Dress-Up Games with Russian History

In 2002, the Kremlin-affiliated youth group Moving Together staged a public protest on Moscow’s Theater Square at which they threw the works of several prominent Russian postmodernist authors into an ...

In 2002, the Kremlin-affiliated youth group Moving Together staged a public protest on Moscow’s Theater Square at which they threw the works of several prominent Russian postmodernist authors into an outsized papier-mâché toilet. In particular, they accused Vladimir Sorokin, who had achieved great acclaim in the preceding decade for his rather dense brand of conceptualist writing, of peddling pornography. In response to this and other public attacks, Sorokin sat down to write what became his most aesthetically accessible and overtly political novel: the dystopian satire Day of the Oprichnik.

As Sorokin’s novel illustrates well, in Russia, history casts a long shadow into the present. Both the more recent past of the Soviet years and the deep history of tsarist Russia loom over contemporary life. Often, these differing depths of historical legacy blend together in an uncanny manner. An oprichnik was a member of a royal guard, the oprichnina, established by Ivan IV, the Terrible (1530–1584), to carry out his will and defend the interests of the crown. In practice, this meant eliminating a great many of the tsar’s rivals and their families in bloody acts of political murder and mass mayhem. Sorokin’s short novel is a dystopian fantasy set in a Russia of the near future in which those days of yore have returned. A new oprichnina, armed not only with clubs and daggers but with ray guns, too, supports the rule of an iron-fisted emperor. State-enforced Orthodox piety is the law of the land. A Great Wall of Russia isolates the country from the scum and corruption of Europe and the West. Bad language has been outlawed and is punishable by drawing and quartering.

The fundamental mechanism at work in Day of the Oprichnik is allegorical political satire. Sorokin is writing in the tradition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s futuristic dystopia We of 1921, set in a far-flung future of total social rationalization and ideological regimentation, and George Orwell’s 1984, which followed the lead of Zamyatin’s novel with its classic nightmare vision of totalitarian mind control. In the mode of those predecessors, yet with the addition of a huge dollop of absurd postmodern play, Day of the Oprichnik
holds up a funhouse mirror to today’s Russia, showing the ideological and social shifts of the last decade in grotesquely magnified form.

The fundamental mechanism at work in Day of the Oprichnik is allegorical political satire.

Sorokin’s novel presents the first-person account of a single day in the life of a highly ranked new oprichnik named Komiaga, including: the murder of a disgraced nobleman; the ritual gang-rape of his wife; an official state church-service; a visit to a book-burning soothsayer (she prefers burning Russian classics, including Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina); the negotiation of a crooked customs deal with Chinese merchants; violent suppression of an entertainer who has dared to satirize the sexual escapades of the empress; the enjoyment of wealth and privilege denied to the common lot; and much more. Along the way, we learn bits and scraps about the history, social structure, and mores of this new “Holy Rus.”

Many of Sorokin’s barbs are spot-on—even prescient. The original book was published in 2006 and its action takes place in 2028, but its chronological hints, plus a little math, establish that the new imperial order was founded in 2012—our blessed year, which has seen Putin’s twelve years in power extended by a new six-year term as Russian president. At this point, the “president for life” scenario, which was a wild hypothesis when Sorokin was at work on this book, doesn’t seem so implausible. The theocratic basis of the imagined future Russia also hits the mark—as I write this review, three young women of the punk band “Pussy Riot” have just been sentenced to years of incarceration for performing an anti-Putin prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. And Sorokin’s general diagnosis of Russia’s current regime rings true: he shows us a society ruled by a tiny economic and political elite, preserving its power through violence, corruption, and control of the mass media, suspicious of the rest of the world, using reserves of gas and oil as tools to control and punish Western societies, and draped in the flag of Russian patriotism.

Full comprehension of Day of the Oprichnik demands recognition that its historical references extend a good way beyond the epoch of Ivan the Terrible. In Russia and in the USA alike, readers immediately understand Sorokin’s allegorical use of Ivan the Terrible to invoke “tyranny run amok” as a result of broadly shared historical folklore. The world over, the name “Ivan the Terrible” conjures a proverbial, legendary Russian despot. Since the early nineteenth century, Russian writers, dramatists, painters, and finally filmmakers have used representation of Ivan and his bloody reign as an allegorical tool to critique later rulers for their repressive reigns. Although most of the relevant nineteenth-century works are little known in the West, some readers may know Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Maid of Pskov. Sorokin, then, is using a tried and true mechanism of the historical imagination.

