Howling Soviet Monsters

Tony Wood

  • The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell
    NYRB, 694 pp, £12.99, April 2011, ISBN 978 1 59017 386 2
  • Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin
    Farrar, Straus, 191 pp, $23.00, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 374 13475 4

In Vladimir Sorokin’s novel The Queue, one of the protagonists is struggling with a crossword: ‘1 Across – Russian Soviet writer.’ Suggestions come from people next to him in the long line that is the book’s setting and subject – Sholokhov, Mayakovsky? – but are rejected, because neither fits both adjectives at the same time. When Sorokin wrote The Queue in the 1980s, these adjectives – always in tension – could still sit together in a handful of cases (the answer settled on is Gorky); but since then, they have been severed from each other by the watershed of 1991, and now represent distinct historical epochs, as well as two separate literary cultures.

Sorokin has the rare distinction of having been an enfant terrible in both of them. He was born near Moscow in 1955 and became active in the literary and artistic underground of the late Brezhnev era. The Queue, his first book, was published in Paris in 1985. Since then he has been prolific in a variety of genres – stories, novels, plays, screenplays, an opera libretto – but he is best known in Russia for attracting the disapproval of the Putinite youth movement Walking Together, which claimed his novel Blue Lard was pornographic. In 2002 its members staged a protest in central Moscow, helpfully handing out leaflets reproducing the offending passages – among them a sex scene featuring Stalin and Khrushchev – before ceremonially throwing copies of the book into a giant papier-mâché toilet. The legal charges filed against Sorokin were eventually dropped, but the episode confirmed his status as provocateur-in-chief of contemporary Russian letters.

His career began in the mid-1970s, when he entered the circle of the Moscow Conceptualists. At a time when Western conceptual artists were responding to the imagery and language of a commercialised mass culture, their Soviet counterparts appropriated the slogans and monumental art of an official culture that, by the time of the Brezhnevite ‘stagnation’, had been hollowed out into a set of ideological clichés. In the work of Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, stock Soviet phrases and symbols appeared as signs floating free of any real referent: the bombastic letters bestriding the sky in Bulatov’s large canvases (‘Glory to the CPSU!’), or the rows upon rows of white rectangles that comprise Komar and Melamid’s ‘Quotation’, where we don’t even need to see the words to recognise a deadened formula.

Sorokin’s early texts were displayed at Conceptualist exhibitions and circulated among friends in the form of typescripts or tape-recordings. He shared the Conceptualists’ attitude to the official Soviet idiom: in a 1987 interview he declared that ‘I feel acutely that I can’t be inside this language, because to be inside it, to use it as mine, means that I’m inside this state – and that’s something I’ve always feared.’ The appeal of Conceptualism was that ‘in principle the conceptual artist doesn’t have his own language – he only uses the language of others.’ Sorokin takes this idea to dazzling formal extremes in The Queue, which consists entirely of unattributed lines of dialogue, ranging from full sentences to brief exclamations. After the first few exchanges, individual voices become clear, and characters emerge: the main protagonist, Vadim Alekseev; stern Lena, whom Vadim chats up in the queue; the suave writer she runs off with; some bickering older women; a drunk or two; a small boy called Volodya; and the generous Lyuda, with whom Vadim finds sexual and spiritual comfort at the end. What exactly everyone is queueing for is never established – American jeans, Turkish or Swedish jackets, some sort of footwear? – but they stand in line diligently for at least a day, shuffling en masse and in order into a canteen to eat lunch, and then over to some benches for the night (the book includes several dozen blank pages to represent periods when everyone is asleep). The formal conceit sets up some good sight gags, mostly deriving from repetition: a sex scene is rendered almost entirely by alternations of ‘– Haa …’ and ‘– Ahh …’, while a full 30 pages are taken up with a roll-call in which typically Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian or Central Asian names succeed one another, in a microcosm of the multiethnic USSR:

– Vlasina!
– Yes!
– Mamedov!
– Yes!
– Kruzenshtern!
– Yes!
– Travchenko!
– Yes!
– Kazakova!
– Yes!

The whole book is an impressive piece of ventriloquism, a careful rendering of the differences of tone and register that distinguish people from one another. Sorokin has spoken of his queue as a ‘polyphonic monster’, but his sympathy for the frustrated participants in this quintessentially Soviet experience is plain.

