When we hear the name “Baba Yaga”, we tend to conjure up specific mental images: a deformed, physically repulsive old woman, she’s traditionally depicted as a monster or deployed as a cautionary tale. But whether she’s depicted as a dangerous, duplicitous witch who steals and eats children or simply used as a convenient threat to cow unruly youngsters (“Don’t do that or Baba Yaga will get you!”), few stories involving Baba Yaga are terribly interested in who she is or where she comes from.
But thanks to debut author Olesya Salnikova Gilmore—and a popular recent trend in publishing that’s working to both reevaluate and reframe the stories of some of the most vicious and villainous women in folklore and legend—that’s certainly no longer the case. Her novel The Witch and the Tsar put her half-human, half-immortal Yaga Mokoshevnasquarely at the center of her own story, and gives her what honestly feels like an unprecedented amount of interiority and agency.
Setting her version of the story in sixteenth-century Russia and blending historical fact alongside mythological fiction, Gilmore makes her tale as much about the way our society has constantly striven to undermine and ostracize women who are different, who dare wield power of their own lives in untraditional ways, and who speak out against the patriarchy that would otherwise oppress them.
We got the chance to chat with Gilmore about what drew her to Baba Yaga in the first place, her research into the world of medieval Russian history, how she incorporated other familiar figures from folklore into her story, and lots more.
Paste Magazine: The Witch and the Tsar is a Baba Yaga retelling that definitely pushes back against many of the prevalent ideas in popular culture of who this figure is. What is it about this character that you find so fascinating or that spurred you to want to tell her story in a different way?
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore: Baba Yaga was a major—sometimes, very real—presence in my childhood, which was spent in Moscow, Russia before my family moved to the U.S. My mother would evoke her name when I misbehaved, which was a lot. And eventually, my fear of her turned into fascination. The fairy tale Baba Yaga is an elusive character, both good and bad, a donor and a villain, a single woman, and a mother. I often found myself asking, Who, exactly, is Baba Yaga, and where did she come from? Surely, she isn’t just the fearsome ugly hag from the tales, frequently shown there as a figure of ridicule and sexist contempt, a caricature, a joke.
During my research, I discovered that many scholars believe the Baba Yaga we know is based on a fertility and earth goddess—or her descendent—worshipped by ancient pagan Slavs long ago. I instantly became interested in the concept of how a goddess was turned into a witch, deciding to reframe the story of Baba Yaga by imagining what she could have been like if she was a goddess and a human woman both, before gossip and rumor had reduced her to a silly old crone. And I would call her simply Yaga.
Paste: How would you describe Yaga’s journey over the course of this story?
While the novel focuses on Yaga’s fight against Tsar Ivan the Terrible and the gods who seek to manipulate him, her journey is one of self-discovery and origins first. It is her personal search for identity, purpose, belonging, even love, as a goddess and a woman—in a society that has chosen to see her only as a witch.
Paste: What made you want to weave Yaga’s story into the historical reign of Ivan the Terrible?
Gilmore: I wanted to place my Yaga in the middle of real historical events, in a real time and setting, because I wanted to show her as a living, breathing, believable woman. And I wanted a worthy adversary for her, someone powerful, dangerous, maybe easily threatened, too.
Ivan is one of Russia’s most notorious tsars. He was also her first tsar. And I love the medieval era in which he lived. It is a little bit primal and wild, filled with color and drama and white-walled cities and endlessly mysterious forests.
Not only was Ivan known as an autocratic and paranoid ruler—after all, he turned against most everyone in his life—but he was a very superstitious man. He believed in spells and magic. And he frequently invited fortune tellers, astrologists, and sorcerers to his court. It would not have been far-fetched for him to be not only fascinated by Yaga, but also threatened and even maddened by her and her power!
Paste: It’s obvious that you did a tremendous amount of research into medieval Russian history to write this story. Tell me a little bit about that process and how you went about weaving fact and fiction together in The Witch and the Tsar.
Gilmore: I started with the research first, generally focusing on medieval Russian history from 980 through Ivan the Terrible’s time in the 1500s, learning everything from the historical people and events of that time period to how people lived, what they ate, what they wore, how they thought.
Ivan’s reign, once I learned about it in more detail, ended up providing the framework for the story. I wanted to capture the key points of his reign through Yaga’s eyes. And the rest really came down to an incredibly difficult (!) balancing act in drafting and then revisions!
Paste: What’s the most bizarre or unbelievable thing you learned about this real-life period in history? (I think some readers may be shocked to learn about how much of Ivan’s part of the story—his love for Anastasia, his murder of his son—was true!)
Gilmore: There was so much that I learned about my historical figures and generally how people lived in the 16th century that absolutely blew my mind. But nothing—and I mean nothing—astounded me more than finding out that tea didn’t exist in Russia at this point! Or, for that matter, vodka, in the form we know it now.
