I recently returned from a trip to North Korea, a country that offers a powerful example of that peculiar moment when political absolutism shades into religious cult. At one point my group of foreign tourists was ushered into a room that displayed a wax mannequin of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country’s Communist system. His effigy, smiling serenely, stood in a simulated meadow against a painted mountain background. On either side of the diorama stood fake trees, their leaves gently wafted by an artificial breeze. Our government minders nudged us into a line and urged us to bow respectfully.
We were standing outside again, chatting with each other about the experience in bemused tones, when we noticed a North Korean tour group emerging from the same room. They were wiping their eyes, overcome with emotion. One of our guides explained that for them, it was as if they had just met the Great Leader in person. Even though Kim died in 1994, he remains officially the president of North Korea to this day—an impressive example of political life after death.
During my trip I found myself thinking a lot about Vladimir Sorokin, the Russian writer who has spent much of his career exploring the spiritual products of Soviet totalitarianism. A few years back, Sorokin published an essay devoted to a long and admiring description of the film The Fall of Berlin, a late-1940s classic of socialist realism that offers what one might describe as a High Stalinist treatment of the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II (see illustration on page 62). In Sorokin’s description, the Stalin of the film is no longer entirely human. He is a god, a transcendent being, wise and gentle, who nobly governs world affairs even while benignly intervening in the love lives of his most modest subjects. As Sorokin writes:
Stalin moves in his own, special space, which corresponds to a special time that does not coincide with the time of ordinary mortals. The illusion that it is not a human being we have before us is so intense that we have the feeling that Stalin needs only to make a wave of his hand in order for the mask on his face to acquire cracks through which will pour the consuming light of absolute power.1
Hitler is shown in the film as his complementary opposite, a Satanic figure, a “dethroned Titan” after his defeat, while Stalin descends on the conquered Berlin in his plane like a “god from the East.”
Sorokin explains in his essay that it took him years before he finally managed to see the film. After Stalin’s death The Fall of Berlin, and other socialist realist movies of the kind, were banned for decades in the Soviet Union. Sorokin speculates, probably rightly, that Soviet leaders feared the movies for their mythic power. When he finally managed to see the movie for himself, in Munich in 1991, it evoked a variety of reactions in its largely Western audience. Some were bewildered, others laughed. Sorokin’s response—a sort of amused awe—fits his sense of himself as a postmodern connoisseur of socialist realist art, one whose immersion in the cultural artifacts of the Soviet system enables him to appreciate with particular intensity their specific brand of mythopoetic excess. He writes that his taste for the “forbidden fruit” of Stalinist cinema had its origin in his childhood, when he spent long hours in the family kitchen listening to his grandparents inveigh against Khrushchev’s “revisionism” and gush about the lost innocence of those wonderful movies about steel factories and collective farms.
Many of us, I think, would like to believe that his relatives’ brand of nostalgia has become historical, apart from a few outposts in places like Cuba and North Korea. But that would be a mistake. Gods are gods, and myths have a force that can never be entirely tamed by ironic aesthetic contemplation. Explored with insight, cult objects like The Fall of Berlin offer telling examples of the ways authoritarian political systems try to address and manipulate the intense human yearning for transcendence and belonging, for authentic communities and ecstatic ideals. It’s the same desire that can manifest itself in utopian religious cults like the Branch Davidians or in millenarian political movements like Bolshevism or al-Qaeda. The problem is that it is easy to dismiss the lure of totalitarian sects if you view them from the outside—as tends to be the case in most literary works on the subject.2 You can hardly blame writers for fearing that telling the story from the cult’s point of view would be stultifying, pointless, irritating—in short, the perfect provocation. If you can pull it off.
In Ice, his most recent novel to appear in English translation, Sorokin takes us inside the dystopia of present-day Moscow. In its opening pages we meet a university student named Yury Lapin, who is quizzing his friend, an Internet geek called Gena, about a prominent feature of contemporary Russian life: the proliferation of occult religious sects and political extremist groups. It would appear that they are all competing in the same densely crowded market:
“Listen, Gen. You know anything about secret sects?”
“Which ones? Aum Shinrikyo?”
“No, well…others…like an order….”
“Like the Freemasons?”
“Sort of. Can you dig up something on the Web?”
“You can dig up anything you want. What do you need Masons for?”
“I need the ones we have here.”
“Kela’s up on that stuff. All he does is go on about Freemasons, Masonic lodges…”
“Kela…” said Lapin, touching his chest. “He’s obsessed with black asses. And Jews.”
“So? He knows about all different kinds. What do you care?”
“Some assholes attacked me. A fuckin’ brotherhood. Of ‘awakened’ people.”
That’s only the half of it, though. Unlike Lapin’s oblivious friend, we have just witnessed the attack in question. Lapin’s assailants have kidnapped him, brought him to a deserted warehouse, and tied him, standing, to a steel column. Then they proceed to pound his breastbone with a hammer. The hammer is not an ordinary one, though—its head is made of ice. Lapin, it should be said, is not the only person to endure this bizarre ritual. Another abductee, hammered before him, does not survive it.
Lapin’s experience turns out to be rather different. The mysterious ice-like substance triggers a strange reaction in his heart, which suddenly begins to produce sounds. What his heart is “speaking,” as his assailants put it, is nothing less than his secret name as a member of a hidden elect. Once they’re sure of his identity, Lapin’s abductors cart him off to a mysterious clinic where he is treated with tenderness as he recovers from his wounds. Oh, and one more unsettling detail: Lapin, like his attackers-turned-benefactors, happens to be blond and blue-eyed—the outward marks of a candidate for the brotherhood.