The Queue is untypical of Sorokin’s work. As its translator, the late Sally Laird, points out in her preface, not only does it have a happy ending, but ‘no one is raped, mutilated or eaten on the way.’ In much of his early fiction, the narrative begins in a seemingly innocuous pastiche of Socialist Realist prose, before a sudden jolt sends the story lurching off into darker territory: extreme violence, coprophagy or cannibalism intrudes without warning, or the language itself degenerates into gibberish or punctuation marks. The philosopher Mikhail Ryklin, in a 1998 essay on Sorokin, argued that his strategy was to ‘turn collective speech inside out’ in order to reveal its violent obverse, the sexual urges and destructive impulses that had been pent up for so long. Here is where Sorokin differs from the other Conceptualists: like them, he attacked the carapace of official Soviet culture, but for him the shell was not empty; it was inhabited by howling, wounded monsters.

Sorokin insisted at the time that he was an artist rather than a writer, but he stood out among the Conceptualists for using prose as his medium. He engaged in a way that the painters, sculptors, poets and performance artists didn’t with the Russian literary tradition – initially with the clichés of Socialist Realism, but eventually ranging across the entire canon. In Roman, written in the late 1980s, 300 pages of Turgenev pastiche are followed by a bloodbath in which the eponymous protagonist – whose name also means ‘novel’ – ends up killing and eating all the other characters. Subsequent works contain parodic imitations of Dostoevsky, Platonov, Tolstoy and Akhmatova.

As with many writers of the Soviet counterculture, Sorokin’s work did not begin to appear in book form in Russia until the system that had been his main target collapsed. His first collection of stories, written in the early 1980s, appeared in 1992; his novels The Norm and Marina’s 30th Love were both finished before 1984 but came out only ten years later; Roman was not published until 1994; and The Hearts of Four, a novel written on the eve of the USSR’s disintegration, came out three years after it. One of his best-known stories, though, was written in 1992: ‘A Month in Dachau’, in which a Russian man takes a holiday in the German death camp to indulge in an orgy of masochism, torture and cannibalism. The ideological function of this was, of course, to draw a parallel between the Soviet and Nazi experiences as equivalent totalitarian horrors; the recurrence of this banal theme in Sorokin’s work since is perhaps one explanation for his popularity among German publishers, who have translated 20 Sorokin titles to date (compared to only five in English, four in French, three in Italian and one in Spanish). But Sorokin spent most of the 1990s not writing books at all, focusing instead on plays and film scripts.

By the late 1990s, then, there had been two Sorokins: first a Conceptual artist who worked in prose, and then a literary figure with increasing public recognition who actually concentrated on film and theatre; or as Ryklin puts it, ‘first a non-writer, creating very well-structured literature, and then a writer, striving to create non-literature’. The split was not simply a matter of personal preference. Ryklin argues that the realities of Russian life in the 1990s presented Sorokin with a dilemma: having worked in a Soviet system that imposed a variety of prohibitions, he now faced the opposite situation – a bewildering, chaotic freedom in which existing frames of reference had disintegrated. All the violence and repressed sexuality he had sought to drag to the surface was now out in the open, as crime, sex, death and drugs began to occupy the streets and public discourse. The dark obverse of collective speech had become the new norm, and real people had begun to behave more and more like Sorokin characters.

At the end of the 1990s what might be called a third Sorokin appeared, searching for ways out of the impasse with which post-Soviet reality confronted him. He has done this by returning to prose fiction and seeking to address the larger questions of Russian historical experience. One of his strategies has been to reread the past through the distorting lens of mythology. The Ice Trilogy is devoted to the fortunes of an apocalyptic Brotherhood whose members believe they are bodily incarnations of a primordial light. But they are only made aware of their true identity by being ‘awakened’, in a process that involves being bashed in the chest with a hammer made of ice – and not ordinary ice but ice from the Tunguska meteorite that supposedly landed in eastern Siberia in 1908. Blows from these ice hammers make the hearts of each brother or sister sing out their primordial names – Bro! Fer! Uf! Khram! All the brethren happen to be blond and blue-eyed, but Sorokin takes pains to dispel suspicions of Aryan supremacism: one of the early initiates is an itinerant fiddler called Zeitlin. The Brotherhood’s goal is for all its members to return to their incorporeal state, which will also coincidentally destroy the world – a cosmic error they are destined to correct. But they can only do this once they have located and ‘awakened’ 23,000 brothers and sisters, and united them for a final, cataclysmic ritual.

