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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Vladimir SOROKIN: The problem is that Russia has not buried the Soviet epoch

16 November, 2010 - 00:00
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

Once my favorite professor at the Literature Institute, Viktor Bohdanov, at the beginning of lecture course on Elements of Literary Studies, where the major subject studied was, of course, the method of socialist realism, impressed us students with his explanation of the method. He said that socialist realism is based on the postulate “a writer’s creative work depends on his/her worldview.” He immediately went on to prove this using vivid examples. Dostoyevsky was an obscurantist, alcoholic, gambler, and yet a genius. The founder of the abovementioned method was a “storm-petrel” of literature, and at the end of The Day — a writer.

Two books by Vladimir SOROKIN, Oprichnik’s Day and Kremlin Made of Sugar, which have been recently published in Ukrainian translation, were the reason of our meeting with the writer, who exceeds conventions. Though he has been staying in the literary stream for quite a long while, he, as before, continues to seek himself in the new forms, both genre-wise and linguistic.

Mr. Sorokin, you are an intelligent man in life, but you are brutal in literature. Thus I have a tough question for you. You like to emphasize that you are a Russian citizen and a Russian writer. In an interview you called Ukraine “an amputated territory.”

“Really? I don’t remember.”

Today your books are published in Ukrainian. Why do you need this? What does it mean for you?

“I remember it now. Yes, I have said once that you are an amputated territory. But it is fortunate for you that you were amputated.”

Excuse me, the key word disappeared from the text I read.

“You’ve been amputated from this Soviet monster, which has fortunately collapsed. Why do I need this? First, it is interesting for me in terms of philology. Oprichnik has been translated into 20 languages, notably Romanian, Estonian, Serbian, and it has even been published in Hebrew. Actually, when you make a kind of philological necklace, the Ukrainian language should be present there. Besides, you know, I had an old dream to publish Goluboye salo (Blue Salo) in Ukrainian. I have dreamt long about it. But it turned out that Oprichnik came first. Of course, Blue salo will be published too; we have already made a decision in this concern.”

But Salo will be hard to translate.

“Dreams do come true. I have discussed this with Andrii Kurkov. This book is very hard to translate, and the translation should be possibly done by a writer. This is quite a complicated task, I really feel sorry for those who will translate my Salo. But it has been already translated into five languages. And the Ukrainian translation warms me, among other things, because we have a good company here: Hohol’s works have been already translated, haven’t they?”

I have paid attention to your desire to stay in good company.

“I wonder, is there Ulysses in Ukrainian?”

Yes, there is, and in a very good translation.

“All the better. Any writer can find a place in its shadow.”

Judging from your works, you don’t believe in society because you think that it cannot change as such. I do not mean the government or various organizations, but human nature itself. But if it is so, whom you are trying to reach out to?

“Well, we are speaking about Russian society, because the European one is changing. The Russian one is changing, too, but at an extremely slow pace. It should be said that in the past 20 years the habits, at least in the sphere of services, have become somewhat milder. And the streets have become milder too. But what do 20 years mean for a country, especially this big? Actually, whom am I trying to reach out to? I simply ask questions, I don’t expose, or give prescriptions. I just ask. Sometimes I do this via strict methods, which are shocking, but I cannot do otherwise.”

Are those global questions aimed at mankind, the universe, or mainly yourself?

“I would call them metaphysical questions, and of course they are addressed to me, in particular. But for me the principle that literature is a goal, not a method, is of greater importance. It should not raise trivial questions, but rather perennial ones.”

You have stated previously that 20 years is a short term for history, yet some changes are taking place. I am personally worried not simply by reanimation, but by a powerful promotion of one of the most terrible people of the 20th century — Joseph Stalin. As far as I know, Ela Panfilova who has dealt with human rights for many years asked to resign, stating that she cannot do anything with this. What do you think? What are the prospects of this process?

“In Russia, everything is being instilled from above. In times of Gorbachev and Yeltsin some creation was adopted in theory. When Putin came, he immediately announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe. But for me this was actually one of the most joyful social events for my country. The same team that is currently in power is largely based on the experience of Stalin’s time, which in its turn is rooted in the times of Ivan the Terrible.”

