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Zakhar Prilepin: Санькя (Sankya)

Nihilism is not new to Russian literature. Indeed, it features in Turgenev’s Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons), in the character of Bazarov. The term is not used in this book, but there is no question that Sasha and his friends are in the Russian nihilist tradition. This story is set in contemporary times when a group of people are protesting. What are they are protesting about? Their approach reminds me very much of the Marlon Brando character in the The Wild One who, when asked what he was rebelling against, replied What you got? (YouTube clip here). “Still causing trouble?” Bezletov [a philosophy professor who was taught by Sasha’s father] asked, lighting his cigarette, and feeling Sasha’s intense look on his face. “What else is there to do?” Sasha asked rhetorically.

Sasha (Sankya) Tishin is a young Russian man who belongs a motley group of disaffected Russians called the Founding Fathers or the Founders. This was initially a group united in the unrealistic certainty that their presence would somehow expel a government they hated. They had grown old. Then, four years before the novel opens, Kostenko, a former military officer, had brought in a group of young people. The group had expanded and caused trouble for the authorities, particularly at their regular anti-government demonstrations. The older generation are still there and they try to contain the youths but without success. The book goes straight into one of their demonstrations. Sasha is there, with his friends Venka and Lyosha Rogov. Venka is from Moscow but Sasha is from some unspecified provincial town, a bit over 300 miles from Moscow and Lysosha from Siberia. The two of them have come just for the demonstration. Prilepin gives a detailed description of the demonstration, and clearly shows that Sasha and some of his Founding Father friends are just in it for the pleasure of getting in a fight and causing wanton destruction. They fight the police, smash up a series of flower stalls, scattering the flowers everywhere, turn over an expensive car and burn another one, and smash shops. They try to escape but are eventually caught by OMON forces, who give them a bit of a beating before handing them over to the police. The police, fearing complaints about the beatings, let them go.

Back home, Sasha heads out further from his provincial town to a backwater village, where he grew up and where his grandparents still live. This gives another side of the grim situation in Russia. The village was disappearing, dying out — one could feel it in everything. Like a pockmarked, hardened, dark ice floe, it had separated from the shore and was drifting away quietly. The abandoned sheds near the road had sunk into the ground, their sides black and moist, full of rot. Grass grew on their roofs, and even a few twisted, sickly saplings hung on, their roots searching for earth — beneath their weak grip were the cold, empty interiors, where garter snakes crawled through broken dishes and punctured barrels, no longer disturbed by anyone. His grandparents had had three sons and all of them are dead. One was killed in a motorcycle crash. He was drunk. Another was killed in a drunken brawl. The third, Sasha’s father, drank himself to death. His grandfather is now ill, the recent death of Sasha’s father having taken its toll, while his grandmother struggles on. The village is dying out, as people die off and move away.

When he gets home, his mother tells him that the police had been to see him. He is not particularly concerned, till a fellow Founding Father, known as Negative, tells him that he is clearly visible on the TV news, striking a policeman and causing damage. Meanwhile, to escape the police,Venka and Lyosha have come to the town and are hiding in Negative’s flat. They go out, meeting Professor Bezletov, who expounds his ideas that Russia is definitely going downhill but their sort of violence will only lead to more chaos (If you initiate the bloody chaos everyone’s been waiting for, the disintegration will only accelerate. Don’t call on demons. Call on angels.). They seem indifferent to his views and, once he has left, almost deliberately, get into a fight which again gets them into trouble with the police. Prilepin initially describes then as velvet terrorists, meaning they threw eggs at and slathered mayonnaise on famous insufferables. However, when Russian ex-soldiers are being ill-treated in Latvia, and Kostenko is sent to prison, Matyev, the new leader, decides to take the velvet glove off and Negative and Sasha are both involved.

Prilepin, of course, is clearly aiming to show contemporary disaffected Russia, particularly from the point of view of ex-soldiers but also from the point of view of anyone who does not like Putin. (Putin is not mentioned by name, except as the source of a quote, in the glossary at the end of the novel, though there is someone referred to only as The President.) From the various people he comes into contact with, it is clear that, as we know, there is a lot of opposition to Putin but, at least in this book, that opposition is not all by any means supportive of the aims of the Founding Fathers or, at least, not supportive of their methods. Sasha himself never thought seriously about the acquisition of power, the government did not interest him but he does, for example, say Here, in this city, it seemed to Sasha, there were several thousand dogs that lived incomparably better lives than several million people. However, he and his Founding Fathers have no concrete plans to change things, except by being disruptive towards the government and authorities. Lev, a man he meets in hospital, after he has been beaten up by the police, says But you give me the feeling that you can’t break away from all these age-old dogmas and worthless ideologies that have been around for most of Russia’s history — from Vasili III to Ivan the Terrible all the way up to the Bolsheviks — bringing about nothing but violence and chaos and goes on to say Some executioners took Russia away from other executioners. And no one knows which of the executioners is the better. The current ones let you live, at least. Sasha’s response is In our time, the new ideologies are…instincts! Actions! The handing down of intellectual ideas is outdated, has disappeared forever. Bezletov follows this up, after having read the Founding Fathers’ documents. A lot of pretentious profanity, bellyaching, tantrums, a lot of words. But I don’t understand one thing: What is it that you want, exactly? I see a lot of courageous clowning around; you take a smack to the head and turn around and offer up your head again — but then what? You want to put things in order?, to which Sasha has no response because he does not know what he and the Founding Fathers really want. In short, as Bezletov says, You are not fascists. You are hooligans. You’ll never graduate to fascists. At best, you’re a poor imitation.

In this country, everything calls for a revolution and revolution and Russia are two inseparable, significant forces. There is no more Russia beyond and without revolution is the creed Sasha is determined to live by. For him and, I imagine, many other Russians, it is the only solution. For his predecessors – Lenin, Trotsky and company – the purpose of the revolution was, nominally, the dictatorship of the proletariat. For Sasha and his friends, it seems that it is revolution for its own sake, in other words, nihilism. I have no doubt that Prilepin does effectively capture the mood of contemporary Russia and that there are many Russians who share his views as well as many who share the views of Bezletov and others of his generation who despair of Putin but do not espouse Sasha’s nihilism. As such, this book makes fascinating if somewhat dispiriting reading. It is not a great novel but it is a very worthwhile portrait of disaffected Russia.

Publishing history

First published in Russian in 2006 by Ad Marginem
First English translation by Disquiet/Glagoslav in 2014
Translated by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker with Alina Ryabovolova