Day of the Oprichnik

CW: although glossed, this post includes allusions to sexual assault that took place in the novel.

My mobilov awakens me:

One crack of the whip—a scream.
Two—a moan.
Three—a death rattle.

Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of an Oprichnik is like? Well, you might be, if you Western readers knew what an Oprichnik was. When his majesty ended the Red and Grey Troubles and restored Russia, he wisely followed the precedent of Ivan Grozny in reconstituting the Oprichnina, a fanatical bodyguard dedicated to rooting out his majesty’s enemies. Work and Word!

Now, for the first time, Vladimir Sorokin has shared with the world the important work that the Oprichnina is doing on behalf of Russia by following Andrei Danilovich Komiaga for a full day, from the moment he awakens hungover from one long day until the moment he returns to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Between those moments of rest, Komiaga flies around Moscow, and even all of Russia, in service of the Czar. One moment he must make an example of a disloyal nobleman, executing him, of course, while giving his wife a lesson she will never forget and sending his children to a home where they will be raised to be loyal. Then he is off to hear a petition from an actress on behalf of a prisoner and then to the far east where he must put straight petty bureaucrats and Chinese diplomats about a commercial dispute. On the way back to Moscow he must visit a clairvoyant and upon his return he sits witness to a play with potential slander against the Empress, who immediately summons him to his side while she breakfasts as the rest of Russia sups, enjoying the appropriate rewards of her position. Finally, Komiaga concludes his day with the essential Oprichnina communal meal at Batyas, which provide opportunities to greet important guests—even his highness may come!—and build a sense of hierarchy and purpose. This is why we must applaud Batya’s decision to end these gatherings with the caterpiller in the bathhouse.

As I said, a day full of important business on behalf of the Tsar. Laser guns are merely tools without men to use them. Who else will help oversee the Western Wall and European pipeline dispute? Or so carefully enforce his majesty’s wise bans on profanity? Or keep those jackals among the nobility in line? Work and Word!

We must make some concessions for all of this work, of course. His majesty properly banned drugs like the aquarium for people, but shooting up these little fish reinvigorate us and hone our sense of purpose, while the Oprichnik leadership soars as a seven-headed dragon! Greasing is the only way anything gets done, so we must get our cut, and it is only natural that we secure our position by ensuring a steady stream of dissent. It would be a tragedy if his majesty were to not see our worth and rashly disband us, his most loyal servants! Hail!

The Czar has put Russia back to rights. We might use Chinese technology and our children might learn Chinese slang, but men are men and the church again ascendant. No longer is society oppressed by the loose morals of the west or tainted by atheism or “feminism.” What nonsense, and just look where it got them. No, traditional Russian values are best, just as Russian literature is best. His majesty was right to build the wall. With the help of God and the Oprichnina, Russia is more powerful than ever. This power came with casualties, but these are a small price to pay. We have the technology to put dissenters under surveillance and the will to take care of them, if need be. Anything for his majesty. Hail!

Perhaps with Sorokin’s feature, the children of those grasping people who were in business only for themselves will finally understand the purpose of our labor. Work and Word!

Work and Word!


How else to write a review of a satirical critique of technology, monarchy, and modern Russia other than to offer the portrait unreserved praise? The Day of the Oprichnik is a frequently disturbing portrait of near-future Russia, in a world with a restored monarchy, border walls, and modern technology turned toward protecting a brutal regime that exploits its people in the name of protecting them. A select few live large in this system, while everyone else suffers.


I’m chipping away at my backlog of books that includes Sudden Death, A Gathering of Shadows, and Sugar Street. I am now reading David Epstein’s Range, a book about education, learning, and why we should develop general skills before, and sometimes in lieu of, narrow ones.

Odessa – Charles King

Situated on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, the site of Odessa was a backwater Turkish fort overlooking a small fishing village. During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-1796) the fort fell to Russian forces and Jose Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, a Neapolitan man born to a Spanish father and Italian mother, then in Catherine’s service, saw potential for the site to become Russia’s southern port. With the empress’ blessing, de Ribas laid out the new city along a European pattern.

