INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR VLADIMIR SOROKIN
“Russia Is Slipping Back into an Authoritarian Empire”
Russian author Vladimir Sorokin disscusses waning freedom of opinionin his country, the lack of opposition against President Vladimir Putin and dangerous Western ambivalence that is enabling the Kremlin’sgrowing authoritarian tendencies to take root.
|The Russian intelligence agency FSB’s headquarters in Moscow|
SPIEGEL: Mr. Sorokin, in your new novel “Day of the Oprichnik,” you portray an authoritarian Russia ruled by a group of members of the secret police. The story is set in the future, but this future is similar to the past under Ivan the Terrible. Aren’t you really drawing parallels to today’s Russia?
Sorokin: Of course it’s a book about the present. Unfortunately, the only way one can describe it is by using the tools of satire. We still live in a country that was established by Ivan the Terrible.
SPIEGEL: His reign was in the 16th century. The czardom was followed by the Soviet Union, then democracy under (former President Boris) Yeltsin and (current President Vladimir) Putin. Has Russia not yet completed its break with the past?
Sorokin: Nothing has changed when it comes to the divide between the people and the state. The state demands a sacred willingness to make sacrifices from the people.
SPIEGEL: The absolute ruler in your book bears some resemblance to President Vladimir Putin …
Sorokin: … which was not my intention. Coming up with a Putin satire wouldn’t be very thrilling. I’m an artist, not a journalist. And a novel is not a documentary. In my book, I am searching for an answerto the question of what distinguishes Russia from true democracies.
SPIEGEL: What explanation have you found?
|Vladimir Sorokin is one of the best- known contemporary authors in Russia. He established his literary reputation in the West with his novels “The Queue,” and “Ice.” In his latest book, “Day of the Oprichnik,” he describes Russia in the year 2028 as a nationalist country ruled with an iron fist that has shut itself off from the West by building a wall.|
Sorokin: Germans, Frenchmen and Englishmen can say of themselves: “Iam the state.” I cannot say that. In Russia only the people in the Kremlin can say that. All other citizens are nothing more than human material with which they can do all kinds of things.
SPIEGEL: In old Russian, the word “oprichnik” means “a special one.” Do you feel that the divide between the top and the bottom in Russia today can no longer be bridged?
Sorokin: In our country there are special people who are permitted to do anything. They are the sacrificial priests of power. Anyone who is not a member of this group has no clout with the state. One can be as pure as can be — just as magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was – and still lose everything in a flash and end up in prison. The Khodorkovsky case is typical of the “oprichnina” — the system of oppression I describe.
SPIEGEL: Does a character like Khodorkovsky appear in your book?
Sorokin: Such a parallel didn’t occur to me. However, my book does begin with an attack on a rich man. This is almost a daily occurrence nowadays. It has always been that way in Russia. Only those who are loyal to the people in power can become wealthy.
SPIEGEL: How is the elite reacting to the literary images you paint?
Sorokin: The reaction to my book has been tumultuous. But I had no other choice than to put all this on paper. I have been carrying around this wish for a long time, and so it took me only three monthsto write it.
SPIEGEL: Why did you suddenly feel the need to write this book?
Sorokin: The citizen lives in each of us. In the days of Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I was constantly trying to suppress the responsible citizen in me. I told myself that I was, after all, an artist. As a storyteller I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favorite anecdotes: As German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude — you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was 50. Now the citizen in me has come to life.
SPIEGEL: Some of your novels are filled with violence. In “Ice,” for example, human beings are mistreated with hammers made of ice. Why is Russian society still so preoccupied with violence?
Sorokin: As a child I perceived violence as a sort of natural law. In the totalitarian Soviet Union, oppression held everything together. It was the sinister energy of our country. I had that sense by as early as kindergarten and grade school. Later on I wanted to understand why human beings are unable to do without violence. It’s a mystery I haven’t solved to this day. Yes, violence is my main theme.
SPIEGEL: How is this sinister energy reflected in Russia today?
Sorokin: It is alive in every bureaucrat. Whenever you encounter a minor official, he lets you know that he is above you and that you depend on him. It is reflected in the superpower mentality that nourishes the Kremlin. An empire always demands sacrifices from its people.
SPIEGEL: Criminal proceedings were launched against you five years ago for supposedly pornographic passages in your novel “Blue Bacon Fat.” Is censorship about to be reintroduced in Russia?
Sorokin: What happened at the time was an attempt to test writers’ steadfastness and the public’s willingness to accept open censorship. It didn’t work.
SPIEGEL: Did the pressure that was applied to you intimidate other writers?
Sorokin: Certainly. I have Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to thank that a Russian writer can not only write anything he wants today, but also publish it. I don’t know what will happen in the future. The media — television, newspapers and magazines – are already controlled by the state today.
SPIEGEL: One of the characters in your book brags “that not just one diplomat was expelled from Moscow, not just one journalist was thrown from the television tower and not just one whistle blower was drowned in the river.” When you wrote this you knew nothing about the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
Sorokin: I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world — that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain. There is much talk about Russia being a fortress. Orthodox churches, autocracy and national traditions are supposed to form a new national ideology. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.
