Day of the Oprichnik: Vladimir Sorokin’s Acid-Tongued Critique of Putin’s Russia
It’s 2028, and Russia has restored the Tsar to the throne. In this futuristic totalitarian nightmare, ray-guns, holograms, and the penal code of Ivan the Terrible sit comfortably side by side.
Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin’s grotesque take on Putin’s Russia, focuses on a day in the life of Andrei Komiaga, an Oprichnik - one of the Tsar’s most trusted men. After fixing a freshly severed dog’s head onto the hood of his car he sets off on an orgy of corruption and violence euphemistically referred to as “government work.” It’s not the most subtle of satires, but it nevertheless packs a punch.
Much like Russia’s current leadership, Sorokin’s characters live in a world of fear, ultra-nationalism, and violence. Sorokin’s Moscow has imposed strict self-isolation from the “putrefying” influence of Europe by building a Great Wall. As a result, the state has become heavily dependent on China, ceding Siberia in exchange for favorable trade relations. The novel’s cast drink Szechuan champagne, eat Shangai caviar and make “Russian children on Chinese beds!”
Playing on this theme, the author nods to Anthony Burgess’s masterwork A Clockwork Orange. The Oprichniki speak a bizarre blend of Chinese colloquialisms and antiquated Russian metaphors. For example, when burning down the house of an ‘enemy of the people,’ Komiaga refers to the act as “Bringing in His Majesty’s red rooster.” Indeed, the novel’s juxtaposition of futuristic technology and medieval prose is one of its key charms.
The writer’s own experience is also reflected in the novel’s content. A prolific author of stories, novels, plays and movie scripts, Sorokin began his career under the watchful gaze of Soviet censors. In Day of the Oprichnik, one of Komiaga’s tasks is to work with government officials to assess the rehearsal of a holiday concert before it is shown to the public. The end-result is a brilliant tour-de-farce.
During the play, a European mole attempts to steal gas from Russia’s East-West pipeline but is shot dead by a border guard. As an act of vengeance, the border guards open the valve and fart into the pipeline as a patriotic act, eliciting screams from the West. But the censors are not satisfied.
One of them is confused by the guards’ revenge act.
“Tell me gentlemen, does hydrogen sulfide, which our valiant warriors fart – does it burn?”
The observer nods. “It burns.”
“Well, if it burns" he continues, twisting his mustache, “then what does Europe have to fear from our farts?”
Though Sorokin struggled under the Soviet censors, he also faced a dilemma under the heady, destabilizing flood of neoliberalism unleashed by Yeltsin. In the chaos of the 90s, practically anything was permissible, and artists had to shock their audiences to stand-out in the new post-modernist era. Sorokin took to the task with relish. In his book Blue Lard, he gained notoriety for a scene featuring clones of Brezhnev and Stalin sodomizing each other. The book was later attacked in a public stunt by pro-Putin activists.
Day of the Oprichnik is also embroiled in controversy. In a defiant middle-finger to Russia’s growing homophobia and obsession with masculinity, Sorokin’s novel is packed with homo-erotic acts of nationalism. Lying naked in a circle, the Oprichniki inject miniature fish into their veins, which swim to their heads, depositing caviar on their brains. The end result is a hallucination in which the men collectively share the body of a fire-spitting dragon, which immediately sets off West, laying waste to Europe. Later, in the same bathhouse, the Oprichniki form a ritualistic “human centipede” of sodomy as they profess their love for the motherland.
But beneath the vulgarity, Sorokin rewards readers’ patience with a sharp analysis of creeping totalitarianism. State violence, gas disputes, fear of Chinese expansion, and looting by the government’s inner-circle are all dealt with in a colorful manner.
The end result is somewhat tragic. Sworn to defend his country, Komiagan is both a knight and the dragon of his hallucination: Russia as it sees itself, and Russia as it is often perceived by the rest of the world.