It’s Moscow, 2028. A scream, a moan, and a death rattle slowly pull Andrei Danilovich Komiaga out of his drunken stupor. But wait – that’s just his ringtone. So begins another day in the life of an oprichnik, one of the czar’s most trusted courtiers – and one of the country’s most feared men. In this new New Russia, where futuristic technology and the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible are in perfect synergy, Komiaga will attend extravagant parties, partake in brutal executions, and consume an arsenal of drugs.
Think A Clockwork Orange, only set in a future Socialist state of the Soviet Union. Think Alex, think ultra-violence, think droogs–only all are are state-sanctioned enforcers of the divine monarch’s will. This is a day-in-the-life exploration of New Russia through the eyes of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, one of the oprichniki.
It’s 2028, and Komiaga takes calls on his mobilov, drives a crimson Mercedov (adorned daily with a freshly-severed dog’s head), and activates the vehicle’s State Snarl to push through traffic (when not utilising the designated government-only lanes). He lives in the house of a disgraced comrade from the Treasury who, for his crimes, ‘was dragged with his mug in the dung; banknotes were stuffed in his mouth, it was sewn shut, candle was shoved up his ass, and he was hung on the gates of the estate.’ The property was transferred to Komiaga, who considers it ‘a good house, with a heart and soul.’
Komiaga’s job is to find sedition and mete out state ‘justice.’ The means employed are violent, ruthless, heartless, and frighteningly efficient. Ordered to raid the home of a nobleman with his fellow enforcers, he participates in the gang rape of the nobleman’s wife–with the authority and tacit approval of the state:
This work is–passionate, and absolutely necessary. It gives us more strength to overcome the enemies of the Russian state. Even this succulent work requires a certain seriousness. You have to start and finish by seniority. So this time, I’m first. The widow of the now deceased Ivan Ivanovich thrashes on the table, screaming and moaning. (italics in original)
This is not for the faint-hearted–there are several graphic scenes. There is no suggestion of redemption, or the possibility of redemption, for its anti-hero (unlike A Clockwork Orange); Komiaga commits violent acts with moral certainty. At the end of the novel, Komiaga is safely back in his home and muses as his drifts into sleep that ‘as long as the oprichniks are alive, Russia will be alive. And thank God.’
There are intriguing elements to Sorokin’s future Russia. America has lost its global significance, and it is China and the East which hold economic and political power. China manufactures all necessary goods, and is connected to Europe by the Guangzhou-Paris Road: ‘It’s got ten lanes, and four tracks underground for the high-speed trains. Heavy trailers crawl along the road with their goods 24/7, and the silvery trains whistle.’ Russia is in every way dependent on the Chinese–for their cars, their beds, their toilets–and yet still finds a way to exploit its position by imposing ‘insurance’ on the Chinese to travel through Russia. And for all the availability of Chinese manufactured commodities, the sale of goods within Russia is rigidly controlled by the state:
His Majesty’s father, the late Nikolai Platonovich, had a good idea: liquidate all the foreign supermarkets and replace them with Russian kiosks. And put two types of each thing in every kiosk, so the people have a choice … Choosing one of two things creates spiritual calm, people are imbued with certainty in the future, superfluous fuss and bother is avoided, and consequently–everyone is satisfied. (italics in original)
When I read any work in translation, I have to wonder how much credit (or blame) the translator is due. In this case, my reading experience was not without difficulties. The most glaring intrusion into the narrative flow was the seemingly haphazard use of italicised words. In some cases, it was clear they were used for emphasis, or to indicate foreign words or special concepts. But other times it was simply annoying and jarring … And I am not the only one to comment on this.
Stephen Kotkin’s review in the New York Times raises other issues:
In “Oprichnik,” the playful antique terms and gestures have sometimes confounded the not-to-be-envied translator. Ivan the Terrible’s short-lived oprichnina (literally, “the place apart”) was separated in 1565 from the boyar lands, known as the zemshchina, here mistranslated as Zemstvo, a late-19th-century form of local self-government. Nor were the oprichniks doing “government work,” as translated, but rather acting as a Praetorian Guard of the sovereign, often against the government.
Day of the Oprichnik had the potential to deliver a formidable dystopian vision of new Russia, but it ultimately it falls short. It’s no Clockwork Orange.