Andrei Rubanov

Chelovek iz krasnogo dereva The Wooden People
Mystery novel. AST. Moscow 2021. 507 pages

The facts: After the christianization of Russia, old Russian wooden sculptures derived from Slavic pagan statues were still allowed in churches for a while. Finally, in 1722, the Orthodox Church banned all three-dimensional images of saints. During the Petrine period, almost all wooden figures were removed from the churches and destroyed: chopped up or burned.

The fiction: some statues, hidden by fanatical followers, escaped this "genocide" and either came to life independently or were breathed into life by others in a secret ritual. These wooden people do not get sick, can see well in the dark, do not grow old and do not die, they can only burn or die of an unhealed crack. Their conspiratorial activity consists mainly in maintaining and increasing their own people.

Antip, the main character, made of wood and brought to life 299 years ago, has been restoring the bodies of statues over the centuries and preparing them for the rite of "awakening" in addition to his camouflage occupations as ship builder, railroad sleeper producer and now cabinet maker. Most recently, he stole the head of an almost 1,000 year old pagan idol, soaked in sacrificial blood, fear and pain, from the famous historian Voroshilov, who owes his academic career to the wooden people. Without a head there is no awakening. Since the break-in, Antip has been harassed and hunted by the police as well as by an academic mafia that deals in fake figures. Something goes wrong during the awakening: not only does the pagan idol come to life, but also a small figure carved only as a model. Suddenly Antip has a kind of daughter and he is beset by human emotions. And the more Antip feels like a person, the more he is seduced by worldly temptations, the more he deviates from the original path and commits more sins: from more harmless to deadly ones.

Rubanov's novel is one of the few in this genre where a (wooden) “homunculus” himself tells the story of his life. In a kind of magical realism, we learn from his three hundred years of life, built as flashbacks within the action in the present and now, in which all the evil that weighs on him, as well as the new love that uplifts him, is approaching an inevitable culmination point.