Born in a small village outside of Moscow in 1955, Sorokin’s life spans the end of the Soviet period and the rise of Putin’s Russia. And just as the author’s life is defined by these two eras, so too is his literary work. The first major phase of his career, from the late 1970s to the fall of the USSR, is oriented toward the Soviet past, while the second phase sees the author — to borrow a favorite expression of his — reading the “winds of time” and sculpting speculative visions of the future. These temporal “optics” are the keys to understanding Sorokin’s work, for they lie at the heart of his understanding of the metaphysics of his native land. As he has stated:
Russia is the ideal place for alternative histories. This is because no one in our country, from the president down to the lowest bum, has any idea what awaits us. Without a doubt, this is El Dorado for any writer. This is Russian metaphysics. I’ve said it many times: our lives oscillate between the past and the future. We do not feel the present. Either we reflect on how wonderful things used to be, perhaps how awful, or we attempt to guess at the future by divining the messages hidden in our coffee grounds.
Sorokin’s early work was quite ambitious for a fledgling author with basically no hope of being published. Already in his first set of short stories, a collection written in the late 1970s under the unassuming title My First Working Saturday (eventually published in 1998), he tasked himself with strapping dynamite to the edifice of official Soviet discourse. Socialist Realism, a state-mandated mode of artistic production, dictated how reality ought to be portrayed by the artist; this aesthetic ideology played an outsize role in the spiritual deflation of both life and art throughout the Soviet period. The resulting domestication of artistic production, and of language itself, was a real boon for the state, while simultaneously threatening to suffocate and destroy its most subversive artists.
Labeling his stories “binary bombs” due to their bipartite structure, Sorokin began them with a straight-faced mimicry of dry, middlebrow Soviet prose. Then, midway through, he “detonated” this discourse, the depictions of Soviet banalities splintering into scenes of phantasmagoric violence, overflowing with libidinal energy and the convulsions of living language. Sorokin’s attempts to unearth the obscene substrate of Soviet “metaphysics” from beneath the dreary surface of its “physics” defined his early creative output — from the aforementioned collection to this early period’s masterpiece, Their Four Hearts (written in 1991 and published in 1994).
The fall of the Soviet Union represented a natural end to the first period of his literary career. It made little sense for Sorokin the satirist to go on poking at a corpse. And, as for Sorokin the metaphysician, Russian reality had shifted away from the Soviet past toward an unknown future. As if to gather data on the emerging new direction of life and politics, Sorokin mostly put his literary output on pause from 1991 to 1999. Then, a year later, on the eve of the new millennium, Putin assumed office and a new era of Russian politics began.
At the center of Sorokin’s second phase of artistic production is a collection of books modeling a retro-futuristic vision of Russia during the so-called “New Middle Ages.” Though these works are united by Sorokin’s future-oriented method, they possess a tremendous thematic diversity. Day of the Oprichnik (2006) captures one day in the life of a high-ranking secret police officer as he brutalizes treasonous, oligarchic boyars, negotiates corrupt natural gas deals with Chinese officials, and exhibits a dog-like obedience to the neo-Tsarist autocracy. Another strangely prescient standout from this period, The Blizzard (2010), sees Sorokin channeling the stylistic beauty of Pushkin and Chekhov, while constructing a plot those authors would never have dreamed of. A mysterious zombifying virus is spreading throughout the world, and Doctor Garin — equipped only with a sleigh pulled by two miniature horses — must fight through a kind of transcendental snowstorm to deliver his urgent, life-saving vaccine to an infected town. Another work from this period, Manaraga (2017), imagines a future in which the rich cultivate a fashion for a peculiar kind of book-burning ritual. Shelling out exorbitant sums to professional “book’n’grillers,” the decadent denizens of Sorokin’s novel fête themselves at elaborate feasts cooked in the flames of priceless literary tomes.
Although these texts feature the kind of high-concept world-building and techno-utopian projections found in many works of science fiction, one hesitates to use this label to describe Sorokin’s project. His ability to crystalize the New Medieval artistic worlds out of the spirit of Russian history and ideology makes these works almost hyperreal.
