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Violent, Ecstatic Russians

Everett Collection
A scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II

Over the past decade, Sorokin has shown some unease with his status as a subject of academic study and with the label “postmodern,” applied to him by detractors and admirers alike. His many interviews compose a body of apparently unmasked personal truth to set alongside his fiction. As well as describing his happy marriage and his love for his twin daughters and his dogs, Sorokin has spoken of his creative intentions, his liberal political sympathies, his love of Tolstoy, and his Orthodox faith.

Though he mortifies the language of Christianity through parody in Day of the Oprichnik, Sorokin says that he has “never doubted the existence of God.” He was baptized at Moscow’s Novodevichy Convent in 1980, when he was twenty-five.10 In the same year, as he recently recounted in his blog for the Russian magazine Snob, Sorokin had a chance encounter on the Moscow Metro with a member of a secret spiritual organization called “Blue Rose.” The young man invited Sorokin to “become a superman” who can “see into the essence of things,” explaining that the mission of “Blue Rose” was to free Russia from dark cosmic forces incarnated in 1917. Moscow’s centers of evil energy, the young man said, were the Lenin Mausoleum and the KGB building on Lubianka Square. Sorokin was reminded of the twentieth-century Russian mystic Daniil Andreev, whose great work of secret history, Rose of the World, he had recently read in samizdat.11

In Ice Trilogy, Sorokin imagines an alternative secret history of the twentieth century. The vast apocalyptic epic draws on the mystical imagery of Andreev’s Rose of the World.12 It tells the story of the Brotherhood of Light, 23,000 dispersed rays of Primordial Light, incarnated on Earth in human bodies, whose accidental creation was the “Light’s Great Mistake.” In Jamey Gambrell’s heroic translation, the trilogy is now available to English-speaking readers as a single volume.

The first part, Bro, begins in 1908, with the birth of Alexander Snegirev, the first of the Children of Light to have his heart awakened by cosmic ice from the mysterious Tungus meteorite that fell in Siberia in the same year. Even before his “rebirth,” Snegirev’s estrangement from humanity is signaled by his inability to respond to the works of Tolstoy:

Literature didn’t interest me: the world of people, their passions and ambitions—all that seemed petty, fussy, and ephemeral…. The world of Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky was really no different from the world of my neighbors who fought and swore in the kitchen….

Bro (Snegirev’s “awakened” name) goes forth to awaken more brothers and sisters by hammering their chests with ice from the meteorite: a violent, repetitive business. All are blond, blue-eyed, and vegetarian (though some are Jewish). Membership in the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, helps the brotherhood organize its mission and account for the innumerable victims pitilessly hammered to death in the brotherhood’s quest to find its own. To be awakened is to be dehumanized. After awakening, the Children of Light urinate and weep uncontrollably, and sleep for days. When they have learned the “language of the heart” through ecstatic motionless embraces lasting hours, they regard humanity with alienated disgust, as “meat machines,” living only “for the happiness of their own bodies.” When all the scattered rays have been hunted down, they will unite in a Great Circle, the world of matter will end, and they will dissolve into the Primordial Light.

The second part, Ice, contains the Brotherhood’s cosmological myths of creation and redemption, the “tradition [that] lives only on the lips”: “In the beginning there was only the Light. And the Light shone in Absolute Emptiness.” The 23,000 Light-bearing rays formed a Divine Circle that gave birth to stars and planets. When the rays were reflected in the water that covered planet Earth, they were “incarnated in living creatures”—“primitive amoebas”—and joined the course of evolution, eventually becoming human beings: “our mistake.” The story of Bro’s encounter with the meteorite—the beginning of the Brotherhood’s journey of salvation—is retold as sacred lore. Ice follows the awakening of more Children of Light through the Nazi invasion of the USSR; Stalin’s Gulag; the 1960s and 1970s (when the brotherhood infiltrates the Soviet nomenklatura), into the “cheerful and frightening era of Yeltsin.”

Real historical events are never more than an insignificant backdrop for the unfolding of the Brotherhood’s occult history. It turns out, for example, that a blond man in a tank-division helmet seen pulling down the monument to Dzerzhinsky on Lubianka Square was a brother called Dor. The master stylist Sorokin creates a pastiche of various genres popular in the 1990s: oral history, hard-bitten cop thriller, and mystical tract. Whatever the style, the story is always told from inside the Brotherhood.13

A third of the way through 23,000, the final part of the trilogy, we suddenly meet a human individual—teasingly named “Olga Drobot”—who is destined neither for slaughter with an ice hammer nor for ecstatic awakening as an incarnate ray of Primordial Light craving consummation. Olga’s story, which begins in lower Manhattan in 2004, is spliced into the relentless forward-moving narrative of the now-globalized Brotherhood as it prepares for the final ingathering. In virtuoso skaz riffs, an “Earthfucker” (who seems to have strayed from the pages of Blue Lard) and a seedy Russian assassin are both hammered and awakened.

Olga, meanwhile, lives in our everyday world. Through her, history is rehumanized, refamiliarized. She remembers and loves; she reads and thinks; she has free will. After 543 pages of creepy mystical awakenings, the effect on the reader is of an unexpected reawakening to humanity. We realize that, unlike Snegirev/Bro, what interests us about literature is “the world of people, their passions and ambitions.”

