Russian Literary Salons

Vladimir Sorokin The novelist faces legal action on pornography charges for portraying homosexual relations between clones of Stalin and Krushchev (Photo: AFP).

There has been a qualitative leap in the evolution of Russian prose. The literary process and criminal trials go hand in hand. The cases of writer-terrorist Eduard Limonov [leader of the National Bolshevik Party] and pornographic writer Vladimir Sorokin have captured the attention of the press, politicians, and the average reading public. The Federal Security Service and municipal Office of the Public Prosecutor play the role of unbiased critics.

Limonov’s trial is unfolding in the genre of the state-security thriller. The main character has been arrested by the secret police. If the indictment is to be believed, he attempted to overthrow the social order, made “preparations for terrorist activities,” and bought a cache of Kalashnikovs. Limonov has already spent more than a year in Lefortovo Prison. The authorities are going to sentence him to nearly 20 years. His trial in the backwoods of Saratov has been postponed until September.

The Sorokin case, which as a detective story is inferior to Limonov’s, greatly exceeds it in scale, the passions it excites, and its appeal to television. “This is no detective story,” an elderly woman rightly stressed to the militia during a demonstration near the Bolshoi Theater, furiously tearing [Sorokin’s novel] Goluboe Salo (Blue Lard) to pieces. The mix of Pioneer girls and retired women joining together to destroy the literature of an unpopular author made an unforgettable impression. Only in this country can you find such a personal attitude toward culture. Well, maybe also in Germany, but that was a long time ago.

Limonov and Sorokin have different literary destinies and manners of writing; therefore they are going to be tried on different criminal charges.

In contrast to the heroic National Bolshevik Edichka Venyaminovich [Limonov], the author of Ice [Sorokin] is a rather cold and reserved person who writes deliberate prose in the style of mature socialist realism. The characters turn into monsters and excitedly gobble up one another and their own excrement, engage in innovative sexual relationships, and get mixed up in the kind of debauchery one is likely to find only in Sorokin’s works.

Vasili Yakemenko, leader of the pro-[Russia’s President] Putin youth movement, Walking Together, and a literate person at that, showed children and old ladies excerpts from Sorokin’s works, then reported his findings to the municipal Office of the Public Prosecutor. Officials there in turn began legal proceedings on the grounds of Article 242 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, concerning pornography.

The public reaction to these two cases has also been mixed. Mostly marginal groups openly defend Limonov. These are the same National Bolsheviks who, after waving aggressive posters in Rostov in defense of the Col. Yuri Budanov [an officer charged with the murder of Chechen civilians], are now traveling on to Saratov.

Among the creative intelligentsia, with rare exceptions, Limonov’s name and case cause mixed feelings. On the one hand, state security agents have detained the writer and are torturing him in prison. On the other hand, the prisoner’s views are so close to those of Lubyanka [Federal Security Service headquarters] and so alien to the creative intelligentsia that they are loath to sign a statement in his defense. This does not reflect well upon them.

In the same circles, Sorokin’s name and case stir up a different reaction. In response to Sorokin’s indisputable commercial success, especially in the West, Sorokin’s contemporaries do not and will never forgive their successful colleague. Hence the following opinion is heard with increasing frequency: The postmodernist Sorokin may be a deft and transparent businessman, who endlessly exploits his none-too-clever techniques, but the Walking Together movement, with its frenetic leader, is a hundred times worse, and protecting a fellow writer is a matter of principle.

Those rushing to defend Sorokin include colleagues from the writers’ organization PEN, journalists from the most progressive publications, and even the director of the government press service, Aleksei Volin, who has never been known for his activities in support of human rights.

The only thing that makes Limonov and Sorokin similar is a mysterious connection between literature and life. In this sense the Eduard Limonov case appears to be most exemplary. As if in a vulgar didactic novel, fate made the main character pay the full price for the hullabaloo he himself had created.

So you go around chanting: “Stalin, Beria, Gulag”? Well here’s a personal gulag for you, with a personal Lefortovo Prison ward and a real, personal trial in court. Something similar, but in a postmodern way, has happened to Sorokin. An extremely talented parodist of the dead socialist realism style, he seems to have brought its spirit back to life with his word play.

In their ignorance, the public prosecutors are competing with Walking Together: Blue Lard was published several years ago and its examination by experts is unlawful. For that matter, the publishing house has nothing to do with it, because what we’re talking about is literature. After all, pornography is something that provokes indecency, yet reading Sorokin’s works can eliminate one’s taste for lovemaking for a lifetime.

As for the ongoing trials, their outcomes are as obvious as they are different, in pretty much the same way as the literary destinies of Sorokin and Limonov. The author of Blue Lard is unlikely to stand trial, since the legal grounds of his case are ludicrous. Eduard Venyaminovich’s [Limonov’s] fate appears to be more dramatic. It would be humane to set him free. But our courts seldom pass humane sentences. In our country, only literature is more frightening than the courts.