Ivan Turgenev was out for a stroll in Saint Petersburg in 1862 when he saw fires raging in the distance, the result of students calling for educational reform. A few moments later, he was accosted by an acquaintance, who exclaimed, “Look at what your Nihilists are doing! They’re burning Petersburg!”
The reference, of course, was to Turgenev’s novel, Fathers and Sons, and specifically to Bazarov, the leader of the Nihilists (Turgenev popularized the term through the novel), who advocates razing all of Russia’s institutions as the only way forward. As Bazarov says, “‘the most useful thing of all is negation—hence we negate.”
The statement could have easily been said by Sasha “Sankya” Tishin, the main character of Victor Prilepin’s powerful novel, Sankya, recently put out by the Disquiet imprint of Dzanc Books. Sankya is the direct literary descendent of Bazarov, but he’s a Bazarov spawned not from the disenchantment with the aristocratic, European values of the nineteenth century but from the corrupt, capitalist values of contemporary Russia.
“They couldn’t take the stage.” The first sentence of the novel says it all. Literally, they, the Founding Fathers, or the activist group to which Sankya belongs, can’t take the stage at the Communist demonstration they’re there to crash. They watch from behind a chain-link fence as “deeply and irritatingly old” people carry images of Lenin and Stalin, a manifestation of their desire to return to the former glory of the Soviet Union. But the Founding Fathers don’t watch for long. By the end of the chapter, they break through the fence and beat, burn, and destroy everything in their paths.
The stage is also a metaphor for Russian society. Sankya is a member of a generation of angry toughs who can’t take the stage in the new order of Russia’s economy, a system dominated by the oligarchs, the powerful few anointed by Putin’s Kremlin. At one point Sankya sums up the situation: “A repulsive, dishonest, and foolish State, which slays the weak and grants freedom to the vile and vulgar—why should one put up with it? What was the point of living in it, every moment betraying itself and each of its citizens?”
Prilepin himself served for the “foolish State.” He was a member of the OMON, a sort of Russian SWAT team designed to control crowds and demonstrations. The OMON is a ubiquitous and pernicious presence throughout the novel. Prilepin also served in the military, where he saw action in Chechnya. Not able to sustain himself financially, he turned to journalism, which later led him to activism and writing fiction. Prilepin has been arrested over one-hundred-and-fifty times. He’s also regarded as one of Russia’s most important contemporary writers. We can thank Mariya Gusev, Jeff Parker, and Alina Ryabovolova for finally bringing him into English in their excellent translation.
Like Turgenev, Prilepin hits the generational theme hard. But unlike the generations in Fathers and Sons, all of whom have unique characteristics and a sense of identity, Prilepin’s generations are either absent or lost. In one poignant scene, Sankya, seeking refuge from the police, returns to his village where his grandparents still live. Symbolically, his grandfather is on his death bed, and “Grandma’s chatter jumped from one topic to another, but the theme remained the same: everything has died, and there’s nothing left.” The generation of the grandparents is literally dying out. They are both out-of-touch and full of anguish.
The generation of Sanky’s parents is also gone. In the same scene, “Grandma quietly spoke about her sons—she had three of them—Sasha’s father and two of his uncles… All three of them had died.” They are part of the larger problem of a generation killing themselves. “That story goes like this: In the last years of the previous regime, the peasants had finally put some meat on their bones and saved a bit of cash… And at that particular moment all the village kids suddenly desired to abandon their bicycles and climb aboard motorcycles. Not only would you never see any traffic cops in the village, the entire local precinct was actually gone for six months at a time. So everyone rode drunk. They crashed horrifically, smashing themselves to pulps, flying, ejected by the force… exploding their stupid heads against trees and fences… young girls crashed, too.” Sankya remembers as a child seeing “women in black mourning kerchiefs… All of them had lost their sons in wrecks.”
So this is Prilepin’s Russia: a dying, out-of-touch generation of grandparents; a lost generation, in the truest sense of that term, of parents; and then Sankya’s generation, with no way forward in society, a generation of superfluous men and women whose only recourse is to violence and destruction.
Despite their actions, we still care about them. Their situation is bleak. The society in which they live offers nothing. What would you do? Russia has, of course, been on the world stage lately with the annexation of Crimea, the Olympics, and Putin’s antics in Ukraine. But what’s actually happening over there? If you want a firm—and stark—answer, you should turn to Prilepin’s Sankya, as no other book to come out of Putin’s Russia has given us so much of what we don’t usually see.
Review of Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, pub. Dzanc Books, translation by Jeff Parker