Since time immemorial, writers in Russia have had the most forceful, penetrating and far-reaching responses to what was happening in their country — for those willing to listen, anyway.
Today, with war raging for a second month in Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin’s maniacal plans to “denazify” a country he denies has any right to exist, overturning the European and world order, we can do a lot worse than turn to contemporary Russian literature for some understanding as to how all this came to be.
For this purpose, in my college teaching on today’s Russia I have often turned to Vladimir Sorokin. No one explains Putin — the ideology as much as the man — as uproariously, unflinchingly and insightfully as he does.
Sorokin was born in 1955, part of what some sociologists call “the last Soviet generation” — the cohort that grew up under communism in its stagnant phase and were already adults when the USSR finally fell in 1991. During this late Soviet era, the conceptualist Sorokin wrote brilliant but intensely obscene works with no hope of publication. In the free-market 1990s, he remained a cult writer, admired but little known beyond literary circles.
That changed in 2002, when the state charged Sorokin under an anti-pornography statute for a scene in one of his novels, “Blue Lard” (1997), which depicted a clone of Stalin having sex with a man. A pro-Kremlin youth group protested the author for denigrating Russian culture. They organized a rally in front of the Bolshoi Theater, during which they dumped copies of Sorokin’s books into a giant toilet that bore the inscription “Monument to the Classic of Marginal Russian Literature, Vladimir Sorokin.”
All charges were eventually dropped, but the scandal so incensed Sorokin that he reinvented himself as one of the country’s most successful and controversial authors, with novels like the oddly prophetic, anti-Putin “Day of the Oprichnik” (2006). This is the book I give my students as the best window on Putinism, the contagion that came to infect Russia with the current president’s rise to power in 2000, but which as Sorokin demonstrates is actually a very old Russian malady. “Day of the Oprichnik” is the indispensable novel of the Putin era, almost psychoanalytic in its dissection of power’s neuroses.
A dystopian satirical vision that mashes up ancient with current, the work depicts a future Russia where a new tsar reigns, a great wall divides East from West, citizens long ago burned their passports (everywhere else is inferior to Russia, after all) and the patriarchal norms and dress of the Middle Ages hold sway.
The plot follows Komiaga, a state enforcer, over the course of a day as he tortures, kills and persecutes the tsar’s enemies, raping their wives for good measure. All this is told through his own point of view in highly stylized, pseudo-antiquated Russian (recalling the psychopathic Alex DeLarge’s first-person narrative from “A Clockwork Orange” (1962) by Anthony Burgess).
Komiaga belongs to the “oprichniki,” an elite, secretive order of assassins created in the 16th century by Tsar Ivan IV (aka Ivan the Terrible). The oprichniki were real figures from Russian history, but Sorokin inserts them into a near-future sci-fi Russia where they communicate on “mobilos” (cell phones) and drive “mercedovs” (souped-up Mercedes). The late Jamey Gambrell’s remarkable translation of the novel preserves a sense of Sorokin’s arch satirical wordplay, much of it derived from contemporary Russian slang.
Like a psychologist, Sorokin sheds light on the mentality of a people besotted with dreams of global super-power conquest, lapping up their government’s propaganda as if it were God’s truth, but in reality trapped in a squalid authoritarian hell-hole.
In one scene, Komiaga stands before a vendor’s display and muses on the “superiority” of having only two choices for each consumer product: “His Majesty’s father, the late Nikolai Platonovich, had a good idea: liquidate all the foreign supermarkets and replace them with Russian kiosks. And put two types of each thing in every kiosk, so the people have a choice. A wise decision, profound. Because our God-bearing people should choose from two things, not from three or thirty-three. Choosing one of two things creates spiritual calm, people are imbued with certainty in the future, superfluous fuss and bother is avoided, and consequently — everyone is satisfied. And when a people such as ours is satisfied, great deeds may be accomplished.”
Since the sanctions imposed by Western governments after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, many imported goods have disappeared from Russian shelves, replaced by domestic products. The state has passed laws which forbid gay “propaganda” and causing offense to religious believers (2013), and offensive language in the arts and media (2014). Just this year the state made it illegal to call the Ukraine war a war or in effect to protest Putin, while alternative media voices have all but vanished. Confrontation with the West has reached peak levels — never more so than since February. Sorokin uncannily predicted all of this.
A rumination on the reverence for power and the deep insecurity vis-à-vis the West in Russian culture, a frontal assault on Putin-era top-down governance, “Day of the Oprichnik” struck a chord. Some in the Russian religious far right have even praised Sorokin, taking his ultra-violent satire as a real prescription for the nation.
Reading “Day of the Oprichnik,” I’m often reminded of a recurring image in the work of the late Russian cartoonist Slava Sysoev, who spent time in a Soviet prison camp in the 1980s for his antigovernment drawings. The image shows a huge nuclear missile driven by a decrepit peasant in a horse-drawn cart. “This is Russia,” the cartoon seems to say, “a starving third-world country with a first-world arsenal, obsessed with proving its might.”
Let us all hope the fever breaks soon — first and foremost for Ukraine, only the latest victim of what Sorokin calls a very Russian mentality.
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