[...]Vladimir Georgievich Sorokin was born on the 7th of August 1955 in the Moscow district. In 1977 he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas as an engineer, but never took up that profession. Rather, he was much more interested in graphic art, painting, book design and conceptual art. He has illustrated more than 50 books, and been writing since 1977. He has written eight novels: The Queue (Ochered’); The Norm (Norma); A Novel (Roman); Marina’s Thirtieth Love (Tridtsataia liubov’ Mariny); Four Stout Hearts (Serdtsa chetyrekh); The Feast (Pir); Ice (Led); and Blue Fat. He is also the author of ten plays, dozens of short stories, and the screenplays of several recent films. These are films such as Alexander Zel’dovich’s Moscow (Moskva, 2000); Ivan Dykhovychny’s The 1970 Kopeck (Kopeika 1970 g., 2002); A Thing (Veshch’, 2002), again by Dykhovychny; 4, directed by Il’ia Khrzhanovsky in 2002; and Cashfire (the title is in English), directed by Zel’dovich in the same year. In 2002 he concluded an agreement with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to write a libretto for an opera with music by Leonid Desiatnikov. He has travelled widely in Europe and Asia, and continues to live in Moscow with his wife and twin daughters.
Sorokin’s first novel The Queue was published in 1985 in Paris. Highly original in both form and content, it is comprised entirely of snatches of conversation, mostly single words and phrases, from a group of unnamed people standing in a queue. Most of these excerpts of dialogue cover less than one line of text, so that the reader is in the position of one passing along the line and hearing only broken and incomplete phrases. We learn only towards the end of the novel that the characters are standing in line for a delivery of American denims, but by this time the form has become the content. The queue for consumer goods was the archetypal chronotope of everyday life in the Soviet Union, especially in the “stagnation” years when the novel is set. People of all ages and mindsets join the queue, including the older generation who yearn for the “order” of Stalin’s day, and youngsters who enjoy Western rock music. There are no characters in this text, no authorial narrative voice, and even the minimalist dialogue in the end breaks down into the groans, gasps and cries of a couple who leave the queue to have sex in a neighbouring apartment. The text is pared to the bone, and the author appears only through the words of his characters.
The Norm (1994) is similarly innovative. It consists of eight parts, all unconnected and widely diverse in both form and content. Part One takes in a whole cross-section of types and characters: a father and son, lesbian lovers, heterosexual lovers, Party bureaucrats, members of the cultural intelligentsia, street thugs, a murderer on the loose in Moscow. Part Two consists entirely of vertically arranged lists of nouns, all preceded by the adjective “normal” (normal’nyi). Succeeding parts take the form of letters, poems both lyrical and obscene, and aphorisms, but all culminating in the breakdown of grammar and syntax as the final few pages throw up nonsensical words and constructions. Sorokin not only deconstructs the falsity and corruption of Soviet reality; he travesties that reality as absurd, grotesque and irredeemable.
A key feature of Sorokin’s texts is the disintegration of syntax into nonsensical letter and word combinations: it is as if the text has had a nervous breakdown. Sorokin’s text becomes a mirror of the social and political reality it is meant to represent. His writing does not preach or teach, in the classical Russian tradition, but instead urges the reader to be an active participant in the construction of meaning or “significance”. Indeed, does literature have any meaning? A Novel (1994) is almost 400 pages long, most of it set in an idyllic rural setting right out of the pages of a novel by Turgenev or Bunin. However, after he has been bitten by a wolf during a hunt, the central character, Roman, proceeds to butcher all his neighbours and family, then his newly-acquired wife Tat’iana, before himself dying. As Roman dies, the novel dies, as does Pushkin’s heroine from Evgenii Onegin: Sorokin sets out to subvert and destroy the much-vaunted heritage of Russian literature, rejecting the notion of “high” art and the moral lessons it is meant to instil.
