Vladimir Sorokin: Of human brutality
Day of the Oprichnik
Translated by Jamey Gambrell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In 2002, a Russian political youth organisation with the ominous name Moving Together gathered in front of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow to protest against those articles of contemporary literature they regarded as decadent and offensive. The chief offender was the Russian novelist and playwright Vladimir Sorokin, whose books the protesters threw into a giant papier-mâché toilet. This done, they marched from the Bolshoi to the nearby statue of Anton Chekhov and, according to reports, asked the dead writer's forgiveness for the pitiable and vicious state of contemporary Russian writing.
It would be hard to imagine a more ironic form of protest, given its object. Sorokin specialises in a frank and chaotic brand of absurdism of precisely the type that a mass consignment of books to a huge toilet expresses. In his second novel, The Norm, every Russian citizen is required to eat a daily ration of human faeces, which arrives in a cellophane pack. Blue Lard, the book that sparked the indignation of Moving Together, features a graphic sex scene between modern-day clones of Stalin and Lenin. The works for which Sorokin is best known to English speakers, a trilogy comprising the novels Ice, Bro's Way, and 23,000, centre on the disturbing activities of a bizarre eschatological cult that unearths potential members by breaking their chest walls with hammers made of extraterrestrial ice and waiting for their hearts to speak. (Those with uncommunicative hearts are left to die.)
To say that institutional and collective brutality fascinate Sorokin would be an understatement. Repressive violence pervades his work. And this concern is not merely philosophical. As he put it in a 2007 interview with Der Spiegel: "Germans, Frenchmen and Englishmen can say of themselves, 'I am the state.' I cannot say that. In Russia, only the people in the Kremlin can say that. All other citizens are nothing more than human material with which they can do all kinds of things." It is hard, examining the domestic behaviour of the Russian government over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, to disagree with him.
Four years after the events at the Bolshoi, Sorokin published a novel called Day of the Oprichnik, which has just been translated into English. It takes inspiration from Ivan the Terrible's creation in 1565 of a paramilitary group devoted to stripping power from recalcitrant aristocrats, through purges, armed raids, mass killings, and property confiscation. This organisation,and the territory that eventually came under its control, was referred to as the Oprichnina. Its enforcers were called oprichniki, meaning "those set apart."
Day of the Oprichnik transplants the group to an imagined Russia of the late 2020's. The nation is literally walled off both to the east and to the west, and headed by a quasi-theocratic imperial government and cadre of nobles, whom the neo-oprichniks plunder and kill on the orders of their Tsar. Our narrator, Andrei Komiaga, is a trusted oprichnik himself. When the novel opens he is helping to orchestrate a raid on the estate of a hapless baron, which culminates in the hanging of the nobleman and the gang-rape of his wife. The episode is recounted in detail, from the oprichniks' initial skirmish with the household servants to their bizarre ritual procession around the manor to Andrei's approving citation of the Tsar's dictum: "Law and order… that's what Holy Rus stands on and will always stand on!" It sets the tone for what follows, a frenzied, chilling, surreal, and persuasively imagined account of one day in the life of this lustful, brutal, but by no means dull-minded man.
What does a modern oprichnik do? He runs a complex customs scam on a group of Chinese commodities merchants; visits a half-mad soothsayer on behalf of the Tsarina (and receives, as a sort of gratuity, a bizarre prophecy concerning his own immediate future); enjoys an ultraviolent communal hallucination with his fellow operative, courtesy of a minuscule fish which swims along the ulnar vein to the brain, like heroin; attends a folk-music concert that turns into a riot; survives a sexually charged interview with his Empress.
The novel, despite its profusion of incident, is anything but anarchic: the world of the oprichniks is seamlessly constructed, the technology they use believable, their private slang utterly convincing ("squashing the innards", for example, means an order to murder not just the intended target of an assassination but his children as well; a "naked" person is one from whom the Tsar has withdrawn his protection). The incidental details of Andrei's quotidian life - his mobile phone ring is a brief clip from the audio recording of a torture session; the soothsayer he visits heats her home by burning copies of the Russian classics - are just as bizarrely believable. And Sorokin's evocation of folk mythology lends a powerful and disturbing resonance to Day of the Oprichnik. It suggests that, when the forces of political reason retreat, we are confronted not by a vacuum but by a world of coincidence, of sudden, inexplicable exaltations and terrors. When the first task of your work day is to choose one of several freshly removed dog's heads to mount on the hood of your Mercedes (this was in fact a custom of the historical oprichniks, minus the German cars), no one can reproach your profession or your world for lacking its pleasures, however degraded they might be.
This, too, is in keeping with the Spiegel interview. Sorokin answered a question on the relevance of his book to Putin's Russia by disavowing any topical intent. For him, the problem of Russia's undying, self-flagellating love for authoritarians predates Vladimir Putin and his cadre by several centuries. It is connected - or so his book would imply - with a tendency to order society along aesthetic rather than rational lines. The sensual abundance of Andrei's life stands in stark contrast to his meagre reserves of empathy; yet it is impossible, if not to sympathise with him, at least to recognise him as human. He will spare a life if there is a profit in it for him; and he is even capable of a certain philosophical acuteness. When the Tsarina laments the disloyalty of her subjects, Andrei reflects that: "The Russian people aren't easy to work with. But God hasn't given us any other people."
These unexpected depths in his character do not excuse him. Indeed, if he were a mere automaton, his crimes might appear less hideous. One can't help but think that Sorokin's decision to write Andrei from the inside, so to speak, stemmed from his recognition of this fact. The book's structure and title allude, also, to another book written from the inside: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, one of the foundational classics of dissident literature in Russia. Solzhenitsyn recounts the daily routine of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a political prisoner in one of Stalin's camps. He suffers, starves, barely survives until sundown, but endures. In his abjection and deprivation, he is the obverse of Andrei Komiaga, just as the minutely realised and vivid insanity of Komiaga's world stands in sharp contrast to the monochrome, monotone life of the Gulag.
Yet the relation of torturer and victim is a close one, as Sorokin knows. To complete the portrait of political horror, past or present, we must examine the inner lives not only of the sufferers but also of the brutalisers. True evil requires an admixture of the recognisably human. And its practitioners, too, endure, Sorokin suggests, just as Ivan Denisovich does. The novel closes as our oprichnik lies at night in the arms of his housekeeper-mistress, in whose womb his first child is beginning to stir. "As long as the oprichniks are alive," Andrei thinks as sleep overtakes him, "Russia will be alive. And thank God."
Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review.