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.
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…
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