Olga’s own quest is to discover who murdered her parents with ice-hammer blows to the chest, and why. With another victim, the gawky Swede Bjorn, whom she has met through the website icehammervictims.org, Olga travels via Tel Aviv to Guangzhou, where the brotherhood is now headquartered. The sinister Michael Laird, who has lured Olga and Bjorn to the Chinese megalopolis, turns out to be another Brother of Light who kidnaps them to work as slaves in an underground gulag, skinning dogs to make ice hammers. (The dogskins are used to strap hammer heads to wooden handles.) In the prison bunker, books, which have been absent since Bro’s awakening, reappear; it has a library containing the complete works of Tolstoy and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me. An old man, Ernst Wolf, who has been a captive for most of his life and knows the history of the brotherhood, befriends Olga, tenderly calling her “a thinking reed.” They discuss metaphysics and the meaning of life. She begins to “think seriously.”

As the countdown to the final Circle of Light approaches, Olga seizes a last desperate chance “to defend…five billion Homo sapiens” against the coming apocalypse. Olga and Bjorn’s attempt to escape becomes a James Bond–style action thriller. In the end, they fail. The 23,000 members of the Brotherhood gather on a tropical island. Olga and Bjorn are given the bizarre honor of holding awakened babes-in-arms for the Great Brotherhood. Suddenly, a stunning deus ex machina saves the “World of People.” The Children of Light all die as flesh. For Olga and Bjorn, left alive like a new Adam and Eve, this is a revelation of the hidden Divine:

“And this was all done by God,” he declared.
“By God?” Olga asked cautiously.
“By God,” he declared.

Bjorn and Olga repeat the words “by God” eleven times in a spontaneous antiphon:

“I want to talk to God,” Bjorn said.
“So do I,” Olga declared.
“I need…need to tell God. A lot of things. I have to talk to Him.” Bjorn thought hard. “But how do I do it?”
Olga said nothing.
“How to do it?” Bjorn asked.
“We have to return to people. And ask them.”
“How to speak with God. Then you can tell Him everything. And I can too.”

What on earth does Sorokin’s weird Ice Trilogy mean? In April 2005, as he was finishing 23,000, Sorokin published an article headlined “Mea Culpa?” in the newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta, venting his irritation with the way Ice and Bro had been received by academic Slavists. He rebuked his friend the eminent Igor P. Smirnov (professor emeritus at the University of Konstanz), for his interpretation of Bro as a mockery of consumerist society. (Smirnov is satirized in Day of the Oprichnik as Igor Pavlovich Tikhy, who Komiaga catches discussing the “Negation of a Negation of Negation of a Negation” on an underground radio station—Smirnov and Tikhy both mean “quiet” in Russian.) Ice Trilogy is a “metaphysical novel,” Sorokin declared, an “attempt to talk about Homo sapiens.”

Literature is “a strong, free river,” he told the Slavists, “go and rinse your brains in it, which are so exhausted by simulacra and transgressions.” Ridiculing their attachment to the theorists of deconstruction, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, Sorokin asked rhetorically: “Is the feeling of terror also a text? Is love a text? Is backache also a text?” He reiterated that “one single theme” interested him: “What is violence, and why are human beings incapable of renouncing it?”14

While some Slavists may indeed need reminding that violence is not a text, the fictional Slavist Tikhy’s “negation of a negation” is not an entirely absurd description of God’s appearance at the end of Ice Trilogy. Sorokin’s theology is negative theology in the Orthodox tradition, which seeks God, who “dwelleth in a secret place,” through exploring everything that God is not. As Sorokin hands over the language of faith to be emptied and desecrated by violent ecstatic cults like the Earthfuckers, the oprichniks, and the Brotherhood of Light, he looks ever more like a writer in the great Russian tradition, conversing with God (or God’s absence), through storytelling, about the mysteries of language, history, and the human body.

  1. 10

    “We Are All Beginning to Be Suffocated,” interview with Vladimir Sorokin, Komsomolskaya Pravda, August 7, 2010. 

  2. 11

    Vladimir Sorokin, “A Meeting,” Snob, April 21, 2010, at www.snob.ru/selected entry/17100.shtml. Andreev’s Rose of the World, which he had written as a political prisoner under Stalin, circulated in samizdat in the 1970s. See Mikhail Epstein’s revealing essay, “Daniil Andreev and the Mysticism of Femininity,” in The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture, edited by Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal (Cornell University Press, 1997). 

  3. 12

    See Matthias Agren, “Myth—History—Utopia: Vladimir Sorokin’s Ledianaia trilogiia and Daniil Andreev’s Roza Mira,” in Sorokiniada (Sapporo: Slavic Research Center, 2010). 

  4. 13

    See Christian Caryl, “ Ice Capades,” The New York Review, September 27, 2007. 

  5. 14

    Sorokin’s article is republished in Boris Sokolov, Moya kniga o Vladimire Sorokine (Moscow: Airo, 2005). 

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