Sorokin’s Tyrannical Chosen
By Vladimir Sorokin
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
Farrar, Strauss, and Giraux, 2011
By Vladimir Sorokin
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
NYRB Classics (paperback reprint), 2011
The first oprichniki answered to Ivan the Terrible. They were henchman hired to torture and execute Russia’s internal enemies in the name of tsar and Orthodoxy. “We still live in a country that was established by Ivan the Terrible.” Vladimir Sorokin told Martin Doerry and Matthias Schepp of Der Spiegel not long after publishing his 2006 Day of the Oprichnik (Den’ oprichnika). Sorokin’s novel is set in the near future, in a Russia that blends the fortress empire of pre-Modern Russia, Soviet isolationism, and a Putin-era oligarchy. In this hypothetical reality, oprichniki cuss into fancy cell phones between their early morning prayers and their late-morning pillage. Day of the Oprichnik is now available in Jamey Gambrell’s accessible English translation. Also out in paperback this year is Gambrell’s virtuosic translation of Sorokin’s Ice trilogy, a bizarre science-fictional epic that appeared in Russian between 2002 and 2005. Read together (though I recommend pauses), the books offer a glimpse of what it takes to surprise Russian readers in the twenty-first century.
Vladimir Sorokin has been brutalizing the sacred myths of Russian culture since the Brezhnev era and this includes (perhaps paradoxically) the myth of a redeeming literature. Sorokin’s early work was circulated, in unpublished manuscript form, or published abroad. It parodied either Socialist Realist prose or the banality of mundane ritual. His 1983 Kafkaesque novel, Ochered (The Queue), was published in Paris in 1985, and is narrated entirely in dialogue by a group of Soviet citizens standing in a line for an unidentified object presumed to be of foreign quality and great value. In Norma (The Norm, which Sorokin wrote between 1979 and 1983 but published only in 1994), Soviet citizens are required to eat a daily allotment of human feces. His narrative voice is a hodge-podge of intentionally trite impersonations of beloved Russian novels. Picture a pop-artist whose chosen media, instead of the found objects from consumer culture, are the found objects from Russian high culture and official discourse. “Literature for me,” Sorokin has told David Remnick, “was pop material the way a Brillo box or a soup can was for Warhol.” Most critics consider Sorokin to be the sole prose writer among the Russian conceptualist or “sots-art” school, which emerged in the Perestroika period with grotesque profanations of Soviet icons. Sorokin’s prose, like Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid’s 1983 “Double Self Portrait as Young Pioneers” and Ilya Kabakov’s 1994 installation piece, “The Communal Kitchen,” offered evidence that the Socialist utopia had been emasculated.
Sorokin’s style, like that of many of his conceptualist contemporaries, might best be defined by the absence of a distinct style. The styles he parodies range from the bland official rhetoric found in Socialist realism to the cherished lines from Russia’s golden age. However, certain themes do constitute a unified poetics. These include the collision of the spiritual with the scatological (his characters are frequently farting, urinating, and defecating); the human heart, understood in the Medieval, metaphysical sense; violence (especially rape and dismemberment), and the idea of “chosenness.” This last category is especially strong in Sorokin’s post-Soviet works: there is a sharp divide between ordinary citizens in Sorokin’s works and “special” citizens, who are often self-appointed and rise above the others. His 1994 Serdtsa chetverekh (Four Stout Hearts) follows a cultish group that engages in dismemberment, cannibalism, and sexual torture in service of an unknown goal. In 2002 the pro-Putin youth movement, “Idushchi vmeste” (Going Forward Together) erected an enormous toilet in the center of Moscow, into which they cast copies of Sorokin’s Goluboe Salo (Blue Lard), which features a sex scene between Stalin and Khrushchev: evidence, if we needed any, that nostalgia for the past, far from undermining contemporary Russian society, has become an integral part of post-Soviet Russia’s cultural identity.
Day of the Oprichnik undermines nostalgia as well, be it for the monarchy or the Soviet period. Many aspects of both Soviet life and the pre-Soviet theocracy have returned under the oprichnina. St. Petersburg has been renamed St. Petrograd (a move resembling Gary Shteyngart’s ironic St. Leninsburg in Absurdistan). During the single day that spans the entire novel, the oprichnik narrator plunders the home and rapes the wife of a wealthy enemy-of-the-state, drinks champagne with the tsaritsa, exacts a costly bribe from a ballerina, spies on dissidents with the help of his “bubble” (a sophisticated smartphone), thinks about Russian literature, and shops at a kiosk, which, rather than displaying the variety of foreign products available in post-Soviet Russia, betrays a return to a closed, Soviet-style market:
Everything about the kiosks is fine; there’s only one thing I can’t wrap my head around. Why is it that all the goods are in pairs, like the beasts on Noah’s Ark, but there’s only one kind of cheese, Russian? My logic is helpless here. Well, this sort of thing isn’t for us to decide, but for His Majesty. From the Kremlin His Majesty sees the people better, they’re more visible.
