Day of the Oprichnik 2006 novel by Vladimir Sorokin,
translated by Jamie Gambrell
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Always the same dream: I’m walking across an endless field, a Russian field. Ahead, beyond the receding horizon, I spy a white stallion; I walk toward him, I sense that this stallion is unique, the stallion of all stallions, dazzling, a sorcerer, fleet-footed; I make haste, but cannot overtake him, I quicken my pace, shout, call to him, and realize suddenly: this stallion contains—all life, my entire destiny, my good fortune, that I need him like the very air; and I run, run, run after him, but he recedes with ever measured pace, heeding no one or thing, he is leaving me, leaving forever more, everlastingly, irrevocably, leaving, leaving, leaving…
My mobilov awakens me:
One crack of the whip—a scream.
Three—the death rattle.
Poyarok recorded it in the Secret Department, when they were torturing the Far Eastern general. It could even wake a corpse.
I put the cold mobilov to my warm, sleepy ear. “Komiaga speaking.”
“The best of health, Andrei Danilovich. Korostylev troubling you, sir.” The voice of the old clerk from the Ambassadorial Department makes me snap to, and immediately his anxious, mustache-adorned snout appears in the air nearby.
“State your business.”
“I beg to remind you: this evening, the reception for the Albanian ambassador is to take place. A dozen or so attendants are required.”
“I know,” I mutter grumpily, though, truth be told, I’d forgotten.
“Forgive me for troubling you. All in the line of duty.”
I put the mobilov on the bedside table. Why the hell is the ambassador’s clerk reminding me about attendants? Ah, that’s right…now the ambassadorials are directing the hand-washing rite…I forgot…Keeping my eyes closed, I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and shake my head: it feels heavy after yesterday evening. I grope around for the bell, and ring it. Beyond the wall I can hear Fedka jump up from his pallet, bustle about; the dishes clink. I sit still, my head bowed and unwilling to wake up: yesterday, once more I had to fill the cup to the brim, although I solemnly swore to drink and snort only with my own fellows; I did ninety-nine bows of repentance in Uspensky Cathedral and prayed to St. Boniface. Down the drain! What can I do? I cannot refuse the great boyar Kirill Ivanovich. He’s intelligent and gives wise, crafty advice. I value a man who’s clever, in stark contrast to Poyarok and Sivolai. I could listen to Kirill Ivanovich’s sage advice without end, but without his coke he isn’t very talkative.
“Best of health to you, Andrei Danilovich.”
I open my eyes.
Fedka is holding a tray. His face is creased and lopsided as it is every morning. He’s carrying a traditional hangover assortment: a glass of white kvass, a jigger of vodka, a half-cup of marinated cabbage juice. I drink the juice. It nips my nose and purses my cheekbones. Exhaling, I toss the vodka down in a single gulp. Tears spring to my eyes, blurring Fedka’s face. I remember almost everything—who I am, where, and what for. I steady my pace, inhaling cautiously. I wash the vodka down with the kvass. The minute of Great Immobility passes. I burp heartily, with an inner groan, and wipe away the tears. Now I remember everything.
Fedka removes the tray and kneels, holding his arm out. Leaning on it, I rise. Fedka smells worse in the morning than in the evening. That’s the truth of his body, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Birch branches and steam baths won’t help. Stretching and creaking, I walk over to the iconostasis, light the lampion, and kneel. I say my morning prayers, bow low. Fedka stands behind me; he yawns and crosses himself.
Finishing my prayers, I rise, leaning on Fedka again. I go to the bath. I wash my face in the well water Fedka has prepared with floating slivers of ice. I look at myself in the mirror. My face is slightly puffy, the flare of my nostrils covered with blue veins; my hair is matted. The first touch of gray streaks my temples. A bit early for my age. But such is our job—nothing to be done about it.
Having taken care of my business, large and small, I climb into the Jacuzzi, turn it on, and lean back against the warm, comfortable head support. I look at the mural on the ceiling: girls picking cherries in a garden. It’s soothing. I look at the girlish legs, at the baskets of ripe cherries. Water fills the bath, foaming and gurgling around my body. The vodka inside and the foam outside gradually bring me to my senses. After a quarter hour, the gurgling stops. I lie there a bit longer. I press a button. Fedka enters with a towel and robe. He helps me climb out of the Jacuzzi, covers me with the towel, and wraps me in the robe. I move on into the dining room. Tanyusha is already serving breakfast. The news bubble is on the far wall. I give the command:
The bubble flashes and the sky blue, white, and red flag of the Motherland with the gold two-headed eagle unfurls; the bells of the church of Ivan the Great ring. Sipping tea with raspberries, I watch the news: departmental clerks and district councils in the North Caucasus section of the Southern Wall have been stealing again. The Far Eastern Pipeline will remain closed until petition from the Japanese. The Chinese are enlarging their settlements in Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk. The trial of the moneychangers from the Urals’ Treasury continues. The Tatars are building a smart palace in honor of His Majesty’s anniversary. Those featherbrains from the Healer’s Academy are completing work on the aging gene. The Muromsk psaltery players will give two concerts in our Whitestone Kremlin. Count Trifon Bagrationovich Golitsyn beat his young wife. In January there will be no flogging on Sennaya Square in St. Petrograd. The ruble’s up another half-kopeck against the yuan.
