Supporters of the regime burned his books in front of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Because the works of Vladimir Sorokin draw literary parallels from the violence of Ivan the Terrible to the extermination of millions of Russians under Stalin and the madness of the Soviet decades to the rule of Vladimir Putin. The most important contemporary Russian writer who loves and curses his homeland at the same time.
Handelsblatt meets Sorokin at “Europa Center”, the old center of West Berlin. This is where the writer set foot in the West for the first time, in October 1988 on his first trip abroad from the Soviet Union. At that time, ten young artists from Moscow came to the west of the divided German city, and ten young people from West Berlin traveled to the Russian capital. “Nothing has changed here,” Sorokin says. However, the charm of Old Moscow no longer exists. Sorokin worries that Putin’s aggressive war against Ukraine will make Russia an international outlaw for decades to come.
Sorokin, in one of your works you turned Russian uranium into sugar in nuclear missiles, thus referring to the miserable condition of the army, which is now surprising to all Western military experts. How did you know, do you have vision abilities?
Books have an internal antenna. You can pick up something with it, even if it is not consciously. I don’t see a future, but I feel something. And sometimes this is what happens.
As in your last book, The Red Pyramid, a state structure that is omnipotent for Putin?
Our nation’s building is a deep dark pyramid. And this pyramid was built by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, and it has not changed much since then. Since then, Russia has lived like a medieval building with a human being on top. And below, these are not citizens, but subordinates …
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…as Heinrich Mann describes the Germans in “Der Untertan”?
exactly. But there is also moral brutality. Putin is doing the same in Ukraine as Ivan the Terrible did against Novgorod in 1570. At that time, the western Russian city, then a modern, European-oriented Hanseatic republic, was invaded on a punitive mission, 2,000 more famous and famous families were destroyed and the city plundered. After that, Novgorod never stood on its own two feet. When they left the city and were subdued, the neighboring villages were also burned and the cattle were killed. These are the tactics of the occupiers, and this is the model: those in power in this vast country can only rule as occupiers. Brutal, unpredictable and merciless – against its inhabitants.
It is often said in the West that it is Putin’s war. Isn’t it the war of the Russians too?
Russian Patriarch Kirill recently said that Russia has never launched campaigns of conquest. it does not make sense. Since the days of Ivan the Terrible, Russia has repeatedly fought wars of conquest. Therefore, this war can be called Putin’s war and Russia’s war. Remember the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or Stalin’s attempt to invade Finland. But the Ukrainians will win Putin’s Russian war, just as the Finns have done in the past.
How do you explain that the majority of Russians support this war?
In times of war, opinion polls can be forgotten. One in 50 may honestly answer the question, “Are you with or against Putin?” As it turns out with each passing day, this is a very unsuccessful war. Every day the number of opponents of this war increases.
However, when Ukrainians call their Russian relatives, they often do not believe them. So where does this Russian belief that Putin is on the right track come from?
For 20 years, this adaptation has been broadcast on television. There is hardly anyone in the provinces who does not look into this box. Something sticks. In addition, 70 years of the Soviet Union, unfortunately, also meant decades of intellectual and human decline, as sociologists have proven. Stalin destroyed thinking people. Later they were sent to camps, and in the 1990s, the capitalism of the Wild West that spread in Russia destroyed the low-paid intelligentsia. Putin was fortunate then that the price of oil had gone up and the country had the money and could start the television propaganda machine. It has irradiated many people mentally.
Or are many Russians just imperialists, who, like Putin, see the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century”?
For me, the collapse of the beast was just great luck. But people want this drug, they want it to feel like a great power. This is why nuclear weapons are so important. But I suppose these nuclear weapons are in as bad shape as the rest of the military.
Where does this great blessing come from?
In Russia, the Soviet past was not treated as it had with National Socialism in Germany. We never bury our past. Losers, like Germans, are easier than winners. After all, the Soviet Union did not suffer defeat. But Russia is about to do just that. Putin is a gambler who bets everything black at roulette. He needs to win at all costs now. He believes that he is not fighting against Ukraine, but against Western civilization. He sucked that hate into the KGB. But he will lose this war.