With a country synonymous with both tea and vodka, one that practically treats drinking as a pastime, it seemed hard to believe. I thought to myself, What will my characters even drink if not for those two? But I had no choice. I had to go through my entire manuscript and edit out tea and vodka. My Russian soul wept. Really.
Paste: One of the things I loved the most about this story is the way you weaved other figures from Russian mythology and folklore through Yaga’s story. Why did you want to include characters like Morozko, Koshey the Deathless and Marya Morevna?
Gilmore: Thank you! It was one of the things I loved most about working on this story. The characters, particularly the ones from mythology and folklore, never got old for me. Each has their own unique feel and backstory, is at least a little morally gray, and has a fun personality that I could write an entire separate book about. And I thought it would be a bit odd if my Baba Yaga, having been born of fairy tales and gods, was the only such character that I included. I grew up with the three characters you mention, plus Kikimora and others at the edges of the story, like rusalkas.
Morozko is not only a major fairy tale character, but also one of the leads in the well-known 1964 Soviet film Jack Frost, and a Santa Clause-like figure for Russians. I wanted my novel to be very cold, echoing those famous Russian winters, and it felt right to have Morozko in it, and to give him my own unique spin. Koshey I’ve always loved; he is a famous antihero and a villain with real flair. While he is not in many stories with Baba Yaga, when he is, they are sometimes competitors and enemies, and other times partners and lovers. To me, a story about Baba Yaga didn’t feel complete without Koshey. But instead of a creepy old man, I wanted to reimagine him as a kind of Loki, someone who wants to do good, but can’t quite get out of his own way.
And Marya Morevna was a later addition. Initially, I was going to have a version of her as Yaga’s daughter. But that didn’t seem right; she had to be unapologetically herself. Besides, in the folktales, Baba Yaga’s daughter is named Marina and isn’t a warrior, more of a maiden and witch. When I included Marya as you read her, she fit right in, becoming the perfect immortal friend to Yaga and a wonderful character in her own right.
Paste: I’m so intrigued by all of Yaga’s supernatural animal friends! I kind of respect not really explaining where characters like Little Hen or Dyen came from, but also I’m dying to know more about them. Are there any hints about their stories that didn’t make the novel’s final cut?
Gilmore: Yaga’s animal companions went through quite a transformation. Dyen and Noch were originally Yaga’s brothers, inspired by the riders Day and Night from Vasilisa the Beautiful. But playing on the concepts of solitude and loneliness, I converted them into her pets. Dyen the wolf represents day and is with Yaga during the daylight hours. Noch the owl represents night and is with Yaga in the evening. Both are beings from the time of her mother Mokosh. There is actually a clue as to their origins in the novel! It is in the discussion of how immortals can die and how some can reincarnate as other creatures. That is Dyen and Noch; they were immortals until they died and transformed into their animal forms. I hope to further explore their stories in future books!
As for Little Hen, she was a late addition toward the end of revisions! I wanted to keep her background and how she came to Yaga more mysterious. But it is my belief that Little Hen was a gift from Yaga’s mother. Though Yaga has access to these wonderous creatures because of her mother’s generosity and love, it is only through Yaga’s own talents and kindness that they become loyal to her. In other words, she works hard at it, and they aren’t an easy bunch to impress! I actually wrote a short story about how Yaga meets Little Hen, and it is available to those who subscribe to my newsletter through my website https://olesyagilmore.com..
Paste: What’s the one thing that you hope readers take away from The Witch and the Tsar?
Gilmore: That not everything is as it seems and that there are different ways of approaching a classic story or character.
By interpreting Yaga as a half goddess, half-human woman I am not seeking to replace the wild hag from the fairy tales that we all know and love. The beauty of fiction, and of contemporary retellings, in particular, is there is space for multiple interpretations, approaches, and stories. This, my Yaga, is but one.
Paste: What’s next for you as an author? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
Gilmore: I am thrilled to be working on my second novel with ACE/Penguin Random House, a historical gothic horror tale in the vein of A Gentleman in Moscow meets The Hacienda, in which two sisters risk all to save each other and their family from their ancestral house bent on bringing back a royal past not only dead, but dangerous to remember in post-revolutionary Moscow.
Paste: And my personal favorite question always: What are you reading right now? What kind of books do you tend to gravitate to as a reader versus an author?
Gilmore: I’m reading the best books right now and, as a warning, I read a handful at a time!
Each of my current reads is so different and so unique. SUCH SHARP TEETH, Rachel Harrison’s latest, is a wonderful exploration of trauma through a woman undergoing a transformation into a werewolf-like creature of legend. I was lucky to snag an ARC of BARROW OF WINTER by H.M. Long, a story about one woman’s self-discovery among wintry gods and lands. THISTLEFOOT is another story about the Baba Yaga legend, following her two descendants/siblings as they traverse modern-day America in her chicken-legged hut. And finally, I am listening to an audiobook of THE WITCH AND THE TSAR (which is the most out-of-body experience ever!), wonderfully narrated by Katia Kapustin.
The Witch and the Tsar
is available now from Ace Books.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.