Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 6

By Fedor Yermolov

On July 11 prosecutors charged novelist Vladimir Sorokin with dissemination of pornography, a violation of article 242 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The case may mark the launch of a new phase in the Russian state’s eternal battle against dissent.

Vladimir Sorokin 46, is a representative of the new literary establishment and one of the more popular modern authors among Russia’s “golden youth.” His novel Ochered (The Queue), published in 1985 in France, brought him to prominence in Europe. His works have been translated into the major European languages, Japanese and Korean.

He makes liberal use of nonstandard vocabulary, relishes toying with cult figures from Russian history and turning official ideology inside out, stepping effortlessly over all aesthetic taboos. He is one of the Moscow conceptualists, a group formed in Soviet times of dissident writers who badgered state security agencies with endless jokes at the expense of the society of “developed socialism.” Twenty years ago his work was sharp, funny and new, even dangerous at times.

Then, when perestroika came along and the barriers of censorship collapsed, Sorokin’s work emerged from the underground. The controversy surrounding him brought him publicity and prosperity, though his nonconformist pathos admittedly lost some of its meaning. He became a very successful (not to mention talented) literary opportunist.

The first attacks against him were not so much shocking as surprising. In early 2002 the volunteer organization Idushchie Vmeste (Forward Together), which represents the youth wing of the pro-presidential Unity party (a sort of Putin Komsomol) publicly dubbed Sorokin and writers Viktor Pelevin and Viktor Erofeev–perhaps the most popular authors among Russia’s intelligentsia–“dangerous writers.”

Forward Together called upon Russians to cleanse themselves of this “literary dross.” They invited anyone who wanted to bring a book by any of these authors to specially organized drop-off points, where it could be exchanged for a book by Boris Vasiliev, published for the occasion. Vasiliev is a veteran prose writer of the older generation who produces mainly patriotic books about the war. The “dangerous” books brought in by the public would be returned to the authors, but only after they had been stamped to prevent their being sold again for commercial gain. Interestingly, the press release in which these champions of cultural purity announced the book swap contained two glaring spelling errors.

The Forward Together initiative did not meet with widespread public support. In particular, Minister of Culture Mikhail Shvydkoi said in an Interfax interview that the organizers were “calling for a return to censorship, and acting against the constitutional right to creative freedom…. This is not merely a youthful aberration, but a conscious provocation, targeted against Russia’s constitutional structure, which looks like it was arranged with the help of some ‘grown-ups.'” It transpired later that Forward Together did not forget what he had said.

On June 27 Forward Together organized a protest in Moscow they called the “Sorokoviny for the Bolshoi Theater.” In Orthodox tradition, the Sorokoviny is a wake held on the fortieth day after a death, and the protest took place on the fortieth day after the signing of a contract in which the Bolshoi Theater commissioned Sorokin to write the libretto for a new opera.

The protest began at one o’clock outside the ministry of culture. About 300 people showed up, and, to the accompaniment of classical music, held up posters and banners with quotations from Sorokin’s work, replete with unrepeatable expressions. They read out Mikhail Shvydkoi’s reply to Forward Together’s letter, in which the minister criticized the organization’s attitude to the work of contemporary Russian writers. They littered the main entrance to the building with books by Sorokin, and then headed off to the Bolshoi Theater, where they rigged up a huge toilet bowl as an improvised monument to the writer. Books were torn up and thrown in there too, followed by chlorine, poured in as a disinfectant. There were a lot of pensioners there, invited by the organizers to take part in these acts of vandalism. It was obvious that these members of the older generation only found out about Sorokin’s existence during the meeting itself, and became acquainted with his work at the same time–via the texts on the posters.

The first image that springs to mind is the destruction of “dangerous” books by the fascists in the 1930s. The movement used the same iron tones in a press release: “When people reading one of Sorokin’s books try to hide the cover in embarrassment, when people who read Sorokin and his friends are no longer welcome in decent homes, and when Sorokin starts packing his bags, then we will consider that our task has been partially completed.” The movement’s leader Vasily Yakemenko said in an interview with Kommersant-Vlast, “We won’t rest until Sorokin is behind bars.”

