Vladimir Sorokin Says Russian Writers Should Fight Back in War on Truth

Over the past 40 years, Vladimir Sorokin’s work has punctured nearly every imaginable political and social taboo in Russia.

His novel “Blue Lard,” which features a graphic sex scene between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev, drew a criminal investigation over charges that he was selling pornography. Pro-Kremlin activists accused him of promoting cannibalism and tried to ban his novella “Nastya,” a grisly allegory about a girl who is cooked and eaten by her family. Protesters placed a giant sculpture of a toilet in front of the Bolshoi Theater and threw his books in it, a fecal metaphor that Sorokin said reminded him of “one of my own stories.”

With every attack, Sorokin has only grown bolder, and more popular.

“A Russian writer has two options: Either you are afraid, or you write,” he said in an interview last month. “I write.”

Sorokin is widely regarded as one of Russia’s most inventive writers, an iconoclast who has chronicled the country’s slide toward authoritarianism, with subversive fables that satirize bleak chapters of Soviet history, and futuristic tales that capture the creeping repression of 21st-century Russia. But despite his reputation as both a gifted postmodern stylist and an unrepentant troublemaker, he remains relatively unknown in the West. Until recently, just a handful of his works had been published in English, in part because his writing can be so challenging to translate, and so hard to stomach. Now, four decades into his scandal-scorched career, publishers are preparing to release eight new English-language translations of his books.

The attention comes as his portraits of Russia as a decaying former empire that’s sliding backward under a militaristic, violent and repressive regime have come to seem tragically prescient. As Russia carries out its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Sorokin sees the conflict not just as a military onslaught, but as a semantic war being waged through propaganda and lies — an assault on truth that writers must combat.

“The role of writers is going to change, given the current situation,” Sorokin said. “If a new era of censorship begins, writers’ words will only be stronger.”

In conversation, Sorokin — who is 66, with wavy silver hair and a placid demeanor that give him the air of a hermit or a sage — is soft-spoken and reflective, not quite the brash, polarizing figure he’s frequently cast as.

Speaking from Germany, he seemed disoriented, but not surprised, to find himself facing what could be a long exile. He and his wife Irina, who split their time between Vnukovo, a town outside of Moscow, and a bright, art-filled apartment in Berlin, left Russia just three days before the invasion of Ukraine. Though the timing of their trip was pure coincidence, it felt fated, and Sorokin is wary of returning to Russia as long as Putin remains in power. He has denounced the invasion publicly and called Vladimir Putin a crazed “monster,” putting himself in a precarious position after Putin labeled Russians who oppose the war as “scum” and “traitors.”

Watching the crushing use of force in Ukraine, Sorokin, who compared the Russian invasion to “killing your own mother,” has been reminded of his preoccupation with humanity’s bottomless capacity for violence, a constant theme in his work.

“Why can’t mankind get by without violence?” he said. “I grew up in a country where violence was the main air that everyone breathed. So when people ask me why there’s so much violence in my books, I tell them that I was absolutely soaked and marinated in it from kindergarten onward.”

Sorokin doesn’t fit the classic mold of a dissident writer. While he’s been critical of Putin’s regime, he’s hard to pinpoint, stylistically or ideologically. He’s been pilloried for violating Russian Orthodox Christian values in his stories, but is a devout Christian. He deploys gorgeous prose to describe horrifying acts. He’s celebrated as a literary heir to giants like Turgenev, Gogol and Nabokov, but at times, he’s questioned the value of literature, dismissing novels as “just paper with typographic signs.”

He’s a master of mimicry and subverting genre tropes, veering from arch postmodern political satire (“The Queue”) to esoteric science fiction (“The Ice Trilogy”) to alternate histories and futuristic cyberpunk fantasies (“Telluria”).

“His books are like entering a crazy nightmare, and I mean that as a compliment,” the novelist Gary Shteyngart said. “He was able to find the right vocabulary with which to articulate the truth.”

The translations arriving this year reveal the dizzying strangeness of Sorokin’s work, and reflect his obsession with the horrors of Russia’s past and his anxiety over where the country is headed. The first, “Their Four Hearts,” out this month from Dalkey Archive Press, follows four archetypal Soviet heroes who are subjected to grotesque degradations as part of a savage mission that culminates in them being compressed into cubes and rolled like dice onto a frozen lake made of liquefied human remains. Sorokin wrote the novel in 1991, as the Soviet Union fell apart. It was so controversial that incensed workers at a printing plant refused to produce copies.

