Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a petite, oddly polemical travelogue written in Russian by the Georgian Bolshevik Ketevan Kobakhidze in 1925. A short, dark-haired woman of good proletarian stock, Kobakhidze played a role in the October Revolution that could be described as peripheral at best — she didn’t even leave Tbilisi until early in 1918, after which she spent two years hanging around Tsaritsyn in a largely failed attempt to ingratiate herself with Comrade Stalin, whom she fiercely and nationalistically admired. Her efforts were tenuously rewarded when, in 1920, and with the Civil War dying down in most areas, the Revvoyensoviet — apparently for no other reason than Lev Kamenev’s faith in her revolutionary zeal — tasked her with accompanying a young, timid, gangly man named Maxim Opokin on his travels through the Russian SFSR in search of dragons.

Her role was to be that of a de facto political commissar. The Russian wizarding community had, with no little trepidation, made themselves known to Lenin and the rest of the Politburo in June 1919, and the party officially — if secretly — condemned the existence of magic as anti-dialectical bourgeois ideology almost immediately. Official communications from the time make poorly-veiled references to ‘robed kulaks’ that had long had the means to be a vanguard for socialism on earth and had jealously guarded against it; though the exact nature and extent of Soviet-wizard relations are still muddy, it seems that most of them were invited to clandestinely aid the revolutionary cause or die. Wizarding schools in Petrograd and Tsaritsyn — later in Kiev and Ulaanbaatar— were nationalised, though nominally placed under the control of house-elf Soviets, and with remarkably little change in student intake or curriculum. Opokin, never one to miss an opportunity for cowardice if Kobakhidze is to be believed, argued his worth as an expert on magical creatures whose power could be used by the burgeoning commune. Unconvinced by talk of hippogriffs and boggarts, the Politburo — and Kamenev in particular — were eventually turned by the promise of communist dragons that could annihilate the Whites. Opokin was permitted an unprecedented degree of freedom to travel the still war-torn Socialist Republic, provided that this young, wildly dogmatic woman was on hand to keep him on the ideological straight-and-narrow.

Kobakhidze’s contempt for the awkward wizard is apparent from the opening pages of Fantastic Beasts, and the tone does not let up throughout. She refers to him variously as a “son of Baba Yaga”, “chicken-legged man-nymph”, “bourgeois conjuror”, “alchemist of capital”, “kulak”, and “priest”, and she spends most of the narrative pedantically castigating him for actions or utterances that fall afoul of her own — fanatical but inaccurate — interpretation of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. She attempts to denounce him to the Cheka twice, both times in provincial Siberian towns where the local Cheka officer is contiguous with the biggest local thug and the existence of a real Bolshevik is much more alien and unnerving than that of a wizard. When, in 1923, Opokin meets his death at the talons of a Thunderbird near Irkutsk, she describes it with undisguised glee and somewhat perverse precision. She never loses her suspicion of magic or magical beasts, and large portions of the text are given over to doctrinaire screeds about their incompatibility with socialism and, hence, the need for their extermination. Interestingly, however, Opokin seems to have been somewhat convinced by his politruk’s ideological rantings, and perhaps the most worthwhile parts of the narrative are those when — though surrounded by Kobakhidze’s disdainful editorialising — he attempts to reconcile his work with the tenets of Marxism-Leninism.

Kobakhidze died in her early forties, another Bolshevik fallen victim to the Stalinist purges of the mid- to late-thirties. Her slavish adherence to the (by then) Stalinist party line on wizardry, and the viciously ironic title she chose for the work, meant that Fantastic Beasts was largely ignored when “magical diamat” became a legitimate (if clandestine) area of study following destalinisation. This is unfortunate; though Kobakhidze has nothing of interest to say about the relationship between magical beasts and dialectical biology, Opokin’s more sophisticated views are reproduced— it appears — with disdainful accuracy, and late Lysenkoist cryptozoologists may have found an early comrade in him; or, at least, in the way he is portrayed in the text.

Fantastic Beasts was also, largely, ignored by the wizard community, though Opokin’s own notes, when released during glasnost, sparked a brief burst of black market trading in magical animal parts in Siberia in the early ’90s. The book should long ago have faded into obscurity, and in many senses it did; by far the most interesting thing about it is that, bizarrely, it was picked up by Warner Bros eighty years after the death of its author and made into an action-comedy taiga-romp, released in American movie theatres in 2016.

The (ex-)Soviet wizarding community has been even more silent than usual in the nearly-three decades since the fall of the USSR, but it is thought that they were somehow involved in the text’s unearthing and subsequent butchering by Hollywood; wizards are, after all, known for their strongly bourgeois sympathies, and it would be obtuse to deny that they suffered mightily — if not necessarily unjustly — under the 20th century’s communist regimes. It is unsurprising, then, that the 2016 movie (which I watched with increasing agitation in a movie theatre in West Philadelphia) is an unsubtle flood of capitalist propaganda. Kobakhidze (Katherine Waterston) is presented as a wild-eyed, dogmatic and thoroughly unlikeable Bolshevik hag; Opokin (Eddie Redmayne) as a standoffish but sympathetic nerd, who is kind to magical animals of all sorts. Her long lectures on dialectical materialism are delivered beneath clear steppe skies and reproduced almost verbatim from the original text — even preserving in translation Kobakhidze’s at-times charming lack of facility with the Russian language — though they are played as technobabble, for laughs. Inevitably, their jaunt around Siberia and Mongolia leads to a fumbling kiss in a yurt during which Redmayne mumbles the phrase “oh goodness” repeatedly in a nauseating Etonian accent. The film ends with an almost complete reversal of reality: with Kobakhidze close to renouncing socialism because of the (well-hidden) bourgeois charms of Opokin the wizard-naturalist. It is garbage, of a kind that could only have been made in a culture as zealously devoted to anti-communism as Kobakhidze was to communism. Perhaps, in the end, she was right about the danger that magic posed to the hopes of the proletariat.