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Vladimir Sorokin: День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik)

An Oprichnik was a member of the corps of guards set up by Ivan the Terrible to terrorise the people and has, of course, a long tradition, with the more recent KGB and FSB being, at least in part, successors. The title of this book presumably comes at least in part from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. However, it seems that the idea for the book may have come from a book by Pyotr Krasnov called За чертополохом (Beyond the Thistle). It was published in Paris (in Russian) but was unknown in Russia till fairly recently when it was republished. It has not been translated into English but has been translated into German, as Jenseits der Disteln but that was in 1923 and is not longer available, except in the German National Library, Leipzig.

Behind the Thistle is a future history, depicting Russia in the 1990s being ruled by a restored monarchy that has severed all contact with the West and that is pretty well what this book is about. It is set in the not so distant future with a Tsarist Russia with access to modern technology.

In this book Russia has built the Great Western Wall, to cut off contact with the West, and its only dealings with other countries seem to be with China though that, as we shall see, is not always plain sailing. There is a remote Tsar who seems to be a cross between Ivan the Terrible and Putin. He keeps his distance but gives out orders, both specific and general, for vicious deeds to be carried out. The country is, as with Putin’s Russia, nominally Christian with, for example, obscenity banned (for which, as with many other transgressions, real or imagined) the punishment is severe.

It is the Oprichniks that keep order and they do so in a brutal manner. Their motto is Work and Word! We Live to Serve! Our narrator is Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, the fourth highest ranking Oprichnik. As the title tells us, we follow a day in his life. It is a very full day – Russia and the Tsar have a lot of enemies who need to be punished and Komiaga certainly does his bit. We start off with a recalcitrant nobleman whose house is attacked by a Oprichnik force. As the nobleman has a standing army of servants, there is something of a stand-off, which is settled by a single combat. When the Oprichnik wins, the Oprichniks enter the house. Using a searcher (some sort of machine), they find the young children who are sent to an orphanage where they will be brought up to be honest citizens of a great country. The nobleman is hanged and his wife gang-raped and sent back to her family. The house and its contents are burned to the ground. All in a day’s work. Genghis Khan used to say that the greatest pleasure on earth was to conquer your enemies, plunder their possessions, ride their horses, and love their wives. What a wise man he was!

There are further exploits. We learn of a Marquess (sic – surely Marchioness?) and a lampoon about her and a count, clearly based on the Tsar’s son-in-law, who appears to have a predilection for having sex with women in burning buildings. The Tsar is not amused. There is an attendance at a dress rehearsal for a show which the Tsar will attend, involving farting jokes, a bit of bribery to help the friend of a prima ballerina (yes, surprise, surprise,corruption is rife in this Russia). Class A drugs seem to be fully acceptable but the Oprichniks have their own, which involves a young sterlet entering the blood stream and making its way to the brain.

Book burning, floggings, a dodgy trading deal with the Chinese, a visit to to a clairvoyant and similar activities keep our narrator occupied.

He follows the activities of expatriate Russians and particularly damns the writers: Our underground intellectuals feed on this dung, this vomit, this deafening emptiness. Hideous polyps they are, growing on the body of our healthy Russian art. This is in response to a Russian author and his verse, which consists mostly of coughs, quacks, and interjections. Though Sorokin is not an expatriate, he would presumably be classified in this way by Putin and his associates.

The one blotch in our New Russia is His Majesty’s spouse. And you can’t wash this spot away, or cover it up, or remove it. This issue gives our hero more bother but also shows that anti-Semitism is alive and well, as the Tsarina is half-Jewish.

I rather lost track of the body count during the course of the book but there is no doubt Komiaga and his associates clearly enjoyed themselves, with killing, torture, flogging heterosexual and homosexual sex, drugs use, alcohol and wine, special privileges, outwitting the Chinese and did I mention that they have glowing genitals?

And as long as the oprichniks are alive, Russia will be alive. And thank God is the conclusion. Clearly Sorokin does not hold back on the dirty deeds of the regime and, while we can and should certainly see this as an attack on both Ivan the Terrible and Putin, Sorokin does two things to make it less obviously a blatant and direct satire on Putin. Firstly, we see everything through the eyes of Komiaga, a man who clearly buys into the regime and feels what he and his associates do is fully justified to protect sacred Russia from its enemies. While, clearly, we cannot (I hope) agree, Putin and his associates may well see Komiaga as echoing their position and see this as a worthy tribute to them. There is no sarcasm, no clever humour. It is all told by Komiaga as straightforwardly as possible.

Secondly, while it is clear to us that Putin is the target, there is in fact no direct reference to Putin. The disembodied Tsar may, to some degree resemble Putin, but in many ways (wife, son-in-law, background) he definitely does not. I do not know enough about the FSB (or the KGB when Putin was in it) but I am assuming that while there may be some similarities to the Oprochniks, a lot is different. In short this cannot be seen as a direct attack on Putin but more an indirect one. However you see it, it is definitely an excellent work and one that shows Russia in an interesting light.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 by Zakharov
First English publication in 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Jamey Gambrell