Writer Vladimir Sorokin: ‘I underestimated the power of Putin’s madness’

Fingernail croquettes. Shoelaces à la carbonara. Cotton buds in madeira. Ladies’ gloves in aspic.

This isn’t the menu for today’s Lunch with the FT, but a selection of dishes from “The Banquet”, a short story by Vladimir Sorokin, one of Russia’s leading contemporary novelists. He gives me the German translation as we sit down to eat.

I’d arrived at Il Calice in west Berlin with a healthy appetite. That evaporates as soon as I flip through his gift (condom ice cream, anyone?). I ask if people have tried out the recipes. “Someone made the ladies’ shoes in chocolate,” he says. It’s unclear if it was a success.

“The Banquet” throbs with Sorokin’s exquisite style and signature surreal humour. It is there, too, in the clothes he is wearing today — a T-shirt adorned with a large magpie, a sly reference to his surname (the Russian word for magpie is “soroka”).

The black of his shirt setting off his long, shaggy locks of white hair, Sorokin seems relaxed and untroubled — which is strange considering that for the past three months he has been living in self-imposed exile. He and his wife Irina left Russia two days before President Vladimir Putin sent his troops into Ukraine, and he has no plans to return.

“I underestimated the power of Putin’s madness,” he says.

Sorokin, who is 66, has long been on bad terms with the Kremlin. As early as 2002, a pro-Putin youth group threw copies of his books into a huge mock toilet outside the Bolshoi Theatre. Days later, police opened a case against him for pornography (the object of their ire was the graphic sex scene between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev in his novel Blue Lard).

Yet these were just minor irritants compared with the war in Ukraine, which has prompted him to finally sever ties. I ask if his exile is permanent. He hints he won’t go back while Putin is in power. “I really hope the forces of darkness retreat to the underworld,” he says.

It’s a surprisingly moral line for a playful, experimental writer who was never a classic dissident. Unlike didactic Russian novelists such as Tolstoy, he is an aesthete who delights in disorienting and disturbing the reader with scenes of bizarre sex and stomach-churning violence. In 1991, furious workers at a Russian printing house refused to publish his collected short stories in protest at its shocking content. Then, as now, Sorokin took the outrage with a pinch of salt. “We just found another printer,” he says.

Sorokin is at an interesting juncture in his career. Admired in continental Europe, he has struggled to break through in the UK and US. That might be about to change, thanks to a brilliant young translator, Max Lawton, who is tackling eight of his books. Two of them, Telluria and Their Four Hearts, come out in English this year: six more, including Blue Lard, will be published over the next three years.

Sorokin has also gained attention abroad in recent months with his outspoken attacks on Putin, all of which crackle with his exemplary ghoulishness. In an article published in the Guardian four days after the start of the Ukraine war, he said the president had lapped up hatred of the west “in the black milk he drank from the KGB’s teat”.

Sorokin is part of an exodus of liberal-minded intellectuals, artists and creatives from Russia that began roughly when Putin returned as president in 2012 and became a stampede when war broke out. Unlike most of them, he was fortunate to have a second home in Europe to withdraw to — a flat in the genteel Berlin neighbourhood of Charlottenburg that he has owned since 2011. Il Calice is a 10-minute walk away.

The restaurant is on a corner of Walter-Benjamin-Platz, a neoclassical, colonnaded square that is a landmark of the capital, and it reflects the cool, minimalist aesthetic of its surroundings. There is wood panelling on the walls and rows of identical milky-white lamps shedding unobtrusive light.

It’s asparagus season in Germany, so the starter is a no-brainer — zuppa di asparagi bianchi. Sorokin goes for the roast beef from Friesian cows, with bell pepper, rosemary potato mash and salsa verde, and orders a glass of Nebbiolo. I choose the home-made tagliatelle with white veal ragout, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from South Tyrol.

Il Calice is, says Sorokin, one of his favourite Berlin eateries. “They have a very creative approach to food,” he says. Judging by the recipes for “house-dust tartlets” and “toothbrush soufflé” in “The Banquet”, you could say the same about Sorokin.

He is best known in the west for Day of the Oprichnik, a satire set in 2028 Moscow with uncanny parallels to the present day. In a Russia that has slid back to tsarist autocracy, a band of secret policemen, a revamp of Ivan the Terrible’s feared “oprichniki” bodyguard, flog intellectuals, burn down noblemen’s houses and gang-rape their wives.

