The irresistible pull of the past
October 29, 2022
  • Nikolai Kulbaka
    Free University
Nikolai Kulbaka analyzes the rise of alternative history literature – the popadanets, typically featuring contemporary Russians who travel back to the recent or distant past – and what it reveals of today Russian society.
The original text in Russian was published by N+1 and republished with small changes with their permission.
Number of books in the Encyclopedia of Popadantsy
Popadanstvo is the Russian name for a variety of alternative history literature that has gained great popularity with Russian readers over the last two decades. Such books – the plot of which is based on a person (a popadanets) from contemporary Russia traveling into the past – account for a considerable share of today’s book market.

Fans of the popadanstvo genre are constantly updating an online catalog of such works called The Complete Encyclopedia of Popadantsy into the Past. Over the 11 years of its existence, it has been updated more than 25 times; in the latest edition, there are 2,087 entries for individual books and series.

How did these books come about?

It is difficult to say exactly when this genre originated in Russia. The first books seemed to appear in 2004. Already in 2006, a forum called In the "Whirlwind of the Times" was registered, bringing together authors and fans of the genre. Meanwhile, in September 2011 the first Encyclopedia of Popadantsy was compiled. Since then, 26 editions have been published. The rising number of works there reflects the rising interest in the genre. Unfortunately, even in web archives there is no information about the 5th and 6th editions, though I managed to find all the rest.
Distribution of authors by year of birth
Indeed, the genre is experiencing exponential growth. A slight decrease in the penultimate 25th edition is attributable to the fact that works deleted by the authors or abandoned at the initial stages were purged from the encyclopedia. Of course, some books didn’t make it in right away, but nevertheless the rising number of books can be taken as an indication of the rising popularity of the genre – approximately every 3-4 years, the number of works has doubled. It will be interesting to see what will change in the next edition, which – if the authors don’t slow down – can be expected by the beginning of next year.

Who writes them?

First of all, the vast majority of popadanstvo writers aren’t professionals. And although some of them have achieved fame, few people outside fans of the genre have heard of them. Ten percent of the authors are so secretive that neither their age nor biography is known. Still, the age of 167 authors could be determined. Ninety-nine percent of the authors are men. Note that the few female authors most often send their heroes and heroines to pre-revolutionary times.
Let us now look at the distribution of authors by year of birth.
Relative distribution of popadanstvo authors (Number of authors/Number of men of the same age as of 2020 x 1,000)
Popadanstvo books are written by people of all ages: the youngest author, born in 1991, could easily be the grandson of the oldest, born in 1946. However, the vast majority were born from 1961 through 1973.

That said, recall that there are significantly fewer people in the older generation in Russia. Thus, the data has been adjusted to account for the share of a given age in the overall population as of 2020 (see the chart below). 

We thus see a convergence in the share of the older generation of authors, though the peaks remain the same, with the largest number of authors born in 1961 and 1973. It is also clear that interest in the genre falls off among writers born after 1978. So, apart from the late Soviet generation, the peaks for popadanstvo authors are 1963, 1971-73 and 1978.

Let's try to hypothesize why that is so.

In 1991, those born in 1963 were 28 years old. They had graduated from the institute five years before – a career, military or civilian, opened up before them. But the crisis of 1991 deprived them of all those prospects. This was the generation that employers swiftly laid off – they had little experience, not to mention few resources and little authority. Many had to change their profession and pass through the crucible of market reforms.

Those born in 1971-73 had just entered university and immediately (and unexpectedly) discovered that the profession they had chosen didn’t offer them any opportunities. Some changed their major, some kept their profession, but the breakdown of the future affected everyone in one way or another.

The last peak birth year was 1978. Perhaps that is the last generation that experienced, albeit in adolescence, the Soviet Union. For them, the USSR was the last breath of a happy childhood that ended with the collapse of the country. Their parents were the first post-war generation – all of a sudden in 1991 they felt not needed. And it could not but affect their children. Nevertheless, without in-depth interviews and a serious analysis of the biographies of the authors, this remains just a hypothesis and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Interval between popadantsy
Where do they popadat?

