Review: Day of the Oprichnik

Russia Reviewed’s Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopia summer series concludes with a review of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik.

Vladimir Sorokin appears to be one of those rare authors whose novels elicit a lively reaction not only among conscientious critics, but also among laymen. The court seems split: some, including novelists Gary Shteyngart and Keith Gessen (quoted on my copy of DotO’s dust jacket), praise Sorokin as a genius, while others denounce his work as – among other things – second-rate porn. You either love his books or hate them; middle ground is hard to find. And after reading Day of the Oprichnik, my first Sorokin book, I can see why readers are so polarized: Oprichnik offers striking themes and clever commentary, but buries them under mediocre prose, vulgarity, and disturbing shock value.

As befitting a dystopian novel, Sorokin offers a very bleak vision of Russia’s future: by 2028, Russia has inexplicably imploded, sealing itself off from the outside world with a Great Wall to help purify the Motherland. Inside “Holy Rus” thrives a quasi-Draconian society of “Russian Orthodox” people ruled over by a czar. Yet people also receive news from bubbles, do drugs in the form of tiny fish penetrating the bloodstream, and use advanced technology imported from China. Wrap your head around that.

Oprichnik covers one day in the life of Andrei Komiaga, a member of the czar’s trusted and feared oprichnina. The oprichnina oversee arrests and executions to cleanse Russia of traitors and criminals who break the czar’s laws (one notable law forbids swearing, for some reason). Over the course of this 200-page novel, we see Andrei and his vile lot murder, rape, extort, and commit arson in the name of Country interests, always minding their own pockets and the need to pay the higher-ups. The oprichniki censor plays and rape women whom they have just made widows; they attend lavish parties and take hallucinogenic drugs. They leave a trail of destruction in their wake, accountable only to the czar.

It’s not a pretty picture, but Oprichnik, like Tolstaya’s The Slynx, is packed with interesting critique. While obviously meant to mock the current Russian government, the book’s themes are also more universally applicable. Chief among them is a warning about what happens when society falls blindly to a ruler or religion. But I’ve heard similar messages before – in Fahrenheit-451 and It Can’t Happen Here, for example. Luckily there are some more subtle ones: how easy it is to use the mask of nationalism and religion to pursue ignoble ends; how we can work at our jobs and gloss over the harm we may be doing; how the trappings of power sometimes corrupt more than power itself.

Sorokin couples these themes with a dose of black comedy. One can point to scenes of a clairvoyant burning the “useless” Russian classics (p. 114) or an oprichnik cursing at someone while reprimanding them for cursing. Or one can point to the opening sequence: Komiaga is woken by his movilov (mobile phone) and is catered head to toe by his servants, who each greet him with the same phrase: “The best of health to you, Andrei Danilovich!” He prays to St. Boniface, St. George the Dragonslayer, Saint Nikola, and the Optina Elders while his servants dress him in medieval garb and hand him a dagger in a scabbard. Andrei then chooses the particular breed of dog head that will be mounted on his mercedov (Mercedes) in order to intimidate all he passes. Okay, humor is subjective, but one can at least see the cleverness in Sorokin’s flavor of it. Even Oprichnik’s overall concept – an archaic monarchy persisting in a technologically advanced society with brutal consequences – is one that piques my interest.

It is unfortunate, then, that in order to reach the clever bits, one must dig through a lot of muck. Oprichnik’s prose is flat and uninspired. The narrative is ill-paced and chock-full of irrelevant information – for example, the details of fictitious trade agreements which have no bearing on the plot. And it’s hard to believe – even given the vast resources at the oprichnina’s disposal – that all these events happened in a single day.

It’s time to address the jaundiced, mutilated, slightly smelly elephant in the room: the shock value. Yeah, I don’t like it. Those of you who have read Oprichnik before know what’s coming. But I’m going straight to this example in order to demonstrate how deliberate vulgarity can actually harm a story. Within the last 50 pages of the book, Andrei takes part in a same-sex oprichnina bathhouse group orgy. I barely caught the commentary – about moral corruption or how homoeroticism can be housed and flourish in a homophobic/nationalist society – because, well, human centipede of sodomy. (And I’m in no way a squeamish reader!) The same goes for the multiple rape scenes (at least one of which is gang rape): readers are more likely to remember the graphic imagery than the message at heart (if in fact there is one). Go ahead with your dystopia and your dark themes, but I should not feel unclean after reading your book.

