Absolute Zero 
by Artem Chekh, translated by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna.
Glagoslav, 154 pp., £17.99, July 2020, 978 1 912894 67 3
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The Monastery 
by Zakhar Prilepin, translated by Nicholas Kotar.
Glagoslav, 660 pp., £24.99, July 2020, 978 1 912894 78 9
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When​ his company commander vanished from the front line at the end of 2015, the Ukrainian conscript and novelist Artem Chekh was told he’d deserted and gone over to the enemy. Through the winter Chekh and his comrades were encouraged to believe their captain was a traitor, laughing at them from the line of separatist bunkers opposite their own, lavishly equipped with warm clothes by his new Russian friends. Chekh preferred to think he had just run away. Maybe he’d found a job fixing cars in a backstreet garage in Poland.

With the spring thaw, Chekh’s unit was ordered to advance using the First World War-style tactics developed by the Ukrainian army to chip away at the separatists’ hold on a corner of Donbass in south-eastern Ukraine: digging trenches into no man’s land under shell fire until, as Chekh says, ‘in your binoculars you can see the barcode on his canned meat.’ In this space between the lines – the ‘grey zone’ – lay a birch wood, and in the birch wood a team of sappers found the captain’s body. He’d shot himself in the head and his body had lain there all winter, gnawed by wild animals. Everyone recalled the rumours of mental illness.

Only a handful of casualties are recorded in Chekh’s memoir, compiled from columns he wrote for the Ukrainian media during his army service, and they’re the result mostly of collateral damage rather than combat. A soldier’s wife, for instance, far from the front, has a heart attack after he tells her what he’s going through. The book isn’t directly about fighting, or even about fear; to the extent it recounts the hardships of a soldier’s life, they’re pretty universal – boredom, cold, not enough booze – but with 21st-century Ukrainian particulars. The top brass is on the make. Contraband is sold across the lines. A commander uses a unit’s only ambulance to carry timber to his dacha. Unscheduled tank exercises are cons to account for missing fuel sold on the black market.

The soldiers are incessantly mothered and bothered by non-combatant ‘volunteers’, an array of Ukrainian civil society groups who raise money and deliver supplies to frontline troops. Chekh describes them variously as noble and infuriating, kind and self-serving, materially generous but emotionally needy. They have passive-aggressive snits if you deny them a selfie or ‘don’t post a photo of a box of baked goods on Facebook’. Everything decent in Chekh’s bunker, apart from the chainsaw to cut wood for the stove, which the conscripts club together to buy, is provided by the volunteers – the generator, the tarpaulin. But they’re bombarded with more food than they can eat. On one occasion they have so much ham they burn it. They roll wheels of cheese into trenches. They distil poteen from mouldy jam. At Easter the volunteers bring them seventeen sacks of cake. They manage to eat three sacks’ worth before their pee begins to smell of vanilla and they’re left staring at the rotting cake, guilt-ridden by folk memories of famine. One conscript’s efforts to dump the cake on nearby villagers ends when he is ambushed. He returns, still carrying the cake.

Chekh hints at an ambivalence among republican Ukrainians towards their own military: it’s both defender and oppressor. They can’t do without it, but – in its corruption, incompetence and negligence towards its own troops – it carries the taint of the neo-Soviet way they thought they were fighting against. Chekh, the author of eight novels and short-story collections, is attuned to these doubts. He was only six when the Soviet Union dissolved and broke Russia and Ukraine apart. Some inside and outside Ukraine feel it’s time to retire the phrase ‘post-Soviet’ as a description of countries that haven’t shared a polity for almost three decades. But why then, in Absolute Zero, does Chekh talk about the war like this: ‘The enemy is still at the gate. But it was almost obvious to everyone that he is not only on the other side of the field … the head commander of this whole carnival is her majesty the Soviet Union’? And why was the Russian novelist-politician Zakhar Prilepin, who fought as a volunteer on the separatist side – a volunteer with a Kalashnikov – intrigued enough by the origins of the Soviet Union to write The Monastery, a 660-page novel about one of its foundational legends, the prototype Soviet prison camp of Solovki? The Soviet Union isn’t coming back, but it casts a long shadow over Eurasia, less as a model than as an imperfectly remembered set of ideas and moments that catch on the barbs of modernity.