Oprichnina [a period of mass repressions, public executions, and political terror instigated by Ivan the Terrible in the late 16th century. – Ed.]?

“Absolutely. Namely Oprichniki. Now they are driving Mersedeses and use i-phones, but the mentality remains the same. Naturally, Stalin is above all a state-builder for them. All these arguments that he took Russia with wooden ploughs and he left it with a hydrogen bomb, are quite doubtful. However, Stalin and Bolshevism on the whole are thousands hydrogen bombs. As Joseph Brodsky has justly noted, an anthropological catastrophe took place in Russia in the 20th century. It seems to me that Stalin’s main crime is that he made humiliation of human dignity a standard, and practically erased the boundary between the butcher and the victim. Following Stalin’s ethic, they could easily exchange places. Now when this bullshit has risen, all these talks about the efficient manager raise uneasy feelings in me. I think the problem is in reality much deeper. The problem is that Russia has not buried the Soviet epoch, it has not entombed it.”

It seems to me that none of the former republics has buried it.

“Yes, but Germany has managed to do so. Well, it would not have succeeded in doing it alone, but it was helped. I mean Nazism. And in our country this corpse is still lying, rotting, poisoning the youth, as before, and reminds us, mature people, of the disgusting Soviet past.”

How did it happen that in the end of a period of stagnation, which was quite a disgusting time, when the authorities watched closely all creative people, you published a book abroad?

“In 1985 the Paris publishing house Syntaxe published my book The Queue. But in the Soviet Union the first time my works were published in the Riga magazine Rodnik. This was already in 1989.”

Most literary critics persist in calling you a postmodernist.

“I don’t mind.”

I don’t like this term, because it gives space for an enormous number of ignoramuses to create pseudo-art and feel themselves on the wave of modernity. I would rather ascribe you to constructivism.

“I like to be a constructivist.”

This was proved by the film Moskva (Moscow), which uses the screenplay you wrote for director Aleksandr Zeldovich. Then there was Kopeyka (Kopeck) with Ivan Dykhovichny, and 4 with the then debutant Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Do you continue to work in cinematography?

“Soon a new film with Zeldovich will be released. It is entitled Mishen (A Target). It is a kind of human constructive story. I have written seven screenplays overall. Khrzhanovsky is now shooting Dau, in Kharkiv, by the way. On the whole I like to work in cinematography; I like to leave the skin of a litterateur from time to time. Cinema is interesting; it renews your blood very intensively. I have had an eight-year period when I did not write any novels whatsoever. This was after 4. I was engaged in cinematography with Dykhovichny, Zeldovich. Then I suddenly had an inspiration to write Blue salo.”

What is your literary genre? You have reached success in the genre of novels, you have also mastered short stories, and the novelette Snowstorm seems to come out of the consistent genre succession.

“This is Russian hopeless story.”

What genre do you prefer and how did the idea of genre emerge? What is the starting point?

“Well, this is the most complicated question. Nobody knows how ideas emerge, they come like love. Actually, the idea is the first to come, then it selects a befitting genre. And I understand that if I wrote Oprichnik using the language of severe realism like Orwell, for example, nothing would have come out of it. This would be a forced and heavy work. And the style of buffoonery, and the form of a novelette is a perfect thing, because it is a novelette, not a novel. Like with Snowstorm. I had a long-time desire to write about the Russian winter space, which is a hero and a stage at the same time. This could be written only via the language of the 20th century.”

By nature you are a quiet intelligent person, not inclined to shocking behavior, whereas in your literary works you all the time try to shock people. Sometimes I have an impression that this is an absolutely artificial method. Why do you use it?

“I don’s set myself the goal to intimidate or shock others. I repeat, I put questions this way, because I cannot do so otherwise. After all, sometimes you need a stress so that things and notions jump up and returned on their places already renewed. This is quite a subtle moment.”