Sorokin deliberately shocks his reader, and he also plays around with literary conventions, whether they be of the classical variety, as in A Novel, or the pulp fiction that became so popular in Russia in the early 1990s. Four Stout Hearts (1992) can be read as a ferocious parody of a detective thriller, with all manner of sadistic violence and a huge body count, as four adventurers achieve their own goal of having their hearts torn from their bodies and processed into playing dice. Their quest may seem futile, but the author subverts the act and experience of reading itself. Marina’s Thirtieth Love (1995) begins as a celebration of the female sex novel (the writings of Anais Nin come to mind), where sexual experimentation leads to personal liberation and fulfilment. Such high-minded feminism has no place in Sorokin’s work, however. We learn that Marina was raped by her father when she was ten years old, then again aged twelve in a Pioneer camp, and in the course of the novel she has a string of heterosexual and lesbian lovers. She can only achieve orgasm, though, with another woman, until into her life steps the committed Communist Sergei Nikolaevich. Sergei brings her to orgasm as the Soviet national anthem plays on the radio in the background, after which she vows to become a model Soviet citizen. Sure enough, she joins a factory collective, and the novel’s concluding pages read like any socialist-realist “industrial” novel, where individual needs are subsumed into the greater good, and all conflicts are resolved through reference to the broader “collective”. Marina is a woman searching for salvation from her own individuality, and as she becomes a model Soviet worker, she dies as a person.
Marina’s Thirtieth Love marks the end of the “sots-art” period in Sorokin’s career, where he combined elements of socialist realism and pop-art in order to deconstruct socialist realism and its ideological underpinning. The clearest influences on Sorokin, however, are those of the Conceptualists, who perceive the social in terms of the physiological. He experiments with form and content in order to combine the uncombinable in his texts: official ideological clichés, obscene language, ferocious violence, and linguistic breakdown. With his fondness for the absurd and grotesque, his writings have much in common with the OBERIU writers of the 1920s – in particular the short stories and plays of Daniil Kharms. But they can also be seen as a late twentieth-century equivalent to the Art Nouveau movement of the early twentieth century, with its challenge to reason and clarity in art and architecture.
Sorokin’s written work attacks the symbols of totalitarianism, turning both reality and the text into a grotesque and nightmarish phantasmagoria. In his film work he continues to emphasise the absurd, and to mock taboos. The 1970 Kopeck purports to show 30 years of recent history in the fate of a motor car and its different owners, but the over-riding impression gained is of sleaze, sex and drudgery. Moscow is set in the post-Soviet world of shady business, and its all-embracing materialism, with drugs, sex and hired killers all freely available. Here, too, he lays bare the corrupt essence of this world, almost gloating in its celebration of excess and boundless consumption.
Blue Fat (2002) is made up of various intertwined stories, and draws on science fiction and the fantastic. It is structured in the form of love-letters between two homosexual lovers. In the middle of the twenty-first century, a group of scientists in a bunker somewhere in Siberia are cloning various Russian writers: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Platonov, Akhmatova and Chekhov. These cloned creatures produce “blue fat” through the act of writing, and this “fat” is needed as fuel for the Moon station. The fat is stolen by villains who are obviously meant to represent the “oligarchs” who have prospered in post-Soviet Russia (largely, it is suggested, through rapacious and unchecked greed). We then move back in time to 1954, where Stalin and Khrushchev are homosexual lovers (Khrushchev is the active partner). Stalin goes to Germany where he, Khrushchev, Hitler and Himmler intend to inject the blue fat into themselves in order to become immortal.
The narrative is characterized by passages reminiscent of the cloned writers themselves, so that quasi-Platonov and quasi-Chekhov sections make the reader question the so-called hallowed status of the original literary text. Sorokin thereby tears away the veil of secrecy from the mechanism of writing. It is as if he is challenging his reader to see how easily it can be done. Blue Fat features some innovative linguistic experimentation, with words based on English, Chinese obscene slang, and invented technical terms. The novel therefore works as a parody of the Russian literary classics, as well as a distinctive and highly original satire on the literary process itself. Still, the mystical blue fat continues to be produced only by writers; it remains the essence of life, the philosopher’s stone.
Vladimir Sorokin not only tests his reader’s fastidiousness, but also questions the boundaries between literature, art and life. His writing overturns the accepted mission of Russian literature, and instead sets out to deconstruct and reject accepted pieties, especially authority figures, and to mock the very idea of literature and its place and function in the modern world. In Blue Fat , in particular, literature is not merely deconstructed – it is metaphorically ripped apart.
