One of the great myths about totalitarianism is that the system is more efficient and lawful—“At least the trains run on time,” the pithy colloquialism goes—and the people are satisfied with that instead of freedom. Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Day Of The Oprichnik, translated by Jamey Gambrell, gives that myth the lie by portraying a day in the life of one of the violent, above-the-law men who keep the population in a state of terror.
The novel is set in 2028, after a neo-Tsarist revolution has built a new, repressive state in Russia. Protagonist Andrei Komiaga serves as an Oprichnik, the secret police and arm of the Tsar, based on the model of the worst excesses of Ivan the Terrible. Although technically set in the future, the book has a timeless quality that works to its strength—the technology changes, but the methods of seemingly normal men tasked with committing great crimes remain the same. The novel’s speculative aspects are deliberately vague, with only blatant propaganda and some minor asides describing Russia’s future history. It works to Day Of The Oprichnik’s psychological strengths: It’s about the people, not the plot.
Komiaga is a deliberate cipher, almost personality-free outside of his loyalty to Russia, the Tsar, and the other Oprichniks, whose fraternity provides the novel with some of its strongest, weirdest scenes. Their ritual male bonding through drugs, sex, and violence border on the surreal, with hallucinogenic fish drugs and color-coded glowing phalluses. Yet they all make sense to Komiaga, and they serve as a mechanism for normalizing his job as an Oprichnik.
Day Of The Oprichnik is billed as a satire, and there is comedy to be found in scenes where the Tsar’s son-in-law confesses to having a fetish for fucking women in burning buildings. But when it happens just pages after Komiaga and the rest of the Oprichniks gang-rape a target’s wife, it must be said that if this is a satire, it’s an extraordinarily dark one. The rape casts a pall over the rest of the book. Its depiction is far too straightforward and realistic to be dismissed, and indeed, it serves as an effectively horrifying reminder of how totalitarian states induce fear with lawless brutality.