Despite problems with sanitation and clean water (the city is not set on a river), outbreaks of plague from Ottoman ships, and intermittent crises over Ottoman control of the Bosporus, Odessa flourished. Hard by three major rivers agricultural goods from the Russian interior converged on the city, while liberal trade policies made it an attractive destination for merchants, its mild climate and European accouterments made it attractive to ex-patriots, and Russian reticence to move south led to economic privileges to Jews that were not common elsewhere in the empire. Odesssa’s newness made it exceptional compared to other cities, with fewer regulations and a wilder population that fostered creativity and crime, particularly in the years before the revolution.

According to Charles King, the popular conception of Odessa (such that one exists) is a fiction made from nostalgia and propaganda that is perpetually being redrawn. After 1918, for instance, Odessa came to be regarded as one of the original cities for the Russian revolution, but this reputation was the product of the movie Battleship Potemkin that valorized a mutiny aboard an imperial naval vessel of that name. Likewise, Odessa changed fundamentally when it was occupied by Romanian forces during World War 2, both because a limited number of episodes added it to the list of Soviet hero cities resisting occupation and because the occupation irreversibly changed the demographics of the city. The Jewish population of Odessa was gone.

There is obviously a good deal more to Odessa than the briefest sketch laid out above, and King wanders into the realm of biography to flesh out the picture of the literary and political luminaries, as well as a number of the criminals, that left their mark on Odessa or had Odessa leave its mark on them. There were time that my attention flagged—I picked Odessa out of the library stacks for no other reason than that members of my family lived there before coming to the United States, though none of them rose to the level of inclusion—but that is going to happen. From a historical perspective, King’s greatest feat and perhaps the most fascinating part of Odessa the city is the extent to which the character of a community is constructed through both stories and monuments. To give one notable example, Odessa’s most famous monument is the Potemkin Steps, a set of staircases that connect the harbor to the city atop which sits a statue of Richelieu, a French expat and early governor of the city. One might assume that the steps were named for Grigory Potemkin, whose military campaign captured the town for Russia or at least for the Battleship Potemkin mutineers, but, in fact, it was neither. Naturally, the steps were named for the movie Battleship Potemkin. King brings this type of layered memorializations to the front of his narrative time and again, building the cultural legacy of Odessa into the series of political and economic decisions that shaped the population that inhabited this comparatively young city.


I also recently finished reading Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, a psychological novel that I found simultaneously insightful and problematic, and the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms. Next up is going to be something non-fiction, either Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade or Chuck Klostermann’s What if we’re wrong.

The Foundation Pit – Andrey Platonov

“It’s the way things are done,” replied Chiklin. “The dead are all special—they’re important people.”

"Telling me!" Exclaimed Nastya in astonishment. "I don't know why people go on living. why doesn't everyone die and become important."

The Foundation Pit opens with the worker Voschev being “made redundant” in the factory where he works. In a modern setting this redundancy would be the result of automation, but in 1920s Soviet Union it is a euphemism for any sort of expendability—in this case, a more mundane issue of growing old and being unable to keep up with the pace of work. So Voschev is set adrift only join in with a team of workers digging the eponymous foundation pit that will allow for the construction of palatial halls for all of the region’s collectivized workers to live. As the ambitions of collectivization grow, so too do the plans for the building and so the pit has to be ever expanded…but there is an irony in that while the proposed building grows up, but the work only ever goes down. What is intended to be the foundation for future growth can just as easily turn into a grave.

