“People like you save yourselves by devouring Russia, and people like me–by devouring our own souls. Russia is nourished on the souls of her sons–she thrives on them. Not by the righteous ones, but by the cursed.”
So says Sasha (“Sankya”) Tishin, the protagonist of “Sankya,” Zakhar Prilepin’s novel about “communofascist” Russian opposition group the Founding Fathers. Made up of young men, and the occasional young woman, who feel disaffected with modern Russian life, the Founding Fathers carry out political protests that devolve into increasingly violent actions, until they descend into full-scale terrorism.
As a work of literature, “Sankya” is both in the vein of the rich tradition of Russian letters, and unique. It possesses the psychological depth and darkness that you’d expect from Russian Literature with a Capital L, along with musings on the essence and fate of Russia. At the same time, it has the taut structure and high-intensity action of a modern thriller, with brutal interrogations, an assassination, and the “liberation” of an OMON (special police force) base. And, like Prilepin’s collection of short stories “Sin,” it has a provincial earthiness reminiscent of Soviet “village prose,” but with an explicit sexuality unusual in Russian writing, something that comes across well in the colloquial, casual translation. I can’t say it will be to everyone’s taste, but it is an explosive addition to contemporary Russian literature.
As a work of sociology, “Sankya” is both revealing and disturbing. The forward is by Aleksei Navalny, the darling dissident of the Western press, but Navalny is not as friendly and cuddly as many Western journalists would like to believe. The fact that he would write a foreword extolling Prilepin as “not just a biographer of Russia but also an active politician with influence over the hearts and minds of young Russians,” and claim that “If you want to feel the real raw nerve of modern Russian life, what you need isn’t ‘Anna Karenina’–what you need is ‘Sankya,'” should make Russia-observers pause and take stock. Not because Navalny is wrong, but because he is right, and because activists like him may have to get into bed with activists like those depicted in “Sankya” if they want to get anything done.
“Sankya” is also enlightening–and disturbing–in its depictions of the main characters’ thoughts and deeds, which seem natural and justified and yet are hardly the basis for a civilized society as many Western liberals would like to envision it. Disaffected by politics, and scarred by war (several of the characters, like Prilepin himself, were in Chechnya), Sankya and his comrades turn to protest and violence not as a last, but as a first, resort, living as they do in a macho, self-righteous, and yet desperate bubble that is their only protection against the authoritarian state seeking to crush them. Sasha is in fact in many ways a sympathetic character, and this is the most troublesome thing about him. He can be tender and romantic towards his girlfriend(s), who perform much of the organizing for the party, and even carry out daring and heroic actions, but are mistrusted and looked down upon by the “real,” that is, male, activists, and Sasha himself is just as likely to be dismissive, controlling, and abusive towards the women in his life as he is to be kind, even though he genuinely loves them as much as he is capable of loving anyone.
But there, perhaps, is the problem: Sasha is encased in a shell that can only be penetrated by love for the motherland, but his love for the motherland, rather like his love for his mother and the other women in his life, is a toxic, lopsided love. With lovers like these, you may ask yourself, does Russia even need enemies? Is she dependent on the Sankyas of the world, like an oppressed wife dependent on her controlling and abusive husband?
Maybe so. But don’t let those rather morose thoughts dissuade you from reading “Sankya.” It may not be light and fluffy, but it is an illuminating look into contemporary Russia, with a muscular prose style that allows for depth as well as high-octane action. For the bold reader, but for the bold reader, well worth it.