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.
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
…sixteen-to-eighteen-year-olds understand that Sorokin is not a natural stage in the development of Russian literature…[but] marginal garbage…. When people in good homes stop admitting those who read Sorokin and his friends, when Sorokin begins to pack his bags—we will consider our job partly accomplished.
Two weeks later, in response to a complaint filed with the prosecutor’s office by Artem Muguniants, a lawyer for Moving Together, a Moscow district court opened a criminal case against Sorokin and his publisher. The court acted with uncharacteristic speed. It immediately found an “expert” to examine Blue Lard for pornographic content. The unnamed “expert,” as it turned out, was a Ministry of Culture employee, who, though hired by the prosecutor’s office, was acting on his own, without the knowledge or approval of the minister of culture. Blue Lard was found to contain pornography—in particular the Khrushchev–Stalin sex scene—and an indictment was issued. (A separate complaint, lodged against Sorokin’s most recent novel, Ice, was dropped when it was declared free of pornography.) It is widely assumed that the prosecutor’s office would never have reacted to such a complaint from a nongovernmental organization unless it had been approved by higher authorities.
When subpoenaed by the prosecutor’s office, Sorokin refused to answer questions about his work. To reporters covering the case he said, “I don’t want to participate in this theater of the absurd…. It is demeaning for myself as a writer and for Russian literature in general, as well as for our glorious investigative organs, which have unexpectedly decided to involve themselves in works of fiction.” Blue Lard, he said, was about the death of Russian literature, and not concerned with the sexual arousal of its readers.
Sorokin and Ivanov countersued MT, alleging that it violated their copyright when it published the unauthorized “selections” that had been destroyed during MT’s demonstration. Another municipal court quickly agreed to review the charges; arguments were heard and on August 29 the court dismissed Sorokin’s case and ordered the writer and publisher to pay court costs. Sorokin and Ad Marginem plan to appeal. MT’s press release declared that the suit brought
…by literary hanger-on and hooligan Sorokin and the director of the publishing house “Ad Marginal” [sic] Ivanov…ended in defeat…. This decision testifies to the following:
That Sorokin’s obscene opuses have no “rights” and cannot have any in a normal society.
That the process of curing society of infections introduced by such literary hangers-on has begun…[and] will leave no place in the cultural arena for the other creators of latrinature [sic]—Shirianov, Pelevin, Erofeyev.
MT’s language reveals a great deal about its political pedigree. The group uses a very contemporary amalgam of several political dialects whose history goes back at least to 1917. In addressing its members, it uses Soviet Komsomol heartiness and patriotic bathos; toward its enemies it directs a combination of Communist polemical spite, tough street talk, and what might be called nationalist paranoid righteousness. The group has made occasional anti-Communist gestures. Works by Marx were included in the book exchange. In early October, apparently encouraged by all the publicity it received over the Sorokin case, MT staged a protest against preserving Lenin’s body on Red Square. (This action apparently provoked—at least indirectly—several Duma deputies to request that the prosecutor’s office investigate MT itself.) However, these gestures are at odds not only with the group’s views on many issues but with its language, which could easily be found in Pravda anywhere between 1937 and the mid-1980s.
Moving Together’s Web site contains graphics showing clean-cut Russian youth talking on cell phones and playing musical instruments. These young people also appear with their “grandparents”—old folks wearing World War II medals pinned to their worn, Soviet-era clothes. (There is also a video game, “Marginals and Tomatoes,” in which MT “agents” execute a “mission” to infiltrate Ad Marginem and throw tomatoes at Sorokin, all accompanied by the song “Elmo’s World.”) MT appears to be laying the groundwork for a new political base for Putin—whether he wants it or not—which concentrates on people young enough not to remember the USSR, and on angry pensioners who feel disenfranchised by the changes of the last eleven years. This is something no political party has done so far.
The Sorokin case immediately received a lot of attention in the Russian press and television. Mikhail Shvydkoi, the minister of culture, swiftly condemned the legal action against Sorokin as unconstitutional, saying that he didn’t care for Sorokin’s work, but would defend his right to free expression. He compared the case to the Soviet-era trials of Sinyavsky, Daniel, and Ginzburg. The deputy speaker of the State Duma, Irina Khakamada, called the case “a crude mistake by the Moscow prosecutor’s office” and pointed out that there are no criteria for “pornography” in literary texts. Even the formidable Pushkin Museum director, Irina Antonova, hardly noted for her liberal views but well known for her staunch patriotism, said the whole affair was “ridiculous, sad nonsense…. After all, the novel Blue Lard was published several years ago…. Why have they suddenly decided to look for and ‘find’ pornography in it?” Like many others, Anto-nova said she disliked Sorokin’s work. “But I also dislike certain television programs, films, and so on. That doesn’t mean that criminal cases should be brought against their authors and anchors!” Putin himself has not publicly spoken about the case.
