Aelita Science Fiction Conference - Yekaterinburg, Russia

Fans, writers, and publishers gathered from across Russia and as far away as New Zealand for Aelita, Russia's oldest science fiction conference. The convention was held July 29-31 in Yekaterinburg, the nation's third largest city, in the heart of the Ural Mountains, two time zones east of Moscow. Which, as the foreign guest of honor, I am able to testify is a long, long way from Philadelphia. Particularly when a late departure from JFK stranded me in Sheremetyevo-2 airport for nine hours.

Luckily I was met by Alexei Bezougly (who missed his own plane as a result) and he and his wife Olga took advantage of the unscheduled layover to show off some of the highlights of the capital, including Red Square, GUM, the famed Metro stations, and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. So I was tired but not unhappy when I arrived in Yekaterinburg twenty-seven hours after stepping out of my front door.

Aelita is built around the yearly presentation of the Aelita award, given for an author's total contribution to science fiction. Which effectively makes it Russia's science fiction hall of fame. This year's winner was Vasily Golovatchyov, the best-selling author of forty science fiction books published in the last ten years, with a cumulative total of twenty million copies in sales. Also attending was Gennady Prashkevitch, last year's winner, famed for his hard science fiction. The Aelita is named after an early Russian science fiction novel by Alexei Tolstoi, and Prashkevitch thought it particularly amusing that Golovatchyov had won the award since he had written a sequel to that book.

Neither Vasily nor Gennady spoke English and I had no Russian at all, so I missed out entirely on their conversation. Which, judging by the reactions of others present, was like hanging out with (say) Harry Harrison and Phil Klass and not understanding English. But I shall cherish forever the memory of Gennady making small children shriek with laughter by dropping coins into the pond at a city park to draw in hungry and gullible koi.

Other writers present included Dmitry Shubin, sometimes called the "the Russian cyberpunk," conference organizer Boris Dolingo, Vladislav Krapivin, Sergei Drugal, Dmitry Skiryuk, and Alexei Ivanov, who won this year's Start award (or perhaps "Liftoff" would be a better translation) for best new writer. His book Korabli i Galaktika (Starships and Galaxies) is a collection of stories and novellas. In the current Russian publishing climate, short fiction is particularly difficult to sell, so Ivanov's accomplishment was doubly praiseworthy.

Aelita enjoyed media coverage that would turn a Worldcon organizer green with envy. A press conference featuring the writer guests, the organizers Boris Dolingo and Yuegeny Permyakov, and a representative from the U-Factory publishing house, was covered by four television stations and a room full of reporters. My favorite moment was when, asked why last year's conference, with Robert Sheckley (whose work is highly admired in Russia) had a larger attendance than this year's, Dolingo explained, "Swanwick is a writer. Sheckley is a god." Events were located in different venues in central Yekaterinburg, all within walking distance of each other.

The convention was funded neither by admissions nor by local fans. Instead, it was sponsored by the municipal administration of Yekaterinburg, Mobile TeleSystem, Triline, Comspec, U-Factory, and the bookstore 100,000 Books. Media sponsors were TV channel Studio 41, radio studios Echo of Moscow and Talk Radio 107.6 FM, and the Urals Worker. The internet provider was the Uralrelcom Company. U-Factory debuted a handsome anthology of original works by new writers titled Aelita at the con. If it sells well enough, it will become a yearly publication.

On the last day of the conference, attendees loaded into a bus for a picnic outside of town by a monument marking the dividing line between Europe and Asia. En route, the bus stopped at a cemetery where Vitaly Bugrov is buried and fans placed flowers on his grave. Bugrov was the science fiction editor for the now-defunct Urals Pathfinder magazine and founded Aelita in 1982. The ceremony was simple and touching and the cemetery, as thick with trees as a forest, was strikingly beautiful.

The "Roadside Picnic" itself was unlike anything I've ever seen at an American convention. There was a mock "War of the Worlds" between Asia and Europe, with fans from both sides firing at balloon targets with a pellet gun. (For my Irish ancestry, I was made an honorary European; but my marksmanship was no match for the many Kalashnikov-trained veterans of the Russian Army.) A presentation was made promoting the eventual creation of a city straddling the borderline itself to serve as a metaphor for the amity of people on both continents. And of course there was a great deal of food and wine and conversation. A personal highlight for me was meeting Sergey Kazantsev, who, with Bugrov, co-founded Aelita, and happens to know many cosmonauts personally.

On the bus back, I was told that for most of the fans meeting me was like meeting E.T. This was compounded for local fans because until recently Yekaterinburg was a closed city, forbidden to foreigners. This was because it's the largest industrial center in Russia. The Uralsky Mashinostroitelny Zavod (Urals Factory of Heavy Machine Construction), known locally as "Uralmash" is one of the largest factories in the world, occupies an area kilometers in circumference, and at one time employed 50,000 people.

Yekaterinburg is humming with change. Before Perestroika, there were only two restaurants in all the city. Now there's a great variety of cuisines available and all of it good - though I doubt the Buffalo wings I had at the Old Dublin Irish Pub would win John Kessel's approval. Car ownership has quadrupled over the past few years, and there is new construction everywhere As a result, the historic center is a mix of Tsarist, Soviet, and postmodern architecture, making it a great walking city. I stayed for a week after the convention to get to know it, and still managed to miss seeing most of the museums.

The chief local attraction in Yekaterinburg is the Cathedral on the Blood, built on the site where the last Tsar and his family were murdered. Large and lavish, with gold domes and luxurious stonework, it was built in only two years! Outside of town, the remote forest site where the royal family's remains were buried has been turned into a monastery with many beautiful wooden churches. In the Soviet Era, Yekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk, after Yakov Sverdlov, the man who signed the orders to kill Nicholas II and his family. Now the original name has been restored, and all the churches dynamited by the Communists have been rebuilt - an awesome demonstration of the power of organized religion.

After the convention, I spent some time with Andrew Matveev who, during Soviet times, was a dissident writer. His sin was not political, but cultural. He wanted to write about rock and roll, and his literary heroes were writers like Hunter S. Thompson and William S. Burroughs. For this he was sent into internal exile, assigned unpleasant jobs, and told his books would never see print. Today he makes a living as a journalist and writer. So it was an emotional experience for us both that we could meet and talk together with his family in their flat, without fear of anybody denouncing him to the KGB for doing so.

Even with my brief and superficial exposure to the realities of Russian life, I could not help feeling hopeful for their future. The shops are full of goods, both Russian and foreign, the food is plentiful and cheap, and the country seems to be shaking off the damage done by the financial crisis of 1998.

In the evenings there were live bands in the little park in front of the Bolshoy Ural Hotel, where I stayed. Every night I fell asleep to the sounds of music and laughter.

© 2004 by Michael Swanwick; a different version first appeared in Asimov's

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