Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Russia's Past, Present, and Future: Day of the Oprichnik

Fiction often captures the essence of an historical moment more effectively than academic analysis or sophisticated reportage.  Certainly Vladimir Sorokin's novella, The Queue, seemed to tell us everything that we needed to know about everyday life in the Soviet Union.  Behind the mask of ideology, propaganda, socialist economic theory, and militarism, ordinary Russians,and especially ordinary Russian women, waited endlessly in line for basic commodities. It mattered little what stores had to offer, people were willing to spend half the day in the street in the vague hope that they would be granted access to some scarce if banal commodity.  Often, Russian men and women entered lines without even knowing what product they would find, if anything, when they finally arrived at the front of the line.  The Soviet queue was in fact not only a fact of quotidian existence, it was a metaphor for the soullessness of the whole Soviet project:  what, after all, were socialist peoples waiting for? Even if they had solved the basic problem of distribution, what could they expect out of a socialist life?

If Sorokin accurately depicts at least one key aspect of Soviet life in The Queue, he's done an even better job of portraying post-Soviet life in Day of the Oprichnik, a science-fiction novel about a suspiciously familiar Russian society with violent, xenophobic, and autocratic tendencies.  The novel's narrator is a key member of the autocrat's quasi-legal enforcement team.  His job is to celebrate violence, participate in state-sanctioned corruption, and, most importantly, to terrorize private citizens. The narrator, a futuristic version of one of Ivan the Terrible's dreaded oprichniks, lives the energetic life of any state-empowered sociopath.  He partakes in rape, murder, shady deals, communal debauchery, and sycophantic adulation of the head of state. 

Day of the Oprichnik exaggerates many of the worst aspects of Putin's Russia.  For instance, just as Russia has turned its back on the United States and the European Union, the leaders of the Sorokin's Russia have physically cut themselves off from the West (and South) by means of a gigantic wall.  The breakdown of Russia's relationship with the West is accompanied by a corresponding economic and technological reliance on China, which, while perhaps a symptom of the author's own sinophobia, certainly seems to have anticipated today's geopolitical realities.   

The interesting thing about Sorokin's novel is that it doesn't merely ridicule Putin's Russia.  Instead, it conflates all of Russia's worst historical epochs.  For the narrator seems to be living with many of the realities of at least three (and possibly more) different historical situations, including the reigns of such dictatorial leaders as Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, and Putin.  Of course, to put Putin in the company of men like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin is to further vilify him.  In any case, the most frightening thing about the narrator's bloodthirsty pursuits, is that they don't seem out of place in any of these historical eras.  When we witness the protagonist's freewheeling ability to operate outside of the law in service of an autocrat, we know that he might have been at home at almost any time in Russia's long history.  If we note that oprichnik is in violent competition with his peers for the favor of the tsar of the future, we know that Stalin's henchmen were equally willing to kill one another to curry favor with their master.  

Thus Day of the Oprichnik depicts a timeless Russia, but that Russia is victim to a political regime that seems to combine the worst elements of both authoritarianism and lawlessness.  On the one hand, the country's political life clearly revolves around a central figure, the tsar or his modern day successors.  Ordinarily, extreme centralization has at least some benefits:  if men and women suffer from oppression, or live in fear, the state does at least offer a degree of political stability and order.  However, in Russia, the autocratic system of government coexists with, or perhaps depends upon, a certain form of political anarchy. The paradox is this:  the state appears all-powerful, but in reality it is founded upon profound uncertainty and insecurity.  To prop itself up, the government fosters a climate of radical and seemingly random terror at almost all levels of society.  Why did Ivan the Terrible carve out an empire within an empire and put the two at odds with one another?   What was the purpose of Stalin's unprecedented purges of even his closest confidants?  Why does Putin imprison a few of Russia's most powerful subjects from time to time?  This seemingly arbitrary violence is in fact a symptom of Russia's longstanding tradition of wedding bureaucratic centralization with state-sanctioned brigandage, as Sorokin's novel of the future suggests.

If Sorokin's Russia has any saving grace, it is only the Russian literary tradition.  For even in a country with longstanding traditions of corruption, political violence, censorship, anti-semitism, xenophobia, and autocracy, the country hasn't completely forgotten about Russia's great humanistic tradition.  Even the narrator has some familiarity with authors such as Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.  This ineradicable memory of literary tradition seems to be a common theme of many Russian science fiction authors.  In Tatyana Tolstaya book, The Slynx, for instance, a degraded, post-apocalyptic humanity forgets almost every basic element of civilization but can't, apparently, ever forget the names of Russia's most famous authors. Whether authors such as Sorokin or Tolstaya believe the Russian classics will ultimately redeem Russian barbarism is an open question.  For both authors, the names of Russia's great authors survive, but as a form of gibberish.  On the other hand, Sorokin's characters go out of their way to blaspheme the classics, by burning them for example.  But why burn the classics if not out of a fear that these classics do in fact contain some forgotten recipe for humanism in an age of totalitarianism and "perverted science."

Some favorite quotes from the book:

"The Russian people aren't easy to work with.  But God hasn't given us any other people."

"The Russian classics are helpful to the state."

"I look at the fire.  And see The Idiot and Anna Karenina in flames.  I look at the fire.  And see The Idiot and Anna Karenina in flames.  I

"This is our lane.  The government's.  As long as I live and serve the state, I will drive in it."

"Can a foreign oven really bake savory pies like a Russian oven?"

"Just understand, you idiot, we're gaurds.  We have to keep our minds cold and our hearts pure."

"His majesty can't stand cusswords."

"...opponents began to crawl out of the cracks like noxious centipedes.  A truly great idea breeds great resistance.  Our state has always had enemies inside and out, but the battle was never so intense as during the period of Holy Russia's Revival."

"Without you, Your Majesty, nothing works."

"His Majesty awakened in us not simply pride in our country, but compassion for her painful past.  Three Russian children stand streching theird hands out to us from the past of an insulted and injured country.  And we cannot help them at all."

"I blame my brain:  I didn't catch on to an obvious thing!  But then, my education was in the humanities..."

"I tune in to the West.  It's a real stronghold of anti-Russian subversion.  Like slimy reputles in a cesspool, enemy voices team..."

"His Majesty's father, the late Nikolai Platonovich, had a good idea:  liquidate all the foreign supermarkets and replace them with Russian kiosks.  And put two types of each thing in every kiosk, so the people have a choice.  A wise decision, profound.   Because our God-bearing people should choose from two things, not from three or thirty-three."

"Well, this sort of thing isn't for us to decide, but for His Majesty.  From the Kremlin His Majesty sees the people better, they're more visible...His Majest sees everything, hears everything.  He knows who needs what."

"The Kremlin is glorious in clear weather!  It glows.  The Palace of the Russian Government blinds the eyes, it takes your breath away."

"I know all these authors well.  They're famous, distinquished.  Carressed by the love of the people and His Majesty."

""Full and complete transparency,"" as His Majesty says.  And thank God:  We're in our own homeland, nothing to be shy about."

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