In the place of a strong plot (which defaults to, “dig more!”), The Foundation Pit is built from scenes with stock characters: a disabled revolutionary veteran, the tireless worker, the morbid child, the black-smithing bear. Platonov builds these characters from three main sources: the gospels and other orthodox literature, Russian folklore, and Soviet political propaganda, as well as taking from other contemporary Russian literature. I appreciated the density of these references in part because I can see echoes of the same traditions in later books about Soviet collectivism (e.g. Animal Farm) and thus believe that The Foundation Pit is an impressively erudite work of literature. And yet, as someone who is not particularly well-versed in any of those traditions, I found the book esoteric and unapproachable. I have long been an advocate for the New York Review of Books translations, but this installment was deeply disappointing because the lengthy explanatory notes were inconsistent in their coverage and poorly connected to the actually references in the text. In sum: my ignorance limited my ability to appreciate The Foundation Pit and the edition did little help me out.


Next up, I finished reading Mo Yan’s deeply disturbing novel The Republic of Wine earlier today and am now reading Jack McCallum’s Dream Team.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dosteovsky

Life is paradise; we all live in paradise, although we don’t want to see it.

One family, two love triangles, four brothers, and a murdered father. Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is a sprawling, yet shockingly contained, meditation on faith, science, religion, love and devotion.

The Brothers Karamazov is a type of book that defies succinct synopsis, at least without gross over-simplification. It is structured as an account of the events that led up to a notorious patricide trial in rural Russia, and this arc forms the backbone of the novel. The story focuses on the dysfunctional Karamazov family, including the miserly sensualist father Fyodor, the profligate sensualist eldest son Dmitry, bitter intellectual middle son Ivan, angelic youngest son Alyosha, and the frustrated and conniving bastard (literally) Smerdyakov, who works as Fyodor’s servant. One of these young men murders his father. However, the story also draws in a wide and memorable cast of characters from the surrounding town, including Elder Zosima, the young socialist Kolya Krasotkin, Dmitry’s fiancée (and woman Ivan pursues) Katerina, and the flame of many hearts Grushenka, pursuit of whom fuels the conflict between Dmitry and his father.

This is a book that has so many themes that it is easy to imagine that one could return to it with a focus on a different character and theme each time through. What stood out to me on my virgin read were the eternal tension between reason and religion, individuals and communities (in a catholic sense, in both cases), and “modernism.” These themes are related, naturally, and the prospect of describing them at any great depth is intimidating. That said, I want to give several examples.

First, one of the recurring issues that underpins the novel, though not featuring directly into the main arc is the conflict between reason and religion. Characters may be described as pro- or anti-religion, but, for the most part, the depiction is significantly more nuanced than that. For instance, Alyosha is an acolyte in the monastery, but not a true believer, and his conflict is mirrored by his brother Ivan, who is a devotee of “modern” reason, and yet is plagued by the presence of the divine. Further dividing the categories are how characters envision the world and the place of human beings within it. Ironically, the quote that opens this post is declared by a man seen by others to be entirely mad and on his way toward death. But is he insane or actually seeing things clearly? Is the world a vicious, cruel place or is it largely so because people mistreat each other? To make matters worse, pride and shows of pride (as well as greed, avarice, lust, etc) lead the inability to reconcile people in such a way that they may all be bettered. This is particularly true of a nasty pack of young men, but certainly extends beyond their youthfully energetic pettiness.

Second, the tension between tradition and modernism appears in a number of guises in the novel. In once instance:

“If you want my true opinion about Greek and Latin—-they’re just a way to police people. That’s the only reason they’re taught…They were introduced in school curriculae to dull the students’ intelligence. It was already pretty boring before, but they felt they had to make it even more boring; it was already senseless. And so they dragged in classical languages. That is my sincere opinion and I hope I never change it….deep down in my heart I have nothing but contempt for the whole swindle.”

“Why do you call it a ‘swindle’?”

“Just think: the classics have all been translated into modern languages and so we don’t have to study Latin to read them. We study them only because it dulls our senses and makes us more susceptible to police control.”

