Sorokin: A contemporary Russian classic

Vladimir Sorokin

Vladimir Sorokin

John Foley/Opale/Leemage/East News
The award-winning author of ‘The Norm’, ‘The Queue’, ‘Day of the Oprichnik’ and ‘Telluria,’ Vladimir Sorokin could well be termed one of contemporary Russia’s classics. Sorokin, who celebrated his 60th birthday on August 7th, has recently started painting. At this year's Venice Biennale he partnered with artist Evgeny Sheff to curate an exhibition called ‘Telluria;’ a supposed “national pavilion” representing a fictional state. He gave his views in an interview.

How comfortable do you feel living in the modern world? Some of the distinguishing features of the present day are TV shows and social networks. Do you prefer to avoid those?

“I am not too much involved in either. I do sometimes log in to Facebook using my wife's account, but that does not happen often. I just don't feel the need. As for the TV shows... I've watched Rome, Game of Thrones and some other things I don't even remember now. But every time, you just notice at some point that the show degenerates into monotony. I can empathize with both directors and screenwriters – they need to generate profits. But still, I prefer classic cinema.”

Here is another trait of our era: writers getting involved in social activism. Can this be useful for an author?

“Using literature as a battering ram has always been harmful for it. Think about the Sixtiers: what is left of them now? I am a civic-minded person, but I do not like mobs, so I stay away from public rallies. No crowd of people can make me want to join in. And I think that writers who are so eager to get on the soapbox, have not written enough. Either that, or they just can't write anymore. Nabokov, Joyce, Kafka; none of these people would go to a protest rally.”

When ‘Day of the Oprichnik’ came out, you said a civic-minded person had opened their eyes inside you. How is this person faring now?

“They are not really awake at the moment. But, jokes aside, I have been staunchly anti-Soviet since I turned twenty. I hated the Soviet regime. Even then, I knew that European-style democracy was the normal way of living for all people. I still stick to this point of view. When ‘Day of the Oprichnik’ came out, everything was more accentuated, as the genre itself was dictating such terms. I guess that when the country is going down the drain, it gets hard to keep the civic-minded person confined within yourself”. (Laughing) “The good citizen simply falls out of you! Sounds ambiguous, right? Well, we could be talking about a manifestation of cowardice here... Navalny, for one, would criticize me for that. Nevertheless, I learned a long time ago that you can't change the mentality of a people quickly. It is not about changing the regime. The Europeans have long lived in a world where the state is in their service. Here in Russia, we've been in the service of the state for hundreds of years. This is the main ontological difference between us.”

Who else are you? Are you a Muscovite?

“I was born in the Moscow region, and I live here. I try to avoid Moscow itself. This city lost its identity in the last twenty years. I don't really feel comfortable there. Now, Berlin is another thing altogether. It is a very pleasant, spacious and quaint city. Just like New York, it accepts everybody – it does not divide.”

You have once said you are not only a part-time painter and decorator, but also a good cook. So you are going to be just fine.

(Laughing) “Indeed – at least I won't go hungry, as long as there is something to cook from, of course. But I have become increasingly convinced that a writer is not a trade. Being an author is an activity of sorts; one that is largely enforced on you, that is associated with the peculiarities of one's body and mind. Someone – I think it was T.S.Eliot – said that literary works are written not to create a sensation, but to get rid of it as soon as possible. And, hell, what kind of a trade is getting rid of sensations?”

You have mentioned several times that literature was more interesting to you than painting. And then, out of the blue, you present 15 of your oil paintings. What happened?

“It is hard to say, really. The original idea was quite simple: my new Berlin apartment had blank white walls and I wanted to decorate them with something. Eventually, I decided to paint an oil picture myself. I went to the giant Boesner store; a real paradise for painters; the place has everything one might need. I remembered how, back in 1970's, I had to procure Kolinsky sable-hair brushes and Dutch gouache paints from illicit dealers, how I could not find a decent canvas. I have to say, this store has almost reduced me to tears (laughing). So, I bought paint, a canvas on a stretcher and all other things I needed, and I lashed out at it.”

“The idea to go back and try painting again had regularly re-emerged in my mind. I tried to understand why this happened. I guess I did not achieve something I really wanted when I was young. I simply had no time to show what I can do as an artist, since my literary career swept everything away.”

So, at some point, you knew it was something more than decorating your apartment?

“I realized that while painting my second or third picture. Some time later, we launched our project. I and the artist Evgeny Sheff created the ‘Telluria’ pavilion. My novel helped a lot, of course.”

When ‘Telluria’ was published, you said that describing the modern world within a linear novel was impossible. But what if one was to go even further? Is a uniform artistic language really unachievable? Is this the dawn of the new syncretism era?

“You mean “Gesamtkunstwerk”? But this has already happened. If you examine the contemporary art, you will see it is syncretic. But I actually wanted to challenge that – I was trying to archaically defend the painting as a form of art, since it had already been consumed by the sum-total of artistic technologies. I believe it is the time for us to go back to genre pureness.”

Complete interview (in Russian) is available at

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