Sorokin: Day of Oprichnik (2008)

In chaotic and deteriorating political situation the option offered by those who preach strong law and order is tempting. But there is always a price to be paid, no matter what variation of order they suggest. The question is always whose law is it anyway? In Vladimir Sorokin‘s “Day of Oprichnik” the answer is clear cut: the tzar’s and the revitalized feudal system’s. The book is set in 2028’s Russian empire, where the tzar rules over his subjects, whose human rights are severely limited.

That was an understatement, as in this vision executions are not just public but popular too, freedom of religion and press is non-existent, books are used for burning, torture, public humiliation, confiscation of property is common place and rape by officials is expected. On the “plus” side technologically Russia didn’t sink back after it cut itself off from the West: cell-phones, television, jet travels, security system, computers are almost as rampant here as in the West, except less people can afford them. This was possible only because Russia was selling its natural resources, e.g. oil, gas, metals, and the Western world was more than willing to pay for it. As, unlike under communism, the idea of social justice didn’t get any lip service, redistribution of good is not a concern: i.e. all belongs to the tzar and those who serve him.

Speaking of the “West” this book gave a new twist to the old joke, that put two overused slogans next to each other.:

Where does capitalism stand? At the brink of a disaster.
Where does socialism stand? Always a step ahead capitalism.

In relation the above where does post-feudalism stand? According to Sorokin everywhere. He describes a solid system, that may “work” for a long time. It “works” only for those who are close to the top, but even they play a hazardous game as they can lose everything at a moment’s notice, as it happened to the Tzar’s son-in-law. Nevertheless based on the description it could last “for a thousand year”.

I was a bit hesitant to give the title as above, because as far as I know the book hasn’t been published in English yet. The Russian title is “Dyeny oprichnika,” but I read it in Hungarian where the title (“Az opricsnyik egy napja”) was the equivalent of “A day of the oprichnik”. In case you are wondering what an oprichnik is here are some excerpts from wikipedia article:

An Oprichnik was a member of an organization established by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to govern the division of Russia known as the Oprichnina (1565-1572.) … Literal meaning of Oprichnik : Man apart… The Oprichniki were responsible for the torture and murder of internal enemies of the Tsar. Notorious for their violent means of enforcement, they could be compared to modern “death squads” or even secret police. Guided by Ivan, they laid waste to civilian populations.

This book follows a single day of a high-level oprichnik from waking up with a serious hangover, to killing, torturing, visiting an oracle, drinking, using drugs and ending with a communal late night dinner/bacchanalia and one more murder. There you have the story in one sentence. His next day is probably similarly chaotic and violent. But the story is just a vehicle for delivering a vision of a possible future. The dark shadow it casts looms over my imagination as I am thinking of the upcoming (in three weeks) election in Hungary. Hungary is in a situation where going back to strong hand tradition (against liberal democracy) and to the imagined good old days is a “solution” lot of people would like to see to the current economic and moral crisis. Those who actually want to reestablish monarchy are not numerous, so that’s not going to happen. But the number of those who would love to see an oprichnina-like organization is growing. I just hope they won’t get enough votes. This novel helped me visualize what their rule might look like. Not pretty.

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