This exchange takes place between the thirteen (almost fourteen!) year old self-described Socialist Kolya and Alyosha, in a truncated debate about education and values beside the sickbed of another boy. This novel was published in 1880, but the debate is eerily familiar, whether one thinks that arcane languages are designed to hide information or, like Kolya, to indoctrinate people. The claim is that, since there are translations it is time to move on to things bigger and better. Ironies abound, not least of which is that the debate is itself in a translated version of The Brother’s Karamazov. Even deeper, though, is that translation is itself a form of interpretation into which a mimetic aesthetic has been created—a particular challenge when the languages themselves often push a different form.

The payoff to the extended build-up in The Brothers Karamazov is an intense courtroom drama in which one man is put on trial and concerns over what actually happened one the fateful night lose all meaning. In a room where the women believe one thing, the men another, the judges a third thing altogether, Truth has no place and everyone is in it for him- or herself.

I am going to end my reflection on The Brothers Karamazov here because, like the novel, I feel myself wandering hither and thither, without really pulling my thoughts together (which is one of my main goals with these reviews). This is a bear of a book to read and certainly a commitment that reflects the values of a changing, “modernizing,” society and the intellectual movements of its days, but the payoff is entirely worthwhile.

I finished Intizar Husain’s Basti on the trip I took this weekend, and am now halfway through Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club. I really liked Basti and plan to write a review in the coming days.

Who needs nuance?

“But now, let’s talk about the bad guys,” Brian Kilmeade began on a Fox and Friends segment called “World on Edge” this week. His guest was Gillian Turner, a former staffer on the National Security Council and associate at Jones Group International, who spent the segment discussing concerns over terrorism in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.

I first saw the clip in the gym without sound or subtitle, so all I knew about what Ms. Turner said was what the screen infographic said Ms. Turner said:

Turner: Turkey must defeat Assad, then ISIS.

I was so floored by this description declaration that I was fully prepared to dismiss Ms. Turner as an know-nothing hack drummed up by the Fox and Friends crew. Then I went back to the actual video. In fact, Ms. Turner give a short, fair summary of the security issues facing Turkey with regard to the refugee crisis and terrorism, noting that the Turkish government considers (and treats) the PKK as terrorists and that the Turks are accepting refugees with no financial support. The account is, almost by necessity, a bit anodyne, but she also dodges the segment’s premise in terms of the situation in Turkey leading to terrorism in the United States. Nowhere in this account does she actually mention Assad.

Now, I could be misled by a short segment, but nothing in this segment indicated that Turkey should do anything against Assad, let alone doing so unilaterally while Assad is supported by Russia. Turkey has enough of a strained relationship with Russia right now over the violation of airspace and subsequent shooting down of a Russian fighter (Pravda’s most recent coverage, or do a google search).

This sort of manipulation probably happens all the time on cable News shows and is a form of doublespeak where, not only is there vague and euphemistic language, but there can be two disparate statements that are being conveyed at the same time, as Stephen Colbert used to show on his “The Word” segment. Yet, there is one big difference. In my opinion, these cable news shows are not meant to be consumed as an all-encompassing experience. The noisiness of the on-screen information may “add” to the experience of someone listening to the show with the volume on, but is actually designed for gyms, airports, and other public screens that might be tuned to the channel. These screens frequently won’t have even a closed caption, so the shows rely on flashing icons and the movement of the hosts to draw attention to the screen where there is an easily-digested, if misleading, talking point.

As a final, tangentially related point, it sometimes amuses me to watch the Fox and Friends hosts fidget as they try to keep from checking their smartphones, which are set immediately next to them on the couch. Screens are addictive, it isn’t just a young-person problem.

Conquered City – Victor Serge

Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution. Remember this: “Constraint makes all things happen.” He founded industries, ministries, an army, a fleet, a capital, customs, by means of edicts and executions. He gave the order to cut off the beards, to dress European-style, to open this window on Europe in the Ingrian swamps. The earth was bare, but he said, “Here will rise a city.” He caned his courtiers, drank like a trooper, and ended his life full of suspicion, doubt, and anguish, smelling treason everywhere (and it was everywhere, like today), trusting no one but his grand inquisitor, thinking even of striking the Empress. And he was right. he left a country depopulated in places, bleeding and moaning under the effort, but St. Petersburg was built! And he is still the Great, the greatest, because he hounded the old Russian, even his own son, because he wrenched this ignorant, passive, bloated old country around toward the future the way you pull up a restive horse with bit and spurs. I hear an echo of his edicts in today’s decrees. All this can even be expressed in Marxist terms: the rise of the new classes.

