To The Gulag

Zakhar Prilepin, born in 1975 in the village of Ryazan region, at a young age joins the ranks of Riot police and together with this special unit of Russian police taking part in the fighting in Chechnya. He is strongly-built, short in stature, although the facial features are delicate, like a boy. He happily wears rubber boots and a protective suit, holding a Kalashnikov automatic rifles, likes turbo-rock, Serbian music, gained popularity during the war in the Balkans. As I understand it, surfing the net, Prilepin talks with Kusturica, another giant, haunting our conscience. Not long ago the writer went on to assert that the patriotism abroad, the Pro-Russian region of Ukraine, Donbass. “I don’t like war, I have no desire to spend the rest of his life with arms in hand, I just don’t like it when houses are falling bombs, killing children and the elderly”. Member of the national Bolshevik movement, Eduard Limonov (the same Limonov, Emmanuel Carrere has written the novel of the same name) Zakhar Prilepin and he is not just noticeable, but very noticeable writer, known primarily his novel, published in Italy by the publishing house Voland, “Abode”. This 800-page volume, has received numerous literary awards at home, which reads like all great Russian novels, with pleasure and interest, due to the frequent changes in the language register, the documentary richness, the variety of characters that inhabit the camp in Solovki in the 20-ies of the 20th century, when the action of the novel. Actors — ignorant peasants and Leningrad intellectuals, poets and priests, spies and prostitutes, scholars and members of criminal gangs.

“Resident” — as far as we know, the first Russian novel about the Soviet camp system is not based on memoirs. Zakhar Prilepin, a former teenager during the collapse of the USSR, is neither a witness nor a victim of the Gulag, as his parents, his father — a history teacher, mother a nurse, middle-class Russian heartland, the guardian of values that have suppressed the Russian revolution and its evolution in the state: land, people, equality, internationalism, resistance, power, arms race, science, technology, social experiment, the use of force “for our people”. Theme camps is a topos of modern Russian literature, “troubled, as he writes in the afterword Marsalis Nicoletta (Nicoletta Marcialis), — the necessity of settling accounts with the past.” Here, however, a very powerful narrative line, try to get into the minds of the guards. Or executioners. It is no coincidence that Russia’s “Abode” is often compared to a novel by Jonathan Littell (Jonathan Littell) “the kindly ones”.

Prilepin said: “I wanted to write a story or, at most, a short novel. Then he began to dig into the archives and found an incredible amount of amazing stories, where security officers and their enemies — revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Caucasians, poles — are involved in the most complex and diverse forms of relationships. This novel is not about the Gulag. The Gulag appeared after Solovki. What was described by Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov is not Solovki. In my novel tells the story of the first stage of development of the Soviet penal system. There was some true-not true, the idea was to forge a new person. It failed. They lost. Brought to light only some of the bleeding mess. But it was important to understand where it started, as it happens gradually, step by step. Full of illusions, people go straight to hell. That’s what I was wondering”.

The publisher put us in touch with Prilepin via e-mail, the writer was traveling between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Interview email is a complex task, you lack the facial expressions of the interlocutor, his voice change tone from serious to mocking. Such a conversation may cause irritation.

To forge the new man — this aspect plays a big role in the book, it has its own grandeur and, at the same time, it gives madness. This madness passes in Solovki annoying ubiquitous cry of gulls, flying low is not in search of offshore production, but because they became greedy hunters for carrion. Zakhar Prilepin, before writing the novel, lived in Solovki, and one of the advantages of his works is the power light and landscape, description of the fortress, the red domes of the monastery, forests and animals occupying them. He studied the rich sources about what was happening in this prison.

It is for a writer these scattered in the White sea pieces of sushi? Are they a reflection of Russian society, its history, its violence? “Solovki — a monastery, a prison, but it is also a place where later, in the late 30-ies were educated Russian guys who fought in world war II, saving the world from Nazism. In this (and only this) sense Solovki is a mirror of Russia, but not in the sense, that whole country is a huge prison, like many in the West like to imagine, as if it necessarily leads to the conclusion that they live and have always lived freely”.

In Solovki in the 20 years of the people died from starvation, executions were held, there was corruption, there were informers and death squads. There was also a theater and a local newspaper, school and scientific laboratories, was established the natural reserve, biological Observatory was mined iodine. All this is told in the novel, he recalls how in a concentrated space, attempt of the education and propaganda in order to build a new world, backed by a revolutionary utopia. The warden in the novel, the driving force of innovation introduced in the colony, Fedor Eihmanis — charged real historical character, the Ahmanson, who served as the Director of the prison and the result executed in the purges of 1937. “This lab,” says Director Eihmanis. A social laboratory for all those who know how to do something and could contribute to the building of a new society, was the application, even better attitude: gave a better, more varied food, their pay, they were given the opportunity to buy something in the store. It was concluded the counter-revolutionaries, revolutionaries, monks, scientists, athletes, poets. Ordinary criminals were in the worst conditions, they were lumpen-proletarians of the punitive system: the violence was in the order of things, the gangs confronted each other, a heavy forced physical labor was compounded by the tyranny and cruelty of the heads of the groups. Ordinary convicts, ignorant and cruel — a constant background and the second line of the novel — the irony on the instructions of the Directorate of the camps: but how to go to school after all day balani compete?

