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Violent, Ecstatic Russians

Day of the Oprichnik

by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 191 pp., $23.00

Ice Trilogy

by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
New York Review Books, 694 pp., $19.95 (paper)

1.

The Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin was far from Moscow, finishing a residency at Stanford University, in late November 2011, when Vladimir Putin began to lose his aura of absolute power. The scene at Moscow’s Olympic Hall, wishfully dubbed “the end of the Putin era” by opposition blogger Alexei Navalny, was so saturated with patriotic kitsch that it could have come from the pages of Sorokin’s satirical novella Day of the Oprichnik. The heavyweight Fedor Emilianenko had defeated an American opponent in a martial arts contest. Putin, in a shiny suit, his face taut with Botox, entered the ring to embrace the victorious fighter. “Dear friends,” he began, as a chorus of hooting rose from the crowd. The dreamy-eyed Emilianenko, a heavy Orthodox cross hanging between his damp pectorals, chewed his lip. “From the soul,” Putin continued over the catcalls, “we all congratulate Fedor Emilianenko, a real Russian bogatyr.” At the very moment that Putin invoked the “soul” and the bogatyrs, the epic warriors of national legend, another traditional theme had erupted out of the darkness of the hall: the radical unpredictability of the Russian people.

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Dominique Nabokov
Vladimir Sorokin at the PEN World Voices Festival, New York City, May 2011

I was living in Moscow in 2006, and I remember the glee with which friends greeted the publication of Day of the Oprichnik. By then, Putin’s elite—men from the security services and other power ministries—were already referred to as oprichniks. Like the pseudo-monastic military order—the oprichniki—created in the mid-sixteenth century by Tsar Ivan the Terrible, Putin’s men had emerged as a group of “untouchables”: “high priests of power,” as Sorokin calls them, to whom everything is permitted. As Leonid Parfyonov, then editor of Russian Newsweek, commented, Day of the Oprichnik had been “waiting to be written”; it was, though, a surprise that its author turned out to be the detached conceptualist Sorokin.1 Five years after its publication, Sorokin’s hypergrotesque fantasy seems an all the more appropriate response to Putinism’s blend of menace, paranoia, cultishness, and corruption.

The setting is Moscow in 2028. “Holy Russia” has been reborn out of the “Gray Ashes” of its history into a new era of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” A Great Western Wall cuts Russia off from a decayed Europe. The people have long since ritually burned their foreign-travel passports on Red Square. Pipelines export gas; all consumer goods, including champagne, come from China. On Lubianka Square, where, until 1991, there was a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky (founder of the Soviet secret police), stands a gigantic statue of Malyuta Skuratov, the most powerful and cruelest of Ivan the Terrible’s oprichniks. Malyuta watches over Moscow “with the Ever-Watchful Eye of the State.” Sworn to defend their Sovereign, the new oprichniks hark back to the rituals of their sixteenth-century forbears. Futuristic technology combines with archaic ritual. The oprichniks wear black caftans and attach severed dogs’ heads and brooms to the bumpers of their red “Mercedovs,” symbolizing their readiness to chew up and sweep away enemies of the state.

Sorokin has described Day of the Oprichnik as a literary matryoshka, a Russian nesting doll.2 He uses skaz—a traditional narrative device, in which a tale is told in a distinctive voice quite different from the author’s—to get inside the head of a high-ranking, middle-aged oprichnik, Andrei Komiaga, as he goes about his Monday round of state business. Through Komiaga’s present-tense stream of consciousness (and semiconsciousness), Sorokin opens up the myth of the Russian state to see what hides within. The reader becomes intimate with Komiaga’s dreams and hallucinations, his appetites and lusts, his loyalty, piety, and cunning, and the simple pride he takes in his “heroic, state life.” He talks often of “the soul”; his catchphrase, uttered after passages of shocking violence, is “and thank God.”