Two years ago, when I interviewed Mark Zakharov, he shared with me his creative plans and said that he was going to stage your play. And everything came to nothing. Do you know what happened to this production, which has not yet appeared?

“I know that a year ago he was very eager to stage it, he even wrote a director’s screenplay and gave it to me. Now I have it at home. As far as I understand he had problems with his actors. He said that young ones wanted very much to do it, whereas the veterans lacked this desire. Frankly speaking, theater is not my favorite genre.”

But you have worked in theater.

“Yes, and I wrote anti-theater plays. Some of them were staged and absolutely unexpectedly they turned out to be quite theatrical. But I repeat, I don’t have much desire to work in theater. If Zakharov manages to stage my work — good, if not — I won’t be distressed.”

So you gave complete control to him over your work. Am I right?

“No, I have left my premieres twice.”

What are your preferences in literature? Every creative person comes from his/her childhood: both in life and creative work, everyone starts from imitation, this is inevitable.

“Do you mean, who has influenced me?”

This is the first part of the question. The second one is what are your present-day preferences in reading? Do you prefer any works by your fellows? What is light for you? What is, vice versa, an irritant?

“I must say that I have left all the Romantic literature behind long ago, like Mayne Reid, Fenimore Cooper. This time is not interesting for me.”

And Paustovsky.

“Paustovsky, too (laughing). Actually, I was touched by two writers, Wells and Hohol.”

Weren’t your impressions of the latter spoiled by the school?

“No. And as a conscious man, when I started to write my very first works, I was influenced by Nabokov. But soon I ‘went past’ it, socialist art helped me, I understood that I should do something different. Lucky for me.”

What about today?


I mean your reading preferences.

“I read many different things, three or four books at a time, but frankly speaking, I rarely read contemporary prose. I am waiting for a shock, for the appearance of a new literary star.”

How can this star appear in your life, if you don’t read much?

“You see, if s/he will, everyone will notice. And I read a lot of specialized literature, on history, ethnography, philosophy. I cannot say that I have a favorite author. Of course there are writers whom I respect. But I cannot say that I have a favorite one.”

Is Snowstorm part of the overall picture of your creative work, or is it a turning point?

“I won’t write a second Snowstorm. Basically, I try to make all of my pictures different. I will never come back to the topic of Oprichnina. Now they are criticizing me for having no style of my own. In reality I am happy that I don’t.”

Do you like to be criticized?

“You know, I have grown insensitive to criticism, they have poured so much bullshit on me. The problem is that what I am interested in is a reasonable opinion, when a person shows something in your own text what you have never thought about before. I appreciate this greatly.”

You are already a grandfather. You have a wonderful grandson Leva. Have you ever thought about creating something for him and for other children, via him?

“A week ago Leva’s mother asked me something of this kind ‘Don’t you want to write a fairytale for children?’ I told her that I would do so under a different name, if I ever would. Jokes aside, it is very difficult in reality. You should become a child for this.”

I once heard that you write in winter, and in summer you live.

“I try at least. I cannot write in summer.”

What do you mean, live?

“We reside in Moscow suburbs. It’s like living in the countryside. We have moved there from Moscow. There is some regularity about this, as we are not residents of Moscow, we used to live near Moscow, and now we have simply returned to the suburbs. This means a house, dogs, a garden...”

I live in the city and I go to the market too, and I have dogs as well. What is the difference?

“You should not write in summer, everything is being written already around you. And in winter, when everything becomes silent, it’s only fitting to write.”

What routine priorities do you have?

“I don’t like to do what is against my nature. I cannot drink alcohol two days in succession, only one.”

This is a healthy organism.

“Some writers go on a drinking bout.”

I don’t want to sadden you, but not only writers do so.

“My principle is to live and not to stay in other people’s way.”

What do you have on and in your desk at the moment?

“Frankly, there is nothing. I have published the collection of my short stories, which have accumulated over the past years. That’s all. Now I want to stay silent and to contemplate.”

Is this the state of your soul or the state of society around you that evokes this desire?

“I think it is everything together.”

By Svitlana AGREST-KOROTKOVA, special to The Day