Roberto Quaglia took part in the 30th of Russia's longest running series
In May 2013 I had the pleasure of being the foreign guest of honour at Aelita, Russia's oldest Russian science fiction convention which takes place every year in Yekaterinburg. This year it was the 30th such gathering. With 1.35 million people Yekaterinburg: is Russia's fourth largest city; is the main industrial and cultural centre of the Ural Federal District; and is just a step or two (in Russian terms) from Siberia. Yekaterinburg is also famous for being the place where the Bolsheviks had murdered the Tsar and his family shortly after the October revolution of 1918.
The name Aelita comes from a novel by Russian author Alexei Tolstoy, Aelita, or The Decline of Mars (1923). One year later it was made into the first Soviet SF film, Aelita (1924).
Aelita is considered to be one of the intellectually most prestigious science fiction conventions in Russia. It has been run since 1981 when it was founded by the Russian Federation Writers' Union and Urals' Pathfinder magazine. It is organised with the direct collaboration with the local university and most of its events took place inside the university itself. Compared to the other Russian and Ukrainian SF conventions I have attended, Aelita clearly had an added academic flavour. Perhaps also for this reason Aelita is ranked very high within the Russian SF Community. In Soviet times the SF award it conferred was the most prestigious of Soviet SF awards, and as far as I know it still is; indeed the Aelita Award is now regarded as a sort of Hall of Fame Award.
The convention's official hotel was an old soviet hotel in the centre of the town, very close to the university where most of the convention's events would take place. The hotel had even retained the flavour of the old times: it was fine and comfortable with only the breakfast buffet being a bit too Soviet for my taste, but still edible.
The other guests of honour of the convention were Vasily Golovatchyov (who earlier this year won the Roskon lifetime achievement award) and Roman Zlotnikov. Boris Dolingo, the chief organizer, who is himself an SF author and a delightful character as well. He is one of those rare individuals with whom you can exchange deep meanings just by looking at each other in the eye. For many years he has been successfully running Aelita. This makes him somewhat of a stalwart of the contemporary Russian SF fan community. He truly made an excellent effort in insuring a successful convention and providing some amazing media coverage. Here it should be noted that Russian media attention to SF conventions is really telling as to how culturally serious SF is treated in this country. And so together with the other guests of honour I took part to a substantive local TV talk show. Russian speaking people may watch it here: youtube.com/zwhdJcXCCbU. Fortunately volunteer translators were provided to assist me in all the necessary situations so as to help me decodifiying Russian, its idioms and cultural mores. They were all nice and helpful.
In addition to the convention, the organisers allowed us a little tourist activity. A short journey out of the town took us in the woods where the last Tsar and his family had been buried after having been murdered almost a century ago. Today it is a memorial site.
As for the local cuisine, the food of the Urals was excellent, especially the pelmeni: dumplings consisting of a filling wrapped in thin, unleavened dough. And I can ensure you that there was never a lack of vodka at any dinner.
Though attendance at the convention was not impressive in terms of numbers, it certainly was with regards to passion: you could really smell enthusiasm from people's expressions; something I don't feel so much these days in many western conventions. Many attending came from other towns not too far away, and some also from Moscow (which is over 24 hours by train away). As it was difficult for me to judge the quality of panels, since they were in Russian, I didn't attend them. (On the other hand I usually don't attend panels neither in Western conventions, since I typically find it more interesting talking with people than having people talking to me.) I also understood there took place an interesting competition. It was a kind of flash short story writing contest on a given theme. Again, here I noticed how much enthusiasm the young that took part had. Of course, as in any SF convention there had to be an award ceremony. At Aelita this took place in a sort of Aula Magna within the university. It was a particularly enjoyable event, especially as I myself received an award.
At the end of the convention some of the participants gathered for the traditional "shahslik" picnic in the mountains on the border between Europe and Asia. It was a very pleasant gathering which I managed to capture in a short time lapse film: youtube.com/lbUwKwR5bR8. On the way to the Shashlik in the woods we visited a very enchanting and unusual cemetery: it is rare to see graves and trees coexisting at an almost 1:1 ratio and this produced the surreal impression to walk in an organic wood of tombs. There the Aelita fans paid tribute at the grave of one of the founders of the Aelita SF convention and so we all drank a shot of vodka in his memory.
As for subsequent Aelita conventions, the organisers' next dream is to host an Eurocon in the not too distant future. I think that they should go for that and I am confident that they will get it to run one at some point. Good luck, my Russian friends, and thank you for sharing your souls with me.
Roberto Quaglia spends much of his time split between Italy and Romania. He has written a number of plays and a few books including Bread, Butter and Paradoxine. He has also occasionally collaborated with the British writer Ian Watson and the two won the British SF Association Award for 'Best Short Story in 2010. For a little over a decade up to 2013 he was co-Chair of the European SF Society where he enhanced its on-line presence. He has also contributed to SF2 Concatenation in the past and was master of ceremonies at the two International Weeks of Science and SF (that were also European SF Society Euroconferences) it sponsored in Romania in 1999 and 2003.