Full comprehension of this novel demands recognition that its historical references extend a good way beyond the epoch of Ivan the Terrible.

American readers may not be aware, however, that at certain moments Russian cultural life has presented Ivan in a different light: as a positive figure and even a model tsar. The highpoint of this counter-fashion came during WWII, when the Soviet leadership commissioned tens of plays, novels, and films portraying Ivan as a great and wise predecessor for none other than Joseph Stalin. This was no whitewash of Ivan as a gentle and meek ruler, either—the idea was that Ivan’s brand of state-sponsored mayhem was necessary and beneficial for Russia.

Of the works that resulted from this campaign, the only one to achieve enduring and international recognition was Sergei Eisenstein’s last film project—his uncompleted film trilogy, Ivan the Terrible. The first part of this work was awarded the Stalin Prize for its inspiring portrayal of Ivan as a patriotic hero (other laureates, in various years, included Dmitry Shostakovich for his Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony, Mikhail Sholokhov for And Quiet Flows the Don, and Eisenstein for his earlier film Alexander Nevsky). Yet the second part of Eisenstein’s trilogy brought the state effort to glorify Ivan to a halt when it was banned for its ambivalent presentation of Ivan and his oprichnina as a “band of degenerates along the lines of the American Ku Klux Klan.”1 Whether or not Eisenstein actually intended to lambaste Stalin with this film is still subject to debate.

Pointedly, Day of the Oprichnik directly references the banned second part of Eisenstein’s trilogy. In a culminating moment, Komiaga takes part in an oprichnik orgy that evokes an analogous scene from the Soviet director’s masterpiece. This is a grotesque portrait in the key of “frat boys on steroids gone bad”—parodying the mix of exaggerated macho aggression and group sexual cohesion that is common in elite security and military organizations the world over.

As this homage to Eisenstein suggests, the Stalinist campaign to exalt Ivan is of critical significance for understanding Sorokin’s novel. Sorokin’s scenario is imaginable because, in some sense, this has all happened before. Day of the Oprichnik concerns much more than the historical legacy of Ivan the Terrible. It is also about the memory and history of Stalinism.

The novel’s satirical evocation of the more recent prehistory of Stalinism is palpable, for instance, in its description of state control of cultural life. Writers in Sorokin’s new Russia are cogs in a bureaucratic machine evocative of the Soviet Writers Union, publicly flogged for deviation from the Orthodox line, and churning out books with titles like “The Russian Tile Oven in the Twenty-first Century” and “The Taming of the Tundra.” One of Komiaga’s duties during his busy day is to participate in a censorship commission for an upcoming gala concert, offering inane ideological corrections to song-and-dance numbers concerning courageous Russian border-guards. Ivan the Terrible never dreamed of this sort of (purely modern) state domination of cultural life. Another moment when the Soviet past surfaces in obvious manner is in Komiaga’s hilarious discussion of consumer goods:

I look at the kiosk window. It’s the standard selection: Rodina cigarettes and “Russia” cardboard-filtered papirosy, “rye” and wheat vodka, white and black bread, two types of chocolates—Mishka the Bear and Mishka in the North— … His Majesty’s father, the late Nikolai Platonovich, had a good idea: liquidate all the foreign supermarkets and replace them with Russian kiosks. And put two types of each thing in every kiosk, so the people have a choice. A wise decision, profound. Because our God-bearing people should choose from two things, not from three or thirty-three.

Here and elsewhere, Sorokin’s dystopia is as much about a return to the darkest days of the Soviet past as to the Ivanian one. Actually, I’ll go out on a limb here: Day of the Oprichnik is more about that recent past than about the distant one. For we can easily extend our observations concerning the finer details of life in Sorokin’s new Holy Rus to the novel’s central characters, figures, and institutions. During a short flight, Komiaga watches a classic Soviet film comedy and muses: “Those were Russian people living back then, during the Red Troubles. And they really weren’t all that different from us. Except that almost all of them were atheists.” Komiaga’s name, which is just as unusual in Russian as in English, can easily be seen to suggest “Communist” (“Kommunist,” in Russian).

Sorokin’s latter-day oprichniks are perhaps better understood as latter-day KGB agents dressed up as latter-day oprichniks.