It’s too crude to say that the Donbass conflict, which began in April 2014, a month after the Russian annexation of Crimea, pits Russophone Soviet nostalgist separatists against Ukrainophone Ukrainian nationalists. The separatists, dependent on Russian financial and military support – including Russian troops, equipment and cross-border artillery fire – are a Russian-speaking, socially conservative, working-class movement with a small neo-Stalinist fringe. Their supporters buy into the Soviet version of history; it’s not that they don’t think Ukraine is different from Russia, but as a subset of regions within a greater realm, not as an independent country. On the other side, Chekh’s side, is an ad hoc, bilingual Ukrainian alliance, in which pro-EU, pro-capitalism middle-class social liberals stand awkwardly alongside working-class national patriots, with a small neo-fascist fringe, all led by a government drip-fed with loans, grants and low-grade military intelligence, but little real military support, from North America and Europe. Both sides are obliged to accommodate the agendas of unaccountable billionaires, the nominally ‘Ukrainian’ or ‘Russian’ oligarchs whose businesses often span Ukraine, Russia and the Euro-American world. Early in Prilepin’s autobiographical Donbass novel of 2019, Not Everyone Goes to Hell, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic tells the author disgustedly that the Kremlin wants him to let a Ukraine-based tycoon take over certain Donbass industries: ‘They could at least have offered me a Russian oligarch!’

By the time Chekh was called up, the bloody first phase of the Donbass conflict was over. Local separatists backed by the Russian military had seized a number of towns, the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions had won some back, a Malaysian airliner flying over separatist territory had been shot down with a Russian missile, and a Ukrainian government offensive had nearly recaptured the city of Donetsk until the Russian army intervened. The war had settled into the stalemate of shelling, skirmishing, occasional ceasefires and civilian misery Chekh describes, with 13,000 people dead and more than a million displaced. (As I write, pandemic-stricken Ukraine fears a fresh Russian incursion, and Russia accuses Kiev of wanting war: as recently as 26 March, four Ukrainian troops were killed by separatist mortar fire.)

In seeking to ‘liberate’ Donbass from the separatists, many Ukrainian veterans, Chekh reports, thought they were in a battle of good against evil. So, of course, did their separatist counterparts, though Chekh doesn’t say so (if we were to reduce the opposing sides to their darkest fantasies of each other, the war would be Nazis v. orcs). But as Chekh begins his service most of his comrades have come to believe that the area will never be part of Ukraine again, and see themselves as holding the line against further incursions.

Chekh and his fellow conscripts encounter Ukrainian civilians who disapprove of the war and its precursor, the violent overthrow of the country’s democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych, venal and repressive though he was. This sentiment is shared by a significant minority, particularly in Russophone communities in the south and east of the country. As Chekh’s platoon serves in the south, a farmer challenges them about the war. They swear at him and steal some of his watermelons. From the Donbass front line they make trips for pizza or coffee to small towns nearby, where many sympathise with the separatist cause and see the Kiev loyalists as war-bringers. One town is

dead, black, like a trooper’s charred body. In the city about a hundred miners and just as many retirees live. The buildings are destroyed by artillery, the roads are mutilated by tank treads, all the windows are boarded up. The other part of the city is occupied. There, they say, there are epidemics of plague, typhus and cholera. In the store they sell army rations, cheap cigarettes, chocolate, ‘Sasha’ and ‘Diplomat’ colognes, packaged fast food, and expired kefir.

Chekh and his comrades agonise over the meaning of the wifi password in one restaurant popular with the troops: ‘crimeaisours’. Does the restaurant manager mean Crimea should be Ukrainian, or Russian? The second, it turns out. The women in the market ‘cannot get over their surprise at the military presence, as if war is something that belongs in the distant past, and we – we are something along the lines of the Soviet military force occupying Germany’.

There is another tension, closer to Chekh. With insouciant clarity he represents himself as a middle-class, liberal European consumer-intellectual of the 21st century, stepping out of a globalised Ikea-furnished world into a killing war of national self-determination. If, a decade ago, that might have seemed a step backwards in time, now it seems a skip from one 21st-century moment to another – even, for anxious liberals in some wealthy democracies, a possible future. Part of what gives Absolute Zero its relevance for a non-Ukrainian audience is Chekh’s awareness of the divergence between his worldview and that of the socially conservative, less educated workers and farmers he fights alongside. If in other parts of the world finding common ground between liberals and social conservatives seems, for the time being, only politically pressing, for Chekh it is a matter of life and death. A man by nature impatient with borders finds himself ready to shed blood to defend one. A religious sceptic who tries to see things from the other guy’s point of view is in the trenches with believers who deal in right and wrong.

