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.
Altogether there are 23,000 of them strewn around the Earth, most of them still “asleep” in their human bodies. But once all are found, awakened, and physically reunited, history will come to its end: “And the mistake will be corrected: Earth will disappear, dissolve in the Light. Our earthly bodies will dissolve together with the world of the Earth.”4 And what about the rest of humankind, the billions of “empties” who do not respond to communion with the ice and are correspondingly regarded by the chosen as the living dead? Well, their tough luck, basically.
The brotherhood’s project, in other words, is driven by an absolute imperative of which real-world extremists can only dream. Chiliastic religious groups are usually waiting for some key event that will restore a lost perfection or shattered wholeness, and justify their doctrine by the need to maintain faith and discipline until that salvational moment arrives. Totalitarian political movements are aspirational in their own way. The Nazis were striving to achieve a society based on an organic unity; impure elements (like Jews and Slavs) had to be “rooted out” to create a “healthy body of the people.” Communists tried, and try, to forward the design of history to its “logical” and “rational” end of a perfectly just society. All of these projects imply that people have to be reengineered, transformed into a race of “new men,” somehow made deserving of the blessing they are about to receive. The brotherhood is not like that. You’re either in or you’re not. And you can’t join up by changing your behavior.
This also limits our options as readers, and Sorokin refuses to let us off the hook. Well-told stories have a way of making us their accomplices, and so it is here. As our naive storyteller Varka struggles to overcome the nastiness of provincial life and then to survive the malevolent quirks of life in Nazi Germany, we find ourselves rooting for her. When she is sent back to Russia after the war, now as a full-fledged cult operative, and ends up being tortured by the Soviet secret police, some part of our readerly psyche wants to see how she’ll triumph over this horrific challenge (even though, in the normal scheme of things, humankind would undoubtedly be much better off with her dead, since that would probably slow down the count to the final day of reckoning). It all makes for a disorienting adjustment. Once Varka’s story joins with that of the cult, we find ourselves in narrative league with both. We are on the inside, and it is a startling vantage point:
We drove along the Rublev Highway past white prefab buildings. Meat machines [i.e., human beings] think them ugly, preferring houses built of brick. But what is a human house, in fact? A terrifyingly limited space. The incarnation in stone, iron, and glass of the desire to hide from the Cosmos. A coffin. Into which man falls, from his mother’s womb.
They all begin their lives in coffins. For they are dead from birth.
I looked at the windows of the prefab building: thousands of identical little coffins.
And in each one a family of meat machines prepared for death.
What happiness that WE are different.
The brethren can’t help being a bunch of sociopathic killers, in short; they’re just doing what comes naturally.5 Small wonder that their secret cells find a congenial fit with both the Gestapo and the NKVD.
This anchoring in historical reality is one Sorokin strategy that helps to differentiate his book from more traditional literary treatments of dystopia. Unlike, say, Orwell’s 1984 or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, this tale of totalitarian overreach is not sited in some imagined future. It’s intertwined with our world’s own real history. And just when we think that we’ve figured out what Sorokin is up to (some sort of satire of tyranny, perhaps?), he throws us another curveball: Khram and her fellow members of the elect suddenly find themselves thrust into “the cheerful and frightening era of Yeltsin.” It turns out to be their best opportunity yet, a “golden time.” The brotherhood takes advantage of democratic freedoms and economic reforms to exponentially expand its membership base.
The architect of this boom is a certain brother by the name of Uf. His biography, meticulously described by Khram, leaves no doubt that he is identical with Anatoly Chubais, the strawberry-blond author of the Russian government’s widely reviled privatization plan in the 1990s:
Uf headed a radical wing of the brotherhood. The radicals tried to increase the number of brothers by any means possible in order to live to the Great Transformation…. Thanks to the red-headed Uf we achieved genuine economic freedom.
This is perhaps the only moment in this section of the novel that can be described as overtly satirical.6 Otherwise, though, Khram’s account of the story preserves the cult viewpoint pretty much intact. The members of the brotherhood stand completely outside normal moral categories—as, indeed, they should, if they take their mission seriously. As in Nazism and Soviet communism, there are no competing truths, only the one. A good Bolshevik always writes the word “democracy” in quotation marks when referring to political systems that are not subject to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Borenboim, awakened but not yet reborn, is told by other cult members to be patient: “Your cynicism—is a kind of armor. Your only defense against sincerity.” Another member adds: “You will understand what genuine freedom is.” Lapin’s attackers reassure him after his awakening: “We aren’t a totalitarian sect. We’re simply free people.” Spoken like a true North Korean.
