Howling Soviet Monsters

In Vladimir Sorokin’s novel The Queue, one of the protagonists is struggling with a crossword: ‘1 Across – Russian Soviet writer.’ Suggestions come from people next to him in the long line that is the book’s setting and subject – Sholokhov, Mayakovsky? – but are rejected, because neither fits both adjectives at the same time. When Sorokin wrote The Queue in the 1980s, these adjectives – always in tension – could still sit together in a handful of cases (the answer settled on is Gorky); but since then, they have been severed from each other by the watershed of 1991, and now represent distinct historical epochs, as well as two separate literary cultures.

Sorokin has the rare distinction of having been an enfant terrible in both of them. He was born near Moscow in 1955 and became active in the literary and artistic underground of the late Brezhnev era. The Queue, his first book, was published in Paris in 1985. Since then he has been prolific in a variety of genres – stories, novels, plays, screenplays, an opera libretto – but he is best known in Russia for attracting the disapproval of the Putinite youth movement Walking Together, which claimed his novel Blue Lard was pornographic. In 2002 its members staged a protest in central Moscow, helpfully handing out leaflets reproducing the offending passages – among them a sex scene featuring Stalin and Khrushchev – before ceremonially throwing copies of the book into a giant papier-mâché toilet. The legal charges filed against Sorokin were eventually dropped, but the episode confirmed his status as provocateur-in-chief of contemporary Russian letters.

His career began in the mid-1970s, when he entered the circle of the Moscow Conceptualists. At a time when Western conceptual artists were responding to the imagery and language of a commercialised mass culture, their Soviet counterparts appropriated the slogans and monumental art of an official culture that, by the time of the Brezhnevite ‘stagnation’, had been hollowed out into a set of ideological clichés. In the work of Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, stock Soviet phrases and symbols appeared as signs floating free of any real referent: the bombastic letters bestriding the sky in Bulatov’s large canvases (‘Glory to the CPSU!’), or the rows upon rows of white rectangles that comprise Komar and Melamid’s ‘Quotation’, where we don’t even need to see the words to recognise a deadened formula.

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin

Tony Wood in LRB

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