Chekh recalls taking part in the long Maidan uprising in Kiev that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych in 2014. Chekh’s particular cause was visa-free travel to Europe; a friend’s was better provision of bike paths. ‘Here in the army,’ he writes,

most people are for ‘stability’, a popular election slogan of Yanukovych. Money is the true measurement of happiness. True corruption is preferable to liberal chaos. And for most of them, for us who took part, standing our ground and protesting, we were not successful. The result of our slogans ‘Out with the Mob’ and ‘Ukraine is Europe!’ were political collapse, war, and grandmothers who hanged themselves over gas bills … How do I explain to a miner from Dnipropetrovsk or a beekeeper from Vinnystya the importance of the availability of a mandarin smoothie and blueberry cupcakes?

Arriving at boot camp, Chekh notes the absence of people like him. ‘Where are all the lawyers, designers, journalists and salesmen? Where are those who sold their Rolls-Royce for an opportunity at the front? … How can I press Control Z and return to the clean streets of the capital, and my spotless office?’ He remembers how difficult it was in peacetime to know what to say when he offered coffee to the people who came to do work at his dacha, and agonises about his ‘refined Ukrainian’ speech – his fellow soldiers, presumably, speak dialect Ukrainian, or Russian, or code-switch freely between the two.

Many of his new comrades are older men, such as Dima from near the Romanian border, who begins to teach him how to soften his heavy army boots until he realises that Chekh has his own, privately bought boots, a third of the weight, which Dima couldn’t afford. Dima’s father and grandfather live next door to each other and everyone in his home village has the same last name. The two men are separated after basic training and Chekh assumes they’ll never meet again:

Dima is not one of those whom you could casually meet in the metro or at an Odessa beach. You can’t meet him in Munich airport running between gates or in a Nizhyn commuter train. Dima, and those like him, return to their villages … get into an old tractor, and work hard on the fields and gardens until retirement age. And those like me will never travel to that village to visit those like him.

Chekh plays up his distance from his fellow soldiers for literary effect. He wasn’t born a suave metrosexual with hipster tastes; all the troops have mobile phones, and you don’t have to be a bien pensant member of the Kiev intelligentsia to know that posting on Instagram about the shenanigans of your commanders is more likely to shake things up than mouthing off to the lieutenant. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Chekh is voicing his own thoughts or gently mocking those of his fellow citizens, as when he compares the Ukrainian troops on the front line to the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones, with Kiev’s politicians as the scheming nobles of Westeros, the separatists as the Free Folk and, implicitly, Putin as the Night King.

Having circled the gap between himself and the other soldiers, Chekh settles on a representation in inherited culture:

My life experiences allowed me to have enemies, friends, acquaintances, accomplices, colleagues, comrades, interlocutors, classmates and groupmates, but never any compatriots, or neighbours. Compatriots only existed for me in Soviet movies and old village customs. Compatriots were a pretext for drinking. Compatriots are like distant extended family: brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law and uncles. They have little to do with the modern cosmopolitan or globalism … A compatriot is an outdated concept, like war.

Prilepin​ visited separatist Donbass in the early years of the war as a journalist, carrying aid and munitions, but his life as a soldier was removed from Chekh’s in time, space, comfort and rank. He was deputy commander of a separatist ‘special forces’ unit based in Donetsk, fifty miles from where Chekh was stationed. Asked in an interview whether his conscience troubled him, he agreed it did: ‘I ran a military unit that killed people. In large quantities.’ Instead of a muddy bunker heated with foraged wood, Prilepin lived in a comfortable villa which, according to the estate agent who rented it to him, had been occupied by the England manager Roy Hodgson during Euro 2012.

The Monastery came out in Russia in 2014, to critical acclaim, sales and prizes, in the fervent spring when the Maidan revolution brought down Yanukovych, Russia seized Crimea, and Donbass, with Russian help, rose against Kiev. In retrospect the success that affected Prilepin most that year was Putin’s in Crimea, not his own as a writer. Before 2014 he could reasonably be regarded as a politically active writer, but afterwards he was a politician who also wrote fiction. You could argue that The Monastery was the culmination of an artistic path that began with the appearance eight years earlier of his novel of violently disaffected youth, Sankya. But you could equally look forward from The Monastery to the present day, when Prilepin’s new political party – the left-wing, nationalist, explicitly anti-liberal For Truth – is poised to run for the Russian parliament. Or his whole adult life could be seen, like that of his inspiration, Eduard Limonov, as an arc of performance, merging art, action and a bottomless gush of commentary on the times and his role in them. Before Limonov died in March last year, he disowned Prilepin.

