Stalin, Stalin, wherefore art thou Stalin?
Alasdair: But even the Lodka cannot outrun Rizhin forever. As Lom searches the abandoned Lodka for Chazia’s secret archive, he is followed inside by Rizhin’s police agents, tasked by the President-Commander with demolishing the building. Despite the best efforts of the vyrdalak sisters, they succeed in their mission, and the Lodka, the final landmark of old Mirgorod, goes up in flames. And yet there is something curious about this event. In spite of the destruction of centuries worth of police files and confiscated artifacts, the novel emphatically describes the Lodka’s demise as “a good thing.” The immolation of the Lodka is another in the trilogy’s endless series of historical breaks, but it is one with a double meaning. On the one hand, it severs the last link Rizhin’s Mirgorod has with the Mirgorod of the Novozhd, the Mirgorod we were introduced to all the way back in Wolfhound Century. However, the demolition is also the first major act of Lom’s campaign to free the Vlast of the angel’s (and by extension, Rizhin’s) influence once and for all.
Lom’s final quest in Radiant State is to remove Rizhin from power, a task given to him by Maroussia from across the veil. However, this is not the task of a sniper’s bullet; as Maroussia explains, Rizhin must be “unmade.” To properly excise him from the world, the mechanisms that brought about his rise to power must be turned against him. To this end, Lom gets into contact with Lukasz Kistler, one of the most independent-minded members of Rizhin’s inner circle and Wolfhound Empire’s probable analogue for Nikita Khrushchev. The second third of the novel consists of Lom’s search for documentary evidence that Kistler can use to sway the rest of the inner circle to support Kistler against Rizhin. Lom’s quest takes him north to the Vitigorsk cosmodrome for the evidence of Rizhin’s space program, then down to Rizhin’s dacha in the south to free Kistler once Rizhin catches wind of their plans.
I must confess that I had problems with this resolution to the trilogy. Taken on its own it works just fine; it’s the perfect way to dethrone the wicked king and rejuvenate the land when the “king” is a 20th century military dictator. When taken as an analogy for Stalinism and Soviet communism, however, something about the execution falls flat. No matter what the characters struggle through and endure, the entire thing feels a bit too pat, at least to my taste.
It’s a feeling I’ve had with other works depicting fantasy versions of the Soviet state, particularly Christian Gossett’s The Red Star comics. If I had to put it into words, I would say that the ultimate problem is that these stories depict the defeat of something that was never defeated in our world. Both The Red Star and Wolfhound Empire depict bands of heroes on quests to free their homelands of Stalinist tyranny, but Stalin was never overthrown. He survived, won his wars, and built a society that imposed itself both by force and replication across most of Eurasia in the middle of the twentieth century. Even as Stalin died and the Soviet Union became a “conservative communist” state, still the system endured over the decades, dutifully maintained by men who had come of age during the Stalin years. It took until the 1980s for that generation to depart from public life, and a case could be made that the Soviet Union died with them. When Gorbachev came onto the scene in 1985 his reforms, rather that charting a new course away from Stalin’s legacy, instead fatally undermined the system’s theoretical justifications led to its destruction in less than a decade. As much as we may hate it, Stalin has become a part of our collective history, and we have to deal with him as such.
As an example of the problems Wolfhound Empire has in grappling with Stalin, consider the question of ideology. Rizhin’s New Vlast has all the posters, parades, and red bunting of Stalin’s USSR, but what it lacks is its Marxism. Indeed, both Vlasts are not bound by any sort of complex ideological underpinning that we as readers can see. Now, philosophical wrestling is not for everyone (indeed, I have very little talent for it myself), and I don’t fault authors who put it aside to tell their story. But understanding Marxism is critical to understanding Stalin, both for deciphering his worldview and the state he built. Without it, any depiction of Stalin becomes only a partial portrait, a smudged reflection.
This, ultimately, is the problem with Osip Rizhin in Radiant State. To put it crudely, he walks Stalin’s walk, but he doesn’t talk Stalin’s talk. Indeed, his relationship to the Vlast and its history is less fraught than Stalin’s is to the Soviet Union. Rizhin may have rebuilt the Vlast in his own image, but at the end of the day he’s little more than the mere terrorist Josef Kantor with some forged credentials, and shrugging off his six-year reign of terror, while difficult, is not impossible. By contrast, Stalin is wound deeply into the heart of the Soviet Union. He spent his formative years in the Bolshevik underground, and in 1917 he was in Petrograd before Lenin himself arrived. He served faithfully in the civil war, and became the man who made the Soviet bureaucracy work. When he assumed power and began to rebuild the country according to his ideals, he was quoting Marx and Lenin all the way. After his death, his inner circle released the zeks, denounced “deviations” that were made from the party line, and hid his body away in the Kremlin wall, but they never figured out what to do about him. It’s a question his successors were never able to answer until 1991 came around and rendered the whole issue moot.
As a result of this, certain parts of Radiant State that make direct reference to Soviet history occasionally feel a bit off. Midway through the book, Yeva and Galina Cornelius, on the long trek back to their mother Elena in Mirgorod, travel through lands blighted by state-engineered famine. The passages describing the dying peasants and barren landscape are haunting, but they feel like a superfluous diversion. They lack the dimensions of the historical collectivization campaign, which were rooted in Soviet theories of agriculture and Stalin’s desire to properly extend the rule of the Party to the provinces, and as a result the famine feels more like generic autocratic cruelty rather than something uniquely horrific. Later on in the story, Rizhin’s inner circle finally oust him by criticizing “the cult of personality” he fostered around himself. Now, “the cult of personality” was a common phrase used to criticize Stalin in the later 1950s, but what the novel misses is that the phrase was a sleight-of-hand, a way to criticize Stalin without criticizing Stalin, and one that could still only be safely done after he was dead. It also doesn’t entirely get to the root of the Stalin cult which, according to writers like Maxim Gorky, may have been an essential part of Soviet society, with the leader acting as the avatar of the collective will of the nation.