Zvereva took this blow without batting an eye. She knew you had to swallow many affronts before being able to inflict them in turn.

I know that the gallows has a way of making quite suitable heroes out of rather insipid spawn.

When spring comes to a shattered and starving city full of sullen, terrified, and defeated people, young lovers still walk along the river, holding hands and kissing beneath green trees. Amid Conquered City‘s grueling narrative about the defense of St. Petersburg 1919-1920 that unfolds over the course of a year, this is a placid moment. These handful of pages are reminiscent of Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which is a reflection on the resilience of nature in London, 1940, but unlike Orwell’s exhortation to enjoy the turning of the seasons, Serge plunges his city back into war. Even in this rare moment of human tenderness, bitterness and jealousy infect the scene. Winter comes again.

Victor Serge lived an interesting life–born in Belgium to Russian revolutionary exiles, he participated in revolutionary movements across Europe, including in St. Petersburg in 1919, and was frequently imprisoned for his activities. He also opposed the rise of Stalin and went again into exiles for that stance, eventually dying in Mexico where he received asylum. Originally published in French, Conquered City is a novelization of his time in St. Petersburg, defending the conquered city of the Czars against the counter-revolutionary White army.

Each chapter of Conquered City is a vignette of the siege, each one moving forward in time, sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes a few months. To the extent that there is an overarching plot to the novel, it is an ongoing effort on the part of the authorities on the one hand to encourage unfed and unrewarded workers to keep working and fighting and, on the other, their repeated sweeps of the city to uncover subversive or treasonous plots. Unlike accounts of the revolutionary movements in, for instance, Spain, where the despair is underpinned by determination, Serge shows the workers despondent and the exhortations of the leaders successful, but hollow. However, while this persistent concern is important in the depiction of the siege, the other arm of the narrative, the tracking down and eliminating opponents is the plot that actually keeps the story pushing forward.

At the outset of the story, there are individuals who do not necessarily support the revolution, including the Professor Lytaev, but there is no evidence of plots everywhere. Nevertheless the leadership is convinced that they exist; the lower-ranked comrades are less certain that there are outside conspirators, but they are going to scrutinize their colleagues for weaknesses. Perhaps they are traitors, but perhaps they have just left themselves vulnerable to be torn down for the gain of others. The narrative is relentless and the characters opportunistic and petty, and Serge demonstrates the stratification of resources—who gets to have clean undergarments, for instance—in a city where the palaces of the Czars have been divided up into ministerial offices.

I am light on both plot and characters because Conquered City, while offering some specifics, is more impressionistic, rather like The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which follows the unfolding of a Stalinist era purge. While Richard Greeman, the translator of this edition, describes Conquered City as part of a “cycle of revolution” and places Tulayev with a later “cycle of resistance,” the characterization is influenced by the topic rather than the message. Serge may be accurately portraying the vicious infighting in St. Petersburg in 1919, but the portrayal of a bittersweet victory seems tinged by the Stalinist era, perhaps because it was written while Serge wrote it while imprisoned in the Soviet Union in 1930/1.

In sum, Conquered City was an intellectually interesting novel that had its moments, but I did not find it as moving as The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is certainly part of an extensive collection of revolutionary and oppressionistic literature that features prominently in twentieth century European literature. I have a number of these novels still on my reading list, including Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, Gunter Gräss’ Tin Drum, and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, and, having been pleasantly surprised by Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, I am not willing to entirely write these off. Yet, I am once again starting to glance about for other types of narratives.

Next up, I am currently reading a biography of the Ethiopian king Haile Selassie titled King of Kings and a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann.