With some exceptions, Moving Together’s attacks have not been treated favorably in the press. But neither has this meant unqualified support for Sorokin. Many publications running across the political spectrum, from Pravda.ru, to the on-line Russian Journal, to Polit.ru, chose to see the whole affair as a calculated PR campaign—either for Sorokin and his publisher, or for Moving Together, or both. Pravda expressed this view with sarcastic venom in an article headlined “Joint PR Event by Sorokin and ‘Moving Together’ Is Successful.” Others, with more democratic affiliations, have implied the same idea less directly in the cynical, conspiratorial tone that is so prevalent in the Russian press. There have been many snide references to how much money the writer must be making and dozens of stories about the bookstore sales of Sorokin’s work. That he faces two years in prison is treated as an amusing triviality.5 (And no one I spoke to thought he could or would ever be convicted.)
Sales of Sorokin’s books, particularly Blue Lard, have indeed increased significantly.6 (A friend in Moscow told me she has even seen Blue Lard being sold by the children who hawk books and newspapers to cars stopped at traffic lights.) The tendency to see the whole affair as a PR stunt is predictable, perhaps even understandable in Russia, where anti-commercial bias runs deep (newspapers apologized profusely to their readers when they first began running ads).
Such attitudes, though, are inexcusable in the US. In a particularly foolish Op-Ed piece in The New York Times last summer, the émigré Russian writer Solomon Volkov claimed that the attack on Sorokin and the rise in his sales should be seen as “a clumsy step toward the westernization of Russia’s cultural marketplace.” That censorship or other unpleasant cultural trends might be at issue he mentioned only in passing.7 Other accounts in the Western press have also ignored the broader implications of the charges against Sorokin and his publisher, while delighting in what they view as Russia’s quaintly misguided exercises in immature capitalism.
MT’s assault on Sorokin and other writers8 has much in common with the attacks by cultural conservatives in the US on the NEA and on controversial American artists. Although the situations in Russia and the US are clearly very different, in both cases organizations with specific political intentions have tried to exploit potentially controversial cultural issues in order to arouse public opinion. MT’s goal may well be to push Putin to take a stand and act against “marginal” (i.e., “Western-inspired”) cultural and social activity. It is also possible that MT wants to oust Mikhail Shvydkoi, the most liberal and sophisticated cultural minister Russia has had in some time.
Speculation in the Russian press about who and what is behind the Sorokin case has grown swiftly as new incidents accumulate that seem connected with it. In early September a small bomb exploded outside MT’s central Moscow office. Officials from the prosecutor’s office searched Ad Marginem’s publishing office twice in September to collect documents related to the publishing and distribution of Blue Lard. Additional “expert opinions,” which the prosecutor’s office is required by law to obtain, also judged Sorokin’s work “pornographic.” One of them was written by members of the Union of Russian Writers, a conservative, nationalistic spinoff of the Soviet Writers Union.9 At the same time Victor Erofeyev published an open letter to Putin calling on him to intervene to stop the assault on Russian literature.
On October 1, the Russian Booker jury announced that Sorokin’s most recent novel, Ice, was being included in the short list for this year’s Booker competition to protest the criminal charges brought against him. (He was not awarded the prize, however.) A number of credible articles in the press this fall point to connections between MT and Moscow’s proto-fascist skinhead movement.10 On October 23, the general prosecutor, Vladimir Ustinov, said a “qualified expert opinion” would be sought about whether or not MT exhibited elements of an extremist organization. As of early December the prosecutor’s office had not yet issued a decision on whether to send Sorokin’s case to trial. It still might be dismissed.
Alexander Ivanov, Sorokin’s publisher, believes that MT is responding to a certain kind of modern patriotic rhetoric characteristic of some of Putin’s officials and supporters. The Putin government, he said,
needs to show that it is different from the Yeltsin government. The forces at work in the Yeltsin era were decentralizing—in essence, postmodern. Now we are seeing a strong centralizing of power, references to nuclear family values, to banding together, fighting extremism, etc. MT feels this change, and they’re responding to it… [with] a general purge…[of] Yeltsinist “postmodernism” and what Moving Together sees as the “pornography” of the dissolute ’90s—prosecutors shown with prostitutes on television, consumerism, etc.
