Another week, another book.
My pleasant experience with Zakhar Prilepin’s Грех (Sin) encouraged me to explore more of his works, and Sankya appeared to be the only other of his novels translated into English. But whereas Sin espoused patriotic ambivalence, this one promised a completely different picture – “a raw and moving portrait of life on the frontlines of the Russian opposition”. Though the book was published in 2006, reading it I was struck by the similarities between its fictional conflicts and the real-world post-Soviet protests, including Bolotnaya and Donetsk, that occurred several years later. In fact, I’d say the book offers an interesting explanation of the possible motives of those involved with the radical protest movement.
Two chaotic scenes bookend this vivid novel. In the first chapter, young Russian protesters chanting anti-government slogans riot in the streets of Moscow, smashing windows and turning over any car that looks foreign. And in the last chapter, the same protesters have allied with a disillusioned OMON dropout to loot a military ammunition dump, don full-body armor, and seize government buildings before they are forced into a final confrontation with the authorities.
In between these scenes, we meet some of the faces of the non-systemic opposition movement, known here as the Founders. This group has far more in common with the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) and Pravy Sektor movements than with the young Muscovites who participated in the Bolotnaya demonstrations. We meet the titular protagonist of the story, Sankya Tishin, who is desperately looking for purpose in a life that is nasty, brutish, and short. He is by no means an evil person. He can be loving and tender, as is amply evidenced by his attitude to his mother and grandparents. But he’s easily influenced and is caught up in a general urge to destroy, even if it’s purely for the sake of destruction. There is also Yana, a young female leader of the movement, who delights in committing nonsensical acts against the Russian authorities, all while claiming, “this was a political action!” [*cough*Tolokonnikova*cough* – J.T.] Kostenko, the leader of the Founders, seems to be a stand-in for Eduard Limonov. There are many other characters as well, who all supply the group with guns and radical ideas. Together, the Founders want to tear down the corrupt state, destroy the western-style capitalism that has overrun their country and build a better, fairer and more truly Russian society. How that is to be achieved goes largely unformulated; there’s no real plan, just a succession of violent demonstrations and attacks on buildings and prominent figures that are little more than vandalism. Despite their lack of substance, the Founders often become mini-celebrities as their faces flash momentarily across independent TV stations broadcasting their acts of defiance against the State.
And that’s about it, story-wise.
My overall opinion of Sankya is mixed. On the negative side, the book isn’t exactly what I’d call well-written. There are long ideological talks by Sankya which Prilepin seems to have no desire or talent to write dramatically. Aside from Sankya, I didn’t feel for any of the characters, and even my bond to Sankya was tenuous (for example, I noticed when violence was performed by Sankya it was supposed to look heroic, but when performed against him it was supposed to look terrible. I didn’t like that). And there are a few graphic sex scenes that only appear to be there to increase book sales.
On the positive side, that Prilepin draws on his own experiences as a former member of OMON and the NBP gives the novel a great feeling of authenticity. But by far the most interesting thing about the novel is its message about the radical protest movement. I’m no fan of Navalny, but I think he’s right in the foreword when he says, “Prilepin has not merely turned inside out the consciousness of the entire post-Perestroika generation of politicized young Russians and laid it bare, but also, in large point, predicted the patterns of development of radical political groups and the government’s strategy in combating them.”
For this generation, the faces of Western-style capitalism are the old Soviet bosses who rigged the system and now have wealth, foreign cars and the ear of the president. Meanwhile, they are left to scrape by, purposeless and cut off from a bright economic future. Their actions are raw and driven by a mixture of despair and hate – for their circumstances, for the authorities. Throughout the story, characters – an Afghan war vet, a polished liberal opposition figure – come and go, challenging the Founders to define what they stand for. But they stand for nothing other than revolution. They cannot articulate a new future for Russia and have no new ideas. Sankya seems to suggest that we will continue to see radical opposition movements in Russia like that of the Founders, no matter how hard the state cracks down on them, as long as the economic situation does not improve.
If you want a glimpse into contemporary life in Russia, you could do a lot worse than read Sankya. An eye-opening insight into a generation of disaffected young Russians who don’t remember the Soviet Union but are disenchanted with what “freedom” offers them, this book, despite its flaws, is what a more polished critic would call “a telling and important contribution to understanding the political situation in Russia today”.
★ ★ ★
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin. Translated by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker. Pub. 2014 by DISQUIET. Paperback, 200 pages. ISBN13: 9781938604515