Sorokin’s Oprichnik.

A bit over a year ago I posted about Vladimir Sorokin’s 1994 novel Норма (Norma, forthcoming from New York Review Books in Max Lawton’s translation as The Norm); after that, put off by what I knew about his Ice trilogy, I didn’t read any more of his work until getting to 2006 in my long march and pulling his День опричника (translated by Jamey Gambrell as Day of the Oprichnik) off the shelf. The gap of a dozen years between the novels made this one feel like it was by a different writer, and that’s what I mainly want to talk about; for descriptions of the plot, I’ll send you to a good NY Times review (archived) by the deeply knowledgeable Stephen Kotkin (see my Year in Reading praise for his biography of Stalin: Volume I, Volume II), a recent n+1 essay by Michael Scott Moore that ties it in to current events, and a less-than-enthusiastic complete review review by M.A. Orthofer.

When we last met up with Sorokin, he was gleefully deconstructing Russian and Soviet reality and its reflection in literature, combining clichéd plots with wild and frequently obscene stylistic inventions. His avowed aim was to blow it all up so that it couldn’t be used any more; having succeeded, he had to decide what to do next as he stood amid the smoking wreckage. It would seem that he turned to the kind of skewed reflections of post-Soviet reality that his rival Pelevin had built a career on (see, e.g., this post), except instead of pop Buddhism and werewolves he has a revived oprichnina and some accompanying early-modern phenomena, all coexisting with modern cellphones, cars, and drugs. As I wrote Lizok: “It’s fun, mind you, I’m not complaining, and it’s good when authors change things up (Pelevin got predictable pretty fast), it’s just a bit of a shock.” The thing is that even though it’s readable and enjoyable, it doesn’t feel especially necessary in the way that Roman and Norma did — it’s like Sorokin has come down to earth and is venting his outrage against the outrageous nature of Putin’s Russia in reasonably typical Russian-novel ways. I expect I’ll read and enjoy more of his novels (I have copies of Метель and Манарага), but I doubt they’ll surprise me the way his early work did. The only author I can think of who made a comparable shift from the brilliantly experimental to the comparatively mundane is Alexander Veltman — see my posts about his first novel, Странник [The wanderer], and his later Саломея [Salomea], which is tremendously enjoyable but not strange in the way his early work was.

As a linguistic note, among the obsolete words he revives for use by his oprichniki, one of my favorites is уд [ud], a hilarious term for ‘penis.’ Pelevin used it in his 1999 novel Generation «П» as part of a slogan for a condom: МАЛ, ДА УД АЛ ‘SMALL, BUT THE PENIS IS RED’ (see this post for further explanation).

And now, back to Alexander Goldstein’s Спокойные поля [Peaceful fields] (see this post); I had to take a break from it because it was such a dense read, but now I’m eager to get back to it.


  1. Glottologue says

    Not directly linked to Sorokin’s works and this post, but here is a recent piece about Sorokin’s view on the war raging in Ukraine following the Russian military aggression and the collective guilt of Russian people (a whole debate in itself!). I know it’s not directly language-related, but it might be worth mentioning it.

  2. “Ud” is also used in BCSM, although the meaning is “limb” or “extremity” more generically. However in common speech it usually means penis , though sometimes you see it as “muški ud” i.e. “the male limb”.

    I can’t seem to find the etymology though, maybe one of the many learned scholars on this site can shed some light on that.

  3. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The Danish cognate lem (also in medlem = ‘member/Mitglied’) is also mainly used euphemistically. Det mandlige lem if explication is needed, but outside the collocation liv og lemmer (as something you can risk or save) you’d say arme og ben now.

  4. I can’t seem to find the etymology though

    The etymology is at the Wiktionary link on the word in the post:

    Inherited from Old East Slavic оудъ (udŭ, “limb, piece”), also found as оудо (udo), plural оудеса (udesa); from Proto-Slavic *udъ. Compare Old Church Slavonic оудъ (udŭ, “limb”), Bulgarian уд (ud, “limb”), Serbo-Croatian у̑д (“limb”), у́до (“piece of meat”), Slovene úd (“limb”) (tonal orthography), Czech úd (“limb”), Slovak úd (“limb”), Polish ud (“thigh”), also udo. Further connections unclear.

    I love the plural (о)удеса at least as much and wish it could be revived.

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    Vasmer says “unclear” and gives five or six possible etymologies. English “wad” has a cousin in Proto-Slavic with the right shape, compare (Vasmer):
    усло́ — «начатая ткань», костром. (Даль). Из *ud-slo, родственного лит. áudžiu, áudžiau, áusti «ткать», лтш. aûst, аûžu — то же, арм. z-audem «связываю», др.-инд. ṓtum «ткать» (Потебня, РФВ I, 88; Мi. ЕW 372; М-Э, 229; Миккола, Мél. Реdеrsеn 412; Френкель, Lit. Wb. 26.)

