DECEMBER 18, 2020
THE LAST TIME ONE of Zakhar Prilepin’s novels was translated into English, the 2014 Winter Olympics had just wrapped up in Sochi, and Putin was pretending to look the other way while his insignia-free soldiers marched into Ukraine. That April, Prilepin’s fast-paced, anti-government protest novel Sankya was published with a foreword by Alexei Navalny, himself no fan of the Russian state. In it, Navalny feted this young, relevant writer, and explained that Prilepin’s novel could tell the reader more about Russia than Tolstoy ever could. This year, Prilepin’s novel The Monastery, set in the Soviet Union’s first concentration camp on the far northern Solovetsky Islands, was published by Glagoslav, in a translation by Nicholas Kotar. This time around, Navalny’s anti-establishment fanfare is notably absent. Instead, The Monastery comes with an introductory essay from Professor Benjamin Sutcliffe of the University of Miami, providing academic justification for the translation of a novel by someone whose behavior over the past eight years has become highly problematic to say the least.
Zakhar Prilepin has gone through many iterations before arriving at his current incarnation of writer and far-right politician. He has studied literature and public policy in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, served in the Chechen war with the special forces, worked as a grave digger, a bouncer, an editor, and a journalist, and authored six novels, numerous poems, essays, and articles. He regularly wins prizes for his work. In 1997 he became a committed member of the since banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP), which was founded by the equally controversial author Eduard Limonov, and emerged as an activist against Putin’s government. For anyone wanting to know about Prilepin’s life up until this point, his novels Sankya and Sin, both also published by Glagoslav, are an excellent source of information. The protagonist of Sankya, Sasha Tishin, is clearly the author’s alter ego; the plot closely follows Prilepin’s own experiences as a “Natsbol.” According to Fabrizio Fenghi, in his wonderful It Will Be Fun and Terrifying: Nationalism and Protest in Post-Soviet Russia, the novel describes the protest scene that led to the 2011/2012 demonstrations against Putin, paving the way for groups like Pussy Riot. Sin, written a couple of years after Sankya, is a collection of short stories that weaves together episodes in the life of the not-so-subtly named Zakharka from his childhood through to fighting in Chechnya. As with Sankya, there are moments of light and warmth here, but Zakharka’s proprietorial attitude to women is difficult for a modern reader to accept, as the fact that Zakharka, a sergeant fighting in Chechnya in the 1990s, leads an attack against the enemy with the World War II–era cry, “For the Homeland. […] For Stalin.”
This conflation of dictator and nation was soon repeated in a highly controversial act and very public turning point. In 2012, Prilepin published his Letter to Comrade Stalin in the nationalist paper Zavtra (Tomorrow). In it, he claimed that the number of dead in the Holocaust was a mere detail, and that while Stalin had made mistakes, Russians had to thank him for the life they led today. Unperturbed by the subsequent backlash and accusations of fascism and antisemitism, Prilepin simply pointed out that no one who had read his novels should be surprised at his embrace of Stalin.
Then, in 2017, Prilepin revealed that he had been leading his own mercenary separatist battalion in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine — the site of an ongoing war sparked and sustained by Russian military intervention — and started regularly appearing on TV with his gun. The following year he was expelled from his hero Limonov’s new party, Other Russia, because he had decided to definitively align himself with Putin by joining the president’s All Russia People’s Front coalition. Not long after this, Prilepin explained in an interview that he had not changed sides, but that Putin’s actions — such as the annexation of Crimea — had simply, and at long last, come to reflect his own ideals. Prilepin’s commitment to the Russian government remains unchanged. In October this year, during one of his diatribes on Russian Lessons, his state-sponsored YouTube channel, Prilepin talked about how much he loves his government. He loves them, he states, for their “class” in not rising to the bait over allegations of poisoning his former ally and supporter Navalny. Prilepin has traveled a long way since Sankya.
This alignment with the state was a shrewd maneuver. Prilepin has since launched his own political faction, For Truth, described by liberal news outlet Meduza as a spoiler party to split the anti-Putin vote in the 2021 elections, and in early 2020 he was part of the working group that rewrote the Russian constitution. Last year, Putin awarded Prilepin a 2.6 million ruble grant to promote patriotic literature in Russia, which he is using to mentor young writers. He does this while housing them in his traditional Russian log house — an izba — in Zakhar Prilepin Village, which is part of Etnomir, a Russian village–themed holiday park near Moscow where guests can fish, use the banya, learn folkways, and breathe the pure Russian air. Prilepin helped found the park with the explicitly stated aim of preserving Russian traditions in order to make them the foundation for the country’s future. As part of his patriotism-inducing remit he has also launched a festival called Russian Summer, in essence a traveling version of Etnomir, where attendees can learn traditional dancing, songs, and crafts, and meet with Russian writers and musicians. It is also possible to learn about firearms, field medicine, and to watch victorious battle reenactments.
Given this political stance, as Benjamin Sutcliffe points out in his introductory essay, it is curious that Prilepin sees fit to write against the Soviet government in The Monastery, which doesn’t hide or justify any of the atrocities that took place in the camp. Prilepin explains this seeming dichotomy himself in the novel’s “Afterward” [sic]. In an attempt to shore up The Monastery’s historical credentials, he writes about a visit he had with camp commander Fiodor Eichmans’s daughter while researching the novel. In conversation with her, he explains that while he does not love the Soviet government, he absolutely hates people who speak against it. Prilepin expresses the same sentiments in his For Truth party manifesto, declaring that, for Russia, “Alexander III, Stalin, the ‘Whites’ and the ‘Reds,’ the Russian Empire, and the USSR” are all equally important, and that anyone denigrating this past, especially by comparing communism with Nazism, should be punished by law. It appears that by politicizing the past, and making its criticism a crime, Prilepin is on the verge of recreating a system very similar to the one he openly condemns in The Monastery.
