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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.

polonsky_1-032212.jpg
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

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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.”
“What?”
“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. 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.” 

  10. 10

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

  11. 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). 

  12. 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). 

  13. 13

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

  14. 14

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

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