Unfortunately, the bulk of Sorokin’s catalog has yet to see the light of day in English. But soon that’s going to change. The young translator Max Lawton, based in New York City, is set to release eight new books over the next four years. And, fortunately, he’s leading with two of Sorokin’s heaviest hitters: Their Four Hearts and Telluria (2013). While this sampling will give readers a taste from each phase of Sorokin’s career, these are nonetheless challenging texts.
Their Four Hearts, released in translation at the end of April from Dalkey Archive Press, is the crown jewel of Sorokin’s Soviet-era prose. The novel, written as the state crumbled in the early 1990s, has the reputation of being one of the author’s most extreme works. Its difficulty, however, is not the product of cerebral formal experimentation or byzantine chronologies. In fact, the novel is quite immediate, punchy, and linear. It is difficult because its pages are soaked in blood and other bodily fluids — nearly all of it spilled in surreal scenes of grotesque atrocities.
Many critics, remembering the 1990s as the time of capitalist privatization and “economic shock therapy,” have been tempted to analyze the work as a depiction of Russia’s brutal, free-for-all adoption of a market economy. But this interpretation misses the novel’s essential orientation to the past, as a document that crystalizes the absurdity of ritualized violence in the Soviet Union. By eschewing realistic depictions of any specific atrocity, Sorokin seeks to capture the spirit of all of them in superposition — from the Revolution and the Stalinist repressions to the siege of Leningrad and the Gulags.
The novel follows four characters, all recognizable Soviet archetypes, as they gather the ingredients necessary to carry out a mysterious ritual. Though the purpose of the ritual is shrouded in secrecy, the protagonists are willing to do anything, sacrifice anything, to bring their task to completion.
Beneath its realist varnish, Their Four Hearts mounts a vivid corporealization of sacred Soviet symbols and practices. For instance, in one memorable scene, the four protagonists need to procure a substance called “liquid mother” for their ritual. And they do just that, stringing up and squeezing out one of their own mothers — a survivor of the Leningrad blockade — like an overripe orange. The pathos is deeply disturbing, but the logic couldn’t be more clear: individual mothers are expendable in service of the greater mother, Russia herself. In another scene, Sorokin explores a feeling shared by many Soviet citizens, that their brains were forcibly violated by the state’s propaganda apparatus, by physicalizing this idea in a gruesome scene of sexual violence.
The atrocities in Their Four Hearts are committed with genuine glee. The four protagonists are unburdened by any semblance of conscience; their clarity of purpose and the righteousness of their cause lends them wings. A phenomenological account of atrocity, Sorokin’s novel captures the obscene allure of being a perpetrator, the libidinal liberation granted when individuals fully instrumentalize themselves in service of a grand telos. Their Four Hearts, then, not only critiques the violent excesses carried out in the name of the failed Soviet project but also any ideological system that detaches the individual from moral agency. Sorokin’s early-period opus is an invitation to feast on the Soviet Union’s bloody heart, ripped from the chest of the dying giant and immortalized in the author’s exquisitely ghastly prose.
As one of the cornerstones of Sorokin’s second period, Telluria (slated for publication by NYRB Classics in August) is perhaps the most fully articulated vision of Sorokin’s New Medieval aesthetic universe. The English-speaking world has already been treated to two works in this cycle, Day of the Oprichnik and The Blizzard, each admirably rendered by the late translator Jamey Gambrell. And while those books have already become modern classics, neither matches Telluria’s towering narrative ambition and mind-boggling stylistic diversity.
In the novel, Sorokin’s retro-futuristic projection of Russia has turned away from “the collective West,” crumbling into a number of sovereign republics. The fragmentation of the fictional Russian state is accompanied by a parallel atomization of literary form. The novel unfolds in 50 chapters, each written from a completely new perspective, in a completely different style. The result is a high-concept feat of world-building that captures a capacious sociological portrait of Sorokin’s brave new world — integrating snapshots from the lives of everyone, from paupers to presidents.
This narrative fragmentation contains a profound political and philosophical dimension. A decade ago, when the novel was being written, Sorokin sensed something was amiss with Europe’s quasi-utopian vision of a globalized world. In those days, when hopeful Fukuyamists still roamed the earth, Telluria emerged as a contrary vision, positing a future of regressing democracies, splintering states, and failed ideological symbiosis in the international marketplace of ideas. In Telluria, all the conflicts of the past are recapitulated in the future: the East goes to great lengths to isolate itself from Western liberalism, denizens of the sovereign republics organize revolutions to reestablish communism, and the same old bad blood between the Christian and Islamic worlds reignites a new wave of crusades. History is revealed to be a cycle of vicious recurrences with no utopian end in sight.