  6. @nemanja: “…the meaning is “limb” or “extremity” more generically. However in common speech it usually means penis…”

    The same in Russian, actually. Strictly speaking, “penis” is тайный (secret, hidden) or срамный/срамной (lit. shameful) уд. Although I may be wrong and these dated Russian terms can refer to private parts more generally. See Deuteronomy 25:11-12 in the Synodal translation:

    11 Когда дерутся между собою мужчины, и жена одного подойдет, чтобы отнять мужа своего из рук бьющего его, и протянув руку свою, схватит его за срамный уд,

    12 то отсеки руку ее: да не пощадит [ее] глаз твой.

    English versions have “private parts,” “secrets” or “genitals.”

  7. German singular Glied, original meaning “limb”, without any modifier is nowadays also generally understood as meaning “penis”, except if context clearly indicates otherwise.

  8. The same in Russian, actually.

    Yes, the literal and etymological meaning is ‘limb,’ but I’ve never seen it used for anything but ‘penis.’

  9. January First-of-May says

    Yes, the literal and etymological meaning is ‘limb,’ but I’ve never seen it used for anything but ‘penis.’

    Slightly less restricted, but also a good example of the same pathway, is Russian член, English member – formerly “limb”, now usually “penis”, but retains the metaphorical extension “element of a group”, as in член общества “member of a society”.

    (I’m not sure whether the corresponding development in Russian and English is parallel or influenced, and if influenced, in which direction. It does seem a little too closely matching to be entirely independent…)

  10. In one of the companies I worked in, we had a none-executive members of the board whom a hapless employee described as Mr. X, member in a document. That caught on, and among the management team he was often referred to as the member, a joke he participated in himself as well.

  11. English member – formerly “limb”, now usually “penis”

    This isn’t true for me; I don’t know whether it’s my idiolect or something more general to my generation or other background, but for me the “penis” sense is very occasional and far in the background unless something in the context brings it to the fore. I certainly wouldn’t smirk if someone was referred to as “the member,” I’d just wonder what he was a member of.

  12. Perhaps it’s more of a British thing? Some (ahem) members of our team had worked in London before, and the specific person also was a UK resident and married to an English wife.

  13. Ah, that could well be.

  14. The obvious question is, was Mr. X a virile member?

  15. I recall a similar case with a bunch of American college students snickering about some correspondence. Committee A was entitled to send somebody to also sit on Committee B, and the chair of B wrote to the chair of A, asking when A would “select your member.” I thought it required an absurdly strained and disingenuous reading to see anything dirty in that phrasing, but other students were howling with laughter.

  16. John Cowan says

    it doesn’t feel especially necessary

    That’s a very high bar for Sorokin to meet. Remember Talleyrand’s (or Henri IV’s, or somebody’s) wisecrack to the writer on trial for his scurrilous writings who protested that after all he must live: “Je ne vois pas la nécessité.” I have always imagined it spoken with none of the schwas elided and the last word with all the syllables very long: né-cès-si-té, with the highest degree of contempt conceivable. And that was the man’s life at stake, not merely his works!

    I should think it quite sufficient for Sorokin, or anybody else, to have written a good book, without dragging in necessity.

  17. I did not say or imply that a writer should write only necessary books, but a reader has the right to choose what to read, and the more necessary a book, the greater the impulse to read it.

  18. I just ran across a beautiful word based on уд in Goldstein:

    И кто-то, кому приведется, грянет сочным греческим баритоном, столь мужским, семенным после безудных распевов латинян

    For which DeepL gives us:

    And someone, who will have the chance, will sing a rich Greek baritone, so masculine, so seminal after the Latin’s frantic chants

    They seem to have taken безудных ‘memberless, unpenised’ (gen. pl.) as an error for безудержных ‘uncontrollable, unrestrained.’

  19. If you’d lose your ud, you’d be frantic, too.

  20. Fair point!

  21. Well, I read it now. My 2 cents is that it is indeed not a necessary thing, but a well-crafted entertainment piece, which sometimes is overdoing its schtick, but not by too much (this is just my subjective impression). A part that I felt while reading it and that neither Kotkin nor Moore, nor Orthofer seem to notice or care to mention is complete superficiality of the ideology of this New Order. The whole style, settings, language, imagery is what Russian would call “butaforia”, a mockup, a veneer of nationalistic ideology on a simple reality of dictatorship and resource-extraction economy. It’s farce.

  22. Yes, I agree with everything you say. Sorokin is always entertaining.

  23. udesa

    i’m going to start claiming this is the etymology of “odessa”, and see how far i can get! (there’s a lot of deeply deculturated folks in brooklyn who’ve recently rediscovered their ukrainian identities in a surge of patriotism – and they’re mostly russian-speakers – so i think i might have a serious impact.)

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    @rozele: Won’t those recent rediscoverers get huffy about orthography and insist you mean the etymology of “Odesa”?

  25. It works even better with “Odesa.”

  26. Mind you, оудеса (udesa) has final stress, but we don’t need to bother the deeply deculturated folks in Brooklyn with petty details like that.

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