Mar 18, 2008

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia

It is the 1990’s, and strange things have been happening in the city of Moscow. Owls have been seen flying in the daytime. Increasing numbers of people have been disappearing. Galina’s younger sister, Masha, gives birth in the bathroom of their apartment, and then joins the ranks of those who have gone missing. Looking out the window, her sister sees a jackdaw with strangely human eyes. Meanwhile, a policeman named Yakov sees a man turn into a jackdaw, this on the same day he adopts a baby crow that fell from its nest. Galina and Yakov meet when the police begins to investigate Masha’s disappearance, and then are led by a street painter named Fyodor to an underground world beneath Moscow.

In this world, inhabited by creatures from Slavic folklore and fairy tales, as well as figures from Russia’s historical past, all three main characters are confronted with significant things from their past. At the same time, they have to discover why it is that people have been turning into birds, and why this dark mythical world underground has become intertwined with the equally dark world of Russian politics and crime.

I have always been fascinated by Russia (or should I say, by the idea of Russia), especially by its folklore. So it was wonderful to find figures like Father Frost, Koscher the Deathless, Gamayun, the domovoye or the rusalki in the pages of this book. Curiously, at one point in the novel a character says that Russia has very little original folklore, most of it having been imported and then absorbed. While I wouldn’t argue with this, I find it interesting to see how that process of absorption gave these foreign stories a local colouring so unique that no one now would think of them as anything but Russian. The land, after all, shapes the stories that are told within it. When we think of the Baba Yaga, for example, we think of Slavic forests that might never have exists as we imagine them, but are nonetheless a fundamental part of how we portray Russia in our minds. It is as if the land we see in the stories is an exaggeration of itself. I think that the same can possibly be said of the Moscow we see in this book.

The underground world that Ekaterina Sedia created is an intriguing place filled with underground rivers and forests, with dark secrets, with albino crows and jackdaws, with suppressed pain, with pet rats, with oblivion, and with surprising revelations. It is inhabited not only by figures from half-forgotten myths and tales, but also by those who, at some point in history, badly needed rescue – especially if the world had just taken a turn that meant that there was no longer a place for them above ground. Examples of this are a Jewish family who escaped the prosecutions of the 1880’s, the widow of one of the Decembrists, and a group of Napoleonic soldiers. While reading this book, I often stopped to look these and other historical events up – not that you need to be very familiar with Russian history to enjoy it, but doing so enriched my reading experience.

My one problem with this story was that, while the world it was set in completely absorbed me, I feel that I failed to care about the characters as much as I should have. But by this I don’t mean that they are uninteresting or one-dimensional. It was as if I were too busy looking around in awe to care about what came ahead. The ending, a bittersweet one that shows that real magic (as certain choices in life) always comes at a price, somehow failed to touch me. I was disappointed that there was no more book to read, but sadly I was left more or less indifferent to the fate of the characters.

Still, as you may have gathered by now, I found The Secret History of Moscow a charming book. Even though it portrays Moscow as the rough and unfriendly city it no doubt can be, it made me want to visit it. This novel shows that, alongside its uglier side, Moscow is a place full of history, mystery and its own kind of magic.

Other Opinions:
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Neil Gaiman's Journal


  1. OK, I want to go out and get this book now! I haven't read much literature set in Russia, but what I've read, I've loved. There's something about Russia that's just always fascinated me...I don't know why. That's too bad that the ending left you a little indifferent, but I know the feeling...I've been the same way with some get so carried away in the culture of the book that you forget it's characters! I'll have to check this one out for sure. I'll have to remember it for Carl's challenge.

  2. Sounds like "there's just something about Russia" for a lot of people. I was sold after your first paragraph! And it really says something about the book that the characters didn't captivate you and yet the book as a whole was still so enjoyable. I sure hope our library has this, or I'm afraid I might break my non-buying streak :)

  3. Boy, this really sounds intriguing. I, also, love reading about Russia and must put this on the tbr list. Thanks for the review!

  4. This sounds interesting, Nymeth. I have never read anything about Russia or its history, so this book will be an 'eye-opener' for me. Thanks for the review. :)

  5. It's a shame the ending let you down by not getting you to care overly about the characters. It does sound like the sort of book I would like though. Where do you find these things I have never heard of?!?

  6. I always wonder the same thing as Rhinoa! Where do you find all of these awesome books that no one's ever heard of? lol...

  7. Chris: It's the same with me. There is something about's there, it's huge, and at the same time it's so distant and obscure. I think that the problem with the ending was more mine than the book's. Anyway, I'm pretty sure you'd enjoy this one!

    Debi: I hope you manage to find it at the library. It really is a fascinating book. Like I told Chris I think the problem with the character was mostly mine. But fortunately it didn't keep me from enjoying it.

    Nicola, you're welcome! I hope you enjoy this one :)

    Melody: It was an eye-opener for me too. I never quite realized how ignorant I was about Russian history. I did learn about it at school, but so much was left out. This book made me want to read more.

    Rhinoa (and Chris again): It was a shame, but like I told others I blame myself. Sometimes the mood you're in just leaves you oddly indifferent to things. Anyway, I do think this is your sort of book. I first heard about it when Neil Gaiman mentioned it on his blog ( here).Shortly thereafter I read this wonderful review at Endicott Redux and knew I had to read it!

  8. ooh ooh ooh! this looks brilliant!


    ever since "american gods" my interest in slavic folklore really has been piqued and this looks like the perfect book to indulge that curiosity!

    what a great little book-discoveror you are!

  9. JP: American Gods did a lot to peak my interest in Slavic myths too. I can't believe I forgot to mention it, but Neil Gaiman's blurb for this book says "A lovely, disconcerting book that does for Moscow what I hope my own Neverwhere may have done for London." There is definitely something Neverwhere-ish about this one!

  10. This does sound good! Even with the character issue, it sounds like it's well worth reading. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth.

  11. I am sad to admit that I really haven't read a whole lot of Russian literature and my knowledge of its history really only revolves around the early-mid part of the 20th century. This one sounds like a great piece to get a little bit more familiar with Russia and its lore

  12. Literary Feline: I do think it's very much worth reading :)

    Trish: Same here, really. But I did learn a thing or two from this book!


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