A Writer on Trial: The Institutional Persecution of Literature (The Case of Vladimir Sorokin)

Yuri Leving, University of Southern California

This paper will investigate the history of the public and critical response to Vladimir Sorokin’s novels Blue Lard (1999) and Ice (2002). This response, or the “Sorokin case,” as I will call it, presents a vivid example of the tensions between writer – reader – critic taken to the extreme. Critics have accused Sorokin of the purposeful de-construction of the image of a Russian woman, and an attack on the traditional depiction of Love and Sex in Russian literature and, last but not least, on Russian literature itself. Sorokin, however, denies the relevance of such things as images, traditions, and even of “literature” as an abstract notion, and states that the problem of a reader does not exist for him: “I don’t overestimate literature in general. Here is a sheet of paper; there are some typefaces. Some people are exited by combination of these types.”

Many have noted the controversial decisions by the Office of Public Prosecutor regarding acts of “vandalism” against the writer Sorokin. On behalf of capital Prosecutor, the militia has searched the Moscow office of the publishing house “Ad Marginem” and confiscated the documentation concerning Sorokin’s books. The affair has received wide publicity and stimulated discussion of how, by whom and from what point of view works of art should be evaluated.

The most recent developments involving the judicial process represent a shocking though not an unprecedented intervention of society and state into the literary domain and pose the questions: Are writers really free to express themselves? What are the peculiarities of the literary process in Russia today? Who defines the limits of literature – both ethical and aesthetic? Is there any immediate correlation between persecution and literary success? How is the strategy of an artist’s (self)promotion and public relations (PR) different in the era of post-modernism from that of previous literary epochs? These issues are crucial for understanding of the scandal around Sorokin’s novels.

It is enough to mention the trials of Andrej Sinjavskij (Abram Terc), Iosif Brodskij, and the case of Aleksandr Solženicyn to illustrate the totalitarian interference into literary practice in Russia in the twentieth century. Although it is indisputable that a disturbing and even outrageous assault on Sorokin has taken place, the writer himself is consciously following the model of institutional persecution of an artist shaped during the Soviet era. The main difference of the present case, as I will demonstrate it in my paper, is that Sorokin, however, appears to be the one who carefully manages the situation in progress and even to a great extent benefits from it.