SPIEGEL Interview with Author Vladimir Sorokin "Russia Is Slipping Back into an Authoritarian Empire"

Russian author Vladimir Sorokin disscusses waning freedom of opinion in his country, the lack of opposition against President Vladimir Putin and dangerous Western ambivalence that is enabling the Kremlin's growing authoritarian tendencies to take root.

The Russian intelligence agency FSB's headquarters in Moscow

The Russian intelligence agency FSB's headquarters in Moscow

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sorokin, in your new novel "Day of the Oprichnik," you portray an authoritarian Russia ruled by a group of members of the secret police. The story is set in the future, but this future is similar to the past under Ivan the Terrible. Aren't you really drawing parallels to today's Russia?

Sorokin: Of course it's a book about the present. Unfortunately, the only way one can describe it is by using the tools of satire. We still live in a country that was established by Ivan the Terrible.

SPIEGEL: His reign was in the 16th century. The czardom was followed by the Soviet Union, then democracy under (former President Boris) Yeltsin and (current President Vladimir) Putin. Has Russia not yet completed its break with the past?

Sorokin: Nothing has changed when it comes to the divide between the people and the state. The state demands a sacred willingness to make sacrifices from the people.

SPIEGEL: The absolute ruler in your book bears some resemblance to President Vladimir Putin ...

Sorokin: ... which was not my intention. Coming up with a Putin satire wouldn't be very thrilling. I'm an artist, not a journalist. And a novel is not a documentary. In my book, I am searching for an answer to the question of what distinguishes Russia from true democracies.

SPIEGEL: What explanation have you found?

Sorokin: Germans, Frenchmen and Englishmen can say of themselves: "I am the state." I cannot say that. In Russia only the people in the Kremlin can say that. All other citizens are nothing more than human material with which they can do all kinds of things.

SPIEGEL: In old Russian, the word "oprichnik" means "a special one." Do you feel that the divide between the top and the bottom in Russia today can no longer be bridged?

Sorokin: In our country there are special people who are permitted to do anything. They are the sacrificial priests of power. Anyone who is not a member of this group has no clout with the state. One can be as pure as can be -- just as magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was -- and still lose everything in a flash and end up in prison. The Khodorkovsky case is typical of the "oprichnina" -- the system of oppression I describe.

SPIEGEL: Does a character like Khodorkovsky appear in your book?

Sorokin: Such a parallel didn't occur to me. However, my book does begin with an attack on a rich man. This is almost a daily occurrence nowadays. It has always been that way in Russia. Only those who are loyal to the people in power can become wealthy.

SPIEGEL: How is the elite reacting to the literary images you paint?

Sorokin: The reaction to my book has been tumultuous. But I had no other choice than to put all this on paper. I have been carrying around this wish for a long time, and so it took me only three months to write it.

SPIEGEL: Why did you suddenly feel the need to write this book?

Sorokin: The citizen lives in each of us. In the days of Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I was constantly trying to suppress the responsible citizen in me. I told myself that I was, after all, an artist. As a storyteller I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favorite anecdotes: As German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude -- you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was 50. Now the citizen in me has come to life.

SPIEGEL: Some of your novels are filled with violence. In "Ice," for example, human beings are mistreated with hammers made of ice. Why is Russian society still so preoccupied with violence?

Sorokin: As a child I perceived violence as a sort of natural law. In the totalitarian Soviet Union, oppression held everything together. It was the sinister energy of our country. I had that sense by as early as kindergarten and grade school. Later on I wanted to understand why human beings are unable to do without violence. It's a mystery I haven't solved to this day. Yes, violence is my main theme.

SPIEGEL: How is this sinister energy reflected in Russia today?

Sorokin: It is alive in every bureaucrat. Whenever you encounter a minor official, he lets you know that he is above you and that you depend on him. It is reflected in the superpower mentality that nourishes the Kremlin. An empire always demands sacrifices from its people.

SPIEGEL: Criminal proceedings were launched against you five years ago for supposedly pornographic passages in your novel "Blue Bacon Fat." Is censorship about to be reintroduced in Russia?

Sorokin: What happened at the time was an attempt to test writers' steadfastness and the public's willingness to accept open censorship. It didn't work.

SPIEGEL: Did the pressure that was applied to you intimidate other writers?

Sorokin: Certainly. I have Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to thank that a Russian writer can not only write anything he wants today, but also publish it. I don't know what will happen in the future. The media -- television, newspapers and magazines -- are already controlled by the state today.

  • Part 1: "Russia Is Slipping Back into an Authoritarian Empire"
  • Part 2

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