In conclusion, Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik is…well, it’s definitely an acquired taste. There’s amusement to be had if one sticks around long enough and works past the mediocre and sometimes obscene aspects of its execution. At the same time, it is completely understandable if after reading this, you decide Sorokin is not for you. Bottom line: the Great Divide over Sorokin is justified.

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin. Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. Pub. 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 191 pages. ISBN13: 9780374134754.

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4 comments

  1. As I read many years ago in one author’s self-confession – “9/10 of the inspiration is to hide your plagiarism well”. The same could be applied to Sorokin.

    In our first Moscow flat, we had one slim book of Sorokin’s short stories. As always – back then there was much hype about him, and “every thinking person” ™ was duty bound to acquire books of Sorokin and absolutely adore him. Cuz he was “talented author”, persecuted by the Bloody Regime and Ignorant masses. It was mid 2000s.

    Quite predictably, I immediately read That Story. Yes, That One Story, which raised the ire of everyone back in the time, when our today’s handshakables and professional painters with the shyte (aka “the artistic intelligentsia”, funded by the budged money) didn’t issue a pip about “censorship”. I was young and fell victim to the classic advertisement trick. Sorokin, I was told, is like Pelevin. Pelevin is also misunderstood by the bydlo and “persecuted” by the Powers That Be. Therefore, Sorokin = Pelevin. If you liked “Chapayev and Pustota” or “The Generation P”, you must read buy Sorokin.

    [BTW – Pelevin satirized Sorokin in his “Batman Apollo”. Sorokin responded by satirizing Pelevin in “Telluria”. Artistic intelligentsia proved once again, that more than money and kvetching about Russia it likes only “epistolary wrestling” with their “rivals”]

    I read That Story. Well, I attempted to read it. I gave up. Seriously, I cannot remember a single instant, when I gave up reading a short story in my entire life. I tried to read other short stories in the book, but couldn’t. Sorokin became “dead” to me from now on.

    But then I was introduced to Sorokin from the absolutely unexpected angle. Already mentioned by me “Mir Fantastiki” magazine became promoting his “Day of Oprichnik”. Why? Because, apparently, “alternative history” (and they decided to call the book’s genre as such) is also a form of fantastic fiction. They had rather short (and very, very obfuscating misleading) review of the book, some ads on their pages (“money does not smell”, indeed) and they were raptly reporting its future fate in their regular column of the most popular (i.e. best sold) Russian fantastic fiction.

    There is one short memetic (and therefore hard to translate) Russian expression, which sums up any – ANY! – product, vomited by the literary Genius of Vladimir Sorokin – “треш, угар и содомия” (there are others, but the blog rules forbid the people from the use of profanity). Thinking People ™ call it “post-modernism”. When a normal person sees plagiarism and direct copy+paste from other authors, totally ne-bydlo shy and conscientious intelligent use words “references” and “allusions”, which does not change the fact of plagiarism. When the Talented Authors says directly, in your face, that he is, literally, a shit eater, that he adores shit and takes his readership for shit eaters as well, his faithful fans cry rivers of tears and adore him even more, defend him even loudly and become the very same thing he just called them. After all, it was Sorokin who introduced RuNet to the now popular neologistic expressions like “червие” and “соки говн” (the last one could be applied to his “work” most of the time).

    We know that Sorokin is “master of the form” and “fine tuner of the stylistics”. Ah… okay! But what about the essence? Guy de Maupassant, they say, was also a big esthete and stylist par excellance – which didn’t prevent him from ending his days in the mental ward, eating and flinging his feces at everyone around. There is Russian expression, which means “many” – “как у дурака фантиков”. The same could be said about Sorokin – he has an awful lot of colourful, bright candy wrappings (which some people in the USSR and Russia do collect). But the thing inside is not a candy. And with every single Sorokin’s book it’s the same story.

