Monday, 7 October 2013

day of the oprichnik [vladimir sorokin]

When in Red Square, you notice that there are still copious quantities of Soviet stars adorning the walls and the turrets of buildings. The presence of the symbol seems as ubiquitous now as it must have been in the Soviet era. This is momentarily perplexing, until you learn that the Soviet Star has now been adopted by the military as their symbol. Thereby converting at a stroke what were multitudinous tributes to the Soviet state into multitudinous tributes to the Russian army.

This semiotic facility helps to explain the deceptive fluidity of Russian history, where one repressive system can be rapidly moulded into another, using the same techniques, personnel and symbols. Sorokin’s satirical novel, set in the future, engages with the way Russian political structures engage in eternal recurrence. This dystopian Russia is still repressive, still run by autocratic, corrupt apparatchiks. They are now subservient to a king and his royal family, rather than a President. The novel follows a day in the life of one of the elite ‘oprichniks’ as he gallivants around Moscow and the country indulging in dubious moral practices and a life of luxury. The contrast with Ivan Denisovich could not be much greater.

There’s nothing subtle about Sorokin’s writing. This is a most Swiftian of authors. He addresses the same territory as Pelevin, without the intellectual playfulness. Where reading Pelevin feels like participating in a fencing match, reading Sorokin feels like taking part in a Greco-Roman wrestling bout. It’s nasty, physical, sweaty and lacking any sense of emotional involvement. At the same time, his writing is frequently gripping and always enjoyably warped.

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