Interview with Novelist Vladimir Sorokin

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Matthias Schepp 

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

“Russia Is Slipping Back into an Authoritarian Empire”

Russian author Vladimir Sorokin disscusses waning freedom of opinion in his country, the lack of opposition against President Vladimir Putin and dangerous Western ambivalence that is enabling the Kremlin’s growing authoritarian tendencies to take root.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sorokin, in your new novel “Day of the Oprichnik,” you portray an authoritarian Russia ruled by a group of members of the secret police. The story is set in the future, but this future is similar to the past under Ivan the Terrible. Aren’t you really drawing parallels to today’s Russia?

Sorokin: Of course it’s a book about the present. Unfortunately, the only way one can describe it is by using the tools of satire. We still live in a country that was established by Ivan the Terrible.

SPIEGEL: His reign was in the 16th century. The czardom was followed by the Soviet Union, then democracy under (former President Boris) Yeltsin and (current President Vladimir) Putin. Has Russia not yet completed its break with the past?

Sorokin: Nothing has changed when it comes to the divide between the people and the state. The state demands a sacred willingness to make sacrifices from the people.  

SPIEGEL: Why did you suddenly feel the need to write this book?

Sorokin: The citizen lives in each of us. In the days of Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I was constantly trying to suppress the responsible citizen in me. I told myself that I was, after all, an artist. As a storyteller I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favorite anecdotes: As German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude — you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was 50. Now the citizen in me has come to life.

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