Day of the Oprichnik
By Vladimir Sorokin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
All utopias are a dystopia to someone. Let’s talk about how that applies right now:
Example 1: I was swinging on a cot at the foot of the Adirondacks when I realized that if Thoreau somehow stepped into a time vortex that transported him to the spot right next to me, he would see what his precious New England had become, fall to his knees, and begin to cry: dystopia.
Example 2: I was at a bris a few years ago, watching people munch on crackers topped with cheese and imported Romanian sausage; I thought to myself, “If Maimonides was here, he’d be ashamed of these Jews!” These jolly Israelites mixing meat and milk would make Rambam cry “Dystopia!”
Am I over-thinking this? Possibly. But I recognize that on the other hand, air travel, lack of Bubonic plague, and women having the right the vote could all be viewed as utopian. So screw the meat and cheese.
Maybe it’s my American mind at work, but I wonder if the people of Russia are thinking they’ve hit that rock bottom, or if they see things actually getting worse? After all, we’re talking about a country that in just a hair over a century has experienced everything from oppressive tzars, to the rise and inevitable fall of Communism, world wars, homegrown terrorist attacks, gridlock, nuclear meltdowns, Boris Yeltzin’s epic consumption of 40% of the country’s vodka supply*, and a reputation for corruption that is well-known throughout the entire world
Russia is now as it always has been: a massive landmass of confusion, intrigue, and the discussion of “where does the country go from here?” that seems to be recycled every quarter century.
Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik brings us to 28 years into the new millennium, where we see the return of the feared clan of tsarist fighters, and a familiar future that recalls Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, in a way that when you turn each page you think to yourself, “This isn’t fantasy, this is the way things are going.” While Burgess’ England might seem farfetched now–with roving bands of costumed hooligans looking for pleasure from robbery and rape–is it really that hard to imagine the no future, post WWII generation of England descending into that kind of chaos? Kids looking for kicks—from mods and teddy boys to your average soccer hooligans—through the most violent means available. We follow a day in the life of Oprichnik, Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, a member of an oppressive organization originally founded by Ivan the Terrible, brought back to life by a rotten government relying on awful henchmen to function.
What makes Day of the Oprichnik a brilliant work of dystopian literature is Sorokin’s ability to write with humor that translates over into the English translation, artfully done by Jamey Ganbrell. (Please note that the best contemporary dystopian literature seems to be coming out of Russia. See this Keith Gessen essay.) You can’t help but awkwardly smile as Andrei describes his day to day activities that range from murder to gay intercourse; not because you think it’s humorous, but because Sorokin seems to understand that to write a book of this sort, you have to make the reader laugh in spite of themselves, and in spite of the fact that no matter what any of us do, we are all helping to pave our slippery slope. Andrei and his fellow Oprichnik are not anti-heroes or tragic figures, they are horrible people, but horrible because we are essentially responsible for letting it all get to his point.
But this is America, not Moscow. Should Sorokin’s tale of state sponsored terror and a country slowly rotting away have any effect on us?
Yes, it absolutely should.
*This isn’t true.