FEBRUARY 16, 2019
AT THE HEIGHT of the fall 2018 pre-election flurry, The New York Times published a detailed investigative report on Putin’s influence in the US election illustrated by a striking photoshopped image of the Russian president. That mordant, single-eyed head floating in a well of darkness immediately put me in mind of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Day of the Oprichnik, a biting satirical riff in which the imperial tsar governing the new Russia of 2028 appears as a head suspended in a shining hologram dispensing wisdom to the oprichniki, his faithful cadre of secret police. “His Majesty sees everything, hears everything,” the story’s hero tells us fervently. “He knows who needs what.”
Sorokin, one of his country’s most gifted and controversial writers, has butted heads with Russian officialdom since his writings first appeared in the 1980s under the old Soviet regime. His novels seesaw between speculative/metaphysical (the Ice trilogy, The Blizzard) and outright satire, but political commentary (if sometimes only implicit) is never absent. Blue Lard (1999) famously depicted sex between holograms of Khrushchev and Stalin. The bravura epic Ice trilogy chronicled the steady corruption of a group of “pure” Gnostic souls from outer space reborn in human bodies who ally themselves with successive autocratic Russian regimes to fulfill their single-minded goal of escaping this vile planet.
Since Vladimir Putin’s climb to power, Sorokin has been charged with writing pornography, had his works cast into an enormous fake toilet in a central Moscow square, and even endured a possible attempt on his life. Sorokin told an interviewer he composed Day of the Oprichnik in a single month “like an uninterrupted stream of bile,” as part of a conscious decision to become more politicized in his writing. Now 63, he currently spends half the year in Berlin.
Clearly, I thought, the Times’s Cyclopean Big Brother with its baleful eye radiating sinister spirals of influence would make a wonderful cover for a work that, if anything, is even more relevant now than it was when it was published in the author’s homeland in 2006. Penguin Classics UK spotted that relevance sooner than I did: their reissue of the 2011 English translation in November 2018 coincided neatly with the latest hijinks from Putin’s oprichniki as well as the US election and the vagaries of our country’s own president.
In another of the author’s many prescient touches, besides engaging in the ruthless elimination of his adversaries, Sorokin’s new Ivan the Terrible has also built giant border walls to protect the motherland. These walls, especially the western one, are meant, in the words of the autocrat’s devoted enforcer who narrates the story, to “cut us off from stench and unbelievers, from the damned, cyberpunks, from sodomites, Catholics, melancholiacs, from Buddhists, sadists, Satanists, and Marxists; from megamasturbators, fascists, pluralists, and atheists!”
Day of the Oprichnik, translated into English by Jamey Gambrell, is no earnest retread of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, even though Sorokin, a talented mimic of his fellow Russian authors, clearly intends the ironic echo. On the contrary, this short and savage offering puts the “dys” in dystopian in a way few novels bearing that label can claim. It’s an outrageous, salacious, over-the-top tragicomic depiction of an utterly depraved social order whose absolute monarch (referred to only as “His Majesty”) is a blatant conflation of the country’s current president with its ferocious 16th-century absolute monarch known as Ivan Grozny.
In Sorokin’s Russia of the near future, the tsar’s elite cadre of thugs bear the name and accoutrements of Ivan’s dreaded secret police force, to whom he gave sweeping powers that included carte blanche to kill anyone they wished. The narrator, the fourth most powerful oprichnik in His Majesty’s elite cadre, recounts the luxurious morning he spends attended by an army of servants in his grand house confiscated from a murdered merchant. Donning his black caftan, the uniform of Ivan’s thugs, he jumps in his “Mercedov” (all foreign brands must be Russianized), an official vehicle decorated daily, after the custom of some of Ivan’s oprichniki, with the hood ornament of a freshly severed dog’s head. His Majesty’s valiant servant is off to perform the noble duties of his “passionate, heroic government life”: namely, murder, rape, incineration, and other atrocities that Sorokin recounts in excruciatingly precise detail.
In a pitch-perfect channeling of the fascist temperament, the voice proudly sharing these brutal exploits radiates a naïve and sentimental piety ruthlessly undercut by vicious sadism and self-regarding cunning. Bursting with near-hysterical enthusiasm, the latter-day oprichnik crosses himself and invokes the Holy Church as he righteously inflicts sickening violence on His Majesty’s identified enemies. After murdering a boyar, gang-raping his wife, and setting fire to his mansion, he lectures a colleague that smoking is an impure act. So is swearing — unless, of course, one is a senior army officer or an executioner. His Majesty, he tells us, insists on “chastity and cleanliness.” On the heels of more prayers and invocations, he winds up his eventful day engaging in a drug-fueled group copulation with his fellow oprichniki that gloriously cements their brotherhood.
There are signs the fictional new Russia that Sorokin anticipated more than a decade ago mirrors the present day in increasingly disturbing ways. Just as the Holy Church in Sorokin’s brave new world is deeply complicit in upholding the new tsar’s authority, Putin has made the real-life Russian Orthodox Church central to validating his regime. His own oprichniki, the FSB, has heavily identified itself with the Russian Orthodox Church (as a further touch, they switched to black uniforms the year the novel came out). In 2016, a heroic bronze statue of Ivan the Terrible on horseback brandishing a cross was unveiled in the city of Oryol south of Moscow. Far-right nationalists celebrated the occasion by unfurling medieval banners and the flag of Imperial Russia.
Responding to protests that Ivan was one of the most bloodthirsty and autocratic rulers in recorded history, the regional governor is quoted in a Guardian report saying the fearsome tsar was a great monarch and preserver of the Orthodox faith, “a defender of our land, a tsar who expanded its frontiers” and who did not let other nations encroach on them. Plenty of European monarchs, Russia’s culture minister argued further, matched Ivan in ruthlessness. Such convictions are central to the Holy Russian Motherland and the “Eurasianism”-versus-the-West brand of ethnic nationalism that has become a cornerstone of Vladimir Putin’s governing philosophy since he came to power.
In one of many surreal instances of fiction overtaking reality in Russian politics (not to mention in another major power), an interviewer asked Putin in all seriousness if he felt the fictional monster Cthulhu, a creation of the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, posed a threat to Russians should it choose to rise from its lair deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. Putin replied, with no irony, that the best course was to exercise caution and read the Bible for guidance.
Thus spake Putin. But whether the tsar’s loyal minions impale prisoners in the presence of a delighted Ivan IV, torch children in front of their mother as in Day of the Oprichnik, or journey to Salisbury in the United Kingdom with a knock-off perfume bottle carelessly leaking lethal poison, in this strange palimpsest of past, present, and imagined future one thing is certain.
A thug is still a thug.
For further reading, see Charles Clover’s excellent in-depth analysis of Eurasianism in Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism; Ian Kershaw’s comments on Putin’s “modern-day version of medieval feudalism” in Roller-Coaster: Europe, 1950-2017; and especially Gary Lachman’s Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, a provocative study of the shared postmodern esoteric roots of alt-right US and Russian politics today.
Victoria Nelson is a writer of fiction, criticism, and memoir. Her books include Gothicka and The Secret Life of Puppets, studies of the supernatural grotesque in Western culture, On Writer’s Block, and Wild California, a collection of stories.