Richard reviews Vladimir Sorokin’s ‘Day of the Oprichnik’

While perusing a monthly magazine of published novels, I read that retired Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov recommended Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik. I like Kasparov, so that was good enough for me.

The novel, translated from the Russian (original title: День опричника), is about a day in the life of head oprichnik (a KGB-type agent who serves the Russian tsar) Andrei Danilovich Komiaga. We follow him around as he maintains order for the tsar. It’s set about 15 years in the future, and the tsars again rule Russia. Komiaga maintains order by murdering a treacherous noble, gang-raping the noble’s wife (we learn Komiaga has a foot fetish), and traveling around Russia to subdue uprisings and gather information. He also has to deal with a major scandal in the tsar’s family, and we learn Komiaga has the hots for one voluptuous member of the family (she is strictly off-limits). He and his fellow oprichniki indulge in activities strictly prohibited for normal Russian citizens. Then there’s a homosexual orgy near the end as they indulge on Viagra.

I suppose the drugs and weird sex are products of a very busy, stressful schedule that allows for little sleep.

Ray Bradbury famously said he wrote Fahrenheit 451 to prevent the future, and I wonder if Vladimir Sorokin wrote this novel as a way of reminding Russians what it would be like to be ruled by a tsar again. Terror, oppression. For many Russians who view their country objectively, there is little difference between the corruption of the tsars and corruption of the communists. The happy balance would be some sort of democracy, but of course, the situation is far more complicated.

I found this book to be fascinating, overall. It’s an introduction into Russian literature for me. I’d love to read the classics along with read Russian science fiction.

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