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One of The Telegraph’s Best Fiction Books 2011
Moscow, 2028. A cold, snowy morning.
Andrei Danilovich Komiaga is fast asleep. A scream, a moan, and a death rattle slowly pull him out of his drunken stupor—but wait, that’s just his ring tone. And so begins another day in the life of an oprichnik, one of the czar’s most trusted courtiers—and one of the country’s most feared men.
Welcome to the new New Russia, where futuristic technology and the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible are in perfect synergy. Corporal punishment is back, as is a divine monarch, but these days everyone gets information from high-tech news bubbles, and the elite get high on hallucinogenic, genetically modified fish.
Over the course of one day, Andrei Komiaga will bear witness to—and participate in—brutal executions; extravagant parties; meetings with ballerinas, soothsayers, and even the czarina. He will rape and pillage, and he will be moved to tears by the sweetly sung songs of his homeland. He will consume an arsenal of drugs and denounce threats to his great nation’s morals. And he will fall in love—perhaps even with a number of his colleagues.
Vladimir Sorokin, the man described by Keith Gessen (in The New York Review of Books) as “[the] only real prose writer, and resident genius” of late-Soviet fiction, has imagined a near future both too disturbing to contemplate and too realistic to dismiss. But like all of his best work, Sorokin’s new novel explodes with invention and dark humor. A startling, relentless portrait of a troubled and troubling empire, Day of the Oprichnik is at once a richly imagined vision of the future and a razor-sharp diagnosis of a country in crisis.
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Vladimir Sorokin was born in 1955. He is the author of many novels, plays, short stories, and screenplays, and of a libretto. Sorokin has won the Andrei Bely Prize and the Maxim Gorky Prize, and was nominated for the Booker–Open Russia Literary Prize. He lives in Moscow.
Jamey Gambrell is a writer on Russian art and culture, and the translator of Vladimir Sorokin’s The Ice Trilogy, among many other works of Russian-language fiction and nonfiction.
DAY OF THE OPRICHNIK (Begin Reading)
Always the same dream: I’m walking across an endless field, a Russian field. Ahead, beyond the receding horizon, I spy a white stallion; I walk toward him, I sense that this stallion is unique, the stallion of all stallions, dazzling, a sorcerer, fleet-footed; I make haste, but cannot overtake him, I quicken my pace, shout, call to him, and realize suddenly: this stallion contains—all life, my entire destiny, my good fortune, that I need him like the very air; and I run, run, run after him, but he recedes with ever measured pace, heeding no one or thing, he is leaving me, leaving forever more, everlastingly, irrevocably, leaving, leaving, leaving...
My mobilov awakens me:
One crack of the whip—a scream.
Three—the death rattle.
Poyarok recorded it in the Secret Department, when they were torturing the Far Eastern general. It could even wake a corpse.
I put the cold mobilov to my warm, sleepy ear. “Komiaga speaking.”
“The best of health, Andrei Danilovich. Korostylev troubling you, sir.” The voice of the old clerk from the Ambassadorial Department makes me snap to, and immediately his anxious, mustache-adorned snout appears in the air nearby.
“State your business.”
“I beg to remind you: this evening, the reception for the Albanian ambassador is to take place. A dozen or so attendants are required.”
“I know,” I mutter grumpily, though, truth be told, I’d forgotten.
“Forgive me for troubling you. All in the line of duty.”
I put the mobilov on the bedside table. Why the hell is the ambassador’s clerk reminding me about attendants? Ah, that’s right...now the ambassadorials are directing the hand-washing rite...I forgot...Keeping my eyes closed, I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and shake my head: it feels heavy after yesterday evening. I grope around for the bell, and ring it. Beyond the wall I can hear Fedka jump up from his pallet, bustle about; the dishes clink. I sit still, my head bowed and unwilling to wake up: yesterday, once more I had to fill the cup to the brim, although I solemnly swore to drink and snort only with my own fellows; I did ninety-nine bows of repentance in Uspensky Cathedral and prayed to St. Boniface. Down the drain! What can I do? I cannot refuse the great boyar Kirill Ivanovich. He’s intelligent and gives wise, crafty advice. I value a man who’s clever, in stark contrast to Poyarok and Sivolai. I could listen to Kirill Ivanovich’s sage advice without end, but without his coke he isn’t very talkative.
“Best of health to you, Andrei Danilovich.”
I open my eyes.
Fedka is holding a tray. His face is creased and lopsided as it is every morning. He’s carrying a traditional hangover assortment: a glass of white kvass, a jigger of vodka, a half-cup of marinated cabbage juice. I drink the juice. It nips my nose and purses my cheekbones. Exhaling, I toss the vodka down in a single gulp. Tears spring to my eyes, blurring Fedka’s face. I remember almost everything—who I am, where, and what for. I steady my pace, inhaling cautiously. I wash the vodka down with the kvass. The minute of Great Immobility passes. I burp heartily, with an inner groan, and wipe away the tears. Now I remember everything.