SPIEGEL: How realistic is such a relapse in a globalized world?
Sorokin: Putin likes to quote a sentence from Czar Alexander III, who said that Russian has only two allies — the army and the navy. As a citizen, this makes me sit up and take notice. This is a concept of self-imposed isolation, a defense strategy that sees Russia surrounded by enemies. When I turn on the TV I see a general calmly claiming that our missiles are ahead of the latest American models by three five-year plans. It’s a nightmare. We are creating a concept of the enemy, just as they did in the Soviet era. This is a giant step backward.
SPIEGEL: You have no confidence in the current Kremlin administration?
Sorokin: This is their fault, not mine. My television teaches me that everything was wonderful in the Soviet Union. According to the programs I watch, the KGB and apparatchiks were angels, and the Stalin era was so festive that the heroes of the day must still be celebrated today.
SPIEGEL: Why is there no opposition from Russia’s legendary intelligentsia?
Sorokin: It’s astonishing. I can’t help but gain the impression that our champions of the freedom of opinion — writers, emigrants and civil rights activists — had only one goal in mind: the collapse of the Soviet Union, started by Alexander Solzhenitzyn. And now they are all silent.
SPIEGEL: How do you feel about the former chess world champion, Garry Kasparov, who is trying to build an opposition movement?
Sorokin: I have respect for him and other members of the opposition movement, like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and (politician) Irina Khakamada. But these politicians do not exist for most people.About the only place you will find them is on the Internet. If a state-owned station were to report tomorrow that Kasyanov was visiting Russian cities and talking to the people, the manager of that station would be looking for a new job the next day.
SPIEGEL: What can be done?
Sorokin: It’s pointless to expect change to be ordered from above. The bureaucracy has grown such powerful roots, and corruption is so widespread, that these people have no interest in changing anything.
SPIEGEL: In other words, everything is hopeless?
Sorokin: Everyone must awaken the citizen within himself. The Russian philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev once said that Russia has many ideas and few goods. It was that way throughout the entire 20th century. Only in the last 15 years have the Russians managed to dress up and eat their fill. However, people with full bellies tend become drowsy. This explains, for example, the disinterest among students. In no other country are they as apathetic as they are here.
SPIEGEL: With so much pessimism, do you even like your fellow Russian people?
Sorokin: The word “people” is unpleasant to me. The phrase “Soviet people” was drummed into us from childhood on. I love concrete people, enlightened people who live conscious lives and do not simply sit there and vegetate. To love the people you have to be the general secretary of the Communist Party or an absolute dictator. The poet Josef Brodsky once said: The trees are more important to me than the forest.
SPIEGEL: In your book you describe a wall with which Russia isolates itself from the West. Why is this wall built?
Sorokin: After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, former party officials burned their party books and traded in their black Volga limousines for black German-made sedans. That was it. We had no purifying revolution. Neither Communist Party officials nor KGB generals were forced to give up the reins of power. In August 1991, Iwas in the crowd standing in front of the Lubyanka KGB building when the monument to KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was toppled. It seemed as if a new era was about to begin. But we underestimated the power ofthe Soviet Union. It became ingrained in people’s consciousness over the course of seven decades. After German reunification, West Germany became a mirror for former East German citizens. We didn’t have that.
SPIEGEL: You hold a degree in petroleum engineering. Was the latest confrontation with Belarus over natural gas and oil an expression of Moscow’s power politics?
Sorokin: Our government hasn’t become accustomed to the fact yet that Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Baltic states — in fact, the entire former Soviet Union — are now independent countries. Incidentally, I wrote my thesis on the development of dampers for oil pipelines.
SPIEGEL: Did this expertise come in handy in your book?
Sorokin: Yes, there is a sentence in it that reads: “We shut the damper, as the czar ordered.”
SPIEGEL: How should German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, behave in dealing with the Russian government?
Sorokin: The West should be even more vocal in insisting that the Russians respect human rights. All compromise aside, I ask myself whether Russia is moving in the direction of democracy. I don’t believe it is! Bit by bit, Russia is slipping back into an authoritarian empire. The worst thing that can happen to us is indifference in the West — that is, if it were interested in nothing but oil and gas. I am always surprised when I watch the weather report on German television. First they show the map of Europe and then the camera moves to the right. Then comes Kiev, then Moscow and then everything stops. This seems to be the West’s view of us — of a wild Russia that begins past Moscow, a place one prefers not to see. This is a big mistake. The West must pay closer attention.
SPIEGEL: Does the West understand Russia?
Sorokin: Yes and no. In Russia no one is surprised when an official accepts a bribe while at the same time portraying the state as some sacred entity to which the bourgeois should pay homage. This all sounds absurd to you. But for Russians it is completely normal.
SPIEGEL: There used to be a similar attitude toward the state in Germany. But that changed after the Nazi dictatorship. Nowadays the state plays a more modest role in society, just as it does in America.
Sorokin: That just happens to be democracy. The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov once said: In a Democracy, portraits of a nation’s leader should never exceed the size of a postage stamp. That won’t happen so quickly in our country.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Sorokin, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Matthias Schepp.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
February 02, 2007.