Tanyusha serves cheese pancakes, steamed turnips in honey, and cranberry kissel. Unlike Fedka, Tanyusha is fair of face and fragrant. Her skirts rustle pleasantly.
The strong tea and cranberry return me to life. I break into a healthy sweat. Tanyusha hands me a towel that she embroidered. I wipe my face, stand, cross myself, and thank the Lord for the meal.
It’s time to get down to business.
The barber, a newcomer, is already waiting in the dressing room, to which I proceed. Silent, stocky Samson bows and seats me in front of the mirror; he massages my face and rubs my neck with lavender oil. His hands, like those of all barbers, are unpleasant. But I disagree in principle with the cynic Mandelstam—the authorities are in no way “repellent, like the hands of a beard-cutter.” They’re lovely and appealing, like the womb of a virgin needleworker embroidering gold-threaded fancywork. And the hands of a beard-cutter are…well, what can you do—women are not allowed to shave our beards. From an orange spray can labeled “Genghis Khan,” Samson spreads foam on my cheeks with extreme precision; without touching my beautiful, narrow beard he picks up the razor and sharpens it on the strop in sweeping strokes. He takes aim, tucks in his lower lip, and begins to remove the foam from my face, evenly and smoothly. I look at myself. My cheeks aren’t very fresh anymore. These last two years I’ve lost half a pood. Circles under my eyes are now the norm. All of us suffer from chronic lack of sleep. Last night was no exception.
Exchanging his razor blade for an electric machine, Samson deftly trims my poleaxe-shaped beard.
I wink at myself sternly: “A good morning to you, Komiaga!”
From the New York Times Book Review: "Sorokin’s pyrotechnics are often craftily twinned with Soviet-era references and conventions. The title and 24-hour frame of Day of the Oprichnik shout to mind Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), an exposé of a Gulag camp that depicts an Everyman-victim who finds dignity in labor, almost like a Socialist Realist hero. But whereas Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece unintentionally demonstrated the deep impact that Soviet tropes had had on its author, Sorokin’s comic turn deliberately shows how Soviet and even Old Muscovy mentalities persist."
Amazon User Review:" Vladimir Sorokin is worth reading more for political than literary reasons. He is a courageous post-Soviet critic of the authoritarian backsliding and Orwellian fog of the Putin period. His understanding of Russian history and culture is such that he is able to place the Putin regime's nationalistic, xenophobic megalomania into the context to which it belongs. His obvious point is historical continuity between medieval Muscovy and dystopian Putinism. Here, of course, the "oprichnina" with its dog's head and broomtail is a reference back to Ivan the Terrible's thuggish proto-secret police, the oprichnina, "sniffing out" and "sweeping away" seditious enemies, real and imagined, of the paranoid medieval Muscovite despot, just as Sorokin's future set of oprichnik notables are portrayed defending an insular and xenophobic neo-tsarist Kremlin of the first half of the twenty-first century.
Viewed from a slightly different angle, "Oprichnik" is a dystopic projection of the Putin's defensive nostalgia for Holy Russia's anti-Western, authoritarian great power grandeur into the near future. Sorokin's writing relies on moments of raw semi-pornographic references which presumably can be justified as necessary to capture and satirize the hypocrisy of the Putin regime's claim to be the global protector of conservative morality and tradition. What we see is a satirical jeering at the ugly marriage of Russian Orthodoxy and anti-Western puritanical bigotry which has become characteristic of the Putin regime, an ideological replacement for the loss of Marxism-Leninism.
In the mid-19th century Tocqueville warned the West, "Today Russia says 'I am Christianity.' Tomorrow Russia will say, 'I am socialism." Back to square one: In Sorokin's satire Russia is "Holy" once again, and that holiness expresses itself in authoritarianism, xenophobia, hypocrisy, corruption, and sexual license.