vlast. There is certainly an implication that the Founder, while based on Peter the Great, does double duty as Lenin, both figures who imported knowledge from the outside in order to uplift and rebuild Russia into a modern state.
Of course, this is just my rudimentary take on the matter, and I’d love to see your impressions of the book’s discussion of historical memory.
Michal: As you pointed out, Lom’s situation in Wolfhound Century acts as a microcosm for the Vlast’s relationship with its history—the impression of angel skin into his forehead takes away his memories of what happened before in his childhood, sealing away his trauma. In the same way, what little we know of the Vlast before the coming of the angels is hidden away in secret libraries and banned books, suppressed by the state and lost to its greater populace. The surfacing of that knowledge for Lom also mirrors the release of historical memory stored in the Pollandore, if the forest succeeds against the angels.
The Pollandore is a fascinating concept because it’s not just a repository for the world that presaged the angels, but a living universe that houses the possibilities for what the present would be had that specific moment of historical trauma never happened. It stores the imagining of a world different from the dreary industrial nightmare of the current Vlast, and the reason the state locks it away is that allowing those ideas to seed among its citizens is dangerous. Authoritarian regimes are always very concerned with controlling the presentation of the past as both a legitimizing tactic but also in order to narrow the concept of what’s possible in the future. Wolfhound Century just takes this to the logical extreme: there is no past before the Vlast or before the angels. What existed before is irrelevant in the face of the new ideology. In part, this is because as far as historical traumas go, the first angel fall represented such a radical break that there isn’t any other way to mediate the event beyond forgetting. Not only is the memory of the past lost, but the very mechanism for remembering is rendered unstable.
Higgins exaggerates this process through fantasy, but it stands in for the numbness that characterized how people dealt with the excesses of Leninism and Stalinism and the War of Extermination in the East. I think that’s what makes Lom’s reawakening that much more powerful as he channels the idea of rediscovering and reinterpreting historical memory as well—owning trauma and learning from it rather than the more natural desire to bury it completely.
Continued in Part II.