Of course, all of this criticism is based on my own idiosyncrasies. I am certain you saw Rizhin’s arc in the novel quite differently, Michal?
Michal: In the previous two novels, I wondered if the connection of Josef Kantor to Stalin was anything more than basic echo–Kantor did not strike me then as a direct analogue, more a meeting of the mythology that surrounds anarchist revolutionaries and communist leaders in the 20th century. Radiant State, however, has Kantor-as-Rizhin replaying scenes from Stalin’s biography, such as going for a vacation and making his high officials drink and dance throughout the night. This undermines the character, to a certain extent. Previously, he was a nearly blank slate who assumed ideological archetypes to advance his own cruelty, and that was interesting to me in a way Papa Rizhin the dictator was not. It’s not until we have the reveal of his cosmic master plan that his function in the novel really clicked into place for me.
That’s also precisely the moment when Rizhin stops trying to fill Stalin’s shoes.
Stalin looms large in Russian popular discourse to this day, and you could say that his complex legacy still bears the mark of uncertainty over how to deal with The Man Himself. Kantor’s ascendance as Rizhin has him assume the mythological aura of the twentieth century strongman, but while Stalin’s past underwent a process of constant refinement and modification there is still a person there with all the messiness that humanity brings. Kantor, on the other hand, extends his philosophy to his personal life. We cannot find the complexities of the historical Stalin that make him a fascinating if terrifying figure; the ways he dealt with friends and enemies, his overwhelming love for his daughter or other touches of humanity that disturbed the myths he built around himself and which the Soviet administration actively encouraged. We never learn about Kantor’s past because he has discarded it; there is no “real man” behind the dictator Rizhin because when Kantor changed names, he discarded everything from that past. This is why Lom cannot topple him just by revealing his past crimes. Nobody really cares about who Rizhin was, largely because Rizhin does not care about who he was.
With his final plan revealed, the man transcends historical allegory. I admit that the grand villain of the trilogy in both his Kantor and Rizhin guises was never as compelling as I think Higgins wanted him to be, but the place he serves justifies his presence in the end: someone who was human but no longer thinks like one, creating a new self that is the literal embodiment of modernity’s obsession with the notion of progress. He is the most extreme of extreme ideologues, who has no political desire beyond burning away the memories of the human race and reforming us into something else entirely.
Maybe that’s why his end falls flat when seen in the light of the trilogy’s relationship to Soviet history. Higgins centres the push-and-pull of the Vlast’s unnatural, trauma-ridden development in the mechanisms of totalitarianism but outside the communist principles that underpinned the way those mechanisms particularly developed in Eastern Europe. Maybe this is just a part of a trend among British Marxists to separate socialism from the Soviet Union as distinct, incompatible entities, and that Marxism does not ultimately matter when interpreting the history of the Soviet Union because the Russian version wasn’t “true” Marxism at all. But I take a more positive interpretation: that Higgins is using the fantasy of the Vlast to universalize the Soviet experience and use that history and cultural baggage to bring about familiarity through strangeness. That way, we see through this Russian-coloured world the contradictions and issues that ultimately affected the world at large as we entered into the nuclear age.
And that, I hold, is what makes Wolfhound Empire worth reading.
It’s sloppy, overstuffed, filled with loose and dangling ends (Why did we waste so much time with Lom trying to get information that we already knew, and was ultimately meaningless?), but it has something to say, and Higgins is so utterly committed to saying it that you can’t help but follow.
Alasdair: I suppose it is something of a testament to the sloppy, overstuffed, and idiosyncratic nature of this trilogy that we’ve spent almost the entirety of this review talking more about the antagonist of the final novel than either of the erstwhile protagonists. Still, in spite of all my criticisms, I agree with your ultimate assessment of Wolfhound Empire. As I mentioned in our review of Truth and Fear, there is a lot stuffed into these three books, and perhaps the form of a three-volume fantasy trilogy was the wrong shape for this story to take. Still, I do have a soft spot for works that are both flawed and captivating, and even while I still don’t quite understand all of what Higgins was doing with his story, I have not been as enthralled by a work of fantasy since Ian R. Macleod’s The Light Ages and House of Storms.
I do find it a shame that these books have received very little discussion in genre circles. I suppose part of the issue may have been that people who read Wolfhound Century couldn’t quite figure out what to make of Higgins’ mix of weird fantasy, science fiction, and Soviet history. As I mentioned in our very first review, I was in the same camp until Adam Roberts’ discussion of the whole trilogy back in January convinced me to take a proper second look. There’s also room for a discussion about whether or not Higgins’ topics of interest fit into the current fixations of the field at large, but that is far too great a discussion to begin here. If I am to be honest with myself, however, I don’t really care whether or not “the greater sf/f community” liked or disliked them. Wolfhound Empire resonated with me, both with its depiction of a fantasy-Soviet state and the issues of Soviet history it grappled with, and at the end of the day that’s good enough for me. While they might not have won awards, the books were wonderful experiments in fantasy, and I’m deeply glad I read them. I also had a wonderful time talking about them with you, Michal, and I hope you did too.
Michal: Thanks for dropping by, Alasdair. The rest of the internet might not be talking about these books, but we certainly spilled a lot of verbiage, and it’s been a pleasure having you.