Vladimir Sorokin: Ideally, Prose Simply Happens

Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux published in March, takes place in 2028, but it’s deeply indebted to—indeed, deeply enmeshed in—the past. Sorokin, whose knowledge of Russian literature and history is encyclopedic (without any of the stuffiness that such a word might suggest), has written a book haunted by the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Yet Oprichnik (a term for Ivan the Terrible’s most feared courtiers) also suggests that the violence, cruelty, and human degradation that characterized that regime have recurred throughout the country’s dark history. And very little has changed. In a glowing review of the book in The New York Times Book Review, Stephen Kotkin wrote:

So it is in Putin’s Russia, where a gang of police officials, the siloviki, lord over not just the richest private citizens but also other parts of the state. Sorokin’s imaginative diagnosis of Putinism further grasps that the officials’ looting is driven not by profiteering alone, but by their conviction that they are defending Russian interests. Everything Sorokin’s oprichniks do is a transaction, but their love of country runs deep. They may give in to temptation and tune in to foreign radio (“enemy voices”), but these moments of weakness vitiate neither their pride in their work nor their code of honor. They have ideals.

Day of the Oprichnik is a satire and a polemic and a picaresque and a tragedy, but it’s also, as Kotkin notes, a brilliant analysis of a society in crisis—perhaps perpetually in crisis. Below, in an exclusive essay, Sorokin explores the roots of his remarkable diagnosis.

-Mark Krotov, Assistant Editor

Ideally, prose isn’t written—it simply happens.

Luckily, that’s exactly what occurred in the case of Day of the Oprichnik. The desire to find the literary equivalent of a chemical formula—one that would explain the servants of Russia’s authoritative absolutism—had been brewing for a long time, but any subject is connected, somehow or other, with style and with tone, which plays an important part in this formula. Write Lolita in the language of Goncharov or Faulkner, and it’ll be a rather predictable book. Each regime has its own style. Each hangman has his own unique humor, with which he justifies his actions and cheers himself up. It’s well-known that Ivan the Terrible often laughed hysterically as he gazed upon the suffering of the boyars he was torturing. It’s not hard to guess that out of respect for the tsar, the entourage present at the executions also roared with laughter. And so the people gathered on the square laughed, too. In the history of our country, where the government’s violence against individuality has always carried an inevitable character, laughter has concealed and hidden much. But laughter has also saved many.

I wanted to tell the story of a monstrous government’s servant in the language of the laughing marketplace.

It was my dog that helped me find the needed tone for this story. I live in a house outside the city. Once, at the market where we go to buy groceries, I saw a cow’s huge shinbone, remnants of meat still on it. My dog is an Italian greyhound, a fragile creature—graceful, almost semitransparent. For him, even a chicken bone is serious business. I decided to amuse the hound and bought the hideous bone for him as a joke—what would he do with it? After all, he’s a dog! I got home—it was a sunny winter day. The hound ran out of the house to meet me. And I threw the bone onto the snow in front of him. Compared to the greyhound, the bone was a dinosaur bone. The hound sniffed it and, all of a sudden, started performing some thrilled, threatening dance around it. This was all so beautiful and so symbolic: the snow, the sun, the bloody bone, and the frantic dancing.

That same day, I sat down to write Day of the Oprichnik.

See Also:

Read an Excerpt from the Novel

Sorokin at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City