• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Russia’s New Vigilantes

1.

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.1 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 1985.2 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 his vacation at Dachau being tortured.

The “pornographic materials or objects” in the recent criminal case are in Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard (Goluboe salo, 1999), a fast-paced political thriller that could also be described as surrealist science fiction. The book has the quality of a psychedelic trip or a dream, in which events and characters appear, disappear, and jump from one century to another. The book begins in a futuristic Russia where most people speak “New-Russian”—a New Age lingo heavily laced with Chinese (there’s a glossary in the back). Scientists have succeeded in cloning giant carrier pigeons as well as classic Russian and Soviet writers (the novel incorporates pastiches from the work of Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Konstantin Simonov, and Lev Tolstoy, among others). Just as the scientists celebrate their success, primitive twentieth- century commandos from the remote Russian north, representatives of a secretive, religious, male society of “Earthfuckers” (whose diction is often that of Russian Orthodoxy and who choose to spill their seed on the sacred soil of the Motherland), break into their compound and massacre them. The commandos are after the dormant bodies of the cloned writers, from which they crudely hack off sections of flesh that contain blue lard.

This mystically glowing sky-blue substance, we eventually learn, is a superconductor at any temperature, but no one, including the reader, knows what anyone really wants it for. The novel jumps back to an imaginary past in which Stalin (who died in 1953) is still alive and the Third Reich was victorious. In 1954 a strange frozen object sent from the future crashes like a meteorite into the middle of the Bolshoi Theater, where the audience is wearing scuba-diving equipment because the theater is overflowing with raw sewage. In the Kremlin, Stalin, Beria, and other members of the Politburo watch the object defrost. It yields a suitcase full of luminous blue lard. Stalin takes the suitcase and heads off to see the deposed Count Khrushchev, who turns out to be his lover. In the scene cited as pornographic in the case against Sorokin, Stalin and Khru-shchev murmur sweet nothings in each other’s ear, while Khrushchev sodomizes the Great Leader.

Eluding Beria’s spy network, Stalin and Khrushchev fly off to Germany with the case of blue lard, where Hitler greets Stalin as his best friend. Meanwhile, in Moscow, a degenerate, dandified poet named Osip (Mandelstam) is released from KGB headquarters and runs into AAA (Anna Andreevna Akhmatova), a Rabelaisian crone who gives birth to a strange egg, and who, on her deathbed, after interviewing a series of snotty brats named Belka (Akhmadulina), Zhenia (Yevtushenko), and Andriusha (Voznesensky), passes the torch of talent to a red-headed boy named Joseph (Brodsky). By the time the book comes to an end, Sorokin has managed to offend almost every group in contemporary Russia: nationalists and Communists, liberals and former dissidents, conservatives, radicals, the Church hierarchy, and devotees of the most sacred hierarchy of all—Russian literature.

Sorokin’s prose, with its scatology, violence, and sexualized gore, produces some of the disturbing effects we associate with the work of J.G. Ballard, Pasolini, or the Marquis de Sade. In Sorokin, such effects are always at an evident stylistic remove from any identifiable authorial voice, even one of parody. He views the traditional Russian obsession with the writer as seer and teacher as coarsely mistaken, and often speaks of literature as a narcotic for personal psychological ailments. His true subject is the Russian language in all its forms, including classic nineteenth-century literature, its hackneyed “socialist realist” derivatives, and contemporary slang. Even some of his most vocal detractors concede that he has an extraordinary gift for reproducing the aesthetic and ideological nuances of language.

Blue Lard was published in 1999. The “pornography” case, however, began early in 2002, when the relatively obscure youth organization called Moving Together (MT)3 invited Muscovites to turn over “amoral” and “marginal” books by Viktor Pelevin, Viktor Erofeyev, Sorokin, and Karl Marx, as well as detective novels. In exchange, they were promised a free copy of works by the Soviet writer Boris Vasilev about World War II or an anthology of Soviet literature.4

Until then, Moving Together had been known primarily for the pro-Putin demonstration it organized during the 2000 election campaign: thousands of young Russians wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Putin’s image marched near Red Square. Many of them, as the press reported with some sarcasm, had been attracted to the capital by offers of free train fare and promises of cheap concert tickets. MT also held a march in support of Putin on the first anniversary of his presidency. Otherwise, the group has been active on behalf of an odd variety of causes. It wrote a letter of condolence to the Norwegian ambassador on the occasion of Thor Heyerdahl’s death and a gushing letter to Moscow’s mayor Yury Luzhkov, thanking him for canceling bullfights scheduled in Moscow. It protested the detention by the US of Pavel Borodin, a Yeltsin Kremlin official instrumental in Putin’s political life, who was extradited to Switzerland on corruption charges.

