“Our state is an occupier.” The writer Vladimir Sorokin on Putin, artificial intelligence and the future of literature in Russia [Spektr.press]
Vladimir Sorokin. Source: Wikipedia

30 April 2024

Interview with Vladimir Sorokin by Alina Mikhalkina

Source: Spektr.press

On 29 April, writer Vladimir Sorokin gave a talk in the Palace of the Republic in Chisinau. At the same time, the Plai Gallery of Modern Art is putting on the exhibition ‘Blue Lard’ based on Sorokin’s novel of the same name. The exhibition, which the writer opened together with gallery owner Marat Gelman, is the result of a collaboration between Sorokin and prompt engineer Evgeny Nikitin involving Artificial Intelligence. The Moldavian publication NewsMaker talked to the writer about the ‘strong’ embrace of artificial intelligence, the recent banning of his novel in Russia and the future of Russian literature. Today Spektr publishes this material with some small cuts. 

– Please tell us about the exhibition: what do you think of working with this new and unexplored artificial intelligence?

– The exhibition is an art epic: first Berlin, then New York (it is there now), and there was also the Paris fair of works created by artificial intelligence – the first of its kind. My work Blue Lard was there.

It’s a new thing for me, but I like to do new things. In the 1990s I started writing screenplays, then I wrote the libretto for Leonid Desyatnikov’s opera Rosenthal’s Children, which was performed at the Bolshoi Theatre. Periodically, when I’m not writing, I do graphics and painting, and the idea of doing something with AI was first suggested to me by Marat Guelman. And I embraced AI.

– What kind of embrace does it have?

Strong. Clearly, it’s not a human being hugging. But it’s a new energy, and it’s on the walls of the galleries. It surprises me every time. We are now working on the next project based on Oprichnik. It will open in London at the end of June. There, too, it [AI] produces such images that the author is very, very pleasantly surprised.

– Is it what you imagined?

– No, it’s completely different. In Blue Lard I did not see the characters like that and not in such situations. Now it turns out that the characters are completely outside the author’s control. On paper and in my head they are one thing, and now they have slipped away and are already looking at me.

– Shortly before your visit to Chisinau, it became known that your novel Legacy has been banned in Russia. On the one hand, in the context of the war against Ukraine unleashed by Russia, the world’s view of Russian literature is being reconsidered; on the other hand, authors are being banned in Russia. Where do you think Russian literature is now?

– It’s a big question, I’ll start from far away. An American friend of mine, a little older than me, when he graduated from high school and chose college, told his father that he wanted to study German philology and literature. And his father, who had fought in World War II, said: “Son, German is the language of Auschwitz. Think about it.” But Gregory didn’t change his mind. What does that tell you? That during wars there is no time for culture, and of course culture suffers. Whoever attacks pays with their culture. During today’s war, in the very first weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I saw a picture of a portrait of Pushkin standing on a garbage dump in Kiev. And this is absolutely normal, because people take their rage out on writers and poets.

But time passes, and wars end, everyone will still read War and Peace and Pushkin. I would say that now a lot of projects in Europe on Russian texts have collapsed, I’ve had several theatre productions fall through, one film production was cancelled. Russian speakers say that projects that involve Russian are a big problem. But European bookstores still stock Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and modern Russian authors. After all, Russian literature and music are part of world culture. Even war can’t do anything here, fortunately. But there is a personal responsibility of writers who supported this war – like Knut Hamsun, who supported Nazism. Readers went to his house and threw books over the fence.

– Where are the Russian language and Russian identity now? Given that there are hundreds of thousands of ‘ethnic Russians’ living in the former Soviet bloc countries, and that after the war began thousands of people left Russia forming a new wave of emigration?

– Russian emigration is not a new thing. I live in Berlin, in Charlottenburg. Back in the 1920s it was called Charlottengrad because so many of our emigrants lived there. But even now you can hear Russian speech in the street all the time.

I would say that it was tougher back then, there was the Iron Curtain, mass repression. So far, fortunately, Putin has not gone that far, and I hope that he will not be strong enough to do so. In Soviet times when people were leaving it was a one way ticket – no return. But now the borders are not closed, many people can still travel, if there are no criminal charges against you. But there is already a emigrant diaspora in Europe, trying to survive culturally. It’s not easy during the war, because all the blame falls on the Russian director and even on his name on the poster. A year ago at a talk I gave a German woman came up to me, she said that she had studied Russian at first, then stopped for ideological reasons: “I refused to carry on and now I’m learning Polish.”  