Across the three novels, we follow the Brotherhood’s progress, from the discovery of the Tunguska meteorite in the 1920s by the cult’s founder, Aleksandr Snegirev, to the present day. The first novel, Bro, takes us from a Bildungsroman-style evocation of Snegirev’s youth through a long series of ‘awakenings’ in the 1930s, up to the Second World War. The second instalment, Ice, begins in contemporary Moscow, before doubling back to the early 1940s to resume where Bro left off. The final volume, 23,000, tracks the Brotherhood’s plot into its final stages, as the last few members are awakened and the brethren assemble. All of this may sound pretty silly, and it is. Readers who make it through the 700-odd pages of the trilogy may wonder why they persevered for so long with the fantasy. Ice evokes the everyday details of the post-Soviet world: the imported cars, the dank stairwells, the abandoned warehouses, the extravagant decor of the nouveaux riches. There are a couple of decent satirical stabs along the way: one of the Brothers closely matches the description of Anatoly Chubais, the minister who oversaw the privatisations of the early 1990s, which transferred colossal wealth to a small clique of insiders who as far as the general population was concerned might as well have been members of a secret cult.

But the question of Sorokin’s purpose in writing the trilogy lingers. It reads in part like a parody of Dan Brown-type conspiracy novels, with their Knights Templar, Illuminati, Opus Dei et al. But here the narrative comes from inside the cult, whose language gradually takes over: by the end of Bro, we have become inured to the Brotherhood’s habit of calling ordinary humans ‘husks’ or ‘meat machines’, and the idea that someone’s heart would ‘sing’ when hit repeatedly with an ice hammer comes to seem disturbingly plausible. The fact that readers see events through the Brotherhood’s eyes is a powerful estranging device: we are forced to accept as legitimate the perspective of delusional psychopaths, and constantly made to reread history from their point of view.

This is the most provocative aspect of the trilogy: its aspiration to unsettle conventional historical narratives. To give one example of how this works: during the 1930s, the Brotherhood acquires many well-placed siblings in the NKVD, which allows it to kidnap scores of people and beat them with ice hammers with total impunity. What is being implied here is not that the USSR’s apparatus of terror was created for or by a secret cult, but rather that the wider pathologies of the system made it possible to advance particular psychopathic goals amid the general slaughter. We are perhaps also meant to think that Sorokin’s fictional explanation for the disappearance and death of thousands of people – collateral damage from the Brotherhood’s search for its fellows – is no less believable than the ones we have. Or that the very idea of explaining such terrors is a fantasy, a rationalist myth which one could just as easily replace with another tall tale.

Blue Lard, which marked Sorokin’s return to the novel form at the end of the 1990s, also tries to reread history from an oblique, fantastical angle. Even before Khrushchev and Stalin lovingly undress each other, it is clear that this section of the novel is set in a parallel version of the USSR: Khrushchev is an aristocrat with a penchant for human meat, Stalin’s sons are transvestites, the penal system is an arena for sexual experimentation known as LOVELAG. It turns out that Germany and the USSR together won the Second World War – again the theme of Nazi-Soviet Bruderschaft – after dropping an atom bomb on London. Blue Lard also announced another strand in Sorokin’s work, in which he imagines an incongruous world to come. The first third of the novel is set in 2068, a future in which Chinese words have been mixed into the Russian language and uncanny new genetic technologies have been developed, allowing the creation of monstrous carrier pigeons the size of vultures and the cloning of great Russian writers. (Sorokin reproduces, with parodic glee, the texts generated by Dostoevsky-2, Platonov-3, Pasternak-1 and so on; some are more convincing, some more entertaining than others.)

In much of Sorokin’s work since 2000, as in most science fiction, the strange features of the world envisaged – Sinified language, bio-modification – hold a mirror to the deformities and anxieties of the present. In Day of the Oprichnik, he combines futurological invention with political archaism to vicious satirical effect. The book is set in 2028, by which time Russia has advanced technologically but in socio-political terms has regressed to the era of Ivan the Terrible. The story is told from the point of view of Andrei Komiaga, a member of the current tsar’s elite security force (which has the same name as that of Ivan IV), as he goes about his daily routine of terrorising the population. His work is sanctified by religious belief: stretches of internal monologue and entire chapters are rounded off with the ritual words: ‘And thank God.’ The methods of the oprichniki are medieval – burning noblemen’s houses down, raping their wives, flogging intellectuals – but they drive around Moscow’s ten-lane expressways in red ‘Mercedovs’ and take calls on their ‘mobilovs’ (Komiaga’s ringtone consists of whip-cracks accompanied by screams and moans). In this New Russia, imported gadgetry coexists with icons and incense, oil pipelines with feudalism. It’s as if hi-tech limbs had been grafted onto the torso of early modern statecraft: Wolf Hall meets William Gibson.