It would be unwise, then, to read The Monastery without this context, and indeed, the novel’s comprehensive introduction makes it impossible to do so. The novel follows 27-year-old Artiom during his imprisonment in the Solovki Prison Camp, which was built around the Solovetsky Monastery on one of the islands scattered across the White Sea and was ground zero for the Soviet Union’s nascent Gulag system. In the 1920s, the camp was home to regular criminals like Artiom himself, alongside political enemies of the new Soviet regime. The novel ticks all of the Gulag prose boxes: extreme violence, murder, rape, starvation, disease, cruelty, and unimaginable cold. After falling foul of the camp’s guards, Artiom finds a way out of this awfulness, for short bursts of time at least, and here the novel ventures into territory seldom covered in other prison literature and takes a turn for prison porn. In order to escape the punishment of isolation and certain death, Artiom seduces the only woman in the novel with a name, Galina, who works in the camp’s Information and Investigation Department. After almost beating a guard named Sorokin to death (the guard, one might note, shares his name with Prilepin’s literary rival), Artiom finds himself in front of Galina, who assumes the role of dominatrix, licking her lips as she interrogates him, and “teasing” him with her “buttocks.” Finally, as he is convinced that he is going to be executed for his previous transgressions, Artiom sticks his hand up her skirt. Rather than being an isolated incident, the sex scene that ensues leads to many others, some of them as perplexing as Artiom’s admiring description of Galina’s body: “[H]er breasts … and another part of her body were blindingly white like ice cream.” Sex, or “hot human sport” as it is once referred to here, plays an important role in the novel, and although it is often unintentionally funny — such as the scene where Artiom is turned on by the “tremulous” feminine allure of fresh herring — it serves as a foil to the dark, desperate reality of the camp. The trailer for the novel’s upcoming serialization on state TV channel Russia 1 suggests that this salacious element of the plot will feature quite heavily. It is not difficult to guess at the serial’s target audience.
Following their first encounter, Galina spends the rest of the novel trying to save Artiom from the cruelty of the camp, while at the same time committing the crime of looking older, and demonstrating what is referred to as her “female weakness” as she seeks some reassurance from the man she has somewhat inexplicably risked her life to save. An attempted escape across the sea is marred by her taking offense because, while bobbing around in the White Sea in a boat with a dying engine, Artiom doesn’t pay her enough attention. Instead, he laughs that the terrible weather reflects her black mood. In the decidedly polarized world of The Monastery, Galina is a typical woman. She is weak, silly, and concerned with her appearance, despite the camp conditions, but she is also a temptress and the cause of the hero’s demise. Early in the novel, Galina appears in the audience of a boxing match, slowly eating an apple. The religious symbolism is clear — she will be Artiom’s downfall.
Women are not the only ones to be stereotyped here. Every non-Russian is othered by Artiom’s chauvinistic, at times outright racist white male gaze, from the constantly singing Jewish Moisei Solomonovich, with his “black, curly hair; bulging surprised eyes; a big mouth with an obvious tongue,” who finds work in the accounts department, to the fleeting and unnecessary description of a Black man: “the Negro […] full-lipped, wonderfully black, tall.” None of this reads easily, and the message of this stereotyping is stark: Artiom alone represents the perfect Russian man. He is an irresistible lover, strong, healthy, handsome, and taciturn. By the end, he even seems to believe in God, and accepts the ascetic life that one of the imprisoned priests, Father John, recommends to him as the only way to save Holy Rus. And he likes poetry. One suspects that Prilepin, as with his other novels, is writing about himself again.
Despite the novel’s obvious flaws, and its desperate need of more stringent editing, it does contain passages of undeniable beauty. Many of the chapters end in the poignant cadence of poetry, acting as a balance to the preceding horror and blunt thinking. And there is something compelling about the action. By the time Artiom and Galina begin their escape, the reader can truly share their relief at having left the island, and swiftly joins them in their terror at being trapped on a small boat drifting through an icy, stormy sea. As a welcome counterpoint to Artiom and Galina’s implausible relationship, Artiom’s love for his mother, at least, seems real. He repeatedly dreams of her, and of his childhood as a place of safety, love, and warmth. Even though we might not like Artiom, we still hope that his poor mother can come and put a stop to it all and save her beaten, freezing son.
As Zakhar Prilepin’s behavior becomes increasingly alarming, it is clear that The Monastery may well be his last novel to be translated into English. Prilepin’s agent publicly distanced himself from the writer after he admitted his involvement in military action in Ukraine and has begun donating any profits from his novels to Amnesty International. Meanwhile, Prilepin’s new political party has allowed him a platform to express his increasingly alarming views, promoting his ultra-conservative family values and asserting the rights of the Russian people to protect themselves (against whom?) with weapons. It is, at the very least, questionable whether one should publish a writer who follows his convictions with a gun in his hand, boasting about how many people he has killed. Nevertheless, The Monastery is here. And it may indeed be an exploration of the Russian soul — but, if so, it is only the Russian soul in its nationalist white male incarnation. So yes, do read the novel if you want to understand how this particular kind of soul functions. Just don’t expect to like what you find.
Sarah Gear is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. Her work examines the ways in which politics and publishing intersect, by comparing the commission, translation, and reception of contemporary novels by nationalist and liberal Russian writers.