Ukraine – Vita Nostra

Sometimes I have absolutely no idea where to start. Should I try and tie the book to Ukraine somehow? See if I can find a connection to the Soviet Union or the post-Communist era? Maybe there is something to be said about Ukrainian/Russian/Soviet university dorms (I’ll get to that), and see if I can compare them to British Boarding Schools for unwanted children (no idea)? Or maybe I should talk about fear and psychological horror? Let’s go with that.

Psychological horror is a genre in which fear is the dominant theme. Not the fear of the crazed murderer confronting a woman in the shower, but rather fear of the idea of what will happen to that woman if she doesn’t do what he says. It can be any idea, or any suggestion, and it doesn’t have to come from a crazed murderer. Any person with a hold over the character will suffice. Fear, paranoia, desperation and then despair, generated by suggestion rather than action, these are the characteristics of a good psychological horror. And when that psychological horror turns out to also be an honest to goodness fantasy? Well that is Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Yes you’ve got to read the book.

What Does He Want?

“You will Sasha. You will. Because the world around you is very fragile. Every day people fall down, break their bones, die under the wheels of a car, drown, get hepatitis or tuberculosis. I really don’t want to tell you all this. But it is in your best interest to do everything I ask of you. It’s not complicated.”

Alexandra (Sasha) Samokhina is with her single mother on a seaside vacation. She has been looking forward to this vacation for months: to the water, the waves and a chance to just swim. This is happiness, happiness stolen away by the man with the dark glasses.

On her way back from the beach, Sasha encounters Farit Kozhenikov, although she doesn’t know his name at the time, or anything about him for that matter. All she knows is that she is afraid of him, and that he is following her. Sasha’s mother thinks she is being ridiculous, but her mother is not the one forced to keep repeating the same day over and over again. What does he want?

Well apparently, all he wants is for her to wake up every day at 04:00 in the morning, go to the beach, undress, swim one hundred meters and touch a buoy. For this she will be well compensated (after each swim she pukes up gold coins). It’s not like Farit is asking for the impossible. It’s up to Sasha to come up with the appropriate lies to tell her mother. Farit doesn’t care how the task is accomplished so long as it is done. Why? Does it really matter?

Sasha spends the rest of her vacation being psychologically conditioned to obey Farit’s demands. She then returns home, gets a few months reprieve before Farit reappears and assigns her a new task. Once she finishes this task, she is accepted into the Institute of Special Technologies in the remote town of Torpa. No, it’s not Hogwarts. It makes even less sense.

Fear Is A Strong Motivator

“It is the consequence of objective unyielding laws. To live is to be vulnerable. To love is to fear. And the one who is not afraid – that person is calm like a boa constrictor and cannot love.”

Vita Nostra is a book about fear and love, and the things you do out of love and out of fear for loved ones, but it is much more than that. This book is also about change, and the need to let go, even when those you love make choices that make zero sense.

To do as she is required, Sasha is forced to lie to her mother. Sasha loves her mother. However, she knows what Farit is capable of, and she is too scared to take any risks. If this means failing high school, she’ll fail high school. If it means not getting into any universities, she won’t get into any universities. She was told to attend the Institute at Torpa, and that is what she does. If it drives a wedge between Sasha and her mother then it is a price Sasha will pay to protect her. It’s all for the best.

Surprisingly enough yes it is actually for the best, although I won’t reveal how. The book is divided into three parts, for the three years Sasha spends at the institute before receiving her placement. The first part is what I have mostly covered: Farit’s fear tactics that force her into the Institute. However, there are also the actual studies at the Institute itself, and these make no sense.

The most important lesson at the institute is Specialty, which includes lectures on theory and individual studies. Specialty is not magic. There are no spellbooks, wands or potions. Instead each student receives a textbook full of gibberish that they need to memorize, and exercises in forming mental constructs. The short-tempered lecturer who teaches this class is Portnov, and failure to follow his instructions will result in Farit getting involved. Sasha is quick to master these classes.

Difficult, But Worth It

“You will understand. Just a little bit of time, and things will get easier. You will realize that you are not being punished, but rather rewarded, and that you have a fascinating, exciting life and enormous possibilities ahead of you. Believe me, Sasha, you are going to be very happy very soon.”

I had a very hard time listening to this novel. What Sasha experiences in the first part is truly horrific on many levels. There is the fear of the encounter with Farit, which her mother disbelieves, meaning she has no one to turn to, while he enslaves her. Yes, this was enslavement. For months Sasha performs the tasks Farit assigns to her out of pure fear, and drives her loved ones away in the process. She even convinces herself that her mother is better off without her. I was genuinely convinced the Institute of Special Technologies is some sort of cult. It wasn’t. First it was worse and then it became better – also for me as the listener..

Leaving home for the first time is very difficult, even if necessary. Life at the Institute’s dormitory is a very different experience for Sasha who was alone for the first time in her life (I said I’d get to it). She is completely independent while also a slave, living with other slaves. Of course tensions are high, but there is also vodka, partying, studying, weird second year students, first love and obnoxious roommates. These changes are an important growing up experience, and weirdly they kind of serve as a reminder why the experience is necessary.

The studies change Sasha. Unwillingly. Very unwillingly. She would love for her mother to rescue her, but that’s not possible. No one can prevent their child from growing up, no matter how much they desire, and what Sasha is experiencing is a kind of horrific growing up experience. Once the process is completed, she becomes a beautiful butterfly. However, imagine taking a caterpillar, locking it up in a cocoon with no explanation for several years, and you will get an inkling of what she experienced. Except this butterfly will have the words to make a difference and this means everything in the world.

The Omer today is kindness in kingship. The kindness in this book is the one you need the most, but don’t always get. When things are at their worst and you need someone to offer you a helping hand, except you’ve managed to convince yourself that you are unworthy somehow. Sasha will have to relearn her own worth because kindness is offered to her, and her fellow students will have to learn to accept kindness from her as well. No matter how bad things get, there is always someone out there willing to lend a hand – because you are worth it.

Kingship is the great spoiler of this book, which I won’t reveal. There are certain concepts that govern the way our world works, like love, fear and change. There are also words that can describe these concepts and thus help define them. How these shape the world in Vita Nostra? You really should read the book.

About The Authors and Translator

Marina And Sergey Dyachenko, a former actress and a former psychiatrist, are the coauthors of twenty-eight novels and numerous short stories and screenplays. They were born in Ukraine, lived in Russia, and now live in the United States. Their books have been translated into several foreign languages and awarded multiple literary and film prizes, including the 2005 Eurocon award for Best Author. They live in Marina Del Rey, California. 

About the Translator Julia Meitov Hersey originally began her translation of Vita Nostra because she wanted her family to share her love for this striking example of urban psychological science fiction and fantasy, with its literary allusions and ominous atmosphere. Born in Moscow, Julia studied journalism at Moscow State University; at the age of nineteen she moved to Boston, and now lives on a beautiful peninsula north of the city.

Vita Nostra

Authors: Marina Dyachenko and Sergey Dyachenko

Translator: Julia Meitov Hersey

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Published: 2018

Pages: 416

Format reviewed: Audio