“Yes, violence—that is my theme,” Sorokin commented in an interview about Day of the Oprichnik. He calls violence the “dark energy” of Russian history, “still alive in every bureaucrat.”3 Sorokin, who was threatened with prosecution for pornography in 2002 for his novel Blue Lard (1999),4 finds the most extreme combinations of sex and violence in the chronicles of Russian history. The cruelties of Ivan the Terrible and his oprichniks, he says, surpass the imagination of the Marquis de Sade.5 It was in Ivan’s reign, Sorokin believes, that the Russian state became an idol, separate from the people, demanding worship and sacrificial blood offerings.6 Andrei Komiaga presents atrocities in the bold, colorful, comic style of the folk woodblock prints that Sorokin says inspired Day of the Oprichnik. The violence in the book is the archaic, festive violence of the public execution, where “the laughter of the crowd mixes with the moaning of the victim.”7

Komiaga wakes to the ring tone on his “mobilov” (names of gadgets have all been Russianized), a recording of a prisoner being tortured: “a scream…a moan…the death rattle.” Komiaga’s estate on the Rublyov Highway (where Putin’s cronies have their palaces)—his house, he says, has a “soul” (as well as an icon screen and a jacuzzi)—was “transferred” to him after the “Great Treasury Purge,” when its previous owner was “dragged with his mug in the dung; banknotes were stuffed in his mouth, it was sewn shut, a candle was shoved up his ass, and he was hung on the gates of the estate.”

In “Holy Russia,” state service is made glamorous with patriotic bling. After Komiaga has breakfasted on a “hangover assortment” of cabbage juice and vodka, and prayed before his icons, his barber Samson shaves him, rouges his cheeks, curls and glazes his forelock, and adorns him with a gold earring that only oprichniks wear. (Another oprichnik, we soon learn, has pearls sewn into his genitals in a pattern resembling the vestments of the medieval bogatyr Ilya Muromets.) After more icon-kissing, Komiaga’s nanny tucks into his caftan a prayer embroidered by the nuns of Novodevichy Convent—“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High”—and he sets off to his first assignment of the day: the killing of a troublesome nobleman and the burning down of his estate. “Only…don’t mutilate the family, got it?” commands Batya, the chief oprichnik, appearing in a hologram to the right of Komiaga’s steering wheel.

As he speeds down the government lane, Komiaga requests a song “about the steppe” from Radio Rus. (This turns out to be a pastiche of the fighter Emilianenko’s theme music, a popular Cossack folksong.) As a prelude to the hanging of the nobleman and the gang rape of his wife (“how sweet to leave one’s own seed in the womb of the wife of an enemy of the state”), Komiaga enjoys the spectacle of a fistfight between a fellow oprichnik, Pogoda, and a servant, both “tough Russian people,” “made of the same Russian dough”:

The last punch…the stable hand falls flat on his back. Pogoda steps on his chest with his fashionable boot…. The servants are quiet….
At moments like these, everything is transparent. Oy, how you can see through the Russian people…. Simple Russian faces. How I love to watch them at such moments, the moment of truth. Right now, they’re a mirror. In which we are reflected.

Yet as he goes about his day, dealing with every aspect of the running of the corrupt, autocratic state, Komiaga senses the people’s hatred of the oprichniks and the power they serve. Despite censorship, a patriotic official culture (“Orthodox Church literature…the Russian classics”), and the regular flogging of intellectuals, subversive poetry still circulates in the city. Illegal radio stations broadcast from abroad. Driving through Moscow, clearing the way with the Mercedov’s “State Snarl,” Komiaga catches a radio program on “The Russian Cultural Underground,” in which “some Igor Pavlovich Tikhy speaks seriously about the ‘Negation of a Negation of Negation of a Negation’ in A. Shestigorsky’s novel The Ninth Wife.”

Komiaga arranges for a patriotic vigilante youth group, the Good Fellows, to disrupt the theatrical performance of Artamosha, who once sang “traditional Russian epics. About the deeds of Ilya Muromets,” but now recites obscene satires about the debauchery of the Sovereign’s wife. “It’s not a handful of dissenters, you idiot,” Her Majesty rages when Komiaga reports to her in her opulent Kremlin chamber. “It’s our barbaric people!… They don’t really love us, the powerful. And they never will. If they had a chance—they’d cut us to pieces.”

Komiaga’s day, which includes a business trip to eastern Siberia, taking a bribe from a Bolshoi ballerina, and an exotic drug trip in a bathhouse, ends with a feast in Batya’s mansion, an architectural pastiche of Old Muscovy, recognizable as today’s French embassy. Batya has invited the city’s cultural elite to dine. Day of the Oprichnik is full of contemporary in-jokes, and in this scene, Sorokin presents a recognizable gallery of Putinism’s sycophantic billionaires, suborned artists, pet sportsmen, politically useful priests, and fat chairmen of servile public institutions. A hologram of the Sovereign appears; he has “penetrating blue-gray eyes.” “Hail the Purge,” the oprichniks cry, as His Majesty orders sweeping arrests of Siberian officials. The oprichniks are, in essence, an organized crime racket. Exultantly speaking the language of thieves, they divvy up the proceeds of the day’s bribery and expropriation, before consummating their “brotherhood” in a ritual orgy in Batya’s underground bathhouse.