Alongside its bleak vision of the nauseating repetitions of history, Sorokin’s novel explores the hypothetical fruits of rapid technological growth. Life has been revolutionized by the unfettered proliferation of cybernetics and experimental genetics, and the novel’s radically post-humanist landscape is populated by everything from conventional dwarfs and giants to less conventional animated phalluses and body-modded “zoomorphs.” Unsurprisingly, these new-age mutants have their detractors among the neo-religious and other conventionalist cadres, who struggle against the tides of change with discourses of biological purity and bodily autonomy. Though the thematic tension between restrained asceticism and Rabelaisian carnivalesque is typical of many medieval tales, Sorokin’s treatment of the theme is anything but typical.
Telluria takes its title from one of the novel’s sovereign republics, a small, rich nation that produces and exports the world’s most desirable commodity — “tellurium nails.” These nails are a super-drug that is only semi-safely administered by professional “carpenters” who hammer them into their patients’ heads. Though the nails can be deadly, the risk is worth it. Sorokin’s “tellurium” often responds to the deepest desires of his characters — freeing them from psychological trauma, granting them superhuman strength, or allowing them to channel memories of the dead. But as with any trip, sooner or later they have to face the comedown.
Telluria pummels its readers with a such a dazzling kaleidoscope of shifting narratives and fantastic images, it is almost as if the book itself is a hallucinogenic tellurium nail.
Although the mythologies of prophetic artists are a dime a dozen in the literary world, Sorokin has shown a knack for alarmingly consistent political foresight. Though he may not be equipped with a third eye or even magical coffee grounds, he gets along well enough with his penetrating intuition — what the author refers to as his “antenna that extends when I sit down at the writer’s desk.”
When Putin’s Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine in February, thus destroying what was left of the myth of a common “Slavic brotherhood,” an old Sorokin quotation bubbled up from the past as if to offer an explanation. Speaking about the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, ignited when Georgia declared its intention to join NATO, Sorokin explained the conflict’s genesis through one of his trademark corporeal metaphors:
I consider the recent events in Georgia a consequence of Russian imperial pathology. There’s a medical concept known as “phantom pain.” When a person feels pain in their amputated leg, it dredges up feelings of bewilderment and rage. Georgia and Ukraine — these are the amputated legs of imperial Russia, long since removed. These “legs” are sore, they start to itch and irritate our authorities, and cause them to take absolutely irrational, destructive action. I believe this is a dark stain on the Russian mind. And it will take a long time for us to remove it.
Apparently, after all these years, the same phantom pains and imperial pathologies continue to torment the Russian psyche.
Many of Sorokin’s analyses of Russian politics are similarly bleak. In a recent article in The Guardian, Sorokin depicts the Russian state apparatus as a sinister pyramid that pumps a noxious, Faustian force into the leaders stationed at its peak. Russia’s “pyramid of power,” Sorokin says, offers its rulers absolute authority at the cost of absolute corruption. While this image has explanatory value for Russia’s past — elucidating the gradual perversion of political leaders from Stalin to Yeltsin to Putin — it also evokes a foreboding sense of the country’s future. Though many hold out hope for a post-Putin Russia that will seek to reform its tarnished global reputation, Sorokin’s schema suggests that any successor is likely to fall prey to the same perversity and lust for power as those who came before.
In the words of Russian philosopher-poet Fyodor Tyutchev, “Russia cannot be understood by the mind alone.” Such an expression can only gain currency among a people who cherish their inscrutability as a point of national pride. But is this really a virtue? In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one hopes that there is more to the famed enigmatic Russian soul than this act of irrational brutality.
The country’s legendary impenetrability poses a significant problem to foreigners who are trying to make sense of the Russia they see today. They could use a guide. And Sorokin, an artist who clearly perceives both the material reality and the metaphysical Geist behind that facade, is one of the best guides available to contemporary Russia. The forthcoming wave of English translations of his seminal works thus couldn’t be timelier.
Ben Hooyman is a writer, translator, and PhD candidate in Slavic Languages at Columbia University.