Serafima and Bogdan


Serafima ja Bogdan

Serafima and Bogdan (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Vemsa OÜ, 2017, pp. 560

In 2017, Vahur Afanasjev’s monumental novel Serafima and Bogdan won the Estonian Writers’ Union’s novel-writing competition. Set primarily during the Soviet occupation, the book delves into the lives of the Russian Orthodox Old Believers populating the shore of Lake Peipus on Estonia’s eastern border: communities that, in the 17th century, fled to the peripheries of the former Russian Empire in the wake of sweeping and violent church reforms. The plot stretches across the period between the end of the Second World War and the late 1980s, when Estonia’s independence was restored. Afanasjev has remarked that Serafima and Bogdan is a violent comedy about responsibility and revenge, and was inspired by the Norse sagas. In his novel, the author captures the intricacies of an entirely unique community with a language and practices entirely unlike those of the surrounding populations, scattered along a breath-taking freshwater shore on the eastern limits of Europe.

After the Second World War, the way of life practiced for centuries by this Russian-language community was broken down methodically by the occupying Soviet regime: a process that unfolds in Afanasjev’s novel without glossing over its brutality. Partly fanned by a shattered world, partly by the shattering of lives, a plot for revenge smoulders and finally flares after the obliteration of one Old Believer family. The twin protagonists – Serafima and Bogdan – are the youngest and sole surviving family members after the murders of their father and brothers. Serafima is already married to the culprit of the brutal crime: an ethnically Estonian Soviet police officer who becomes the novel’s loathsome antagonist. The woman, deprived of everything she once had, is a worthy adversary for her heinous husband: a bona fide goddess of revenge, unusual for Estonian literature, who dedicates her entire existence to destruction. Bogdan, a short-sighted poet and a practiser of unusual, wide-ranging Eastern beliefs, lives in hiding in the endless marshes of the Emajõe River delta, and devotes himself to his sister’s plot once he is reunited with her. In the end of this extraordinary Lake Peipus saga, every branch of the family tree meets its accursed end.

The tale of Serafima and Bogdan is but one thread in the book, which paints a vivid picture of the characters’ exceptional world: the Old Believers’ villages and lifestyle, faith, language, and arcane names. It is part fairy tale, part ethnographic portrayal of a community rich in traditions and history; of a people and a way of life that suffered grievously under the Soviet regime, which the author details and picks apart with rare, skilled precision.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee

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