Komiaga admires the way the “gilded forelocks” of the young oprichniks shimmer and their earrings sway. When Batya opens the trapdoor leading down to the bathhouse by pulling the cudgel on a bronze statue of the bogatyr Ilya Muromets, Komiaga’s excited blood pounds at his temples “like oprichniks breaking into [an] estate.” The magnificently grotesque orgy scene is an explicit transposition of the Technicolor “Dance of the Oprichniks” in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1940s film Ivan the Terrible, in which Fedor Basmanov (reputedly the male lover of Ivan) dances in drag, and the oprichniks tumble facedown in a heap. The oprichniks’ hypermasculinity is a form of camp.

In Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard, a violent brotherhood of “Russian Earthfuckers,” with its own canonical “Sacred History,” speaks an ersatz Orthodox language. For the foul-mouthed Batya, loaded with alcohol and cocaine, talking religion is another of the evening’s pleasures, alongside group sex, murder, listening to Rachmaninov, and a sadomasochistic ritual game played with a diamond-tipped drill. Batya’s Christianity is “a well of springwater, pure, clear, quiet, modest, powerful, and plentiful,” nourishing the cult of the state. “Only we, the Orthodox, have preserved the church as Christ’s body on earth,” Batya declares.

That’s why His Majesty built this magnificent Wall, in order to cut us off from stench and unbelievers…from sodomites, Catholics, melancholiacs, from Buddhists, sadists, Satanists, and Marxists….

2.

Sorokin began his prolific literary career in the bohemian “Moscow underground” of the 1980s, making “literary bombs” to blow up Soviet discourse, as he puts it.8 Throughout that decade, his novels, short stories, and plays—extravagantly taboo-breaking parodies of official Socialist Realism—were passed around in samizdat or published abroad. When Sorokin’s “underground” novels—The Norm, Marina’s Thirtieth Love, Roman, Four Stout Hearts—appeared in print in Russia in the mid-1990s, he was working mainly on plays and movie scripts. By the late 1990s, Sorokin had attracted the attention of Slavists in Western universities, drawn to his deconstructive prose, with its endless play of mutually negating literary discourses, freed of any notion of reliable truth.9

  1. 1

    “History Does Not Just Return as Farce,” interview with Vladimir Sorokin, Newsweek (Russian edition), December 26, 2006. All the interviews quoted in this article may be found (in Russian) on Sorokin’s official website: www.srkn.ru. I have translated the titles from the Russian. 

  2. 2

    “The Laws of Russian Metaphysics,” interview with Vladimir Sorokin by Alexander Voznesensky, October 26, 2006. 

  3. 3

    “The Dark Energy of Society,” interview with Vladimir Sorokin, Der Spiegel, January 29, 2007. 

  4. 4

    See Jamey Gambrell, “ Russia’s New Vigilantes,” The New York Review, January 16, 2003. 

  5. 5

    “The Oprichnik Is a Very Russian Phenomenon,” interview with Vladimir Sorokin by Boris Sokolov, August 21, 2006. 

  6. 6

    Sorokin’s reflections echo those of Alexander Yanov, who, in The Origins of Autocracy (University of California Press, 1981), calls the oprichnina a “cultural revolution”: “in [the myth of the state] the apologia for tyranny is skillfully interwoven with patriotism, the justification of terror with national feelings.” Yanov argues that Ivan the Terrible laid the ground for Stalin: with “Stalin’s Oprichniki…we know that we have before us not only beasts and hangmen, but also people to whom the tradition gives a basis for being proud of their corruption.” 

  7. 7

    “The Feudal Consciousness Is Still Alive in Russia,” interview with Vladimir Sorokin, Argumenty i fakty, August 11, 2010. 

  8. 8

    “The Laws of Russian Metaphysics.” 

  9. 9

    The first international conference on Sorokin’s work was held in Germany in 1997. In his highly readable survey, Russian Postmodernist Fiction: Dialogue with Chaos (M.E. Sharpe, 1999), Mark Lipovetsky writes, “Sorokin’s project is thoroughly deconstructive.” 

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