The oprichniki rest between of murder and orgies by gathering at a bathhouse to shoot contraband goldfish (the good kind, from China) into their veins. “The little golden tail wiggles and the fish hides inside me. It swims along with the bloodstream. A trickle of blood shoots out in a fine fountain from a tiny hole. I press on my vein, throw my head back on the soft headrest, and close my eyes.” The ensuing drug-trip is an entire chapter, told in verse, a joint fantasy in which the oprichniki fly over the land, bringing vengeance to the godless.
Jamey Gambrell, who has also translated Tsvetaeva, Tolstaya, Rodchenko and others, should be commended for her range of styles, which, while inevitably losing some of Sorokin’s trademark formal parody, does hint at the many discursive layers in both books. Bad poetry is interspersed throughout Oprichnik, which Gambrell has dutifully rendered into very bad English poetry. A court poet writes:
How you ran, so alive and so cheerful,
How you played in the river and sand,
How you traveled to school, never tearful,
How you whispered, ‘my dear, native land’…
Dissident culture seeps through the cracks in Sorokin’s dystopia, and it looks suspiciously like Sorokin’s own relentless iconoclasm. The oprichnik, searching for a radio station, finds “The Voice of America,” which “has a program called ‘Russian Expletives in Exile” with an obscene retelling of the immortal work Crime and Punishment: ‘The un-fucking believable blow of the butt-fucking axe hit the goddamn temple of the triply gang-banged old bag, facilitated piss-perfectly by her cunt-sucking short height. An abomination. What else can be said?”
Sorokin’s novel is speckled with references to famous Russian writers. Their presence in the oprichnik’s Russia, however, has the shallow status of something between a nationalistic cult of genius and a theme-park attraction. Gogolian holograms function as restaurant staff: “I sit down at a table and immediately a transparent waiter appears, as though he’d come right out of Gogol’s immortal pages—plump cheeks, red lips, crimped hair, a smile.” Art is, quite literally, in service to the regime. The oprichnik’s veneration of Russian letters is part and parcel of his constant use of formulaic utterances like “And thank God” and “Work and Word!” High culture and official discourse serve the same purpose – to further the illusion of Russian exceptionalism, an illusion that, by evoking the “chosenness” of the Russian nation, undermines anything resembling a liberal democracy.
Day of the Oprichnik is Sorokin’s most overtly political book to date. With his oprichnina Sorokin portrays a dystopia that is, if not realistic, frighteningly plausible in its ideology. This is, after all, an age when Russians, whatever their level of education and political persuasion, enjoy “Nostalgia” TV, a station dedicated to screening Soviet reruns. In a recent poll, Novaia gazeta found that 60% of Russian citizens are in favor of a return to the Soviet Union. It is an age when the former oligarch and philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky could be convicted of fraud and tax evasion following his open critique of the administration, while mysterious funds went into building a seaside palace for Putin’s private use. Without invoking contemporary individuals, Sorokin imagines a Russian elite is frighteningly compatible with the Soviet elite, in its programmatic discourse, and its corruption.
While less overtly political than Day of the Oprichnik, the Ice trilogy is woven of a similarly unsettling fabric of violence, mindless devotion to tradition, and “chosenness.” At the center of the trilogy is a brotherhood of fair-haired, blue-eyed individuals. In order to find other members of their lost tribe of 23,000, they must beat people on the chest with hammers made from a block of ice that was lodged in a Siberian swamp when the Tunguska meteor fell to earth in 1908. The violence increases with each book: hundreds of thousands of “empty shells” become casualties of the ice hammer. Ordinary humans are referred to as “meat machines,” and are increasingly dispensable as the brotherhood nears its goal of finding and awakening all of its members. Although a meager resistance movement emerges in the last book, most of the trilogy is told from the perspective of the brothers and sisters of the Ice. It takes a long time to get through this trilogy, but by the end (and, yes, Sorokin does reward the reader with a redemptive conclusion) the careful reader will have a vision of a world that includes the sobering perspective of what is, fundamentally, a supremacist cult.
Some will read Ice as a good example of postmodern science fiction. Others will see it as a thinly masked commentary on the horrors of totalitarianism. I wouldn’t be surprised if others still (particularly those who stop before they have completed the trilogy) become convinced that there could be a cult of chosen fair-haired people whose hearts, unlike those the rest of humanity, beat true. Indeed, the book would not be as sobering as it is if it weren’t for this invitation to see the world from the perspective of Sorokin’s spiritually superior antiheros.
The Ice trilogy is full of Sorokin’s trademark parody. The opening of the first book, Bro, reads like a bad imitation of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory:
My mother was an example of the self-sacrificing Russian woman who ignores herself in odrder to take care of the children and see to the family’s welfare. Endowed with remarkable beauty (she was half Ossetian, half southern Cossack), an ardent heart, and an open soul, she gave her selfless love first to my father, who fell head over heels in love with her at the Nizhny Novgorod fair, then to us, the children.