“The power here is not Soviet, and Solovki”, — joked one of these mockingly, raising all to laugh and not susceptible to the formation of the characters. I tell Prilepin, the Soviet-time joke where a lady asked about the idea of revolution as a social laboratory: “I understand the importance of the experiment, but why not hold it first in the laboratory?” And although it’s just a joke, I thought he was interesting, as it indicates the distance between the government and the lives of ordinary people. Prilepin, he was enraged: “the Soviet experiments must be understood in the context of world history, not through jokes about old women. By the time of the onset of the Russian revolution, the third world was dominated by colonial powers, and even in your countries white world proletarians and peasants existed in extreme poverty. The Bolsheviks staged a coup in the world, they had huge plans, they have made tremendous progress and made a huge error. I am ready to discuss on this topic, starting only from the history of his country.” He continues: “You Europeans do not spend time at the hypocritical history of democracy, tolerance and human rights, while under the monotonous rustle of these concepts are destroyed inconvenient regimes, the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, while others die of hunger and disease? Millions of people are fleeing their countries under the bombing. I don’t understand how you think to tell me a joke about the experiments, when right now all of Europe was a victim of vast experience”.

After clear was a clear demarcation line between “them” and “us” (Russia, the Third world, on the one hand, Europe and the West, on the other), we turn to the subject of our conversation. Did you write a historical novel that distanciruemsa from camp memoirs of the 20th century, but you are young and You are neither the witness nor the victim of the time. What point of view You took? “Working on the book, I set myself a simple goal: unlike Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I have had the advantage to work with documents of the Gulag, not limiting themselves solely to the stories of prisoners, which are not always confirmed, but on the contrary, often contradicted by the documents. I was interested to show the Gulag through the eyes of the prisoner, and also from the point of view of a supervisor, security officer”.

Prilepin writes much better than argues, from his response blows against revisionism in the Soviet camps, while in the novel he scatters due to the fact that the action takes place in the first years after the revolution. Solovetsky Islands, on the one hand, it was a fortress and a prison in the tsarist era, the monks who lived there as the man learned to deal with prison administration. One of the most curious and interesting aspects of the novel is the role of monks. In Soviet prison, they are prisoners, but fighting the same life as before the revolution — pray and control the prison. So again repeated Russian history, as told by one of the characters: “the security officer who first raised over the Solovetsky monastery red flag, sat here like a prisoner… They are all here and go to jail. And here and bury. Then God is near. God is far from lost children does not let go. This monastery won’t let you go! Never! Rebellion in 1666 was his suppressed Ivan meshaninov under him, the archers have beaten the monks, stones, staged a massacre there, and then the corpses were not buried. So Ivan memorynow he soon sat down here!” The main character of the novel is a brash young prisoner named Tom. His misadventures, naïve thoughts, the spirit of resistance had become a leitmotif of the work in which each hero is given their own solo part. Not always occurring with Artem most likely, with his attitude to the birds, the deer, the Bear dog is black, attention to inner voices and feelings of hunger, filling his mouth with saliva, the interest in beautiful and dangerous the Soviet secret Gale, with which he fastened the relationship, as in “the Night porter”, only roles are reversed. But as frightening fairy-tale illustrations of Ivan Bilibin, easy rhythm becomes the organizing principle of all the paintings, all the episodes of this long narrative.

Roman prilepina full of literary allusions, starting with the French epigraph referring to “War and peace”. However, in a sequence of episodes, in each of which the focus is on a new character, it seems, lies the allusion to the seriality of television films. As in film language, there prevails dialogue. How does Your language cinema, television and the Internet?

“I read modern Italian literature and do not see it as the special features of the 21st century as in the works of Pamuk, Franzen, Houellebecq, and Littell. Visual serial language — my God — yeah I can easily find in “Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy and “the idiot” Dostoevsky. Only at that time did not have these words.”

Jonathan Franzen (Jonathan Franzen), Michel Houellebecq (Michel Houellebeck), Jonathan Littell. The system of allusions, which fits perfectly with the creativity of Prilepin, like a mosaic, a panorama of politically incorrect literature.

Prilepin told about the Chechen war, endured on his direct experience in the novel “Pathology”. You often cite Leo Tolstoy and Ernest Hemingway. If to speak about Russia, I would add Grossman. What relationship, in Your opinion, literature and war?

“Grossman, in my opinion, there is absolutely nothing to do with it. No connection between literary works and the war there, each author lives. Tolstoy and Hemingway deliberately went to places of conflict, like the poet Nikolai Gumilev (he volunteered to fight in the First world war, were shot as counter-revolutionary in 1921 approx. of the author). Vasily Grossman is very popular in the West, so refer to it often, but there are many good Russian writers who fought during world war II and for some reason are not relevant parameters of Western publishers: the novel where there are Communists, but not raised Jewish theme, the chances of publication in half. Yuri Bondarev, for example, fought in WWII and wrote brilliant novels about the war, but it does not translate, at least 25 years. In his books too much of the glorious Soviet heroes. They had to be a little worse.”

We return to the conflict in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian intellectuals and writers, including the Russian-speaking, participated in the protests on the Maidan. How You feel about them? “Kyiv intellectuals temporarily out of his mind, given that they decided to get rid of a corrupt government in the company of openly fascist groups, having achieved, among other things, the replacement of one corrupt government with another, even more corrupt. I can only sympathize”.

Russian national-Bolshevism 4.0 did work.