Russia’s New Vigilantes

In July, for the first time since censorship was abolished in post-Communist Russia, a criminal case was brought against a writer and his publisher, under Article 242 of the criminal code: “Illegal distribution of pornographic materials or objects.” The writer is Vladimir Sorokin and his publisher is called Ad Marginem. The charges were initiated after a complaint was lodged with the prosecutor’s office by Moving Together, a pro-Putin youth organization that advocates patriotism and clean living.

Sorokin has become something of a cult figure in contemporary Russian literature, particularly among young people. Born in 1955, he began writing in the 1970s. He is the author of eight novels, ten plays, dozens of short stories, and several feature films, two of which, Moscow and The Kopeck, have already been released. Previously circulated in samizdat, all of his work is now published in Russia, and he has been translated into ten languages, though he is not well known to English readers. In Russia, while widely acknowledged as an important, influential writer, he has been a controversial outsider who provokes extremes of adulation and enmity.

His first novel, The Queue (Ochered), finished in 1983, originally appeared in French translation in 1985. Written entirely in dialogue between unnamed characters, it takes place in Moscow in the 1970s on one of those infamous Soviet consumer lines that numbered in the hundreds of people and went on for days and days. The Queue follows the encounters and amorous exploits of a young man who joins the line—to buy exactly what, neither he nor anyone else, as it turns out, really knows. In the process Sorokin provides a primer on Soviet social etiquette and the Russian slang of the period. This was the language you really heard on the streets, and you couldn’t find it in Soviet literature or Soviet dictionaries.

One of Sorokin’s best-known early stories, “Opening of the Season,” starts out as a clichéd Soviet tale about an experienced hunter and his young protégé on a wilderness outing. Just as the familiarity of the literary genre is established, the story, but not the language, takes a nightmarish twist: the two men turn out to be hunting human beings. They lure their prey by playing a tape recording of the actor-singer Vladimir Vysotsky, the idol of dissident and intelligentsia circles. After shooting a man and gutting him, they sit down to a hearty snack of roasted liver.

Such sudden, gruesome turns of events frequently occur in Sorokin’s work, which is also characterized by the author’s complete and deliberate detachment from his characters. This clinical detachment was also a central feature of the perverse political fantasies he wrote after perestroika. In the novella A Month in Dachau, for instance, which recalls the travel diary of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, we are in a post–World War II Europe ruled by a victorious Nazi–Soviet alliance; a Russian writer (named Vladimir Sorokin) travels to Germany to spend …

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