Book review: Zakhar Prilepin, 'Sankya'


A cult novel by one of Russia’s most provocative and original writers has just come out in English translation.

Maxim Edwards
25 September 2014

‘If we ask the elderly to draw’ asks Sankya, ‘will their drawings be as bright as those of children?’ This English translation of Zakhar Prilepin’s Sankya by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker has been long overdue; and in recent months disturbingly relevant. The novel gained a cult following on its 2006 release, and Prilepin was hailed as the reincarnation of any number of Russian greats, most famously Gorky. Thugs, a critically acclaimed play by Kirill Serebrennikov, is loosely based on the book; and even those in Russia disturbed by Prilepin’s political views – in recent months he has written in favour of Russia’s annexation of Crimea – still consider him a literary genius. Both Medvedev and Putin have read the novel – a fact, which Prilepin attributes simply to the need to ‘know one’s enemy’.

The Founding Fathers

Sasha Tishin (the titular Sankya), is drawn to friends with criminal – rather than strictly political – convictions. Sankya is a member of the Founding Fathers, a radical political organisation known for its violent disorder, and bearing a loose resemblance to the National Bolshevik Party, banned in Russia in 2007, and notorious for its direct action stunts against the government. The Eurasianist philosopher Alexander Dugin and Novorossiya activist Aijo Beness were once counted among its members. Prilepin’s fictional group, with their ‘fucked up flag,’ are no different, led from a basement-cum-bunker in Moscow, in the name of their jailed leader Kostenko. These Founding Fathers are an assembly of the disaffected, driven by a vague sense of injustice and wounded pride, contemptuous of anything, which could be mistaken for ideology; and their leader Kostenko is a variation on the mercurial National Bolshevik leader, writer and poet Eduard Limonov. Kostenko writes grandiose, childish poetry, dividing the world into ‘magnificent’ and ‘monstrous.’ These poems, and Kostenko’s ‘crazy philosophy about Eurasian nomads’ are the cornerstone of the Founders’ work – Limonov, true to form, described Sankya as the book he wished he had written.

Prilepin dislikes the bleak ‘greyness’ of modern Russia, seen in Sankya in the concrete of the city and the frozen fields, and sagging huts of a dying childhood village. The Founders’ deeds are appropriately colourful, whether they are regressing into petty hooliganism or committing murder in Old Riga’s cobbled streets, in memory of the brighter days of the Soviet past. Prilepin once complained that while Russians admire the literature of Europe, Europeans prefer to read only exposés of modern Russia. At first glance, such a story of rudderless radicalism and youthful disillusionment would seem ideal for Western audiences. Sankya may provide them with an exposé of modern Russia; it is, however, not an entirely convenient one.

Life in modern Russia is shown as a humiliation, and Sankya – described by author Ksenia Melnik as ‘Holden Caulfield with a Molotov Cocktail’ – will set it right. All figures of power are phoneys and cronies – from the liberal intelligentsia represented by young university lecturer Bezletov to the faceless, belligerent local authorities. In his fight for the motherland, Sankya has little in the way of a family life. Sankya’s mother is too frightened to ask about her son’s new friends, and too tired to care. ‘We are fatherless kids’ reflects Sankya, ‘looking for someone who wants us as sons.’

All ideology is gone

The Founding Fathers are a party of unquenchable rage. Coherent political ideology is a cruel joke – their parents toiled in its name, only to have it dismissed as a lie. For Sankya, effete liberals such as Bezletov only perpetuate this process – they are people who ‘would have Russians lie down and die every hundred years […] for a bloodletting.’ For the Founding Fathers (the name perhaps a dig at the US and Western democratic idealism), if Russia is to be changed, it must be done on Russian terms. A Russian saying holds that ‘the new is the well-forgotten old’ – in the name of his liberal opposition politics, Bezletov would ‘squeeze the slave out of the Russians.’ Bezletov rails against his colleagues’ corruption and lack of moral scruples, but does not infuriate Sankya until he laments their lack of ‘common sense.’ Opposition liberalism is self-flagellation, not dignity.

‘All ideology is gone,’ Sankya tells the university lecturer. ‘In our time, the new ideologies are instincts! Actions!’ ‘Land, honour, victory, justice’ – none of these require ideology!’ he roars from a hospital bed after a savage beating. Far from channelling J.D. Salinger, Sankya reminds me more of the heroes of the gritty Russian cinema of the nineties, perhaps Kolya from the cult film Brother, a boyish loner with an enigmatic smile and guarded memories from the Chechen War (in which Prilepin also fought). As in those uncertain days, an urge for action, for change, for dignity – and the lack of a coherent myth to justify it – is the key tension in Sankya. Prilepin’s work is therefore of far more relevance to Russia’s trajectory today than a conventional political coming-of-age novel – though for readers unfamiliar with these debates in Russian society, Sankya may appear to be just that.

Their voices hoarse, their throats burning from alcohol, the Founding Fathers shout for the President to resign – or else. Bezletov believes the party to be a scarecrow, its ‘else’ manipulated by the powers that be, into proving their claim that the only alternative rule is no rule at all – a country ridden by violence, instability, and far-right political radicalism. This cynical conceit is indeed one echoed by the Russian leadership – though it has elements of truth. Contrary to a common claim made in the West, Russians have indeed questioned themselves. They do not, however, reach the conclusions many wish them to. That the Russian leadership has far more to fear from ethnic nationalists than from Moscow liberals is no secret, though it took a hypothetical Strelkov presidency, for Western media to be widely alarmed. There are as many Bezlers as Bezletovs, among Russia’s disenfranchised and disenchanted. The words of an elderly villager show a primal wisdom to Sankya while he is on the run in decaying rural Russia: ‘The sad thing is not that man is weak but that he is angry in his weakness. And the more he sees others taking note of his weakness, the angrier he becomes.’

The disenfranchised generation

Aleksei Navalny, another opposition figure with complex views for European admirers, has written an introduction to this new English translation, describing Sankya as emblematic of a disenfranchised Russian generation, too young to remember the stability of the Soviet years and too aware to enjoy what followed them. ‘If you want to feel the raw nerve of modern Russian life’, he concludes, ‘what you need isn’t Anna Karenina – what you need is Sankya.’ One commenter dismissed Sankya in an online review, for its division of Russian society into ‘classes.’ Slavophile and Westerniser? The politically passive majority and active minority? Or perhaps the apathetic – and the pathetic?

Sankya and his friends may not be the superfluous men of classical Russian literature, but they seem pretty ineffective. They are activists who activate nothing, and not for want of trying. Eight years after the publication of Sankya, Navalny notes, ‘Prilepin […] predicted the patterns of development of radical political groups, and the government’s strategy in dealing with them.’ They tried to sort out Russia, noted acclaimed novelist Viktor Pelevin, and Russia sorted them out instead.

I could try – and fail – to write the usual things about the depth, breadth, width, and worth of the Russian soul, complicate things with concepts such as svoboda (freedom) and volya (will), but that would hardly do. Sankya would not allow it. Perhaps Sankya and his thugs hold a bleaker message – that in an age of political stagnation, meaningful change is an event, not a gradual process.  The Sasha Tishins of this new generation will go out in a blaze of glory, lighting up the greyness, in tales of Orange Revolutions and Black Hundreds. ‘The revolution,’ writes Prilepin ‘does not come from the top or the bottom – it begins when the truth thins out…’

Zakhar Prilepin’s ‘Sankya’ is published by Glagoslav 

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