Il Calice
Walter-Benjamin-Platz 4, 10629 Berlin

White asparagus soup x2 €28
Roast beef from Friesian cows, with bell pepper, rosemary potato mash and salsa verde €30
Tagliatelle with white veal ragout €19
Glass of Nebbiolo x2 €20
Glass of Sauvignon Blanc €7.50
Bottle of San Pellegrino €8
Total (inc tip) €120

Oprichnik was written in 2006, a time of relative optimism in Russia. I ask him how he was so sure things would take the malevolent turn they did. “There’s a song by The Who — ‘I Can’t Explain’,” he says, suddenly switching from Russian to English.

Then he tries to. Patriots were claiming at the time that Russia should isolate itself from the west “and I decided to write a fantasy about what [it] would be like if that happened. And now it’s actually happening.”

The response of the Russian reading public was dismissive. “People initially reacted with humour,” he says. “But then they stopped smiling.”

Though it is often grotesque and fantastical, Oprichnik contains some flourishes that now seem amazingly prescient. In the novel, Russia has built a wall to seal itself off from the west: now, 16 years later, Russia and Europe are decoupling, amid a flurry of swingeing sanctions and energy embargoes. I ask, jokingly, if Putin will ever build a real wall. Sorokin shakes his head. “Half the bricks would get stolen,” he says.

The waiter returns with our soup, which both of us enjoy (“Sehr gut,” is Sorokin’s verdict). I ask him about the appeal he signed with a number of other Russian writers, journalists and film directors in February demanding an immediate end to the war — quite a brave gesture, given that Putin has condemned critics of his “special military operation” as “traitors” and “scumbags”. What was the reaction in his homeland?

“Sensible people appreciated it,” he says. But the pro-Putinites “said we’re cultural traitors who support the enemy”. One Russian MP has already called for the books of war critics to be banned.

He seems genuinely horrified by what has happened to his compatriots. “These are people who’ve been turned into zombies over the last 20 years by state TV,” he says. “Now they’ve got on to tanks and gone off to fight for a cause that only Putin can understand.”

I quote his recent claim that Russians themselves are to blame for the war. Is that fair, I ask. After all, you could argue Putin took the whole country hostage, gradually turning a makeshift democracy into a dictatorship. Aren’t you blaming the victims?

“Clever people have had 20 years to figure out who Putin is,” he says. During the early years of his presidency, oil prices rose, living standards improved and people turned a blind eye to his autocratic excesses. “They wallowed in luxury,” Sorokin says. “They traded their conscience for material wellbeing. And now they’re reaping the reward.”

Our second course arrives. My pasta looks — and tastes — delicious, but I eye Sorokin’s beef with envy. It looks succulent and beautifully cooked, and he seems satisfied (“It’s a masterpiece,” he says, with relish).

The food is exquisite, but the service patchy. Ordering another glass of Nebbiolo proves a challenge, even though we’re Il Calice’s only customers. The increasingly desperate whoops Sorokin and I emit to summon a waiter make us sound like the heroes of one of his novels.

On the subject of Putin, a man he describes as the “great destroyer”, Sorokin is now really hitting his stride. “He has ruined everything he’s touched,” he says — not only Russia’s free press and democratic parliament but its economy and even its army. “He claims he’s lifted Russia from its knees, but really he’s just destroyed it,” he says.

Sorokin has a point when it comes to the army: western experts have been surprised by its poor performance in Ukraine. But he himself never had any illusions. In one short story, “Purple Swans”, Russia is plunged into an existential crisis after all the uranium in its nuclear warheads turns to sugar. The implication: Russian power is just a Potemkin village.

Maybe, Sorokin suggests, Putin doesn’t even aspire to victory in Ukraine. He repeats Salvador Dalí’s famous line about Hitler unleashing the second world war “not to win, as most people think, but to lose”.

“Exactly as in Wagner’s operas, it has to end for him, the hero, as tragically as possible,” Dalí’ wrote in 1944. “I think Putin’s the same,” Sorokin says.

Sorokin was born in 1955 in a village outside Moscow. His literary gift came to the fore at an early age: an erotic short story he wrote when he was 14 became a huge hit among his school friends. The story was called “Apples” — “because the lovers met in a queue for apples”.

