Vladimir Sorokin and the Russian Novel's Identity Crisis

The Blizzard, the writer’s latest novel, is the next chapter in his wildly oscillating relationship with his mother country.

Maria Sorokina / FSG / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Vast, grand, breathtaking—English-language readers typically associate such words with the 19th-century Russian novel. Bleak, brave, subversive—those go with 20th-century Russian fiction. If it’s epic or dissident, we know how to make sense of it.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s, however, Russian novels became harder to categorize. If a work wasn’t protest literature, what exactly could it be? This wasn’t a question only for readers of English translations. The collapse posed an identity crisis even for writers who had long avoided protest. Vladimir Sorokin, considered by many to be Russia’s leading novelist, was among those whose writing seemed to be stalled during the Yeltsin period. To find his way forward as a novelist, he had to recreate a relationship to Russia’s new society, to abandon austere detachment and explore the possibility of allegiance to the public. Sorokin’s torturous sense of citizenship, which has reached a fascinating impasse in his latest novel, The Blizzard, is the key to one of the most transfixing bodies of work in world literature.

If anyone had seemed poised to flourish in a postmodern Russia, it would have been Sorokin, born in 1955 and stirring up interest by the time he was 30. Influenced by the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and ’80s, he adopted that group’s vision of artistic creations as wholly autonomous constructs, and in his early work, these constructs aren’t cause for any particular veneration. “Aren’t those just letters on a piece of paper?” he said of his work at the time. His violent, scatalogical, and distinctly unheroic fictions ran jaggedly across the epic and dissident veins of Russian literature. The Queue, first published in Paris in 1985 and composed entirely of dialogue, is set in just that, a queue: one of the long Soviet-era lines of citizens waiting for hours to receive goods—what goods, no one knows. Its satirical take on Soviet dysfunction is probably why it saw English translation in 1988. But The Queue is mostly of a piece with Sorokin’s conceptual mission: His characters standing in line are simply lined up characters on a page.

Perhaps the chaotic Russia of the ’90s—old ideals smashed, no new order emerging—too vividly incarnated Sorokin’s aesthetic. The period evidently thwarted, rather than nourished, his fiction. “There is not always a time for dreams,” he told The New Yorker in 1994, somewhat evasively accounting for a gap in his output that ended up lasting from 1991-’99. He returned to fiction with Blue Lard, a novel that caused him considerable difficulties as Russia began its authoritarian relapse. The novel contains a scene in which a clone of Krushchev sodomizes a clone of Stalin, and several years after publication, it was singled out by Moving Together, a youth group associated with Vladimir Putin, which accused Sorokin of peddling pornography. For the first time, he found himself at the center of a concerted censorship campaign. In 2002, the group picketed the Bolshoi, which had commissioned Sorokin to produce a libretto. Its leaders showed up with a massive mock toilet bowl, into which demonstrators were encouraged to throw copies of his “latrinature.” The protests prompted state prosecutors to open a case against him.

Those charges were dropped, but the episode seems to have thrust a sense of citizenship upon Sorokin. Certainly it discredited the notion that his writing was just letters on paper. “I had a feeling that I had ended up in one of my own stories somehow,” he told The New York Times in 2011. At the same time, the resurrection of Russia’s monarchical and authoritarian political traditions in the Putin era gave new relevance to the previous centuries’ literary traditions. With Ice Trilogy (2002-2005), Sorokin advanced his fiction by swerving away from his early work. Rather than rejecting his country's literary legacy, or rearranging its tropes into conceptual art, he adapted the epic and the dissident strains to his own purposes.

Ice Trilogy offers a parallel, science-fiction inflected history of Russia’s 20th century, in which 23,000 blonde and blue-eyed humans are actually rays of “the Primordial Light.” Once the 23,000 have their hearts awakened—by being hammered in the chest with chunks of meteoric ice—they will return to eternity, and the world of humans will end. The trilogy ranges over decades, includes an enormous cast, and amounts to a searching exploration of cult power and the pitilessness of the elite. Although Ice Trilogy was far too esoteric for mass appeal in America, it betrayed signs of a more accessible vision. Nearing the age of 50, Sorokin suddenly sided with humanity—the “meat machines” disdained and enslaved by the Primordial Light—an oddly tender gesture for a writer used to killing off characters as if swatting flies. His own heart was being awakened to a sense of commitment to the people: “The citizen in me has come to life,” he told Der Spiegel in 2007.