Assorted Links

  1. Which Country Has the Best Government?An article that lays down some of the issues and guidelines for a revised series of articles in Spiegel. In 2008 there was a series of articles about what countries have the best governance, particularly in light of the global financial crisis and domestic conflicts taking place in western style governments. The series looked at four countries (Brazil, United States, Netherlands, and China) as case studies for these types of government. Four years later, Spiegel is returning to the countries first examined to see how they are performing.
  2. How Brazil Became a Model Nation-The revisited profile in the Spiegel series above, Brazil is having its fair share of problems, but in large part due to government involvement, stamping out corruption, and policing, Brazil has undergone a transformation and is rapidly becoming an economic power. According to at least one expert on “good governance,” Brazil is the best governed country in the world, with criteria such as being responsive to constituencies, limiting corruption, transparency to media, political freedoms, increasing equality, and a high economic growth rate.
  3. Before Air-Conditioning– Published June of 1998 in the New Yorker, Arthur Miller recalls the summer in America (particularly New York) before the advent of air conditioning.
  4. Why Capitalism Wants Us to Stay Single-A blog post in the Guardian that points out that people who live alone are less efficient consumers (meaning that they spend more money on various goods and services), so the capitalist, consumer system would prefer for people to remain single.
  5. The Boredom of Boozeless Business-an article in the Economist lamenting the end of the three martini lunch.
  6. Liberal Brainwashing/Brainwashing Liberally– An article at Inside Higher Ed that takes a look at the claims that the liberal academics are brainwashing children. The conclusion is that while many are liberal, they are more interested in actual teaching and that the students come out of the courses with their mental facilities intact.
  7. The Talented Mr. Ryan: Understanding the Ryan Plan– An op-ed in the Washington Post argues that attacking Paul Ryan’s budget plan over the Medicare and Social Security cuts mostly misses the point, when the actual problem is that Ryan is not actually a fiscal conservative since his plans would not balance the budget for decades. He makes the case that Ryan’s budget plan should be attacked from the right, rather than the left. Related to this, German papers seem to be having none of this stuff about Paul Ryan being a fiscally conservative, intellectual choice, calling him polarizing, a radical idealogue, and the chief ideologist of the Republican party.
  8. The Path to Tyranny-An article in SPIEGEL about the PUssy Riot trials in Russia (something I am amazed does not get as much press in the US…I have mostly seen it in SPIEGEL) and Vladimir Putin, arguing that Putin has a long tradition of totalitarianism that has only gotten more extreme in recent years. Interestingly, Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet Premier, is a critic of Putin’s and is a part owner of the Novaya Gazeta.
  9. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Reflections on The Master and Margarita

The first published edition of The Master and Margarita appeared, censored, twenty-six years after Bulgakov died in 1940. The full translation appeared years later. It is a magnificent book, reworking the stories of Faust and Pontius Pilate into a powerful account of life (particularly for authors) in 1930’s Russia. Only in reading the afterward did I learn that Bulgakov himself had been criticized for being anti-Soviet and in a display of impressive intestinal fortitude, he wrote a letter to the government in 1930, defending his right to satirize them. In this letter he asked to emigrate if they continued to bar him from writing. Stalin answered the letter with a call and, in effect, gave him permission to continue. Obviously there were still limitations on his craft.

The Master and Margarita is an incredible book, and the Burgin and O’Connor translation provides commentary, an afterward, and some biography after the text of the novel. I highly recommend reading it all, but there was one particular glaring ommission in the analysis and commentary.

Repeatedly throughout the text there is a line that says “cowardice is the most grave vice.” In a story where the active characters are Satan and his servants, most people are terrified of what is happening, or otherwise oblivious to the nature of the chaos taking place. Those few people who perceive what is happening and confront it without fear (even when conversing with Satan) are the most successful. In a retelling of Faust and satirizing a totalitarian regime, that is an incredible message to propagate and, given Bulgakov’s own experiences, it is both autobiographical and correct. Yet, somehow, there was not even a single note about this seminal theme.