Other Muscovites will soon make similarly disconcerting discoveries. Like Lapin they have been kidnapped or coerced under various pretexts, then “hammered” until their hearts either cease to beat or are “awakened” by proximity to that mysterious ice. The first section of the novel focuses on Lapin and two others who have passed the brotherhood’s sadistic test: Nikolaeva, a prostitute, and Borenboim, a Jewish business tycoon. The lives they’ve been leading are not exactly pretty. We are witness to some distinctly sleazy sex, desultory drug use, casual mafia brutality, and a dash of grungy American pop culture (Keanu Reeves in The Matrix and the soap opera Santa Barbara).
It’s all recounted in the hard-boiled style—complete with time stamps, precise locations, and police-blotter character portraits—that will be comfortingly familiar to Sorokin’s Russian readers from the post-Soviet detektivy (crime thrillers) that have arguably become the dominant literary genre across the Russian-speaking world. The popularity of these books, by best-selling authors like Alexandra Marinina and Darya Donstova, is owing, perhaps, to the fact that few other forms are quite so well suited to documenting the social foibles of a society dominated by a criminal class, as Russia and most of the other ex-Soviet republics are today. Sorokin shows himself to be more than capable of handling the form.
Other strange things begin to happen. Soon after their “awakening” each of the three survivors experiences a creepy form of communion with other members of the sect. When awakened hearts are pressed together, it turns out, the result is a starburst of transcendent unity strongly reminiscent of the bond with the divine celebrated in many a mystical religious tradition.3 Once this ecstasy has been experienced you can never go back to ordinary human life. Soon each of the sect’s new initiates find themselves enduring the pangs of a “new birth,” culminating in manic crying jags that bring them to a state of collapse. When they come to their senses this time around they find themselves firmly ensconced in the embracing arms of the brotherhood—and by now they are grateful. You can hardly blame them, given the anomie of the society they’ve been living in. Still, why all this is happening remains for the moment unclear.
Up to this point Sorokin has chosen to present his tale in the flat, third-person mode of pulp mystery novels. The second section of the book shifts into the conversational, first-person memoir of a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl named Varka: “I had just turned twelve when the war began,” she explains in the first line. She hails from a village somewhere in the western Soviet Union, and large chunks of her account of the German invasion and occupation during World War II could just as well have been lifted from an oral history of the period. This part of the story is presented with scrupulous regard for prosaic realities, right down to her own speech (marked by touches of peasant dialect and mutilated German) and the mundane details of village life under occupation. Particularly convincing is her apolitical bewilderment, mixed with naive excitement, when she is told that she is being sent off to the invaders’ homeland to work in a factory—whether she wants to or not. It is there, in a forest somewhere in Germany, that she is finally hammered by operatives of the Third Reich chapter of the brotherhood, in a scene that parodies historical scenarios of similar executions during the Holocaust, and learns her real, “awakened” name: Khram.
It is here that Khram (and we) finally get briefed on the mystical motivation for all these events. As she’s resting up from her initiation in a covert clinic somewhere in the Alps, one of her brothers tells Khram the story of the Tunguska event in 1908, when a large meteorite exploded over Siberia. Left behind from the blast was a mass of interstellar ice, now resting half-concealed in a bog, which somehow refracts the Primordial Light of the universe. The members of the brotherhood merely look human; actually they’re the remnants of an extraterrestrial race, scattered fragments of the light waiting to join up with their cosmic source.
Vladimir Sorokin, "Kuß für Genosse Stalin," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeit-ung, August 23, 1994. The quotes are my own translation from the paper's German version of Sorokin's text.↩
Alison Lurie's Imaginary Friends (Abacus, 1967), which tells the story of two sociologists who decide to study a cult by posing as members, is one example that comes to mind. Much closer to Sorokin in spirit is the American postmodernist Don DeLillo, who works cult themes into several of his books. His novel The Names (Knopf, 1982) even features a sect that kills people with hammers engraved with the victim's initials—a conceit, as will become apparent below, that is intriguingly echoed in the Sorokin novel under discussion here.↩
Sorokin gives this theme a sly twist elsewhere in the novel, where the handover of some of the "ice" is depicted in terms usually reserved for drug deals. A brotherhood member who is taking delivery of the material "samples" it beforehand with her awakened heart as a way of verifying its authenticity.↩
Vladimir Sorokin, “Kuß für Genosse Stalin,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeit-ung, August 23, 1994. The quotes are my own translation from the paper’s German version of Sorokin’s text.↩
Alison Lurie’s Imaginary Friends (Abacus, 1967), which tells the story of two sociologists who decide to study a cult by posing as members, is one example that comes to mind. Much closer to Sorokin in spirit is the American postmodernist Don DeLillo, who works cult themes into several of his books. His novel The Names (Knopf, 1982) even features a sect that kills people with hammers engraved with the victim’s initials—a conceit, as will become apparent below, that is intriguingly echoed in the Sorokin novel under discussion here.↩
Sorokin gives this theme a sly twist elsewhere in the novel, where the handover of some of the “ice” is depicted in terms usually reserved for drug deals. A brotherhood member who is taking delivery of the material “samples” it beforehand with her awakened heart as a way of verifying its authenticity.↩