Despite frequent criticisms from Orthodox activists for promoting witchcraft, the Harry Potter books are more popular than ever in Russia — with Bukvoyed and other big bookstore chains repeatedly placing them in their Top 10 in the children’s and young adults’ sections. In fact, the J.K. Rowling series is so embedded in contemporary Russian pop culture that there’s a whole industry of rip-offs novels set in Russia. Some might be a fun read for children — adorably customised, with amusing details and local pop-culture references, but some of them offer a disturbing look into the reality of modern Russia.
The rip-off series began to appear in Russia in the early 2000s, just after the first Harry Potter books were translated and published there. Most of them feature a main character who’s name is a rehash of Harry Potter: there’s Larin Petr, Porry Hatter, Harry Proglotter and Tanya Grotter. In cases where the name is actually original, as with the Denis Kotik books, the book covers still depict a dark-haired boy in round glasses. The general plots and structures of the books, however, remain unchanged: some of the publishers were accused of plagiarism and sent cease and desist letters — but most of the books are still available for purchase online.
The obvious similarity between the rip-offs is their blurring of the magical and everyday to create fantastic yet believable world. And while J.K. Rowling’s magical universe, filled with prosaic details of everyday life in Britain, is still relatable to children in Russia, it’s not surprising that several authors saw this as an opportunity to customise the details. The “magical but typical” Russia of the 00s is interesting on a number of levels, but mostly for an honesty that’s quite rare in contemporary Russian literature aimed at children. There are “new Russians”, mafia, crazy eccentric Muscovites, novelty diets and Herbalife, and political jokes hidden among magical spells. In the Porry Hatter books, the spell to switch off lights is “Chubabais”, inspired by Anatoly Chubais, the head of a state-owned electrical power monopoly who was the butt of many jokes in the late 90s, which usually centred around electrical cuts, blackouts and bureaucracy.
On the surface, most of the localised details are fun and seemingly unthreatening. The Larin Petr and Denis Kotik series present some of the most simple changes, like a magical school based in Count Razoumovsky’s mansion, linking the plot of the magical universe to the country’s history. Other books go further and add humour and elaborate references into the mix: Harry Proglotter, in his own rip-off series, eats a cursed shawarma, perhaps the most popular street food in today’s Russia. In Tanya Grotter the step-family, the Dursleys are replaced with the wealthy Moscow-based Durnev clan. Uncle Herman Durnev, an MP with presidential ambitions, sells dodgy second-hand socks to his high-ranking military neighbour, who in turn flogs them on to the army at a nice profit. The family name also plainly shares the root with the word ‘fool’. The books also offer witty references to folklore, with huts on chickens’ legs taking part in magical races and Russian folk villain Koschei the Deathless making an appearance as a grumpy character.
At other times these customised details are either too obscure for kids to understand, or, more often, paired with harmful ideas that linger in Russian society. In the Porry Hatter series Harley, a rip-off Hagrid, tells Porry, a rip-off Harry, about the house elves, a magical species recently freed from slavery, led by a character known as Martin Luther King Jr. And, controversially, how the elves, after becoming free citizens, became lazy, living solely off crime. This xenophobic attitude might not be exclusively Russian but is still very widespread here. “Ideas of getting a job and becoming a part of our society turned out to be alien to the newly freed house elves, and they, not knowing what to do with all their free time, started to steal, beg, listen to rap music, and — what would you think? — fight with each other,” Harley explains. If there was any doubt that the name of the house elf was coincidental, the writer makes all kinds of efforts to show that it is not. Later the characters meet several elves begging for money under the pretence of raising funds to help their cause, also displaying prevalent attitudes towards activism in Russia — the idea that people do it for money and not for justice.
Equally disturbing is Children vs Wizards. Borrowing characters from the original books, Children vs Wizards paints them evil in a nationalistic Slavic supremacy-centred plot. The novel reads like a satire on Russian nationalism, although, sadly, it’s meant to be serious. Russia, the last wizard-free country in the world, is in danger of being conquered by an international organisation called the League of Wizards, which has been luring Russian orphans with UNESCO grants, forcing them to forget about their Motherland and God. The main evil character is Harry Potter himself. According to the plot, his closest aide in conquering Russia has a Jewish name, as do many of his accomplices, while the defendants of Russia and its Bible-abiding life all happen to be blue-eyed and blond, and led by a humble lieutenant-colonel with an ethnically Russian name. Published in 2006 under the pseudonym of Nikos Zervas, the book was prophetic on several counts. Though the publisher insisted the author is Greek and the book was translated, Kommersant-Vlast magazine later proved that this was in fact untrue, and the author is most likely one or several Russian ghostwriters.
There are many more examples of this trend: slightly altered anti-semitic slogans, homophobic jokes, the stigmatising of various minority groups. The only rip-off series that seems to refrain from the tendency is Tanya Grotter (which is also the most progressive: it has girls as the main characters and regularly satirises the government). Discrimination and bigotry are still quite widespread in the country, and the books seem to be depressingly in sync with this trend.
But, then, who are the target audience for these books? Obviously the majority are fans of the original books, who want to continue reading about magical schools and child wizards, or, to see out of curiosity what the rip-offs have to offer. Yet how can someone who enjoyed the Harry Potter books, with their strong message of fighting for justice and against prejudice, read novels where characters deliver racist rants in a rip-off Diagon alley? Studies have claimed that young people who read the J.K. Rowling novels and identified with the lead characters were more opposed to discrimination. Moreover, J.K. Rowling herself is an avid advocate of human rights and social justice, supporting several anti-poverty, education accessibility, and welfare charities — so much so that she’s no longer in the Forbes billionaire list — and regularly show her support on Twitter, with hashtags like #RefugeesWelcome.
The most obvious answer is that these books were never intended for true Harry Potter fans, they were just a way to make a quick buck. And perhaps they were written for those who already share such problematic views — especially since the books were touted as “the Russian answer to Harry Potter”. But whatever the truth is, what’s clear here is that the Russian answer to Harry Potter is weak — and probably responding to the wrong question.