As a young man in Nizhny Novgorod, Prilepin was a career gendarme, rising to the rank of major in the Special Purpose Mobile Unit (better known by its Russian initials OMON), the country’s riot police and national guard. He got a literature degree, left the force to become a journalist, joined Limonov’s National Bolshevik party, began publishing short stories, and wrote Sankya, a novel set in post-2000 Russia which is so hostile to the Putin dispensation that the anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny wrote an introduction to the English translation. While I was writing this, unauthorised street protests were taking place in support of the arrested Navalny and his credible assertion that Putin is a thief and a poisoner (of Navalny, among others).

During the protests Prilepin posted a link to a current affairs show he sometimes appears on, hosted by Vladimir Solovyov. Guests stand behind Weakest Link-style lecterns and are led by Solovyov in a nearly three-hour discussion of the assault by the West and decadent liberals on patriotic Russian manliness, embodied by Putin. In his spiel, Prilepin didn’t reach back to the desperate young idealists of Sankya, but further, to his time as a young riot policeman. In the 1990s, he said, it was a shame to have to break up crowds of angry workers, because they were manly, hungry men – muzhiks. The protesters we see today, he said, are spoiled, overfed young people. He didn’t actually say they deserve to be beaten and arrested, but the implication was there. Prilepin went on to criticise the Russian bureaucracy in Navalny-esque terms, which indicates the change he’s undergone: where once he was concerned with literary rivals, now he’s worried about competitors for political space. Navalny may be bourgeois, but if by Russian manliness the boggle-eyed patriots mean courage, it’s hard not to see courage in a man who returns to the country whose government poisoned him, knowing he’ll be arrested. Navalny is now serving a prison sentence, a fate Prilepin imagines, but hasn’t experienced.

The Monastery is set in the 1920s in Solovki prison camp, which the Soviet authorities established on the Solovetsky Islands, north of the Arctic Circle. Centred on an Orthodox monastery that in tsarist times contained a prison for heretics, Solovki was the prototype of the Gulag slave labour system later enforced across the USSR. In the early days the Soviet system hadn’t yet fully commodified convict labour as a resource and the administration of Solovki hewed to the idea that inmates shouldn’t only be punished but reformed and educated: the hard work they were given was part of the process that would remould them into Soviet men and women. In fact, as Prilepin shows, convict life on Solovki was too brutal for reform, and often cut short before sentences ended – by execution, exhaustion or disciplinary punishment carried too far. The islands were freezing in winter, mosquito-infested in summer. Accommodation was overcrowded, poorly heated and lice-ridden, rations were inadequate, the overseers brutal, and the physical labour, such as hauling logs or work in the clay factory, was sometimes fatally hard. Solovki was where they came up with the Gulag practice of reducing the rations of prisoners who fell short of their work quotas. Escape was impossible. A bullying, raping layer of ‘Chekists’, the nickname for the first incarnation of Soviet secret police, provided the guards, but for the most part the seven thousand prisoners were made to supervise one another and compelled to torture their fellow inmates in return for the promise of easier conditions, while still as vulnerable as any of the rest to denunciation. For a sheen of culture there was a theatre, an orchestra and a magazine.

The book is told from the point of view of a convict, Artiom Goriainov, a parricide from Moscow, young, handsome and strong, with a ruthless life drive. The narrative tears along. The Monastery had some critics reaching for comparisons to Dostoevsky, and there is something of him in the ornate conversations between the prisoners. But narratively speaking, Artiom is more reminiscent of a 19th-century British protagonist, a figure from Scott or Stevenson. He hurtles from peril to safety and back to peril again, guided by his sense of fairness. His admirers love Artiom for his lifefulness and the villains hate him for the same reason. An ex-policeman convict rescues him from log-hauling duty. Another prisoner, a poet, betrays him and gets him beaten up, but he is saved by a spell in the infirmary. No sooner is he back in barracks than he is chosen as a boxing competitor and rewarded with a cushy cell. The commandant of Solovki, Eikhmanis (based on the Latvian communist Fedor Eichmans, who ran the camp for a time), takes a shine to him, and moves him sharply up the privilege table. Eikhmanis’s lover, a Chekist interrogator whose entire character amounts to her desire for these two men, throws herself at Artiom – undone, she says, by the smell of his sweat. In Artiom’s darkest hour – locked in an unheated punishment cell with the Chekists outside, ringing a handbell whenever they take a prisoner out to be shot – she rescues him and leads him on an escape attempt by motor launch.