Ivanov’s Ad Marginem, an independent publishing house without powerful political connections, is known primarily for publishing serious works of philosophy and fiction. But recently it has been publishing more controversial writers, and some commentators think this may have something to do with the recent attacks on both it and Sorokin. Ivanov now publishes some books by the returned Russian émigré writer Eduard Limonov, founder of the National-Bolshevist Party, who is currently on trial, charged, among other things, with “preparation for terrorism” and “illegally acquiring, storing and transporting firearms and ammunition.” Limonov is perhaps best known in the US for his novel It’s Me, Eddie and for his outspoken support of Milosevic. Most controversial, however, especially in Ad Marginem’s intellectual circles, has been its decision to publish a recent novel by the writer Alexander Prokhanov, editor of the ultranationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-Western newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow), noted for its pathological political diatribes (similar to but much more extreme than those by MT).
One of the more interesting articles on the Sorokin affair appeared in Novaya Gazeta, a paper that has had many run-ins with the Putin administration, and is known for its investigative reports, particularly on the war in Chechnya. The paper argued that Sorokin himself was “irrelevant” and that the real target of MT’s attacks was Ivanov, whose sin was publishing Limonov and Prokhanov, both popular and vehement opponents of the Putin government. Prokhanov’s book charges that “the Russian authorities and special services were involved in the apartment building explosions in Moscow” of 1999. These explosions, which killed over three hundred people, were alleged by the government to have been set off by Chechen terrorists, and led to the beginning of the second Chechen war, a key factor in Putin’s original political success.
Both Sorokin and Ivanov reject Novaya Gazeta’s interpretation. Whether true or not, however, it adds fuel to the fire of conspiracy theory surrounding the case, especially after the recent hostage-taking in Moscow, and questions over the regime’s handling of the Chechen attack.11
During the 1990s many Russians felt that, under Yeltsin, they were living in a condition of bespredel, or limitless chaos and lawlessness. Freedom, of any sort, had a bad name. Rules are now back in favor among powerful and ordinary Russians alike. Some people approvingly call this process “directed democracy” or “the dictatorship of law”; for others it is “creeping totalitarianism,” “Russian Pinochetism,” etc. Both views share the belief that a unified political will could again be imposed on Russian political life, as was the case with Party rule.
MT’s ultimate goals remain murky, its supporters anonymous. Its attacks have coincided with renewed attempts by the government and members of the Duma to rein in the press.12 Its allegiances reveal much about the political and cultural struggles occurring in post-Yeltsin, post–September 11 Russia. On close inspection, the Sorokin case, though not his actual writing, is directly connected to power struggles seemingly far removed from issues of “pornography” or postmodern literature. It illustrates how, since Putin’s arrival in power, no aspect or activity of Russia’s still nascent civil society is immune to crude intrusion from the state.
January 16, 2003
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. ↩
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). ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
See Maura Reynolds, “Russia Targets Writer in Porn Investigation,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2002, and David Hoffmann, “A Literary Spring in Russia: After Decade of Uncertainty, Writers Are Again Popular—and Controversial,” The Washington Post, July 12, 2002. ↩
In a telephone interview on Sept. 1, 2002, Alexander Ivanov said that prior to MT’s “action,” close to 50,000 copies of Blue Lard had been printed; since the scandal broke, 65,000 more have been printed. All quotations from Ivanov are from this interview. ↩
See, Solomon Volkov, “What They’re Reading About in Moscow,” The New York Times, July 19, 2002. ↩
Since criminal charges were brought against Sorokin, another investigation has been launched against the writer Shirian Bayanov, the pseudonym of Kirill Vorobev, for a book published in 1996 that allegedly proselytizes drug use. ↩
These opinions are written in extremely vague and tendentious language; they almost seem like satires on postmodern criticism. For excerpts, see “Vyderzhki iz materialov ekspertizy,” prikom.panorama.ru/events/ea182/16b23c. ↩
See, for instance, Sergei Shargunov, “Heil Together” (Khail’ Vmeste), Novaya gazeta, No. 70 (September 23, 2002); see novayagazeta.ru/nomer/w00w/70n/n70n-s)).shtml. ↩
These attempts resulted in the passage of new, extraordinarily restrictive press laws less than a month after the Moscow hostage-taking. Putin sent them back to the Duma for further work. ↩