2008’s Day of the Oprichnik marks the apotheosis of Sorokin as social critic, and unsurprisingly, it was his first novel to find a mainstream American publisher. Billed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as “a razor-sharp diagnosis of a country in crisis,” Day of the Oprichnik envisions Russia in 2028, when the social codes of Ivan the Terrible have been resurrected. Following a day in the life of a henchman to the czar, the novel is a cascade of torture, rape, and murder, punctuated by nauseating scenes of luxury among the uppermost class.

But if his American publisher, and audience, expected Sorokin to become the Solzhenitsyn of the Putin era, they will be disappointed. Even as Day of the Oprichnik made its appearance in America, Sorokin was expressing some skepticism about his new role. “Maybe I have a desire to change things,” he told The New York Times, “but I right now do not much believe in it.” The Blizzard, now elegantly translated by Jamey Gambrell, is advertised as a novel “delivering stinging truths” about modern-day Russia. Yet at every turn, the novel evades the sort of critique that made Day of the Oprichnik so legible. If anything, The Blizzard shows Sorokin’s citizenship in a state of temporary defeat.

Like Day of the Oprichnik, The Blizzard is set in the near future, unfolds in real-time, and takes for its protagonist someone in a position of power over the Russian masses—this time beneficent, at least in theory. Platon Ilich Garin, a district doctor, must get to the village of Dolgoye, where a mysterious “black sickness” is turning people into zombies. Garin carries the vaccine, but a dense February blizzard impedes his journey, rendering the world around him into “cold, white, whistling space.” Though his driver calls the mission doomed, Garin’s sense of citizenship urges him forward: “This is an affair of state, man. You and I don’t have the right to turn back. It wouldn’t be Russian. And it wouldn’t be Christian.”

The Blizzard showcases Sorokin’s characteristic outlandishness. Garin travels through the blizzard in a sledmobile, a mode of transportation propelled by dozens of miniature horses. He encounters Vitaminders, a Gypsy-like band who traffic in narcotic “spheres, cubes and pyramids.” The sledmobile crashes into the nostril of a dead giant. In short, Sorokin heaves every conceivable obstacle in the way of Garin, whose mission—to go “to the end of the world in order to do good for people!”—soon seems absolutely futile.

Garin is always complicit in his own sabotage. His aspiration may be toward model citizenship, but he’s constantly weighed down by hypocrisy. His is an odyssey in which the hero succumbs to Sirens and gladly eats the lotus. Sorokin’s blizzard is not only an elemental force; it materializes Garin’s profound inner doubt that acts of heroism are possible in the Russian climate. As he despairs of ever getting to Dolgoye, he laments, “it’s not in my power to overcome this cold, snowy expanse with a wave of my hand.”

Some will read the novel as a critique of intoxication—alcoholic, narcotic, sexual—yet it’s impossible to ignore Sorokin’s close association with Garin. He, too, is a God-fearing Russian, and the novelist and the doctor share an elevated, almost priestly status in society, ministering to the souls of the nation. But in The Blizzard, the best lack all conviction: Our doctor is a chain-smoker, and our novelist is hilariously inept at advancing the plot. Society’s model citizens are revealed as at best impotent, at worst corrupt.

The Blizzard came out in Russia just prior to the Snow Revolution, a series of massive protests from 2011-’13 that briefly seemed to spell the end of the regime. Fiercely suppressed, however, that moment of unrest gave way to the annexation of the Crimea, the invasion of Ukraine, and the resurgence of Putin as a power broker in Syria, to much domestic approval. Likewise, Sorokin’s rage for change, so palpable in Day of the Oprichnik, seems to have given way to overwhelming frustration. Every step forward in The Blizzard is met with the greatest possible resistance, and the novel’s “stinging truths” remain obscured in whirling snow.

Don’t search for those truths between the lines. In some respects, The Blizzard marks the return of Sorokin’s vision of literature as mere letters on paper. Garin’s battle against the elements parallels the struggle of language against the cold, white, and whistling space of the page, a space Sorokin no longer considers a place for coded meanings, one of the core techniques of social critique. As he recently told BOMB magazine: “I now believe there should only be emptiness between the lines. That was what I was trying to do with The Blizzard—in that you only have the text.”

One hopes the text will be enough for an American audience. Having left behind the impassioned citizenship that impelled Day of the Oprichnik, Sorokin may risk losing a readership that, given a foothold, was ready to follow. But if indeed he’s touched the outer limits of social critique, this astonishingly original writer, it seems safe to say, hasn’t yet hit the limits of his madcap imagination.

By Vladimir Sorokin

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