At the head of the column rode a man whom Kesha recognized faintly from the papers — a tall man, fresh-faced and gaunt at once. Whether he had grown his beard to hide his youth or his gauntness, Kesha couldn’t have said, but the soft under-hairs hadn’t yet grown in to fill it out, and so it lay sparse and frazzled over his smooth cheeks. He sat very straight on his horse, with a posture particular to Prussian officers in well-boned supportive gear.

This was Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the second-youngest son of the Tsar.

A photograph of a young Sergei Alexandrovich in military uniform. Select the image for a link to the source.

Drakon is a book with many antagonists, but only two true villains, and one of them is very hard to spot.

When I was writing the early chapters of this book, I came across an arresting photograph on Tumblr. Who was this slim, upright man, with his keen and steady gaze? I wondered. What were his thoughts and beliefs? What was his legacy? Like many others, I saw his handsomeness and wished to imagine him good. I have read enough articles this year about dapper fascists to know that this foolishness was not mine alone.

This man was Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, seventh child of the Tsar, and he was as ugly and bloody-minded a man as they came. His generation was steeped in paranoia, especially after the assassination of his father, and they carved it into the most vulnerable people under their rule. A hardline nationalist and anti-Semite, the Grand Duke kicked off his tenure as the Governor of Moscow by expelling twenty thousand Jews. Under his uncompromising eye, the police militarized and the universities became panopticons, obsessed with rooting out radical conspiracies.

Seeing his record written out was like watching the political themes of Drakon roll out in swift succession: the persecution and state-sponsored erasure of a people (please see footnote). The sacrifice of inquiry before the throne of power. The ways that fear encourages us to turn people into Others and thence into objects to be killed or discarded. I knew that if only one real historical figure could appear in Drakon, it would have to be him.

The Sergei Alexandrovich of 1881 (when he appears in Drakon) had done none of these things yet, but the capacity to do them already lay within him.  If his father’s death was a turning point, it did not change him for once and all; it only crystallized the many aspects of his upbringing (nationalism, militarism, uncompromising faith, a need for control) into something hard and sharp.

But I must believe, for my own sanity, that such villains as Sergei Alexandrovich can be defeated. For my own conscience, I must believe that they can be defeated without being killed. And so when the time came to write the end of Drakon, my villain returned to the stage in the guise of a savior, dragging a long train of soldiers behind him. (Sharp-eyed readers will note that, for all his grand show of might, he seems to have preserved nothing of note.)

In the end, my characters must oppose him by telling stories and insisting that they be remembered. By recovering and preserving that which previous autocrats had destroyed, by standing up for the vulnerable, and by refusing the xenophobic cry of (their) blood for (our) blood.

This narrative thread remains open at the end of Drakon. This villain walks free, because such villains as Sergei Alexandrovich do still walk among us — and it is our task to oppose them, again and again, until they are defeated.

Footnote: Drakon was never intended to be an allegory for the expulsion of the Jews from Moscow, and neither were the dragons intended to be allegorical figures for Jewish people. In science fiction and fantasy, too often, we tell stories about real experiences of oppression in analogue, casting actors of color only when we can paint them green or give them brow ridges of putty. (Too often, white people like me replicate harmful, racist caricatures unthinkingly, unaware of the ugly stereotypes lurking beneath swarthy, bestial orcs and dwarves obsessed with gold.) But let the record show: I should have done more in Drakon to focus on characters of color. I should have done better by my Jewish characters.