Fedka removes the tray and kneels, holding his arm out. Leaning on it, I rise. Fedka smells worse in the morning than in the evening. That’s the truth of his body, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Birch branches and steam baths won’t help. Stretching and creaking, I walk over to the iconostasis, light the lampion, and kneel. I say my morning prayers, bow low. Fedka stands behind me; he yawns and crosses himself.
Finishing my prayers, I rise, leaning on Fedka again. I go to the bath. I wash my face in the well water Fedka has prepared with floating slivers of ice. I look at myself in the mirror. My face is slightly puffy, the flare of my nostrils covered with blue veins; my hair is matted. The first touch of gray streaks my temples. A bit early for my age. But such is our job—nothing to be done about it.
Having taken care of my business, large and small, I climb into the Jacuzzi, turn it on, and lean back against the warm, comfortable head support. I look at the mural on the ceiling: girls picking cherries in a garden. It’s soothing. I look at the girlish legs, at the baskets of ripe cherries. Water fills the bath, foaming and gurgling around my body. The vodka inside and the foam outside gradually bring me to my senses. After a quarter hour, the gurgling stops. I lie there a bit longer. I press a button. Fedka enters with a towel and robe. He helps me climb out of the Jacuzzi, covers me with the towel, and wraps me in the robe. I move on into the dining room. Tanyusha is already serving breakfast. The news bubble is on the far wall. I give the command:
The bubble flashes and the sky blue, white, and red flag of the Motherland with the gold two-headed eagle unfurls; the bells of the church of Ivan the Great ring. Sipping tea with raspberries, I watch the news: departmental clerks and district councils in the North Caucasus section of the Southern Wall have been stealing again. The Far Eastern Pipeline will remain closed until petition from the Japanese. The Chinese are enlarging their settlements in Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk. The trial of the moneychangers from the Urals’ Treasury continues. The Tatars are building a smart palace in honor of His Majesty’s anniversary. Those featherbrains from the Healer’s Academy are completing work on the aging gene. The Muromsk psaltery players will give two concerts in our Whitestone Kremlin. Count Trifon Bagrationovich Golitsyn beat his young wife. In January there will be no flogging on Sennaya Square in St. Petrograd. The ruble’s up another half-kopeck against the yuan.
Tanyusha serves cheese pancakes, steamed turnips in honey, and cranberry kissel. Unlike Fedka, Tanyusha is fair of face and fragrant. Her skirts rustle pleasantly.
The strong tea and cranberry return me to life. I break into a healthy sweat. Tanyusha hands me a towel that she embroidered. I wipe my face, stand, cross myself, and thank the Lord for the meal.
It’s time to get down to business.
The barber, a newcomer, is already waiting in the dressing room, to which I proceed. Silent, stocky Samson bows and seats me in front of the mirror; he massages my face and rubs my neck with lavender oil. His hands, like those of all barbers, are unpleasant. But I disagree in principle with the cynic Mandelstam—the authorities are in no way “repellent, like the hands of a beard-cutter.” They’re lovely and appealing, like the womb of a virgin needleworker embroidering gold-threaded fancywork. And the hands of a beard-cutter are...well, what can you do—women are not allowed to shave our beards. From an orange spray can labeled “Genghis Khan,” Samson spreads foam on my cheeks with extreme precision; without touching my beautiful, narrow beard he picks up the razor and sharpens it on the strop in sweeping strokes. He takes aim, tucks in his lower lip, and begins to remove the foam from my face, evenly and smoothly. I look at myself. My cheeks aren’t very fresh anymore. These last two years I’ve lost half a pood. Circles under my eyes are now the norm. All of us suffer from chronic lack of sleep. Last night was no exception.
Exchanging his razor blade for an electric machine, Samson deftly trims my poleaxe-shaped beard.
I wink at myself sternly: “A good morning to you, Komiaga!”
The unpleasant hands place a hot cloth, steeped in mint, on my face. Samson wipes it meticulously, rouges my cheeks, curls and glazes my forelock, shakes a generous helping of gold powder on it, and adorns my right ear with a heavy gold earring in the shape of a clapperless bell. We are the only ones to wear these earrings. No Zemstvo representative, department scribe, Duma member, or aristocratic bastard would dare wear this bell even at a Christmas masquerade.
