Ekaterina Sedia’s Moscow But Dreaming draws upon the inner lives and outer terrors threatening her characters. In her first collection of short fiction, gathering together works that date back to 2005, the weight of history falls upon people’s shoulders as they struggle against cultural forces greater than they themselves can fully comprehend.
It’s easy to brand this collection as a melancholic book because Sedia is tapping into some sort of Russian national psyche. Many of these stories contain tantalizing and evocative references about the country’s national history and culture. These twenty-one stories, however, transcend national boundaries as Moscow But Dreaming addresses the themes of misplacement, loss, and yearning. Again and again, her characters cope with being stuck in places they did not choose to be in, or they wish to be in another elsewhere that they cannot access anymore. They become lost in the past and anxious about the future. Their emotional precariousness manifests itself in a myriad of ways, psychologically and literally. Monsters lurk under children’s beds and zombie Lenin stalks university hallways. Mythological heroes become office workers and long for noble deaths. A sock puppet rebels against its manipulated nature and peasant girls change into dormice.
Surreal and haunting, Moscow But Dreaming are fantasies that create a menacing and occasionally darkly comic vision of how people’s lives become infused by nightmares.
Russian fantasist Viktor Pelevin comes to mind as a comparison—not only because both writers share a nationality, but, like Pelevin, Sedia’s fiction evokes the metaphysical and the social as often as it does the fantastic. Characters are frightened by shifting cultural norms and supernatural terror. In the short but striking fable “Yakov and the Crows,” an office worker looks up at the sky and finds a solace in his avian companions. An adopted Russian girl suffers from psychological trauma witnessed at her orphanage, but is more scared of bedtime attacks from a mysterious beast in “There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed.”
Many other characters despair about Russia’s modern preoccupation with materialism and instead, they seek an alternative way of life. A down-and-out lesbian couple discovers their own magical natures and a better world in “Kikimora.” “By the Liter” combines psychic séance with heavy drinking as a group of men unwitting begin to absorb the memories of murdered mafia victims and dead businessmen. “Chapaev and the Coconut Girl” captures how nostalgia for a “simpler time” transforms into obsession as a female computer programmer tries to re-create an Indonesian goddess and a fallen Soviet war hero using AI.
In contrast, “The Bank of Burkina Faso” is a darkly comic novella that recognizes materialism in New Russia as only another form of spiritual longing against modernist isolation. Inspired by those email scams about hidden bank funds overseas, the story focuses on the Prince of Burundi, exiled in Moscow because his sums are kept in the inaccessible (and possibly non-existent) Bank of Burkina Faso. He writes pleading emails to strangers in search for that “foreign national” he needs to unlock his millions of dollars in limbo and reads others’ emails in sympathy. Luckily, he connects with another political exile searching for the same bank. The Prince’s childlike hope permeates this story and made the conclusion all the more touching.
Sedia shows great range in her creativity as the collection travels from Russia and Eastern Europe to the U.S. to mythological Japan (“Ebb and Flow”) to African villages (“Munashe and the Spirits”). Reaching globally and imaginatively, she manages to engage in various cultures without missing a beat. The most fantastical of her pieces is “A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas,” a sad and lyrical travelogue. In “Cherrystones and Shards of Ice” a town’s undead live in uneasy truce with the living. “Seas of the World” is the story most sparely told, but its brevity captures the enormity of loss.
Several of Sedia’s best stories in this collection are historical fantasies where supernatural violence and actual violence are only two sides of the same coin. In “Tin Cans,” an old man hired as the nighttime security guard at the Tunisian Embassy in Moscow is haunted by terrible memories and sad ghosts: it is revealed that the building once housed the sadistic head of Stalin’s secret police, Lavrenti Beria. A strange creature stalks the streets during the Siege of Leningrad in “A Handsome Fellow.” For those not familiar with Russian history, the Siege was one of the greatest stories of survival to come out of World War II and provided a heightened, desperate backdrop. The fall of the White Army during the Russian Revolution is captured in the “End of White” and it reminds me of Bulgokov’s stories of the same vein.
My personal favorites, however, were the tales of pure weirdness, when fantasy bleeds into reality. For example, “Zombie Lenin” manages to tackle the undead, feminism, and the social confusion of post-Communist Russia inside ten riveting pages. “You Dream” also packs a strong punch as the narrator returns to her childhood home and confronts her past abuse. “One, Two, Three” and “A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets” are stories about children who become literal demons or are simply misunderstood.
Moscow But Dreaming showcases the talent that Sedia has at unveiling darkness. True horror, she writes, is found not only in the worlds in our head or the world we walk through, but in their seamless amalgamation. After the book is closed, there remains an uneasy message about how our realities—the past, the personal, the political—can easily shift at the flick of a light switch or the collapse of a wall. Once that happens, the only choice left is how to navigate that new reality—even if the way seems like madness.