    The genre of “The Day of Oprichnik” is neither “anti utopia” or “alternative history”. The genre is “Russian intelligentsia whining”. The greatest enemy of the Russian intelligentsia has always been the State. Whenever the state does anything – intelligentsia is immediately displeased. Russian intelligentsia is still mentally in mid XIX, all of them are the bad parodies on Bazarov’s nihilism. They are incapable of providing a positive agenda and suggest some working plans – they can only demolish and break, most of the time (thankfully!) in the virtual reality of their works. Okay, we get it – Sorokin does not like the vector of Russian development as enforced by the government (mind you – the book was written in 2006). So he resorts to the reductio ad absurdum fallacy: “See what you gonna end up with, if you will support patriotism, traditional values and dare to resist so-called Rotten West”. E.g. after the introduction of the ban on the “obscentive lexicon” on the TV, radio and stage, all handshakable intilligents became the defenders and promoters of Russian “mat”, claiming that only “free people can use it”. And while the most of the “thinking masses”, that read Sorokin and the likes of him treat such statements, as the imperative to become a complete contrarians, to unthinkingly praise everything Western with the cargo cult fervor and thus forming at least some kind of “positive agenda”, Sorokin is not doing even that. It’s a popular trope in the West – “Russian literature is permeated with the feeling of hopelessness”. The problem lies not in some “Russia literature”, but in Russian authors, who choose to focus on negativity due to their own inability to form the aforementioned “positive agenda”, aka answering the eternal question of “What should be done?”.

    “The Day of Oprichink” is, understandably, furiously handshaked in the West, because it promotes the idea of “Eternal Oppressive Russia”. For them it is “obvious”, that the “Russia” of Ivan Grozny, Stalin and Putin is one and the same BECAUSE BLOODY REPRESSIONS!!!!!1111!!!!11!! Actually knowing (or learning) history is detrimental to that, so everyone who tries to do that damages the general party line of all handshakables, and, therefore, gets accused of “revisionism” and “rewriting of the history” (c). The general narrative and the portrayal of the new-old Oprichinina is based on political pamphlets of the XVI c., written by the western kreakls of that time and paid for their efforts generously by such “our Western partners” as the Roman Catholic Church and the Crown of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite the fact that it’s been proven numerous times in the past, that the events described in such pamphlets bore the same semblance to the truth, as the reports of about WMD in Iraq, or that the authors could not physically be privy to such information (mainly – due to the fact that they were not even remotely near that localities) or the existence of the vast body of the legitimate historical sources, the belief persists. Because, hey – it’s so saucy to dream about gay orgies! The aim of the pamphlets back then was “black PR” of the Russian state, to describe its people as beastlike savages and the rulers – as bloodthirsty despots. Nothing really changed in 500 years.

    Only Sorokin and the likes of him do not even invent imaginary atrocities and orgies – they can copy paste them in ANY period of history they choose and “spice things up” with the only substance our Dear Author have never found lacking within and around himself. That’s, dear leadership, is the essence of the Post-Modernism. Like it – or else!

    P.S. The article in PediWikia calls the oprichniks “secret police” – which is wrong on so many levels. Richelieu had secret police. Walsingham during Elisabeth I basically introduced a police state in England. But OF COURSE the less resembling this Oprichnina gets all the “laurels”.

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      • That’s why I consider post-modernism as the literary direction dishonest and full of slyness. I don’t consider the combination of “ctrl+c” and “ctrl+v” to be a “creative endeavor”. We are saddled with the “rules of the game” – first, to find out which literary work/genre/style the author rips off slightly less than entirely, second – we are obliged to enjoy the process. And what if I do not accept the rules of the game? What if I consider them to be just a poor excuse for the talentless plagiarism? But, more importantly, what if the majority of people don’t even know these rules exist and take everything written by the post-modernists at a face value?

