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The Great Wall of Russia

RUSSIA LOVES TO SUFFER, doesn’t it? Nothing confirms its greatness more thoroughly than a capacity for pain, with the renowned ability to drink serving as a sort of corollary to this spiritual resilience. To suffocate for decades under the Marxist-Leninist aegis, to grow potatoes in empty urban lots during the disastrous democratization of the Yeltsin years, to watch Putin reclaim the power (and the wealth) of a czar—these are tragedies, for sure, but they are also nails on a cross to which Holy Russia all too willingly affixes itself.

Gogol, Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Pasternak, and just about the entire sanguinary twentieth century: literature has functioned in Russian society as a clarion call to wean the people off their collective crucifixion, to remind them that they needlessly resign themselves to leaders who murder and pillage for the higher good of all, that to be Russian and miserable need not be synonymous. It is for this reason that the Russian tyrant has never craved anything so much as to retaliate for spent ink with spilled blood.

Squarely in this tradition of the writer-prophet is Vladimir Sorokin, who, though little known in the United States, is one of the most highly regarded post-communist Russian writers in his homeland—and also one of the most reviled. He belongs to a brash, punkish, and now middle-aged group (Tatyana Tolstaya, Viktor Pelevin) that paints dystopian, futuristic portraits of a Russian society that now craves iPhones and True Religion jeans far more than the freedoms their predecessors agitated and died for.

For this, Sorokin has earned the predictable ire of the Kremlin, which has retained its old humorlessness under the narrow-eyed Vladimir Putin and his acolyte Dmitri Medvedev, whose sole redeeming quality may well be a love of the band Deep Purple. Sorokin’s novel, Blue Lard (2003), featured some choice (and, I would imagine, apocryphal) scenes of the clones of Stalin and Khrushchev engaged in anal intercourse, which in turn led to the youth group Walking Together—an accurate imitation of the Hitler Youth if there was ever one—burning copies of Sorokin’s novel in front of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Better publicity, or proof positive of his pessimistic vision, could not have been asked for. (There is, I should say, an extended and rather well-done scene of vigorous ass-fucking in Day of the Oprichnik, as well. It an orgy in the truest sense, recalling a somewhat similar, famous scene in Gravity’s Rainbow—another fine novel of power, debauchery, and paranoia.)

The sex here is in a bathhouse, between several oprichniki: secret, violent guards of His Majesty (“we exist to … keep order and exterminate rebellion”) who—earlier in the single day that constitutes the time span of this novel—had ingested hallucinogenic fish and raped the wife of a recalcitrant nobleman, while also rooting out the occasional dissident and doing a little bizness, this being the kind of enterprise for which an MBA is less useful than an AK-47. A busy few hours, in all.

The brief, propulsive narrative takes place in 2028, in a futuristic czardom that has also, paradoxically, returned to many of the old ways, from the recrudescence of Orthodoxy to exclamations such as “To Rus! Hail!” that punctuate nearly every page. As in Pynchon, there is a tendency for characters to break out in spontaneous, silly song: “Europa Gas, that parasite/ For Russian gas must pay!” To be fair, nobody ever claimed that Sorokin was the equal of Pushkin. And speaking of Pushkin, almost two hundred years before Day of the Oprichniki takes place, that poet read Gogol’s darkly comic Dead Souls and upon finishing the novel cried out, “God, how sad our Russia is!” Well, what a difference a couple of centuries makes. “Russia is alive and well, rich, huge, united,” says Andrey Danilovich Komiaga, Sorokin’s protagonist, without even an atomic trace of irony.

Of course, it is always a matter of perspective. With his role high up in the oprichina, an order created by Ivan the Terrible but resurrected in Sorokin’s post-communist, hyper-capitalistic kingdom, Andrey Danilovich is well insulated from the hot struggles of the poor, ensconced in his Jacuzzi, his servant Fedka fluttering nearby, or speeding along in his “Mercedov,” barking into his “mobilov” as the hoi polloi sit through hours of the notorious Moscow traffic. At a restaurant, he exhibits the refined taste of the archetypical Soviet bureaucrat. After a waiter presents him with an array of choices—“rye vodka with gold or silver sand, Shanghai sturgeon caviar, Taiwanese smoked filled of sturgeon, marinated milk mushrooms in sour cream, jellied beef aspic, Moscow perch, in aspic, Guangdong ham”—Andrey Danilovich wonders, “And what do you have to eat?”

Sorokin provides many such clever brushstrokes—if not quite a fully realized landscape—of what the twin thrust of increasing petrowealth and decreasing openness will do: a huge Great Wall of Russia, stretching across the nation’s wide girth, to protect it from “putrefying Europe” and China, which is under the control of a Celestial Ruler; a “Whitestone Kremlin,” now that red is no longer in vogue and Lenin no longer lies in his much-visited mausoleum; a state-friendly Radio Rus, where one can order “a minute of Russian poetry.” But Day of the Oprichnik also recalls the work of an earlier dissident—Alexander Solzhenytsin’s Ivan Denisovich, whose unadorned, journalistic chronicle of a day in the Gulag opened the West’s eyes, not to mention many of Russia’s own, to the soul-grinding realities of what the socialist dream had wrought.

Sorokin’s novel has a similar and somewhat frustrating lack of introspection, less concerned as it is with actual people than the ideas they represent. We tend to think of the Russian novel as a great rumbling bear, but Sorokin’s book is a sleek and darting fish. It coyly alludes to the “Red Troubles” of communism, followed by “White Troubles” and “Gray Troubles,” as well as other touchstones of Russian history, both real and imagined, without alighting on them too long—which may be the sign of a brisk narrative or an incomplete one. As for Andrey Danilovich, our protagonist has that brutal lack of introspection that is necessary for the operation of a totalitarian regime: “This work is—passionate, and absolutely necessary,” he muses in the midst of the putative rape that is his first task of the day. “It gives us more strength to overcome the enemies of the Russian state.” (The translation is a bit of a tightrope act, since many of Sorokin’s neologisms are tough to preserve in English, but Jamey Gambrell has plenty of experience with this unconventional crowd, and it shows.)

Andrey Danilovich’s entire day—hunting traitors, a steam bath, wringing a little cash from the Chinese, a Siberian clairvoyant, an appointment with the nocturnal and (that old specter again!) half-Jewish czarina—vacillates between the use of force and the getting of pleasure. Much has been revealed in the course of this Moscow day, but little has been learned. One gets the feeling that when Andrey Danilovich rises tomorrow, he will get into his Mercedov and do it all over again.

Sorokin has not had much of an American audience, but Day of the Oprichnik, along with the publication of his Ice trilogy by the fine NYRB Classics imprint, should attract the readership he deserves. Ice is a sprawling beast of a book about a 1908 meteorite crash in Siberia that engenders a search for some twenty thousand superior beings called Brothers and Sisters of the Light. The meteor explosion is based on fact (the Tunguska event), but everything else is a phantasmagoria on the order of William Vollman or the aforementioned Pynchon.

And while Sorokin is not the most artful craftsman or the most profound, he has a fearless imagination willing to be put to most grotesque and energetic use. His work betrays no impulse to hector the Russian people out of their complacency with sobering chronicles of governmental misdeeds, like so many car wreck photographs shown in driving school; instead it shocks them out of it with the scenes of their Boschian existence. For as one character in Day of the Oprichnik says, “The Russian people aren’t easy to work with. But God hasn’t given us any other.”

Alexander Nazaryan is on the Editorial Board of the New York Daily News. He is at work on his first novel.