Komiaga begins his day by repressing a nobleman, and then spends the rest of it attending to a variety of tasks: censoring a play, investigating a subversive poem, resolving a customs dispute with the Chinese in Siberia, visiting a soothsayer. He goes to church, takes hallucinogenic drugs, extracts a bribe from an ageing ballerina and dines heartily with the other men of the oprichnina. This being a Sorokin novel, there is plenty of sex and violence, and it all ends in an orgy, in which several oprichniki line up to take each other from behind, forming a human chain that is an obscene double of The Queue (and perhaps also a nod to the homoeroticism of the feast sequence in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part II).

But it is the fictional world of the book, rather than the plot, that makes it compelling. The collision of looming future and recurring past allows Sorokin to condense much that is essential to Russia’s sense of itself today. His New Russia exaggerates – but not beyond recognition – the features of the present: the potential for authoritarianism, excessive reliance on oil, a fixation on material wealth, resurgent religiosity, postmodern nostalgia for a Disneyfied version of old Muscovy. Perhaps the most devastating aspect of Day of the Oprichnik is its portrait of the elite. The oprichniki believe they are carrying out a sacred, patriotic mission that allows them to rape and kill with impunity; they are crude, violent men whose minds turn subtle only when it comes to scheming and corruption. They are engaged in a constant turf war with other sections of the state apparatus – a symptom of what Russians call vedomstvennost, the carving out of separate, antagonistic realms by each branch of the bureaucracy – and are always looking to turn a profit from bending or breaking the rules. The source of their power is not so much authority as menace, the ever present possibility of arbitrary violence.

This is a much more powerful attack than, say, that of Viktor Pelevin, who in The Sacred Book of the Werewolf caricatured the Russian elite as shape-shifting KGB men who worship oil in obscure rituals. Sorokin also captures some essential qualities of the worldview of the country’s present-day rulers. Their bad-faith nationalism, for example: they are virulently protective of Russia on an ideological or cultural level but have no qualms about entrenching the country’s material subservience to foreign powers. The oprichniki have no desire to give up their Chinese off-road vehicles, their Mercedovs or mobilovs, their drugs or delicacies. This self-serving attitude is wedded to an utter contempt for their own people, who appear in Komiaga’s narrative as simple, dumb peasants – subservient but also stubborn, inconveniently prone to resent their rulers. We get only indirect indications of this from what Komiaga tells us, but all the purges, floggings and executions suggest a persistent need for coercion: oprichnik terror is structurally necessary for the maintenance of this ruling order. Fear is what sustains it: in the words of the grotesque, dissolute Queen of New Russia, the people ‘don’t really love us … If they had the chance they’d cut us to pieces.’

Sorokin’s most recent novel, The Snowstorm, published in Russia last year, unfolds in another imagined future, in which the pre-Revolutionary countryside coexists with wondrous bio-technology. A doctor struggles through a blizzard to reach a plague-ridden village, accompanied by a picturesque peasant whose dialogue could have been lifted straight out of Tolstoy. But this peasant’s cart is pulled by 50 miniature horses; elsewhere there are giant horses, tiny people, ‘living felt’ that grows into long sheets in the space of minutes, psychotropic drugs in the form of crystal pyramids. The only clues that this is a possible future rather than a reconfigured past come in references to the ‘distant time of Stalin’ and the dimly remembered ‘Red Troubles’; yet much of this Russia remains unchanged since the days of the tsars. It is the scrambled temporality of what Trotsky called ‘uneven and combined development’: the everlasting bad roads, humble peasants and vodka, alongside Kalashnikovs, TV and genetic modification.

The Russian critic Mark Lipovetsky has read The Snowstorm in the light of Russia’s current obsession with the question of ‘modernisation’ – the buzzword launched by Medvedev in 2009, intended to signify an ambition both to catch up with the globalised present and leap into the techno-future. The slogan taps into a long-standing national anxiety, which the Soviet system converted into a conscious project – electrification, industrialisation, the Cold War arms race, Sputnik and so on – before allowing it to degenerate into an empty ideological gesture. After the fall of the USSR, even a rhetorical interest in the shape of the future was seen as either utopian or totalitarian: individual and collective destinies were best left to the free play of market mechanisms. Sorokin’s recent fiction is a reflection of the future’s return to the national imaginary, this time as fearful waking dream.