The second book, “Telluria,” coming out in August from NYRB Classics, is a dystopian fable set in the near future, as Europe has devolved into medieval feudal states and people are addicted to a drug called tellurium. Through the smokescreen of a twisted fantasy teeming with centaurs, robot bandits and talking dogs who eat corpses, Sorokin smuggles in a sly critique of contemporary Russia’s turn toward totalitarianism.

Six more English editions of Sorokin’s works — including “The Norm,” “Blue Lard” and “Roman” — are scheduled for release in the next four years, and another three are being translated, bringing the bulk of Sorokin’s catalog into English.

“Sorokin has earned his place in the canon,” said Max Lawton, a Sorokin superfan who translated all eight of the forthcoming books, and who acted as an interpreter during the interview. “I felt like it was insane that he hadn’t been fully translated.”

It’s something of a grim coincidence that the new translations are arriving at a moment when Russian writers are fearful of another wave of repression — a threat that reminds Sorokin of his early days as an underground Soviet author.

“It’s been possible to write whatever you want in Russia, so long as it’s not a direct description of Putin or the leadership,” he said. “But I don’t know how it’s going to be. Maybe there will be literary censorship now. Maybe it will just be a kind of déjà vu. If that happens, then I’ll be returned to the time of my youth.”

Growing up in a town outside Moscow, where his father worked as a professor of metallurgy, Sorokin had an early taste of literary notoriety. As a schoolboy, he discovered he could make money by writing erotic stories and selling them to classmates. He studied petroleum engineering at the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas, but was drawn to visual art, and found work as a cartoonist for a Communist youth journal, then as a children’s book illustrator and as a graphic designer. In the early 1980s, he became a fixture of Moscow’s underground literary world, and wrote his first novel, “The Queue,” an absurdist sendup of Soviet bureaucracy and oppression that unfolds as snippets of dialogue between people waiting in a line for hours to buy unknown goods.

“I just wanted one thing, which was that the K.G.B. not get ahold of my text,” Sorokin said.

When it was published in France in 1985, “The Queue” earned Sorokin a reputation as a slippery provocateur. It wasn’t released in Russia until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“He was such a master of making fun of the regime,” said Masha Gessen, a Russian American author and writer for The New Yorker. “He really saw the Soviet regime as ridiculous and by extension, the explicit confrontation with it as absurd.”

Over the next decade, Sorokin wrote a series of experimental books that explored how language and meaning were weaponized by Soviet authorities. In “The Norm,” which came out in the early 1990s, Sorokin deployed a crude metaphor for state-spun propaganda: citizens are required to ingest packages of a foul-smelling brown fecal substance that the government distributes.

“He was saying to the totalitarian state that the domain of meaning is not yours, it doesn’t belong to you, and he took it from the state in a very powerful gesture,” said Nariman Skakov, an associate professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

In the early 2000s, Sorokin grew alarmed by the erosion of civil liberties and growing isolationism under Putin, which he saw as a return to the brutality of medieval Russia.

Those observations spurred him to write his most overtly political book, “Day of the Oprichnik,” which is set in a near-future Russia that has lapsed into a Tsarist dictatorship.

“I saw some signs of change in Russian society that smelled like the Middle Ages,” Sorokin said. “When I wrote it, a lot of critics said, well you must have had a pretty bad hangover to write this. Then a few years passed and they stopped laughing and they began to smell this medieval odor in their normal lives too.”

In the years since, Sorokin has expanded on his vision of a futuristic “new medieval” Russia that has become more authoritarian, militaristic and backward, in a series of books that include “The Sugar Kremlin,” “Telluria” and “Manaraga.” During the pandemic, he finished the most recent novel in his medieval cycle, “Doctor Garin.”

Set in a futuristic dystopia blighted by nuclear war, military dictatorships and a rogue race of genetically altered super soldiers, the novel follows a doctor who works in a sanitarium and tends to a group of small, bizarrely shaped “political beings,” a cohort that includes deformed mini-versions of Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel and Putin, who is referred to as Vladimir and is only capable of uttering, “It isn’t me.” Like much of Sorokin’s work, it’s impossible to categorize — a wild mash-up of cyberpunk, fantasy, satire and sci-fi, dotted with snippets of diary entries and Soviet-era dissident literature.

Sorokin says he’s drawn to futuristic, fantastical settings because they feel like the most accurate lens to examine the chaos and instability of the present.

“The world is changing so unpredictably that classical realistic prose isn’t able to catch up to it,” he said. “It’s like shooting at a bird that’s already flown away.”

“This is why I prefer complicated optics,” he continued. “In order to see what is real, you need two telescopes.”

He switched to English, and added slowly: “One from the past and another from the future.”

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