— влдмр сркн
The Sorokin Affair Five Years Later On Cultural Policy in Today's Russia
[...]One day in mid-January 2002 a large group of clean-cut young people gathered in the center of Moscow. They came out to protest what they claimed to be the obscene and unwholesome character of certain recent works of Russian literature. At the rally, they announced the beginning of a massive campaign aimed at cleansing post-Soviet literature: during the next month, they would exchange the books of contemporary authors deemed offensive for the two-volume edition of collected works by Boris Vasil’iev, a respected senior writer known for having explored in his fiction the heroism of Soviet youth during the Great Patriotic War. Among the writers whose works the activists branded “harmful” and accepted for trade-in were three leading “postmodernist” authors: Viktor Pelevin, Viktor Erofeev, and Vladimir Sorokin, as well as, for some reason, Karl Marx. The activists promised that the Russian books collected in such a way would be mailed to their respective authors and Marx’s to the German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt, the birthplace of the German philosopher, as they mistakenly claimed.
The young people’s campaign had all traces of a political hack job: the city of Karl-Marx-Stadt could not even be found on the map: it had regained its historical name of Chemnitz in 1990; the exemplary war-fiction writer Boris Vasil’ev quickly went to radio to denounce the book exchange project; he requested that his works not be used to dictate to Russians citizens what they should read. Moreover, the authors accused of obscenity reacted with some glee to the publicity they were receiving: their books were now selling like never before, said Viktor Erofeev. Even Russia’s liberal minister of culture Mikhail Shvydkoi joined the chorus of opprobrium:
[The organizers of this action] are summoning the return of censorship, are speaking out against the constitutional right to freedom of expression. They propose that it is precisely they who have some higher knowledge of what is “healthy” literature and what is not… We still remember that system of requisitioning of “harmful” books that existed in the Soviet Union. And we remember how such things end. These are not simply mistakes of the young, but rather a conscious provocation against the constitutional order of Russia, prepared, it appears, not without the participation of “grown-ups."
The reason that this misguided publicity stunt received such wide coverage was obvious: the rally and trade-in were staged by the recently organized political youth movement Idushchie Vmeste (Walking Together), widely seen as a creation of the Administration of the President.
Until their Books About Nothing rally, Iduschchie Vmeste were known as a generously funded political project in search of an agenda that would go beyond the enthusiastic support of the current president. (The group’s admiration for Vladimir Putin and his policies was so boundless that its opponents called it, in a pun, Sosushchie Vmeste [Sucking Up Together] or Putin-Jugend). That the Kremlin-supported group chose for its debut a project smacking of aesthetic censorship gave many a commentator pause.
Several days later the group’s leader, Vasilii Iakemenko, announced that the trade-in was temporarily discontinued: Boris Vasil’ev’s books were to be replaced by a new tome of exemplary fiction: this time it was a collection of Russian realist writers, printed especially for the purpose of this book exchange. This edition would include the works of Leskov, Bunin, Kuprin and Chekhov. In mid-February, Idushchie Vmeste reported the results of their campaign: they claimed to have collected 6,700 volumes of “harmful” books, although the books by the authors whom the campaign initially targeted made up a very small proportion of this harvest: 148 copies of Pelevin’s books were handed in, and 102 volumes written by Sorokin. The largest share of traded-in books was taken by the popular crime fiction writer Aleksandra Marinina: 1,636 copies in all.
Those authors who were deemed “harmful” by the Putinist youth group perceived their new status and sudden media attention rather lightheartedly. In March 2002, Sorokin declared in the interview:
I would not overestimate the ideological meaning of Idushchie Vmeste’s action. It looks like they have a great shortage of brainpower; they do everything spontaneously, without any strategy. The failed first stage [of their book exchange project] says just that. Their selection of the four [classical] authors is random; one can see the Komsomol kind of hack job [pofigistika] in it.
In another interview, Sorokin provided a more serious, although still optimistic interpretation of the recent campaign, interpreting it as being directly sponsored by the Kremlin:
It was simply foolishness, but it was also a ballon d’essai thrown to find out to what extent the society is prepared for a purge. It turned out that it was not quite prepared yet.