Sorokin takes his protagonist from his birth on June 20, 1908 (the day the meteor hit the earth), through the Revolution and into university, where he finds that his passion is in astronomy. (“Literature didn’t interest me: the world of people, their passions and ambitions—all that seemed petty, fussy, and ephemeral. You couldn’t rely on that like you could on stone.”) Having joined an expedition to find the lost meteor, the narrator slips from something resembling a Russian bildungsroman into something resembling new-age pop-philosopy:
Running up to the patch, I slipped.
And fell, slamming my chest against the shining Ice. I lost consciousness. For a moment.
Then my heart began to resound from the blow of the Ice. And I immediately felt the entire MASS of the Ice. It was enormous. And the whole thing was vibrating, resonating in time with my heart. For me alone. My heart, which had been sleeping for all these twenty years inside my rib cage, awoke. It didn’t beat harder, but sort of jolted—at first it was painful, then it was sweet. And then, quivering, it spoke.
There ensue several pages, written entirely in italics, in which Bro hears, with his heart, the prophecy that will become the basis for the brotherhood:
And when the last of 23,000 is found, you will stand in a Circle, join hands, and your hearts will pronounce the 23 words of the Light’s language 23 times. And the Primordial Light will awaken in you and will turn to the center of the Circle. There will be a flash. And the Earth, the Light’s sole mistake, will dissolve in the Primordial Light. And disappear forever.
Throughout the trilogy, seemingly arbitrary words are italicized for emphasis, suggesting the brotherhood’s mistrust of ordinary human language, a language inadequate to describing their remarkable project. Whether or not the prophecy will come to be is, of course, the great mystery of Ice, and it takes the entire trilogy to reach the denouement. The trilogy, read from cover to cover, does become repetitive at times. The second book, Ice, consists almost entirely of stories of the ice hammer. The third book begins with a series of long user-testimonials about a machine designed to approximate the experience of the ice hammer for ordinary consumers. But as with Sorokin’s other novels, I was driven on by a perverse curiosity about what Sorokin would do next – what voice would he affect? What unexpected twist would emerge? Would there be something resembling a take-home message? With each generation, the brotherhood becomes more vicious as it seeks perfection by gathering more unsuspecting blue-eyed members. They advance by exploiting the worst of the twentieth-century’s regimes, insinuating themselves into the Nazi party to seek their own kind among soldiers and concentration camp inmates, rising in the ranks of the communist party in the Soviet Union to facilitate the production of ice hammers.
Ultimately, the stories of the ice hammer become the fabric of a sacred legend, complete with its own rather clichéd spiritual discourse. The reader must decide for herself whether to take the legend at face value – that is, whether to cheer for the ice-people and the achievement of their goal or the “meat-machines” and the persistence of their misbegotten world. But here is a hint: in Sorokin’s system, “chosenness,” whether spiritual or artistic, is, like official discourse, too mythical and crude to be redemptive. As the critic Mark Lipovetsky put it in 2000, “Sorokin transforms the person into a simulacrum, into a pure function of discourse, a form of realization of discursive power, and nothing more.” Throughout the Ice novels, the brothers and sisters of Light undergo precisely such a transformation, but (and here is the twist) despite coming to view all other people as “empty shells,” being chosen is the first step toward becoming a simulacrum. Precisely those individuals who sought to avoid the trappings of earthly automatism dissolve into their own rhetoric.
If there is something that unites Ice and Oprichnik, other than Sorokin’s odd use of italics, mélange of literary clichés, and the reader’s frequent physical discomfort, it is the great distance between the chosen few and the miserable many. Like the “meat machines” discarded by the brotherhood in Ice, the citizens who cower at the margins of Day of the Oprichnik are being crushed under the weight of the leaders’ lifestyle. Sorokin has said, “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.” Both Ice and Oprichnik are told almost entirely from the perspective of its privileged beneficiaries. If it were not for the gut-wrenching violence wrought by the chosen in both novels, the reader might be compelled to identify with them, longing for the oprichnik’s blini and caviar or the brotherhood’s heart-language as a peasant might long for a monarch’s golden slippers. Sorokin’s violence, then, may be senseless, but it is not gratuitous. Rather, his characters’ cruelty completes an ethical picture: the system that separates the chosen from the populace depends not on God but on the blind faith of willing henchmen. Even the oprichnik admits this, in a whisper:
Each time I stand in Uspensky Cathedral with a candle in my hand, I think secret, treasonous thoughts on one subject: What if we didn’t exist? Would His Majesty be able to manage on his own? Would the Streltsy, the Secret Department, and the Kremlin regiment be enough?
And I whisper to myself, softly, beneath the singing of the choir:
Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at the University of California, San Diego.