It is a theme that he explored in one of his earliest mature works, The Queue, a novel made up entirely of scraps of dialogue, exclamations and profanities uttered by a group of Soviet citizens standing in line, which was published in France in 1985 and distributed in his homeland in “samizdat” form.

After studying engineering at an oil and gas institute in Moscow, Sorokin became a book illustrator and designer and joined the capital’s nonconformist artistic underground. He mixed with a group of artists known as the Conceptualists, who famously adopted the tropes of socialist realism to expose its emptiness.

In 1975 Sorokin found himself in the studio of Erik Bulatov, one of the group’s most famous proponents, renowned for his big blue skies plastered over with empty communist slogans. It was a breakthrough for him. “It was like ozone — my head started spinning,” he says.

Another important influence was Ilya Kabakov, whose witty, absurdist installations about Soviet life (such as “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment” from 1985) later brought him huge fame in the west. Sorokin says that visiting Kabakov’s studio “was like a drug trip”.

Sorokin began writing, and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 more and more of his work began to be published in his homeland. But for eight years in the 1990s, a time of economic crisis, social collapse and political upheaval, he published no new novels at all.

“You realise that literature just lags behind the age you’re living in, you can’t keep up with it,” he says. “It’s like trying to write a novel about a war while you’re living in that war.”

Then in 1999 came Blue Lard, which sealed his reputation as one of Russia’s most wildly original novelists. The titular substance is excreted by clones of famous Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pasternak. Their writings — hilarious parodies of the original authors — feature prominently in the text.

The experiments in style continued with Oprichnik, which describes a high-tech future fused with feudal barbarity, written in a bizarre archaic language with hypermodern inflections. The book might be satirical, but its message is deadly serious: Russia’s chronic tendency to embrace autocratic rule.

“Everyone’s talking about the barbarities [Russia is committing in Ukraine], these medieval methods of war,” Sorokin says. “It’s all because the Russian state hasn’t really changed since the Middle Ages, the time of Ivan the Terrible.”

I bring up an idea he recently expressed, that Russia had made a fatal mistake by failing to bury the corpse of empire after the USSR collapsed, and it had now returned as a zombie. The current situation, he says, is even worse: “Now we’ll have to bury the rest too, the new Russian empire as well as the Soviet one.”

As our plates are cleared, Sorokin checks his watch: he has a reading at Berlin’s Literaturhaus in a few hours and must prepare.

In our remaining minutes, I bring up an interview a few years ago in which he said the Russia of now reminded him of the USSR in 1983, a time of stagnation and despair. Eight years later, the country collapsed. Does that mean, I ask, that Russia faces similar cataclysms?

Sorokin makes a bold prediction: Russia will lose the war with Ukraine, triggering “irreversible processes” that will ultimately bring down the Putin regime. Experts are already predicting the “worst economic crisis of the post-Soviet period . . . We face hectic times,” he says. “Anything could happen.”

Ultimately, he says, the end could come as quickly and dramatically as it did in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik revolution. Sorokin quotes the illustrious Russian philosopher Vasily Rozanov, who noted that in 1917, “Russia faded away in two days — three at the most”.

“There was no tsardom left, no church, no army, no working class,” Rozanov wrote. “What remained? Strangely, nothing at all. Just the vile people.”

Sorokin once divided his time between his house near Moscow and his flat in Berlin, saying he needed to balance out the “order” of Germany with the “disorder” of Russia, and to experience Moscow’s winter snow — “essential” for a Russian writer. I ask him if it will be painful to be cut off from his homeland.

“Of course it will be hard — I’m connected to Russia, not only on the level of language,” he says. But there is a precedent for his exile, he says, name-checking the many Russians who ended up in Berlin in the 1920s, fleeing from or expelled by the Bolsheviks — the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, the philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev and Semyon Frank.

And as I settle our bill, I have one last question for him. Russia’s war on Ukraine has prompted a call for a boycott of Russian artists. I ask if he is worried that he could become collateral damage in the new culture wars.

Sorokin becomes thoughtful. “It’s natural that culture will have to pay for this carnage,” he says. The Germans, too, paid a price after the second world war — “Lots of people said they’d never read Goethe again.” But then time passed and so did anti-German sentiment.

“I think Russian culture will endure,” he says, as we shake hands and part. “It’s already part of the world’s cultural heritage — it’s hard to do without it.”

Guy Chazan is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief

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