        Just how many people both in the West and Russia ever heard of (let alone read their “works”) Heinrich “von” Staden or Albert von Schlichting? Meanwhile, those two professional “livers not by a lie” are the chief source of the “burning truth” ™ about the Bloody Regime, where they allowed their fantasies to run unchecked. All tropes and memes about Oprichnina came to life both in the West and among our Russian conscientious intelligentsia thanks to their works of fiction. Now, when “living classic” Sorokin rips off the most gore soaked parts from them for his own use and spices it with the Essential Substance, do the readers know that they are reading something secondary, processed, or do they suffer from the “wow factor” and praise the “genius” for his imagination? Besides – why should they doubt? As Everybody Knows ™ – without learning history – Ivan IV was “bloody maniac” and Oprichnina was his “secret police”. People simply know that, i.e. they believe in that. If you ask them to define the term “secret police”, also grab popcorn. The answer – if you get it – would be veeeeeery entertaining.

        XVI c. Russia was a feudal monarchy in the begging of the process of formation of the absolutist monarchy. Russian monarch, the czar, was the premier member of the aristocracy – the military elite of the country. Military elite of the country had been taught one thing from the cradle to the grave – how to fight. When you fight you kill. That’s what their ancestors did the best, here lies the etymology of the title “boyarin” – from the “yariy”, i.e. “zelous/furious” (in the field of battle) and the “bo-” part meaning “very”. Nobility was taught to kill and killed all the time – even in the peacetime, in the guise of the hunts.

        These members of the higher military aristocracy had hereditary rights and privileges, that superseded (and oftentimes – subverted) the power of the state and the law. They could simply fight off any attempt to force them do something they did not like. Or, this being feudalism, they could switch their liege, and come with all their holdings, estates (and other lesser nobles aka mid-tier military command personnel) and political power to their service against their former compatriots. Because for the feudal there is no really such a thing as “home country”. In fact – several such “defections” did happened during the rule of Ivan Grozny and his father, both from Poland to Russia, and from Russia to Poland. There were unsuccessful attempts, when the polish kind Siegizmund III and his chief hetman Hodkevich (btw – he was from the polonized and converted to the Catholicism former eastern Slavic nobility of what used to be Kievan Rus) to send pamphlets and letters to a number of the most influential and powerful boyars (Mstislavskis, Belskis, Vorotynskis, etc.), asking them to plot the coup against the czar. Ivan Grozny intercepted the missives and… began responding to them as if he was those would be conspirators (trolling level – “CZAR”). He didn’t “repress” those who were the intended targets of the letters, though. Such brutality, yeah.

        By the end of his life, Ivan Grozny ordered to create the synodic (i.e. a list of the people, for whose souls you ought to pray) of all those he executed or “repressed” during his reign, and then send it to all monasteries and cathedrals, asking local clergy to pray for them and for him, asking forgiveness. In 1582 he officially rehabilitates all of them. That’s a real historical document, readily available for all those who are interested. The list has a little bit more than 3000 names, but, obviously, not everyone of them was “the innocent victim of terror” (e.g. boyarin I.P. Fyodorov-Chelyadin, who did conspire to topple the czar). The number of those killed during the “sack” of Novgorod is about 1500. All in all – 5000 “victims of repressions” during more than 35 years of rule. Meanwhile in “enlightened and humane” Europe:

        France: king Charles IX plotted together with all his royal family the St. Bartholomew day massacre, personally took potshot at Huguenots from the harquebus. Bodycount: 3000 in Paris alone, with the violence spilling over in other regions of France amounting to about 30 000 dead. Pope Gregory XIII issued a medal “celebrating” the event.
        Spain: Under Duke Alba during the suppression of the revolt in the Netherlands, more than 100 000 “heretics” are executed or die during the torture.
        England: Since Henry VIII totally democratic and progressive parliament adopts laws “against vagabonds”, which results in body mutilations and execution of about 70 000 of former peasants, who were deprived of the land during the state sponsored program of enclosures.

        But it “does not count”, because bloody tyrant Ivan Grozny targeted not the common people, but the national elite (with which our modern intelligentsia likes to associate itself). That was his real crime.

