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October 20, 2011

Edgy Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin is writer-in-residence at Stanford

Sadism? Savagery? Cannibalism? The man who has been called Russia's greatest living writer turns our nightmares into art – and now he's at Stanford.

By Cynthia Haven

Stanford writer-in-residence Vladimir Sorokin (Photo: Elke Wetzig / Creative Commons)

The soft-spoken man with a slight stutter and a startling cascade of shoulder-length silver hair may not look like a one-man Russian revolution, but Stanford's newest writer-in-residence, Vladimir Sorokin, has created his own brand of literary warfare.

"He's the greatest living Russian writer," said Stanford Slavic scholar Nariman Skakov. "He is a living monument, one of the greatest avant-garde writers who consistently undermined Soviet ideology in the 1980s."

Russia's literary enfant terrible made his Stanford debut at an afternoon reception on Tuesday followed by a reading Wednesday night. He will be in residence at Stanford until mid-November.

"We know it's a coup because of the number of people who have tried to jump on the bandwagon," said Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature, introducing the writer on Tuesday. She told the small crowd that some fans had flown from as far away as Chicago, and other institutions tried to book him for side junkets. "They asked us, 'How on earth did you do this?'"

Shocking topics

Sorokin's topics are shocking – cannibalism, violence and scatology. "Using an uncanny ability to mimic language, Mr. Sorokin would lull readers into a reminiscent trance, sometimes by imitating beloved Russian writers. Then he would pull the pin out of the grenade," according to a New York Times article earlier this year.

The article called it "shock treatment," but Sorokin instead compares himself to an acupuncturist. "Sometimes I feel the trembling of the collective body," he said.

In a nation still reverberating from decades of Soviet censorship and the subsequent unleashing of obscenity and crime, the novelist, playwright and screenplay writer has caused a lot more than trembling.

The protests against Sorokin's books reached a crescendo in 2002, when state prosecutors charged him with pornography. A notorious passage described sex between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev. Protesters threw copies of the book into a huge papier-mâché toilet outside Moscow's Bolshoi Theater.

One of Sorokin's peers defended him against the charges, claiming "pornography is something that provokes indecency, yet reading Sorokin's works can eliminate one's taste for lovemaking for a lifetime."

The charges were eventually dropped – but the brouhaha was an advertising bonanza for Sorokin, author of The Ice Trilogy, Blue Lard and Day of the Oprichnik.

According to Skakov, many readers miss the point: "The beauty is not the shocking narrative, but what he does conceptually with the text." For example, in one book, The Queue, it's not entirely clear what commodity the characters are lining up for, and the lines of dialogue, including snatches of conversation, roll calls, jokes, howls of rage and amorous moans, are unattributed. Still the people in line wait patiently, doggedly, with several dozen blank pages representing the times when everyone is asleep on benches.

Nightmares as art

Sorokin's dystopian science fiction books turn our mild anxieties and worst nightmares into art. His imagined future may include a Sinified Russian language or psychopathic cults, biomodification or hallucinogenic drugs, giant carrier pigeons the size of vultures and a cloned Dostoevsky or Pasternak, with characters and narrative lines that morph into others.

"Basically, his art deconstructs all dominant ideologies by linguistic means," said Skakov, an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures. "He undermines any ideology that restricts freedom."

Though Sorokin's books have been picked up by premier U.S. publishers – Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the New York Review of Books Classics – some of his best novels, said Skakov, haven't been translated; he cites The Norm and Marina's 30th Love.

Far from courting controversy, Sorokin seems oblivious to his impact. "When I'm writing, I don't think about the readers," he said.

This is his first residency in the United States. Will his hesitant English be a problem? As a writer in residence, he said, he will not be a lecturer but will focus on "the process of cultural relationships between the students and me."

The man at the center of the kerfuffle was modestly optimistic at his reception. "I hope I will not disappoint you," he said.

American audiences will have a chance to form their own assessments of the controversial writer at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, when Ilya Kabakov, one of the most famous of Russia's avant-garde artists, will join Sorokin in a colloquy on "Conceptual Dialogue," in Levinthal Hall at the Stanford Humanities Center. (The prominent artistic duo Ilya and Emilia Kabakov also will speak at "Utopia in the 20th Century: Artistic Ramifications" at 5:15 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24, in Room 216 of Pigott Hall.)

The 2011 film Target, with a screenplay by Sorokin, will be shown at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, in Braun Corner (Building 320), Room 105. Discussants will include Sorokin and the film's director, Alexander Zeldovich, as well as Slavic Professor Gregory Freidin and Tom Luddy, co-director of the Telluride Film Festival.



Contact Vladimir Sorokin through Diane Jakubowski, Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages:, (650) 725-8620 or (650) 690-6274

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

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