For this study, a sample of 1,371 books was taken, with the heroes travelling back to a time range from the year 8 to 2020. It is clear that there are periods in which the authors of popadanstvonovels aren’t interested. There are gaps reaching a couple of centuries in some cases between popadantsy. In the chart below, the horizontal axis shows the years to which the popadantsy were sent by the authors, while the vertical axis shows the time interval with the next popadantsy. For example, there is a hero who travelled to the year 425, the next travelled to the year 349, meaning an interval between them of 76 years. For clarity, we use a logarithmic scale. 
Number of popadantsy
Three periods of popadanstvo can be very clearly distinguished:

1. 8-880 years: random travel related either to the interests of the authors or to some specific historical events.
2. 880-1500: Kievan Rus, slowly turning to Muscovy.
3. 1500+: The most crowded period – most likely because it is more studied, closer to us in terms of technology and easier for knowledge of the beginning of the 21st century to be applied.
Even more interesting is the below chart showing the frequency of travel by year.

The Great Patriotic War leads by a wide margin. Even though such books should be divided over the four years of the war, no historical period can match the surge in interest.
Trend line for popadantsy
If you plot a trend line based on this data, you get a historical interest curve. It decreases with every year deeper into the past, and although the rate of decline is not very high, every 300 years the interest halves. Generally, we can say that the year 1930 is twice as interesting to popadanstvo writers as the year 1630. This is clearly seen in the following chart.

Where do they fight?

The Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and modern Russia have fought many wars, though interest in them among popadanstvo writers varies greatly. The table below shows how often various wars are mentioned in their books.
The wars of the 20th century attract the greatest interest. Meanwhile, there seems to be a trend associated with wars that are considered somehow “not very good.” These include the conflict with Ukraine (the literature already contains people who died in the Donbas from the Russian side since 2014 and ended up in other wars after their death), as well as the Chechen and Afghan wars. The wars themselves aren’t given an alternative outcome, though among the popadantsy there are many who die in recent wars and end up in the "just" Great Patriotic War, as well as other wars requiring “tuning up.”

Who do they fight?

Popadantsy who alter the map of the world and raise the Russian flag above new lands fight against other countries and peoples. Obviously, the mention of nationalities and countries isn’t very informative without the context and judgement presented in the texts. However, the frequency of mentions itself makes it possible to assess what the authors focus on.

To do this, I analyzed the texts of books from the 11th edition of the encyclopedia. The table below shows nationalities and peoples, indicating the frequency of mentions.
Obviously, the English and British are one nation, but since we counted the texts where the words appear, the share of books with the word "English" can’t simply be added to those where "British" appears. Often it is the same books.

The general conclusion that can be drawn from the above tables is that the countries that are opponents in past wars and the countries that are “ideological opponents” are not the same.
“The high ranking of the US and England seems to suggest that in most books they are presented as the real opponents regardless of who the war is actually against."
Other authors?

The compilers of the encyclopedia have tried to add foreign authors to the catalog, but they are very few. That said, such books do exist, though they have a completely different angle – in particular, many are children's books and romance novels. Of note, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court falls into the category.

The genre does feature books that have been events in literature. I can point to two that have seriously raised the bar: Lest Darkness Fall (1939) by the American fantasy writer Lyon Sprague de Camp and Making History (1996) by Stephen Fry.

In the former, an archeologist specializing in medieval times finds himself in 535 Rome, at the time of its siege by the Ostrogoths. He saves the remnants of the Roman Empire from being crushed by the Byzantines and actually turns back the onset of the Dark Ages, when developed civilization was basically destroyed in Western Europe. Note that in Russian popadanstvo literature, this period is completely ignored – not at all appealing to local authors.

Interestingly, the hero of Sprague de Camp travels to Rome directly from fascist Italy. The author of the book witnessed how darkness was gathering in contemporary Europe and sent a contemporary to the distant past, endowing him with his own experience.

The Fry book is devoted to an attempt to kill Hitler – more precisely, to prevent him from being born. It is successful, though a tyrant, much more rational and decisive, takes the aborted Hitler’s place.
The number of popadanstvo authors per million men. The highlighted area represents the cohort that most often voiced readiness to go to the front today.

Recently, the genre seems to have overlapped with the history of events in the Russian Empire/USSR/Russia of the 20th century. The destruction of lives, combined with resentment, the loss of guide stars and the inability to escape poverty, happens alongside the appearance of historical tales in which "good" triumphs over "evil.” True, the “good” has fists, and almost the entire developed world becomes the enemy from which we must defend ourselves.

P.S. Recently, the project "Do the Russians Want War" released data from a telephone survey conducted in late September. Among other things, the respondents were asked whether they themselves were ready to go to the front. We can see that those who expressed the greatest readiness to fight were born in the same years as the majority of popadanstvo writers.
The table below shows the frequency of mentions by country.
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