Eventfulness of this kind is one way to cope with a basic difficulty of prison stories: prisons are designed to eliminate drama, not foster it. The authorities attempt to deprive prisoners of happenings as well as freedom. Other writers, such as Varlam Shalamov, the greatest prose artist of the Soviet camp system, wrote in episodic form, producing a mosaic of fragmentary stories about multiple characters to suggest a wider cosmos of incarceration, of millions of stories never told. The risk of Prilepin’s approach, engaging the reader with the alternate jeopardy and relief of a single protagonist over so many pages, is that the novel stands or falls according to whether we care about – and believe in – the hero.

Do we? Is he a hero? It’s strange how little we learn about who he is. Prilepin goes to great trouble to protect his protagonist from sustaining beliefs of his own, however many he’s exposed to from others. Prilepin’s imagination only emerges when he tries to fix on the page how Artiom feels – hormonally – at a particular moment, when he’s frightened, hungry, angry, exultant, cold, hurt, horny. The book’s most lyrical passage is an episode of masturbation in the summer dawn. There’s little evidence of the marks that the actions of others leave in our consciousness over time. We’re often told Artiom devours poetry, but that just sounds like someone constantly reminding us that they read poetry. His pre-prison social status is obscure: he was, he says, ‘a Muscovite, a rake, a reader of books’. We know Artiom is in prison because he killed his father, but the terse explanation of the act doesn’t make sense, and doesn’t explain why he refuses to see his mother when, bafflingly, she turns up at the monastery. The act of father-murder hangs there, an obvious symbol without a clear signification.

The book has its moments of wit. It delights in the contrast between the brutality of Solovki, the efforts by a few enlightened senior Chekists to infuse it with culture for new Soviet souls to aspire to, and the popular terror that the name Solovki conjures among the Soviet public:

The paths inside the monastery were dusted over with sand. Everywhere, rose beds stood, which were cared for by several inmates. Artiom imagined a conversation going like this:

        ‘Were you on Solovki? What did you do there?’

        ‘I planted rare varieties of roses!’

        ‘Oh, the accursed Bolshevik yoke!’

It’s fair to say this English edition is carelessly done. At one point the translation says that Tolstoy’s former cook is among the prisoners; it should be Trotsky’s former cook. On the next page, the translation has a character ‘taken on’ a duty roster, when it should be ‘taken off’: in the camp, that could be the difference between death and life, and the error makes the passage nonsensical. But it has to be Prilepin’s fault that the serial adventures pall, and Artiom’s changes of fortune come to seem like random swerves of identity. By the end of the book Artiom is no longer a happy-go-lucky murderer with a good heart but a shallow chancer, spiteful, materialistic, violent, flighty and unable to love. It’s not clear whether Prilepin wants us to think of this as a change brought about by the brutality of camp life, or whether we’re meant to think he was like this from the start, or even whether Prilepin sees it this way at all.

The Monastery is the kind of book that tends to get called ‘ambitious’ by English-language reviewers. Does that mean it’s very long? That the author has done years of research? That it has big ideas? All true here. But Sankya – about a young National Bolshevik who leads an armed revolt against the authorities in his city – seems to me the more ambitious book. A real-life former riot policeman publishes a novel showing how easily a small group of radicals could steal weapons and vehicles from the riot police and use them to mount a revolution in their town, now, today, in Putinworld – that’s ambition.

Sankya and The Monastery, two novels set eighty years apart in the post-revolutionary and post-Soviet periods respectively, often coincide. Each is told from the perspective of a recently fatherless young man who subordinates the mind to the senses and human identity to national identity. Each protagonist is both victim and skilled perpetrator of extreme violence, described in granular detail: the torture of Sasha by the authorities in Sankya goes on for sixteen pages. Each book is haunted by an older man, a dynamic figure of action and intellect. In Sankya, it’s Kostenko, the leader of the National Bolshevik-type group Sasha joins. In The Monastery, it’s Eikhmanis, the commandant. In each book, the protagonist has an affair with the older man’s lover, who gives herself to him without complications or the burden of a personality.

