No one has ever described Russia so well as Winston Churchill: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I thought I was beginning to understand it after reading Russka, by Edward Rutherfurd, but Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik has sent me right back into uneasy befuddlement. How can a culture be capable of so much beauty and so much violence?
Sorokin sets his satire 14 years from now, in a Russia that has only ever seen turmoil. That much doesn’t change. Everything else is not so much different as it is a return to how Russia was run before the Bolshevik Revolution. Our protagonist (not to say hero), Andrey Daniilovich Kamiaga, is one of the new oprichnina. An oprichnik is a police officer with nearly limitless power to enforce the laws and policies of the czar. Within the first few hours of Kamiaga’s day, he oversees the arrest of a disgraced nobleman, rapes the nobleman’s wife, and burns his house down. Then Kamiaga is sent to oversee a new performance piece to make sure that it’s not seditious. The music and lyrics move him to tears, they’re so beautiful.
As Kamiaga’s long day rolls along, we see him righteously committing acts of corruption and violence. Everything thing he does is wrapped in the trappings of the Russian monarchy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Well, to be more honest, the monarchy and church are exaggerated recreations of what those institutions were like before 1917. Nostalgia is always a skewed version of what was. I wish I could say that about how Sorokin portrayed the oprichnina; they’re not much different that how Ivan Grozny set them up.
The title and structure of this novella harks back to the classic One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This is almost an inversion of Ivan Denisovich. By the end of Solzhenitsyn’s novella, you ache with sympathy and quiver with indignation on Ivan Denisovich’s behalf as he is crushed beneath the insane will of his country’s government. By the end of Day of the Oprichnik, your stomach will turn at how someone can abuse his fellow citizens with impunity, believing that he’s doing the right thing. This is a hard book to read. But then, the best satires always are.