None of this is calculated to make us identify emotionally with Khram and her brethren; their actions are just too alien, their motivations too bizarre. Those readers (and reviewers) who turn to literature for consolation, or moral enlightenment, or lessons in self-esteem, are well advised to look elsewhere. But Sorokin’s novel does exercise a monstrous fascination, in ways not unlike those described in his essay on the pinnacle of Stalinist cinematic art. In the last two sections of Ice, which are much shorter than the previous ones, Sorokin pulls the carpet out from under us again. Khram’s deadpan tale of salvation-in-progress is followed by a pastiche of advertising testimonials for a clever product called the “‘ICE’ Health Improvement System.” Each brief text is told in the voice of someone—a retiree, a film director, a student anarchist, a professor, a priest—who has purchased this device, which promises to fill them with a sense of well-being by exposing them to a mysterious ice-like substance that’s delivered with it. Evidently Uf’s entrepreneurial brethren have figured out a much more efficient method than that clumsy old bit with the hammers. Forget about the secret police; if you really want to foist your salvational ideology on an unsuspecting public, all you need to do is turn it into a New Age wellness cure and your customers will do the rest themselves.
In contrast to the other parts of the novel, this section offers Sorokin an opportunity to deploy his unique gift for parody and mimicry—a talent that has often stood at the center of previous works. Sorokin’s writerly career presents a remarkable case study in artistic evolution. Born in 1955, he took an engineering degree from the Moscow Oil and Gas Institute in 1977 but ended up doing most of his professional work as a book illustrator. He soon became drawn to Moscow’s lively underground art scene in the late 1970s and 1980s. Like many of his equally interdisciplinary friends, Sorokin didn’t restrict himself to one genre but dabbled enthusiastically in music and the visual arts as well as literature.
As a writer he is at once fervidly inventive and scrupulously beholden to the authors he has taken as models. For much of his career Sorokin has held firmly to the postmodernist creed that literary works (or “texts,” as he would usually call them) and the reality we inhabit are mutually exclusive rather than linked.7 In Sorokin’s earlier works it’s an approach that expresses itself in sly assimilation and warping of socialist realist literary styles and motifs as well as material borrowed from the Russian classics (whose immense spiritual and moral authority over the country’s cultural traditions also lend themselves to supremely disrespectful treatment). His novels and stories typically alternate razor-sharp parodies of Soviet kitsch or classical authors with abrupt detours into acts of horrible violence (frequently involving extravagant mutilation), coprophagia, or sex acts of studied perversity. Ripe metaphors from the repertoire of proletarian prose become literal facts to be acted upon accordingly. In one of his recent novels, a send-up of the early-Soviet-period writer Andrei Platonov depicts a train engineer who is feeding the fire of the locomotive of the revolution with the dismembered bodies of the Whites. This brand of forbidding literary conceptualism is not exactly calculated to ensure Sorokin best-seller status.
Lately, though, something seems to be changing. In 2002 members of Vladimir Putin’s quasi-official youth organization singled out Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard for its pornographic excesses. They flushed his book down a mock toilet installed in the center of Moscow and demanded that it be officially proscribed.8 Never mind that Russian officialdom continues to happily tolerate myriad forms of genuine pornography on the streets and the Internet; what seems to have incensed the ultranationalist demonstrators more than anything else was Sorokin’s depiction of cloned Soviet leaders—specifically Khrushchev and Stalin—engaging in gay sex.
The experience of being attacked seems to have come as a shock to Sorokin. Earlier this year he gave an interview to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, in which he made the following observation:
The citizen lives in each of us. In the days of Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I was constantly trying to suppress the responsible citizen in me. I told myself that I was, after all, an artist. As a storyteller I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favorite anecdotes: as German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude—you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was fifty. Now the citizen in me has come to life.9
Aside from its effect on his civic awareness, Sorokin’s brush with official disfavor also seems to have accelerated his shift toward a more conventional mode of storytelling. That now seems to have culminated in Ice, which, for all its twists and provocations, is almost hypnotically readable (a quality admirably preserved by Jamey Gambrell in her fluid and discriminating English translation).