– Could we say that this Russian world — the cultural space of Russian-speaking people — is fragmented? After all, in Moldova too there are plenty of people who are not just nostalgic for the Soviet Union, but also support all the horrible things that Russia is doing in Ukraine.

– I think this divide will persist until the end of the war. That’s how it’s going to be. As soon as the war ends, there will be clarity. Everything will become clear. It’s like Gorbachev would said: “We’ve made up our minds.” But of course until then we’ll be in this painful situation. 

– You once said that people in Russia don’t live in the present, that their gaze is either backwards or forwards. How did this come about?

– Yes, that’s the plight of the Russians. It all comes from the structure of the Russian state. The problem is that the state is shaped like a pyramid, and this pyramid was created by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. It hasn’t changed since then — not fundamentally, not structurally, not in the sense of its basic energy. Just the facade’s material changes according to the era: now it’s plastic; in Stalin’s times it was concrete; and in Khrushchev’s time it was prefabricated panels. But the essence of this pyramid is thoroughly medieval: it’s a despotic power structure. One person sits atop the pyramid, with all the power, including the power to preside as judge over everyone. As for him, no one can judge him. That’s how it was in Ivan the Terrible’s times, and that’s how it is now under Putin. The pyramid regards both the country and the populace as property. The state is our occupier; ethically and ontologically it takes the place of God. It’s unpredictable, opaque, and ruthless, and it pursues its own imperial goals that don’t align with those of its citizens.  

The citizens of the country have only learned, over the course of many generations, to fear the government, to obey it, and to expect the unexpected. How can our ordinary person man live in the present if tomorrow they will be told that henceforth all apple trees must be cut down, or that from now on communism will be the leading ideology? Or the reverse, that now we’re turning to capitalism. Now we’ll have a mix of the USSR and medieval Russia. I feel especially sorry for our women. How can you give birth, build a family, and raise children, when the schools can fill their heads with any ideology whatsoever, and you can’t be certain what’s coming tomorrow? This is where it comes from. People aren’t certain what’s coming tomorrow, so what can they do besides wander down memory lane or dream about something? They’re stretched like rubber between the past and the future, suspended over the present. It’s like Mandelstam wrote: ‘We live not feeling the country beneath our feet.’ He wrote this for a reason. And it holds true. 

– Could we speak here about an illness, the trauma of the past? 

– It’s an illness, of course. Given the fact that over these centuries — especially during the 20th century, when negative selection took place and intelligent people were eliminated — what remained was a “headless body”: the people. And now it’s getting jabbed with electric shocks and being forced to move as it should. It’s a terrible situation. The main mistake of Yeltsin and his team was that they didn’t break down the medieval pyramid of power. They fractured it, but didn’t destroy it. We’re now reaping the results  — with this insane war, which basically only one person needs, the one sitting atop this pyramid. 

The trouble is that there’s one pyramid for the whole vast country. We need them [the pyramids] to be smaller, for one thing. Secondly, they shouldn’t be so sharp. There should be multiple pyramids, like in the US, where each state has its own government. Meanwhile here, it goes like this: people from Vladivostok need to solve their economic problems via Moscow. It’s like the body of a brontosaurus! Signals travel from the tail to the little head, but even still the brontosaurus had two more nerve centres, one in the sacrum and one in the sternum, otherwise it wouldn’t have noticed when its tail was bitten off. Our government doesn’t even have this. Signals take months to travel. It’s a terribly archaic system that has led Russia to a dead end in the 21st century. No one is going to have an easy time getting out of it. 

– Is there any hope? 

– I’m in touch with Russians living not only in Europe but also in Moscow, and the provinces. Over the past two years everyone has grown weary of this senseless war, and everyone wants it to end. Talking about how everyone, as one, is aglow with eagerness to go fight, that’s BS. I don’t know if Ukraine will win, but I do know one thing: Putin has already lost this war. He lost it ideologically when in practice he isolated Russia. The country is now on the sidelines of world politics. It’s never been like this before. The economic situation is getting worse and worse. As for when it will end, I don’t know; nobody knows. 

– Can literature give hope for the future? Is it in demand now? 

– I think that as long as people live, they won’t be able to survive on cultural fast food alone. They need refined cultural dishes. It’s only natural. If wars irrevocably destroyed culture, there would be nothing left of it. Fortunately, in my opinion, culture is a divine thing, proof that we are cosmic beings and not just biological machines. We need culture; it’s our spiritual sustenance. As was said long ago, “Man cannot live by bread alone.”

Translated by Nina dePalma and Simon Cosgrove