On the same day that the mob was destroying books outside the Bolshoi Theater, the media learned that on June 3, 49-year-old Muscovite Artem Magunyants complained to the Zamoskvorechie department of the Interior Ministry, that he found certain scenes in Sorokin’s novel “Goluboe Salo” (Blue Fat) pornographic. He said he bought the book in a railway station forecourt, and started reading straight away. When he got to the passage in question–a scene involving an explicitly depicted sexual encounter between Stalin and Khrushchev–he suffered serious spiritual trauma and decided to bring a case against the book that had offended him. Later, Yakemenko confirmed that Magunyants represented the Forward Together movement.

Goluboe Salo was published three years ago, and had been the topic of heated debate for all this time, but it had not occurred to anyone to accuse Sorokin of disseminating pornography. Many people (including myself) do not hold Sorokin’s work in high regard, but right-minded Russians recognize that persecuting a writer for his work is unacceptable under any circumstances in a society that claims to be civilized. The experience of the all-too-recent past has thankfully taught us something.

No one really seemed to believe that the Prosecutor’s Office would actually bring a case against Sorokin. Arguably, an accusation of disseminating pornography could only be brought against Sorokin’s publishers, Ad Marginem. There is no provision in Russian legislation for censoring an author’s right to write whatever he wants. And in any case, the affair seemed too absurd for the Prosecutor’s Office to take seriously. The description of a sexual act between two elderly Soviet leaders would hardly be capable of causing sexual arousal–at least, not in any normal person. How could there be talk of “pornography?”

Yet the case was brought. According to Russia’s Criminal Code, the article under which Sorokin is indicted carries a punishment of a hefty fine or imprisonment of up to two years.

Forward Together is celebrating victory. Yakemenko told Radio Ekho Moskvy that the case could be seen as “a first sign of the moral regeneration of our society” and “a sign that the era of the marginals, who use filthy language to describe all kinds of perversions, and who publicly promise to bury Russian literature, is coming to an end.”

Forward Together does not plan to leave it at that. On July 1 the movement’s leaders brought a similar case against Sorokin’s novel “Led” (Ice). Sorokin’s publishers responded by launching a criminal case against Forward Together, accusing the movement of infringing Sorokin’s copyright by publishing the above-mentioned collection of quotations from his works.

Interestingly, thanks to Forward Together, the prolific and much-criticized Sorokin can, after twenty years, once again experience the thrill of opposition. But even in Soviet times no one tried to take him to court.

Sorokin’s unpleasant situation brings him financial rewards. Since the scandal broke, sales of his novels have increased fourfold. In this sense, Forward Together’s fight to suppress dangerous literature has achieved precisely the opposite effect.

What lies behind this curious situation? Probably not Forward Together, at least not alone. Until the Sorokin case, neither the media nor political groups took Forward Together seriously, and the young Putinists themselves bemoaned their lack of support from the authorities they adore. Considering the scale of the effort against Sorokin, and the financial investment, Shvydkoi is probably right that there are “grown-ups” involved.

Sorokin’s show-trial persecution gives the least cultured and most numerous section of society an opportunity to associate itself with the current president. The majority who reads little if at all may like the sound of an attack on irritating yet prosperous intellectuals, who are relatively few in number but in many cases distrust Putin.

At the same time, by deliberately distancing themselves from the activities of their “overzealous supporters,” the authorities protect themselves from possible accusations from the intelligentsia, while the president (who in keeping with Russian tradition is viewed by the masses as a separate entity, detached from the difficult situation in the country) gains a few extra points in his already high popularity ratings. As for Shvydkoi, he is merely the minister for culture, and can painlessly be offered up as a sacrifice in this game.

There are also deeper roots to the Sorokin scandal. The need to create a new state ideology means that the ruling classes are faced with the task of defining the extent and the possible ways in which individual key figures of Russian culture can influence the public consciousness. In this respect, what is happening to Sorokin may be seen as a sounding of public opinion, a test of society’s reaction to the encroachment of ideology into the cultural process.

The affair has one more interesting aspect. Forward Together’s manifesto is striking in the constant, almost obsessive use of the word “marginal” to describe the fashionable and commercially successful Sorokin, Pelevin and Erofeev. According to the dictionary, “the concept of marginality serves to justify the repression of a specific group of people who do not conform to the accepted norms and values of society.” As the Putin youth march into the arena of aesthetics, it seems that the Russian authorities have begun a new phase in their endless battle against dissent.

Fedor Yermolov is a video jounalist at Volgograd cable television station.