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Day of the Oprichnik: A Novel

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One of The Telegraph’s Best Fiction Books 2011Moscow, 2028. A scream, a moan, and a death rattle slowly pull Andrei Danilovich Komiaga out of his drunken stupor. But wait―that’s just his ring tone. So begins another day in the life of an oprichnik, one of the czar’s most trusted courtiers―and one of the country’s most feared men.In this new New Russia, where futuristic technology and the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible are in perfect synergy, Komiaga will attend extravagant parties, part…

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What was life like for Russians in the days and weeks following the collapse of the Soviet Union?(r/AskReddit)

It was a difficult and interesting time. First of all, when people complain about food shortages it is because they are too young to remember the 80s, rationing coupons and Gorbachev’s ban of alcohol (near total ban, prohibition, they tore up historic wineyards etc).

Suddenly the shelves were full of stuff, but it was often weird stuff. For instance, in Yekaterinsburg (Soviet Sverdlovsk) where I was growing up, we had endemic shortages of eggs and meat. Well, chicken eggs and beef/pork/chicken meat, so the stores sold quail (?) eggs and whale meat. We got chicken from America and concluded it tasted like chicken. These were nicknamed “Bush legs” because Bush arranged the trade deal or whatever. We also got a banana and cut it up into a bunch of slices and shared them among us as an exotic delicacy. In a few years bananas were as common as they are in the West. Lest you imagine us as vitamin starved: we grew apples and strawberries and tons of other stuff at the dacha, picked mushrooms and got imported persimmons, apricots, oranges and pomegranates from southern Soviet republics. Bananas were new though. As were Snickers, Twix etc. bars: not as good as Russian candy, but neat.

Kiosks appeared everywhere. These were a proud take on free enterprise: rickety shacks with small access windows (robbers had a proud take on free enterprise too). These kiosks sold candy bars, magazines, porn all the stuff you’d expect in the West, but for Russians (especially Russian children like me) this was exciting, exciting stuff.

I still remember the evening walk with my dad and the dog to the kiosk at the big bus station. We would buy me gum with a fold-in wrapper with a picture on it (I collected these: usually pictures of motorcycles and cars, sometimes scary, out-of-context stills from the Godfather or porn), and some fireworks and set them off in the empty lots between apartment buildings on the way back. The lady that worked the kiosk always disapproved, telling us that people normally buy fireworks for holidays. This is pretty indicative of the old-guard mentality in the post Soviet era: the notion of working for profit didn’t quite sink in, and for all I know she was working for some local mafioso.

Which bring us to the proper name for the era: Bespredel or “no limits”. Crime exploded. The mafiosi that sank to the top and became respectable classy Oligarchs were at this era riding around town in their Mercedes Benz, purple Armani suits, and so much jewelery that the term “raspal’tsovka” (now means “showing off in an unreasonable way”) appeared to describe the peculiar contortion of the fingers the gangsters experienced from wearing so many heavy rings. In an odd way, Russian gangsters actually lived out the image of wealth depicted in 90s Hip hop: perhaps it has something to do with fantasies born from dire poverty. Yeketerinsburg has a gangster cemetary, complete with statues of the dead depicted in suits and holding the keys to their (heavenly?) Mercedes.

I say “heavenly” only because it was just around this time that the Russian Orthodox church started selling indulgences by letting gangsters donate to/construct churches and thus legitimizing and laundering their wealth for them(for the uneducated, an indulgence is a fee set to absolve a sin: murder a person=10,000$ or a new gold vestment/scepter for the Patriarch to be sin-free. For all I know, the fuckers introduced bulk rates, looking at the Patriarch vsya Rusi’s fat mug and 30,000$ watch (and vow of poverty, mind you), I wouldn’t be surprised).

In any case, the crime exploded, and not in the casual efforts to beat up my father and grandfather for being Jewish put forth by our more degraded drunk neighbors (who sometimes lived in the staircase and sometimes died there too). These were part and parcel of Soviet life.

Crime exploded in a macro way, such as that the Local crime syndicate, started a D.A.R.E.-type program in town to push out the Roma syndicate, which then ran all the drugs, and then shut down the program as soon as they came to an agreement. Then the Moscow gangs moved in leading to a shoot-out between the local police and the Swat team (which owed allegiance to Moscow) this was on the news~ I looked for the link but my searches bring nothing: too many shootouts, too many involving cops or spetnaz in my dear town, if anyone remembers better I’d appreciate the link. Everyone knew all this because all the papers talked about it.

Media: the tale of the Russian media after the Perestroika is exemplified by the magazine SpeedInfo. Now rather minor, SpeedInfo was hugely popular, almost as hugely as the pyramid scheme MMM. SpidInfo or “Aidsinfo”, as it was originally called, was supposed to be a journal for Russians starved for relevant information about safe sex (for reference the main Soviet manual for young couple, which sadly is not at hand but which I’ve read from cover to cover a few years ago had, on the cover, a woman’s hand handing an apple to a man (this is in an atheist country), had a chapter on “frigidity”, a chapter on homosexual men (lesbians don’t exist), and was generally a piece of work)). Very quickly Aidsinfo became a kind of penthouse forum, publishing increasingly unlikely sexual anecdotes and erotic drawings, but never actually porn. Later it was renamed Speedinfo, to push off the highly unsexy issue of AIDS off. As far as I can tell, this is a telling example of what happened to much of the energy and enthusiasm of Perestroika media: that and part of it went online, where Russians have their own power foci (e.g. we bought out Livejournal and took over it).

My personal recollection of the time is fixated on the movie Jurassic Park. I was at the age obsessed with dinosaurs and this movie was the embodiment of pure desire. It was rumored about. The local theater advertised showing it, and when I excitedly went with my grandmother it was actually “Godzilla vs Mothra” or whatever, which is a fine movie, but I was damn sure at whatever age this was, that dinosaurs did not get that big or breathe fire, so the young paleontologist in me felt let down and thought Jurrasic park would be more accurate. I was also let down when the local news paper published a comic book version of Jurassic Park. There the artists also clearly hadn’t seen the movie, so the premise was that the dinosaurs broke out due to endemic power shortages and the mafia. In hindsight, it might have been political commentary.

Literature: stays fucking awesome. Sorokin & Pelevin are must reads you will never read anything more fucked up and brilliant at once (this is more about Sorokin, as true of his work today as it was in the 80s when he was starting out: start with Day of the Opritchnik and work backwards), Pelevin is hit or miss, but the early years after the Perestroika are his best work, and when he hits, it is like a clever revelation from good bong hit. The movie version of Generation P is pretty good, and that is maybe his best novel and most accessible to a Western audience, it has a good translation under the title Homo Zapiens (Chapaev and Emptiness, his other great is all inside jokes for Russians). Take that as you will. For a sweet detective novel series you can’t go wrong with Boris Akunin’s Fandorin epic (available in Andrew Bromfield’s awful translation!)

Religion: in the absence of the pseudo-religion that Communism was for the remaining idealists everyone goes nuts on the New Age and the Orthodox Church, stays nuts, invents current fascistic theocratic bullshit with a Dictator-King and stays with it until this very day.

Government: Desperate idealism followed by… see: Religion

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AskReddit

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1601

Amazon Price

$3.67

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Book Binding

Paperback

Type Code

ABIS_BOOK

Book Author

Vladimir Sorokin

Book Edition

Reprint

Book Publisher

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Day of the Oprichnik: A Novel

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What was life like for Russians in the days and weeks following the collapse of the Soviet Union?

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