EDITORIAL: A Russian Phantasmagoria

The plot of Vladimir Sorokin’s latest novel, The Blizzard, can be summed up in three sentences. Physician with a Bunin-like name Platon Ilyich Garin travels to a village where an epidemic broke out, carrying a vaccine. Days go by and he is unable to reach his destination: one day he breaks a sleigh runner, another day he wanders off the trail, and then again he succumbs to the charms of a beautiful miller’s wife. And the eponymous blizzard is raging around him.

As in Sorokin’s previous novel Day of the Oprichnik, the plot of the book is set in a not very distant future, probably in the second half of the current century. Nevertheless the social realities, as well as the deliberately archaic Russian of the protagonists, call to mind 19th-century provincial Russia. Or perhaps even the eternal and unchanging Muscovy, piled with never melting snow. A country reached by modern civilisation only in the form of the newest technological gadgets: samovar (19th century), phone (20th century) and “scooter” (21st century).

Garin moves in just such a scooter, a kind of sleigh pulled by fifty very small ponies. As the coachman Perkhusha explains, the ponies the size of partridges are much cheaper to maintain than traditional horses, as they can be fed clover. Hence their popularity in the poor Russian countryside, where in the late 21st century, just like 200 years ago, you have to do everything almost with your bare hands.

For the future Russia Sorokin’s style is a country of total deindustrialisation—and advanced biotechnology. Since all natural resources have been exhausted, living organisms, humans and animals, are the only renewable source of energy. Biomass is also the basic raw material and tool. For example, when you construct a house which is several stories high, you do not use cranes, but huge draft horses tailor-made in the laboratory. Such horses also pull sleigh trains, consisting of a number of wagons carrying both passengers and freight. Charged with felling trees are men the size of three-storey houses. Of course there are also people (and horses) of traditional proportions, such as Garin, his coachman and miller’s wife who is hosting them (although her husband is a Lilliputian no taller than a bottle of vodka).

It is not difficult to guess that against such a range of human dimensions racial differences fade. Russians, Kazakhs and Chinese (of the same size) peacefully coexist in the country ruled by a serene monarch. Existing on the side-lines of the patriarchal society are only the mysterious Vitaminese, forming a close circle of producers, traders and consumers of so-called products, allowing explorations of altered states of consciousness.

Where did the giants and Lilliputians come from? And why do the dead arise from permafrost and bite innocent villagers, infecting them with a mysterious disease called Chernukha (Blackie)? We never learn that, but we can guess that the origin of the biopolitical system of this old-new Russia reaches back to the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century” (as Vladimir Putin famously said), that is the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Sorokin (1955), a specialist in oil and gas extraction by training, and a novelist, painter and book illustrator by vocation, made his debut—believe it or not—almost half a century ago, in 1972. The Soviet Union was then at the height of its power. Russians flew into space more often than all the other inhabitants of the globe put together, and the scant dissidents were locked in psychiatric wards—for in a country of real socialism only loonies could oppose the regime.

And today? The former conquerors of space are reduced to digging holes in the permafrost in search of remnants of oil and gas. If it goes on like that, they will be left with biomass and in vitro horses.

More seriously speaking, it is worth noting that the plot of this, it would seem, quintessentially Russian novel is a pastiche of the classic song cycle by Franz Schubert called “The Miller’s Beautiful Wife” (Die Schöne Müllerin, 1823), with lyrics by Wilhelm Müller. Sorokin shifts the drama of an infatuated romantic wanderer to the reality of snowy, post-industrial Russia. The wanderings of a young man, haunted by a presentiment of suicidal death, in painterly scenery of Germanic meadows and flowers turn into an insane Anabasis of a 42-year-old Russian sawbones and his moronic coachman, who needs three days to cover a distance of just seventeen versts. At a pinch this can be perceived as an allegory of the crippled modernisation. Especially that the last word in the book—as in the majority of catastrophic visions by contemporary Russian writers— belongs to the Chinese. It reads: “Guale!”. And it means “he is dead and gone”.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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