In Katya Kazbek’s debut novel Little Foxes Took Up Matches, eleven year-old Mitya strives to find his place in 1990s Moscow. As a toddler, Mitya swallowed his grandmother’s sewing needle without consequence, an event that led his family to conclude that he is doomed to an early, sudden death, but that Mitya himself takes as a sign of strength and resilience. He comes to identify with Koschei the Deathless, a typically villainous figure from Russian fairy tales whose soul is believed to be hidden in a needle nested inside a series of objects like a matryoshka doll, granting him immortality. Interspersed with Mitya’s story, Kazbek includes sections of an alternate fairy tale involving Koschei. Like Mitya, this character faces a series of obstacles on the way to a fairy tale happy ending.
Mitya is an immediately sympathetic character, sensitive and curious about the world around him, but sheltered and destined to be disappointed by the corruption of the adult world. From an early age, Mitya likes to dress up as a girl in his family’s apartment on the Old Arbat, but he must do so in secret from his father, a veteran of the Afghan war who values traditional masculinity above all else. Mitya’s life takes a turn toward the hellish when his cousin, Vovka, moves into the family’s already full apartment. Freshly returned from the war in Chechnya and missing an arm, Vovka begins to sexually abuse his younger cousin.
As his home life worsens, Mitya searches for reasons to spend time away from home and befriends Valerka, a kind homeless man from his neighborhood. When Valerka turns up dead, Mitya takes it upon himself to search for Valerka’s killer, a journey which introduces him to multiple underworlds—from police corruption and mafia-controlled market stalls to Moscow’s underground alternative rock scene.
Kazbek grew up in Moscow and has translated several books from English to Russian. This English-language novel feels notable for its linguistic texture. Intermixed with unique Russian terms and slang, the novel’s style reminds the reader that the language the characters are speaking is different from the one in which the book is written, often to humorous effect. For instance, Mitya’s babushka Alyssa Vitalyevna has a strained relationship with her son-in law, Mitya’s father, Dmitriy Fyodorovich: “She went to great lengths to avoid addressing Dmitriy Fyodorovich in the second person and referred to him as ‘indyuk,’ turkey cock, or ‘armeysky sapog,’ army boot.”
Little Foxes Took Up Matches is an effective, charming novel in its own right, but it has the misfortune to appear at a time when many people are turning away from Russian culture in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For those who might look for insight about the current situation in this work of fiction, there certainly are some. The Russian military appears here as an embodiment of a certain kind of toxic masculinity that chews up its participants and spits out what is left of them. One of Mitya’s closest allies in his search for the truth is Marina, an older teenager who has left behind her poor mining family in the Donbass region of Ukraine to try to make it in the big city.
Kazbek paints a portrait of 1990s Moscow as a place where the rich get richer while the poor and marginalized are ground underfoot. Yet for all that, there is some nostalgia here too, particularly in the scenes where teenagers gather in apartments to listen to punk rock bands, nodding in agreement with the lyrics. Mitya’s sexuality and gender identity are handled gently throughout. Even as Marina pushes for Mitya to define himself as “goluboy,” gay, or as a transgender girl, Mitya resists those categories. Like the country around him, Mitya is still in the process of becoming, and he hasn’t made any irrevocable choices yet.
Little Foxes Took Up Matches
By Katya Kazbek
Tin House Books
Published April 5, 2022