And just in case we were doubting his skill at confronting the menacing absolute with the blithely mundane, Sorokin finishes off the book with a three-page section centered on an unnamed toddler who has been left alone at home. Mother is gone and she may not be coming back, given that she has recently purchased one of those mysterious feel-good machines that were making the rounds in the previous section. One piece of ice is left in the device, and the boy takes it out:
He tapped the ice against the glass of the sideboard.
“It’s me, ice!”
Sucking on the ice, he went into his room. There in the corner, on a wooden stand for CDs, stood little plastic figures of Superman, an X-Man, and a Transformer. The boy put the ice between them.
“Hey, dudes, I’m ice, I came to see you!”
He picked up the Transformer, who held a laser spear in his hand. He jabbed the ice with the end of the spear.
“Ice, hey ice, who are you?”
He answered with the ice’s voice: “I’m cold!”
He asked with the voice of the X-Man: “What do you need, cold ice?”
He answered with the voice of the ice: “Warm me up!”
He helped the ice to get on the [toy] dinosaur’s back. He crawled with the dinosaur over to the bed. He helped the dinosaur clamber onto the bed. He put the dinosaur on his pillow and placed the ice next to it. He covered them with his blanket and roared: “You’ll be warm here, ice.”
He remembered the orange. He ran into the kitchen.
The ice lay next to the dinosaur, jutting out from under the blanket. The sunlight shone on its wet surface.
Those are the final words of the novel—a spooky, drifting conclusion that leaves everything open.10 The natural self-absorption of the child is, of course, the perfect antidote to both the cynical decadence of late-twentieth-century Russian society and the single-minded brutality of the brotherhood. The gods (in the form of the child’s superhero action figures) have been cut down to size, and the ice itself may have finally met its match as well. One wonders: Does the child’s insouciance mean a postponement of the day of the apocalypse? Or will his contact with the ice bring the boy over to the side of those seeking reunification with the Primordial Light? The author does not deign to take sides. What saves the day for Sorokin as a writer, in the end, is his pitilessly sharp ear for the cadences of human longing, for the mythic traps that even our most harmless stories hold at the ready. So we yearn for certainty, salvation, the absolute—what’s wrong with that? We always have and we always will. Go ahead, Sorokin seems to say; you can’t really help it. Just be careful what you wish for.
September 27, 2007
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. ↩
The scholar Birgit Menzel, in a fascinating but regrettably brief discussion of the novel, explains that Sorokin’s story line deftly draws on a number of mystical themes with rich Russian pedigrees. The Tunguska event, she notes, is a touchstone for Russian occultists, while Sorokin’s notion of an Aryan elite unified by a shared spiritual “energy” echoes the “Eurasian” racialist theories of Soviet ethnographer Lev Gumilev. The members of the brotherhood, who are described as individual rays waiting to join up with the divine light of the cosmos, is a “Gnostic tale in popular disguise.” See “The Occult Revival in Russia Today and Its Impact on Literature,” www.harrimaninstitute.org/ MEDIA/00786.pdf. ↩
Take, for example, the scene where the three new brotherhood members achieve illumination: ↩
Chubais’s many Russian critics—and their name is legion—sometimes denounced him as a “democratic Bolshevik,” i.e., as a reformer whose radical zeal did not allow him to tolerate any competing choices. It should also be mentioned, perhaps, that his hair color was sometimes cited as a reason to distrust him: there is a Russian folk tradition that types redheads as inherently cunning and unreliable characters. ↩
The critic Mikhail Epstein has even argued the case that Russia has been a postmodern country for the past few centuries, given the vast divide between the country’s reality and the often utopian ideas of its rulers. For anyone who wants to explore the vast terrain of Russian postmodernist art during the last quarter or so of the twentieth century, Epstein’s essay “The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism,” in his book After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), is one good place to start. Another is Boris Groys’s remarkable book The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 1992). ↩
“Russia Is Slipping Back into an Authoritarian Empire,” interview with Vladimir Sorokin, Der Spiegel, February 2, 2007. ↩
Ice is actually part of a trilogy that includes the novels Bro (describing the discovery of the ice in the Siberian wilderness and the creation of the brotherhood) and 23,000 (which brings the saga to an end). Both books are set to appear in English in the not-too-distant future. ↩