Although he doesn’t take up much narrative time, Eikhmanis is The Monastery’s real hero. The curious ahistoricism of the book – set in a time when the Soviet Union was too new to know itself, yet with characters who seem never to have lived anywhere else – is a clue that it’s a political novel. Eikhmanis is a revolutionary superman, scientist, humanitarian, dominator of women, Gulag pioneer. All other forms of being fall short. The chief representatives of the old gentry among the prisoners are butchers and snobs. One sweet old man, Vasily Petrovich, who seems the embodiment of a Silver Age liberal, turns out to have been a torturer in the White army. The criminals are feral savages, the peasants uninteresting. The intellectuals among the convicts are marginalised: Prilepin sketches a version of Dmitri Likhachov, an actual Solovki prisoner, but his is a token presence. The priest-prisoners are portrayed sympathetically, but their message is that pre-revolutionary monks endured as much as the Solovki convicts, and are any of the convicts really innocent? In a climactic scene of collective hysteria among the prisoners awaiting execution in the chapel-turned-punishment cell of Sekirka, they launch into an orgy of confession:

Vladychka!’ someone wailed as though he were dropped in fire. ‘I killed my wife!’

        Everyone grew silent, but only for a moment.

        ‘I shot a Jew!’ another one wheezed.

        ‘My God! I robbed and killed an old woman!’ admitted a third.

        ‘I choked a child to death! Mercy! All-good One! I pray You!’

All this clears the way for Eikhmanis’s advocacy of his work as commandant, and defence of the camp’s revolutionary justice:

We have our own class system, our own class hatred, and even our own social structure – something, I think, similar to militant communism. There’s a pyramid – we, the Chekists, are on top. Then the counter-revs, then the former clerics, priests and monks. On the bottom is the criminal element – the backbone of our workforce. Our proletariat … Who’s in charge of the scientific research? … The bourgeois intelligentsia and the former counter-revolutionaries. Who acts in the theatre? The same. Who organises all the activities in the club, who organises the educational work in classes, who gives the lectures … This is not a camp. It’s a laboratory!

Both Artiom and Prilepin, who inserts himself into the novel at the beginning and end, are fascinated by the freedom a revolution confers on a charismatic polymath like Eikhmanis, able to advance ideas of a new life on behalf of the people, without being too beholden to actual people; until, that is, the bureaucratic manoeuvres of post-revolutionary opportunists, in the form of small-minded Chekists, drag him down. (The real Eichmans was executed in a purge by his NKVD superiors in 1938.) Prilepin must have been attracted for much the same reason to the anarchist-libertarian figure of Limonov, as would-be leader of Russia’s militant nationalist working class.

When Chekh talks about ‘her majesty the Soviet Union’, I assume he’s thinking of the tired, broken, shabby affair that was the USSR in the late 1980s, and everything he sees emanating from that past: the corruption, rigged votes, militarism, nationalism, secret police excesses, impermeable borders, stale slogans, ancestor worship, sexual, racial and artistic conservatism, the unaccountable elite, the triumph of the patriarchy. The Soviet Union of The Monastery is a beginning thing, born in an ancient and difficult place, but even in the hell of Solovki there’s hope, because Eikhmanis carries the torch of revolution, and because it’s Russia. ‘There is no more Russia beyond and without revolution,’ Sasha says in Sankya.

These evocations of the long-gone Soviet Union aren’t keys to origins so much as references to the past styles a present-day society will dress itself in. But as with the difference between a military jacket from a vintage shop and a dress uniform, there will be those for whom the past is irony, and those for whom the past is glory. The writer is supposed to be the one who knows and treats of both. The social identities behind the vintage references in Chekh and Prilepin’s works are the fundamental oppositions of the 21st century: on one side the liberals, the bourgeois, the cosmopolitans, the democrats, the globalists, the human rights-ists; on the other, the degreeless workers, the peasants, the patriots, the nationalists, the traditionalists. Chekh sees this clearly, and sees too that the divide doesn’t run along the trench line between Ukrainian loyalist troops and Donbass separatists, but between individuals in any country, who can’t live together if they regard one another as traitors. Despite the name of his new party, Prilepin has chosen to move away from that kind of truth. In Sankya, Sasha has to deal with a liberal antagonist, compromised and unattractive, but real. By the time we enter The Monastery, all liberals have been removed. ‘I myself am a man of the system and a stern conservative, stubborn as a tomb,’ Prilepin wrote a few years ago in a column. ‘I hate democracy like the plague. I love the attributes of power, army boots and camouflage.’

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