As Komiaga drives through Moscow’s Lubianskaya Square, he passes a monument to Malyuta Skuratov, a leader of the original oprichnina, legendary for his violence and cruelty. The square, as Russian readers know well, was once the location of the KGB headquarters. It was dominated then by a different piece of public art—a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet state security services. That monument was removed from its pedestal during a demonstration in 1991 celebrating the defeat of the anti-democratic August Putsch, in what was one of the few true bursts of anti-Soviet iconoclasm of that era. Which is all to say, Sorokin’s latter-day oprichniks are perhaps better understood as latter-day KGB agents dressed up as latter-day oprichniks. The point of this satirical costume drama is not difficult to decode, given Putin’s own career as a KGB agent and the ubiquity of his former colleagues in Russia’s current power structures. KGB agents dressed up as protectors of ancient national traditions are, truly, everywhere you look in today’s Russia.

Possibly, Sorokin wrote his novel in the expectation that it would stir up even more outrage against his works among Russian moral and political authorities, or that it would even come to share the fate of Eisenstein’s banned film. Yet Day of the Oprichnik, with its orgy and other scenes featuring Sorokin’s trademark brand of extreme and inventive sexual absurdity, has not garnered much negative attention from the Russian powers that be or their supporters. Sales of the novel and of a cycle of stories that builds on it, Sakharnyi Kreml’ (Sugar Kremlin), were brisk. Critical reception was on the whole celebratory.

As Sorokin’s continued success suggests, readers should not lose sight of the hyperbolic nature of his dystopian satire. Putin’s Russia is still a long way away from becoming a totalitarian state. The Kremlin’s strategy regarding public expression of political dissent over the past decade has been to exert control over television and the major newspapers, while generally leaving the arts, literature, the Internet, and smaller news organizations to their own devices. The earlier public attacks on Sorokin were something of an anomaly. Of course, this piecemeal strategy was not sufficient to prevent the rise of the sizable (although still marginal in Russia as a whole) opposition movement responsible for the mass protests of the last ten months. In response to those protests, the Kremlin does appear to be tightening control over political expression by means of new laws, ostensibly aimed to restrict Internet pornography, and by bringing new pressure to bear on news organizations and NGOs.

Orwell imagined his Newspeak as a tool of mind control—in Sorokin’s dystopia, the result is an Oldespeak.

Yet this is a far cry from the near absolute cultural and ideological management that was realized in the Soviet Union and that is depicted in Day of the Oprichnik. One suspects that such a total domination would be impossible in today’s world of electronic communications. In this, present-day Russian society sharply departs from its Soviet predecessor. Despite the dystopian visions of authors from Orwell to Sorokin of a fearsome trend in human history towards increasingly totalitarian societies, the example of Putin’s Russia demonstrates instead that in the twenty-first century a nominally democratic system can be successfully gamed with far less than a total domination of culture and ideology.

In Sorokin’s new Holy Rus, state control of language is a key instrument of political domination, just as Orwell imagined his Newspeak as a tool of mind control. Yet in Sorokin’s dystopia, the result is instead an Oldespeak—an extraordinary mix of archaisms, a futuristic technological lexicon, and certain all-too-familiar terms drawn from Russian and Soviet everyday life. This complex linguistic fabric is one of the novel’s chief literary achievements, and it presents special challenges for the translator. Jamey Gambrell’s rendering of Sorokin into English is readable and entertaining, but she does stumble over some specialized historical terms—for instance, using “Zemstvo,” a nineteenth-century local assembly, when she means “Zemshchina,” the population and territory not assigned to the historical oprichnina; and translating “word and deed,” the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century term for judicial cases of high state relevance, as “work and word.”

Yet the chief flaw of this translation is that it is, in fact, a tad too readable. Sorokin does not take his language game as far as, for instance, Will Self in The Book of Dave or Russell Hoban in Riddley Walker, a novel written entirely in the post-apocalyptic English on display in its first sentence: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.”2 Yet Sorokin does push the envelope a good deal more than readers of this edition might suspect. In Gambrell’s rendering, for instance, Komiaga’s extended curse of Russia’s liberal intellectuals reads as follows:

These people are like unto vile worms that feed and nourish themselves on carrion. Spineless, twisted, insatiable, blind—that’s why they are kindred with the despicable worm. Liberals differ from the lowly worm only in their mesmerizing, witch-brewed speechifying. Like venom and reeking puss they spew it all about, poisoning humans and God’s very world, defiling its holy purity and simplicity, befouling it as far as the very bluest horizon of the heavenly vault with the reptilian drool of their mockery, jeers, derision, contempt, double-dealing, disbelief, distrust, envy, spite, and shamelessness.