        In 1567 (i.e. in the very beginning of Oprichnina) Ivan IV planned new summer campaign in Livonia. Suddenly, it turns out that all artillery train is delayed. The investigation (real one, with protocols, collection of evidence, questioning of witnesses etc.) revealed, that one fairly important state official (and, of course, a member of aristocracy) Dubrovsky ran a corruption scheme – he’d come to the villages, near whom the artillery train was about to move and whose people were obliged to assist its movement, and “suggested” that for a reasonable price the artillery train might move instead near their neighbouring village instead, forcing them to lend all possible assistance. Dubrovsky and his associates, who ran the scheme were executed according to the ruling of the court, but the military campaign had been already dealt a serious blow. Now – was they “innocent victims” as well?

        Yes, there were also “non-judicial executions” as well. I also can’t remember any American court, that issued a death penalty to Osama bin Laden (non citizen of the US to begin with). When the terrorists are killed – is this because those who kill them are “jackbooted goons of the secret police”? A rogue member of the higher aristocracy possess by himself tremendous power, including the military forces loyal only to him.And what if he is not alone, and, like it was in the times of Ivan Grozny, there are about 30 of them, and they plan to topple their monarch and replace him with his cousin Vladimir Staritsky, and they do that funded and encouraged by the Poles? Or when the higher aristocracy of Pskov and Novgorod, lead by the archbishop Pymen conspired (there are historical sources, protocols, letters – nothing is made up) to not only to replace Ivan Grozny with his already mentioned weak willed cousin Staritsky, but also to physically switch allegiance to Poland, thus becoming their territory. That’s an enormous part of the country, strategically important, where Pskov alone could field up to 4000 professional warriors and Novgorod – even more than that. Territorial separatism – this is okay now?

        There wasn’t even the need for investigation in this particular case because, like it’s the case with all professional “dissidents”, at the first opportunity different members of the conspiracy ran away ratting each other to the czar, embellishing others crimes and trying to present himself as “mislead” and “duped” one.

        Who were the Oprichniks? The very same nobles, often from the very same aristocratic families. For them it was an vehicle to raise through ranks and amass the power without the constraints of the old feudal system of mestnichestvo when your pedigree was valued more than personal achievements. As nobles, the continued their military service, often – illustrious, and a number of them died in battle. Naturally, being part and parcel of the old feudal order they had the same mentality. Therefore after 7 years of the “run” it became apparent for Grozny, that Oprichnina deteriorated and became the same thing it was created to fight against – i.e. a feudal conglomerate. It was more than 400 years ago in a different country with the people possessing different mentality. Not now. Oh, and by the way, those most bloodthirsty oprichniks who overstepped their authority and were executed by the czar when he closed down the whole enterprise – were they ALSO “innocent victims of the regime”?

        Now, knowing all of that – how can I read Sorokin’s “masterpiece” in any possible detached way and treat it as “just post-modernism”? The fans of this direction either deny or feel proud about the fact, that they deliberately detach themselves from the objective reality or that reality does not exist. As I said in the beginning – the are sly, coy and dishonest, because while they claim that “this is all a Game of make believe”, they also claim that Sorokin’s work is “a political commentary on the contemporary Russia and the direction of its development”. It is not “just a book”, because “just a book” about Russia, no matter imaginary or a real one, won’t be praised in the West (Keith/Konstantin Gessen is Maria Alexandrovna Gessen’s brother and also a “great admirer” of “Putin’s Russia”), unless it has megatons of crap written about “This Country”. I don’t know about others, but I read books for their content, not for their form and text style. Is the post-modernism some kind of “art for the chose ones”, not for the lowly bydlo, but for the “cultural elite”, which knows better how to order the world around? But why if they are so smart, better and culturally superior, the end result of their “creativity” looks like a textbook example of the “degenerative art”?

        The following verse from Eugene Onegin could be applied not only to Sorokin, but to basically any postmodernis “creator”:

        And so, at last, feature by feature,
        Tanya begins to understand
        more thoroughly, thank God, the creature
        for whom her passion has been planned
        by fate’s decree: this freakish stranger,
        who walks with sorrow, and with danger,
        whether from heaven or from hell,
        this angel, this proud devil, tell,
        what is he? Just an apparition,
        a shadow, null and meaningless,
        a Muscovite in Harold’s dress,
        a modish second-hand edition,
        a glossary of smart argot…
        a parodistic raree-show?

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