In late spring 2002, news agencies reported that the writer Vladimir Sorokin and the composer Leonid Desyatnikov had signed a contract with the Bolshoi, the famed state-run musical theater in Moscow, to write a new opera for the company. Since Stalin’s times, the Bolshoi had served as a symbol of Russia’s official musical culture, highly professional but staid. The theater had been in decline since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Desyatnikov-Sorokin project, entitled “Rosenthal’s Children” was the first new work commissioned by the theater in a long time. In response to the news, Idushchie Vmeste revived their fading campaign against harmful literature. They also retuned and upgraded it: Vladmir Sorokin was now the main object of their protest.
In late June, Iduschie Vmeste members carried out several rallies against Sorokin near the Ministry of Culture and outside the Bolshoi Theatre. Protestors at the Ministry of Culture picketed the building with signs displaying quotes from Sorokin’s 1999 novel Blue Lard, as well as statements made by the minister Shvydkoi in regard to Sorokin’s work. At the demonstration near the Bolshoi Theatre protesters, all the while wearing latex surgical gloves so as not to “be dirtied by Sorokin (zapachkatsia o Sorokina),” they erected a gigantic papier-mâché toilet, into which they tossed flowers and copies of the author’s work, calling it “an improvised monument to Sorokin.” This performance was followed by a march to the monument to Chekhov, where demonstrators cast flowers at the base of the statue and asked “forgiveness of the great writer for the state of today’s literature."6 Many Russian media sources noted, as had Shvydkoi previously, the advanced level of organization and apparently ample funding which the group’s appearance evidenced. The radio station Ekho Moskvy reported that
Many wore specially-made t-shirts displaying a portrait of Putin and the inscription “Putin Things Right! (Vse Putem!)” One sensed a definite hierarchy within [the demonstration]; here is the leader, here the youthful, at-the-ready subordinates. The young people and people somewhat older were excited and overflowing with outrage, but didn’t know at whom to direct it precisely. As it turned out, the majority was not familiar with the work of the author, and many confused his profession as well, having decided that Sorokin was in fact the Minister of Culture. People became acquainted with Sorokin’s work on the spot from a brochure with excerpts from Sorokin’s text, published specially for the occasion by Idushchie. On the basis of this study they took sides and began to tear up books and throw them, first into the entryway of the Ministry, and then into the giant toilet.
Interviewed on the same day by the BBC, Sorokin minimized the perceived threat, stating that he was “too occupied by the work on the opera commissioned by the Bolshoi Theater” to be interested in “the actions of various moronic young men.” He declared: “I am not a pornographer. I am a writer. There exists a big difference between pornographers and writers. The tasks we have are fundamentally different. The pornographer’s goal is to help the reader to achieve an erection; the writer’s goal is to provide the reader with aesthetic pleasure from the reading.” Yes, he was aware that Idushchie Vmeste had filed a complaint asking the legal authorities to prosecute him for pornography, citing his novel Blue Lard. Should the prosecution take place, he was prepared to go to court.[...]
— ART MARGINS ONLINE
VLADIMIR SOROKIN writer
Sorokin is a one hundred percent anthropologist of contemporary Russian society, an anthopologist and a mystificator. He knows everything about the origins of the homo soveticus, his evolution into the homo russianus, and the nature of that evolutionary process. In his works, Vladimir Sorokin manipulates the concepts of space and time as skillfully as if he had a time machine installed in his kitchen. And he probably does. How else could you explain the fact that his novels have always been ahead of their time? Some of them only by a few years, but others… As we award Vladimir Sorokin with the “Texture: NAME” prize, we continue to hope that with his latest works Oprichnik's Day, Sugar Kremlin and The Blizzard, he has succeeded in enspelling the world for the time being, and that literary fantasies will not become reality (literally, at least).
From the first time he started writing, in the early 1970s, Sorokin has been constantly changing, just like the rapidly-changing world around him. A member of the Moscow underground scene, he began publishing his works in samizdat in the 1980s, and in 1985, six of Sorokin’s stories appeared in the Paris magazine A-Ya. In that same year, French publisher Syntaxe released his first novel, The Queue. In March of 1992, this novel was published in Russia in the Cinema Art magazine, and in that same year the novel was short-listed for the Booker prize. Sorokin’s prose has nearly always evoked widespread outrage, going as far as the court trials and accusations of advocating pornography. After writing his 2002 novel Ice, the first in a trilogy of the same name, and the first religious novel of post-soviet literature) Sorokin has moved on, most likely for good, from being an instigator and postmodernist to the category of prophets and metaphysicists.[...]