A closer rendering of Sorokin’s use of archaisms might read:

Vile are they, like unto the wirme, nourishing itself on carrion-offal. Flabbiness, sinuosity, gluttony, blindness—by all this they are rendered kindred to the despised wirme. From suchlike they may be distinguished onely by the eloquencie that they splatter about themselves like venom and odious pus, poisoning not onely peple, but God’s world itself, befouling, besmattering its holy purity and simplicity to the blue orizont, to the very spheare of heaven’s vault with the serpent spittle of their mockery, derysion, double-dealing, doubt, suspicion, envy, rage and lewdness.3

The editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux likely decided to publish Day of the Oprichnik for its relative topicality and accessibility, as compared to other works by Sorokin that have appeared in English translation at less prominent presses. It is a disappointment, however, that in the pursuit of accessibility and sales a press renowned for highbrow literature would mainstream one of Russia’s more challenging postmodernist authors.

Much of Sorokin’s satire will pass unnoticed, not only for American readers but for Russians, too—no matter how erudite or well instructed. The many public figures—ideologues, writers, artists—mentioned in this work are almost all references to contem­porary individuals. Some references are less recondite than others—the sage of the neoimperialist ideology called “Eurasianism,” Alexander Dugin, appears as a jester of the Empress, chanting “Eur-gasia, Eur-gasia.” Yet many are quite obscure—an underground radio broadcast includes a conversation about “cloning the genre of the Great Rotten Novel” between “Vipperstein and Onufrienko,” referring to the conceptual artists Pavel Pepperstein and Sergey Anufriev. The sense of being bombarded with incomprehensible inside jokes is reminiscent of the experience of reading an earlier Russian satirical masterpiece—Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But just as with that work, one really doesn’t have to get all the jokes to appreciate the whole of Day of the Oprichnik.

At the start of this review, I used the word “uncanny” to describe the peculiar overhang of the national past in Russia. As Freud instructs us, “uncanny” means “requiring interpretation.” So why does history have such significance in the Russian political imagination? How is it that the deep past and more recent eras can appear to be so strangely intertwined? Some commentators, in and outside of Russia, tend to answer these questions in terms of enduring traditions of autocratic politics, reaching back into the “mists of time.” Such views are both essentialist and misguided, supporting a fatalistic acceptance of repressive regimes and their convenient nationalist ideologies. At issue here are not ancient patterns of political life, but rather an invented tradition. The habit of tracing political culture back to Ivan the Terrible (or Peter the Great, or Alexander Nevsky …) is a manner of thinking about political community by means of an imaginary prehistory. It came to the fore only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as part of modern political institutions built on mass communications, capitalist economies, mobile labor forces, party politics, and—most importantly—the ideology of nationalism, which has returned to center stage in Russian political life since the fall of the Soviet Union.

No modern society can have much in common with premodern social forms. And this is why it is such a shame that this edition has not conveyed Sorokin’s olde-tyme wyrds with more verve. For language, it turns out, is the predominant archaic feature of this new “Holy Rus.” Sorokin’s dystopian society revives the names and nomenclature of the era of Ivan, but in substance it is a thoroughly contemporary authoritarian state. Form and content part ways, although both are the subject of Sorokin’s critique. With regard to the former, Day of the Oprichnik brilliantly satirizes nationalist cant concerning Russia’s “ancient traditions.” With regard to the latter, it skewers the Putin-era revival of aspects of the political culture of the Soviet Union. The combination of these two mismatched elements is Sorokin’s recipe for grotesque effects that cast critical light on both contemporary political culture and rhetoric in Russia, demonstrating ultimately not their “archaism,” but their pernicious absurdity. icon

  1. “O kinofil’me Bol’shaia zhizn’” (About the Film “The Great Life”), in O partiinoi i sovetskoi pechati: sbornik dokumentov (On The Party and Soviet Press: A Collection of Documents) (Pravda, 1954), pp. 575–76.
  2. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (Indiana University Press, 1998; expanded edition), p. 1.
  3. Гнусны они, яко червие, стервой-падалью себя пропитающее. Мягкотелость, извилистость, ненасытность, слепота—вот что роднит их с червием презренным. От оного отличны либералы наши токмо вельмиречивостью, коей, яко ядом и гноем смердящим, брызжут они вокруг себя, отравляя не токмо человеков, но и сам мир Божий, загаживая, забрызгивая его святую чистоту и простоту до самого голубого окоема, до ошария свода небесного змеиною слюною своего глумления, насмехательства, презрения, двурушничества, сомнения, недоверия, зависти, злобы и бесстыдства.
Featured image: Still from Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, part I (1945)