Samson sprays my head with Wild Apple, bows silently, and leaves—his barber’s work is done. Then Fedka appears. His mug is still furrowed, but he’s had time to change his shirt, brush his teeth, and wash his hands. He’s ready for my robing. I place my palm on the lock of my wardrobe. The lock beeps, its red light blinks, and the oak door slides to the side. Each morning I see my eighteen caftans. The very sight of them is invigorating. Today is a regular workday. Therefore, working clothes.
“Business,” I tell Fedka.
He takes a robe out of the wardrobe and begins to dress me: first, a white undergarment embroidered with crosses, a red shirt with collar buttons on the side, a brocade jacket with weasel trim, embroidered with gold and silver thread, velvet pants, red boots of Moroccan leather fashioned with wrought copper soles. Over my brocade jacket, Fedka places a black, floor-length, wadded cotton caftan made of rough broadcloth.
Glancing at myself in the mirror, I close the wardrobe.
In the hall the clock reads: 08:03. There’s time. Already awaited by my domestic entourage: Nanny with an icon of St. George the Dragonslayer, Fedka with my hat and girdle. I put on the black velvet hat with sable trim, and allow myself to be girdled with a wide leather belt. On the left side of the strap is a dagger in a scabbard, on the right a Rebroff in a wooden holster. Nanny makes the sign of the cross over me, muttering at the same time:
“Andryushenka, may our Most Holy Mother of God, Saint Nikola, and all the Optina Elders protect you!”
Her pointed chin trembles, her blue eyes tear with tenderness. I cross myself and kiss the icon of St. George. Nanny tucks the prayer “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High” in my pocket—it was embroidered by the nuns of Novodevichy Monastery in gold on a black ribbon. I never leave for work without this prayer.
“Grant victory over our foes...” Fedka mumbles as he crosses himself.
Anastasia peeks out of the back maid’s room: a red and white sarafan, blond braid falling over the right shoulder, and emerald eyes. But the glow of her crimson cheeks betrays her: she’s worried. She lowers her eyes, bows ardently, her high breasts trembling, and hides behind the oak doorpost. Instantly I feel my heart surge at the sight of the girlish bow: the night before last, the night was flung open by a sultry darkness, was revived by a sweet moan in the ears, a warm girlish body pressed closed, she whispered passionately, like blood flew through the veins.
But—work comes first.
And today we’re up to our ears in work. And then there’s this Albanian ambassador...
I go into the outer vestibule. The servants have all lined up—the farmyard workers, the cook, the chef, the yardman, the game warden, the guards, the housekeeper:
“The best of health to you, Andrei Danilovich!”
They bow to the waist. I nod at them as I pass. The floor-boards creak. They open the forged iron door. I go out into the courtyard. The day has turned out sunny, nippy with frost. Some snow fell overnight—on the fir trees, on the fence, on the guard tower. Ah, how I love the snow! It covers the earth’s shame. And the soul is purer for it.
Squinting in the sun, I look around the courtyard: the granary, the hay barn, the stables—everything’s orderly, solid, and well built. A shaggy dog strains at its chain, the borzois yelp in the kennel behind the house, the rooster crows in the shed. The courtyard has been swept clean, the snowdrifts are as neat as tall Easter cakes. My Mercedov stands at the gates—crimson like my shirt, stocky, and clean. Its clear glass shines. And right next to it the groom Timokha stands with a dog’s head in hand; he waits, and bows:
“Andrei Danilovich, your approval!”
He shows me the dog’s head of the day: a shaggy wolfhound, eyes rolled back, tongue touched with hoarfrost, strong yellow teeth. It will do.
Timokha fastens the head of the dog deftly to the hood of the Mercedov, the oprichnina broom to the trunk of the car. I place my palm on the Mercedov’s lock; the transparent roof floats upward. I settle into the reclining black leather seat. I buckle the belt. Turn on the motor. The plank gates open in front of me. Out I drive, flying along the narrow straight road flanked by an old, snow-covered spruce forest. In the rearview mirror I see my homestead receding. A good house, with a heart and soul. I’ve been living in it for only seven months, yet it feels as though I was born and grew up there. The property used to belong to a comrade moneychanger at the Treasury: Gorokhov, Stepan Ignatievich. When he fell into disgrace during the Great Treasury Purge and exposed himself, we took him in hand. During that hot summer a good number of Treasury heads rolled. Bobrov and five of his henchmen were paraded through Moscow in an iron cage, then flogged with the rod and beheaded on Lobnoe Mesto in Red Square. Half of the Treasury was exiled from Moscow beyond the Urals. There was a lot of work...It was back then that Gorokhov, as was befitting, was dragged with his mug in the dung; banknotes were stuffed in his mouth, it was sewn shut, a candle was shoved up his ass, and he was hung on the gates of the estate. We were told not to touch the family. Then the property was transferred to me. His Majesty is just. And thank God.
DAY OF THE OPRICHNIK Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Sorokin
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