Zakhar Prilepin has experienced a meteoric rise, both as a literary phenomenon and as a political activist. At 36, he is one of Russia’s most acclaimed authors, and his novel Sin was voted one of the most important books to come out of Russia in the past decade.
Prilepin’s new work, Vosmerka or “Eight”, is the most anticipated Russian book of 2012. Prilepin says the story shows how friendships fall apart for no good reason. A film of the book is already being filmed by the director Alexei Uchitel.
It is hard to imagine that 10 years ago Zakhar Prilepin, then Yevgeny Prilepin, veteran of two wars in Chechnya, was a poorly paid officer with the special police unit Omon. His salary of 830 roubles (now about £18) a week could not cover the expenses of his first baby. To help keep food on the table, Prilepin took shifts where he checked trucks coming from the Northern Caucasus.
“The drivers never had proper transit documents,” he says. “I let them pass and they gave me bananas, apples and sometimes 50-rouble bills – I was not ashamed.”
The daily pressure to find money and food for his growing family eventually pushed him to reinvent himself. In 1999, when Prilepin graduated from university, one of his college friends suggested he apply for a job at the newspaper Delo. He did and quickly rose to become the chief editor. At the same time he wrote his debut novel, Pathologies , which was awarded the National Bestseller prize.
Pathologies portrays Yegor, an immature and frightened Omon commander in Chechnya. “War does not make people any different, but it exaggerates the traits the person already has,” Prilepin explains. “If you like people, you are a humanist; if you have maniacal thoughts, you are a total maniac.”
He adds that, while his books are not autobiographical, he relates to his protagonists: Sankya, a National Bolshevik revolution leader in Sankya; and Zakhar, a bar bouncer in Sin .
Today, Prilepin is the editor of the Nizhny Novgorod bureau of Russia’s investigative newspaper, Novaya Gazeta . He lives with his wife, Masha, and their four children in a remote village on the Kerzhenets river with two dogs and three cats. “If only they paid us well in Omon, I would still be a police officer today,” he says.
Critics have compared Prilepin to Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s great-grandneice Tatyana Tolstaya, author of Pushkin’s Children andSleepwalker in a Fog, says Prilepin “is the biggest event in today’s Russian literature; his language reminds us of Tolstoy”.
Prilepin acknowledges that Tolstoy is his idol: “Of course I am a typical follower. If only I could feel safe about the future of my family in Russia, I would have 12 children and never leave my village,” he says.
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