MT also denounced the popular Russian reality-TV show Behind the Glass, because the participants talked openly about sex and other intimate details of their lives. Despite its campaign to “cleanse” Russian culture of “pornography,” MT seems to have nothing to say about the porn magazines freely sold on nearly every street corner in Moscow or about the sexual scenes on Russian television.

Moving Together has a “Moral Code” that forbids the murder and torture of animals, drunkenness, drugs, swearing, as well as promoting nationalistic and chauvinistic ideology. The group exhorts its members to respect parents and elders, to be active citizens, and to strive “to be better everywhere and in everything.” MT requires its members to read the Russian classics and visit World War II battle sites and ancient Russian cities. Members in turn receive discounts on movie and theater tickets, free Internet hours, and a pager if they bring in other members. Most important, perhaps, MT promises young people that they will always have someone to talk to, that they need not feel alone because they have “an organization behind them.”

It is widely assumed that “the Movers” have backing and financing from the Kremlin (although both deny any relationship); the group’s leader, Vasily Yakemenko, a former businessman, is about thirty years old and the one-time head of youth affairs in Putin’s administration. MT says it supports Putin “as an individual,” and there is little mention of him on the group’s Web site. The only thing the group will say about its clearly considerable financing is that large companies and banks are among its sponsors.

MT claims to have nearly 100,000 members throughout Russia, 80 percent of whom are said to be students. No one has independently verified these claims, but if such numbers could be confirmed the group might qualify to register as a political party under the new party registration laws.

2.

Moving Together continued its campaign against contemporary literature in April, when members disrupted a book signing by the writers Viktor Erofeyev and Dmitry Prigov in Moscow. According to the group’s own account, its members surrounded the writers’ table, blocked access to them, and asked “why none of the writer’s [Erofeyev’s] works could get by without using vile words and revolting scenes of perverted sexual contacts.”

On June 27, MT opened its attack on Sorokin with a staged demonstration against the writer and the Bolshoi Theater, which has commissioned him to produce a libretto for a new opera composed by Leonid Desiatnikov. (In the opera, Nazi and Stalinist scientists simultaneously discover how to clone the great composers: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky). MT members picketed the Bolshoi with poster-size blowups of quotes from the scene of Stalin and Khrushchev having sex in Blue Lard. They handed out their own publication of “the marginal postmodernist Sorokin,” as they called him, a collection of passages, from various novels, which they considered objectionable. The public was invited to rip up and throw the books into a “monument to Sorokin,” a large mock toilet bowl, an allusion to the scene in Blue Lard where the Bolshoi Theater is swimming in sewage. The demonstration continued in front of the Ministry of Culture, where members of Moving Together trampled copies of Sorokin’s work and carried signs calling for the minister of culture, Mikhail Shvydkoi, to resign. Their goal, they said, was to make sure that

  1. 1

    I have known Sorokin since 1988 and have translated some of his work; I have also known the director of Ad Marginem, Alexander Ivanov, for many years.

  2. 2

    The Queue was published in Sally Laird’s excellent English translation by Readers International in 1988. My translation of the novella A Month in Dachau appeared in Grand Street, Spring 1994; also, an excerpt of the novel Four Stout Hearts and the short story “A Business Proposition” were published in Glas: Soviet Literature, No. 2 (1991).

  3. 3

    Idushchie vmeste can be variously translated as “Moving Together,” “Walking Together,” “Going Together,” etc.; the name has inspired many ribald puns in Russian press headlines. A new female band called “Singing Together” (Poiushchie vmeste) has a hit extolling Putin as the kind of “real” man a girl wants in her life.

  4. 4

    When Vasilev learned of the exchange he denounced it as an “antidemocratic action that violates the individual’s freedom” and withdrew his books; see www.newsru.com/cinema/18jan2002/books_scandal. According to an Interfax interview with Denis Zaitsev, Moving Together’s press secretary, MT received 6,700 books, including 148 copies of Pelevin’s book, 102 of Sorokin’s, and 97 volumes of Karl Marx. Outrunning all others was Alexandra Marinina, Russia’s leading crime writer, with 1,363 books; see www.newsru.com/russia/14feb2002/knigi. All other quotes from MT materials are translated from its Web site, www.idushie .ru.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print