If you see the allusions in your books, many things lead in that direction. Was this a linear process, or was there a point where Putin changed completely?
Chancellor Angela Merkel had already noticed some time ago that Putin lives in a different world. What led to this was sheer power and the fact that he was not a particularly intelligent person and came from a very simple family. Russian Orthodox banker Pugachev was very close to Putin before he fled Russia to the West. Recently he was asked if Putin is a believer, because he has expressed himself so much. Pugachev replied: No, Putin believes only in the sanctity of his power. He believes in his supposed mission.
What does that mean for war?
He will put more and more wood on the fire, and he will mobilize more and more soldiers and military technology. But he cannot defeat the good Ukrainian army and the West. Putin is betting on the alleged undermining of Ukraine, which means the destruction of the independent Ukrainian national character. He wants to destroy Ukraine like Ivan Novgorod the Terrible and turn the country into a Russian province.
But Putin claims that Russia and Ukraine are one people.
This is not true at all. Ukrainians, especially those who live in the west of the country, are true Europeans and individualists. They don’t have that Russian collective about them. That is why their army is different from the Russian army. The Russian army lives in the traditions of the Soviets and the Tsar, where you can never contradict the leadership. You have to follow orders like a slave. In the Soviet army, soldiers were constantly humiliated. It was shaken by the Ukrainian forces. Russia and Ukraine have different civilizations and a different future. Putin wants to go back to the past. But Ukraine, which also speaks Russian, does not want to go back in time. That was Putin’s biggest shock.
You can see an incredible amount of violence in your actions, but also in the devastation in the Kyiv suburb of Buka. Where does this astonishing violence in Russia come from?
In my childhood everything was imbued with violence, in the family, on the street, in kindergarten, at school. Violence, humiliation and fear of it – the entire system of the Soviet Union was built on this foundation. And that even in the 60s and 70s of the last century, when it arose and which were the best years of the Soviet Union. A lot of things were wonderful on the outside, but the fear was all in the people. Everyone has a dark spot. My father, for example, grew up in the German-occupied region near Kaluga. He became a very good mineralogist, but was never accepted into the Communist Party and was never allowed to travel abroad because he had grown up in an occupied territory. Fear was everywhere. Putin is making smart use of it.
How do you see Germany’s position on this war?
If Germany does not do much for Ukraine, the Germans will have to justify themselves to others for a very long time. This will not be easy. Distrust has grown in Germany 16 years after Merkel built bridges with Putin and to this day no apologies for her stance on Russia.
Despite all your doubts, Russia has always been a great cultural nation. What does this war of culture mean?
Now might not be the time to talk about culture while there is war. But whatever the outcome of the war, it has already caused a great deal of damage to Russian culture.
War – caused by the Russians. Bucha abominations – these are the Russians. Why am I still reading your publications? It was like in World War II, when many people asked: Why do I still read Goethe?
Do you see the danger that Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” or Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” will not appear on the Western stage?
The war will end this year, and then we will see how the world still deals with Russian culture. The classics should remain. Hitler loved Wagner, but Wagner was Wagner. It is also unlikely that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky will disappear anywhere, but what will happen to contemporary art is anyone’s guess.
Are your books still sold in Russia?
Yes yet. But a deputy in the State Duma has already called for a ban on “traitors” books. If things go on like this for months, war and propaganda, there will likely be a ban.
Will the days of samizdat secret publishing houses return as in Soviet times?
why not? This is how I started as a writer. In any case, it is clear that censorship is getting tighter. Because things are not going well on the battlefield, they will fight with the “fifth column,” critics back home who are said to be demoralizing.
Are you still writing now?
No. Nothing is going on at the moment. I am just absorbing the information. But I’ve taken breaks before. The writer must also be able to remain silent. You can’t write every day, you have to draw your strength from time to time.
Or are you speechless in the face of terror?
Yes, moral silence. I can’t write now.
Do you feel at home in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, so loved by Russians, or do you want to go back to Russia?
My wife and I left the country two days before the war began. We hope to return someday. But at the moment I have the feeling that a mental epidemic has broken out in Moscow. Ordinary people became zombies. I hope the Russian people recover.
Mr. Sorokin, Thank you very much for the interview.
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