When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of the cultural elite had an opinion on it. There was even a hatchet job by the president of Russia’s largest commercial bank; the banker-cum-critic received an avalanche of responses rebuking his review. Many reviewers disagreed with the Prilepin’s political beliefs, but acknowledged that the novel is a literary masterpiece. Already widely translated in Europe, this book struck a raw nerve, to say the least. The timely English edition, featuring an excellent translation by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker (with Alina Ryabovolova), and a heartfelt forward by Alexey Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, will introduce America to a unique talent as well as the kind of Russia very few foreigners have seen. For the soul of the country is never in the news headlines; it is in literature. Sankya succeeds brilliantly in plunging the reader into the psyche of the young people on the fringes of the success story Russia projected to the world during the Sochi Olympics.
Twenty-two-year-old Sasha Tishin—or Sankya, as his grandmother calls him—and his friends are members of the Founders, an extremist right-wing group loosely based on the now-banned National Bolsheviks. The Founders want to tear down the corrupt government, destroy Western-style capitalism, and build a better country—one based on dignity, on ideals, one close “to the soil,” something like the Soviet Union but not quite, not so bureaucratic. If that sounds vague, it’s because in the beginning the Founders don’t have a plan beyond demonstrations, which often devolve into street vandalism. The book opens with one such protest. Sasha and his friends narrowly escape the riot police, but even the possibility of jail hardly scares Sasha. He will survive it, he thinks, because he’d survived his mandatory army service, a notoriously harsh ordeal in Russia.
Sasha returns to his small, dreary town, visits his grandparents in the dying village of his childhood, then goes to Moscow again, to hang out in the “bunker,” the Founders’ headquarters, and shyly court Yana, the rumored lover of their jailed leader. Sometimes he just meanders the streets as his thoughts meander in his head. What to do? Where to go? Sasha’s father had died a year and a half before the novels opens; his father was the last of three brothers to succumb to alcoholism, and alcohol is a central character in the novel: a comforter, a friend, an agitator, and a truth-teller. Sasha’s mother, “tired, like every Russian woman who had been alive for more than half a century,” works long shifts. The only jobs Sasha had been able to find are physically draining: loader, construction worker. Yet, Sasha is not simply the drunken hoodlum he may appear to a passerby. He is Holden Caulfield with a Molotov cocktail, at once aggressive and vulnerable, tender (especially when it comes to his mother) and rude, self-possessed and romantic. But apathetic he is not. Just as the novel asks the big questions—What is our country? What is our history?—Sasha constantly interrogates himself: “Who am I? . . . Am I bad? Kind? Hopeful? Hopeless?” Sometimes, he has dialogue with a voice inside his head. These conversations and the way Sasha sees the world are very interesting.
The Founders stage an action in Riga to protest the imprisonment of seventeen elderly Red Army veterans by Latvian authorities on charges of foreign occupation. Though Sasha doesn’t participate, he is picked up in Moscow and is tortured for information. He barely survives but is proud to not have cracked. The plot complicates when Sasha is tasked with assassinating the Riga judge who sentenced his Founders comrades to fifteen-year sentences for the nonviolent Riga protest. Fittingly, it’s not the surprising outcome of Sasha’s assignment, but rather Yana’s success at emptying a bag of slop on the Russian president’s head in Moscow that sets off a full-scale war between the authorities and the Founders. Sasha takes a prominent role in the battle in his hometown, leading a group of assorted Founders (a former member of the special police, a drug addict, and several skinny, impassioned youths) to the limit of opposition and the edge of reason.
Prilepin, who has served in special police forces as well in the Russian military in Chechnya before becoming one of the leaders of the National Bolshevik group and getting arrested more than 150 times, clearly draws from his own experience. But the novel is not a polemic; it is a piece of art. It looks long and hard into the darkest crevasses of the consciousness of the young people stuck between eras, the young people who must be understood rather than dismissed if the country is to move forward. There are several instances where Sasha gets into heated discussions about Russia’s future and is challenged to formulate and defend his philosophy.
“And how does this ‘new-well-forgotten-old’ society contradict the idea of the nation’s future that irks you so much?” Sasha asks Lev, his roommate at the hospital, where Sasha is recovering from his beating.
“Because the idea of the nation’s future, Sasha, has been slipped to you by the angry and slovenly Slavophiles and contradicts anthropology. It contradicts evolution! It’s this idea that perpetuates the eternal circle we just discussed-from violence to chaos.”
Later Sasha says: “But I don’t live in Russia. I’m trying to bring her back. She was taken away from me,” and Lev replies: “Some executioners took Russia away from other executioners. And no one knows which of the executioners is the better. The current ones let you live, at least.”
These passages continue the dialogue that has been going on in Russian literature for centuries, with notable contributions from Ivan Turgenev in Fathers and Sons on the topic of Westerners vs. Slavophiles to What Is to Be Done?, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s response to Turgenev, and on to Lev Tolstoy’s own What Is to Be Done? During most of the twentieth century, when Soviet literature was censored, the dialogue proceeded underground, in Chronicle of Current Events, a long-running samizdat periodical, and in books by Russian writers in exile abroad, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
But it is not so much Prilepin’s engagement with politics that compels comparisons to the Russian greats—one prominent Russian critic called him the next Gorky—it is his language and his ability to vividly portray everyday life. Prilepin imbues everything with its own mood and secret history. Here’s how he describes the dying village of Sasha’s childhood:
“Like a pockmarked, hardened, dark ice floe, it had separated from the shore and was drifting away quietly . . . Farther along were the stables, where Granny hadn’t kept a goat for the past year, no pigs for three, and ten years since Domanka the cow was led away on her last walk. The stables emitted no scents of life, no manure smell. Not a single furry soul shuffled its hooves—nothing chewed, breathed noisily, nothing was frightened by Sasha’s steps. Only the smell of rot and dirt.”
Prilepin applies an equally nuanced and sensitive brush to his portraits of people. Interestingly, at places an authorial voice peeps from behind the third-person narrator close to Sasha: “He sat in the corner, slept sitting up, deeply, easily—young bones don’t care where they are thrown. However they fall, so be it.” In the middle of Sasha’s love scene with Yana, an episode that would not be nominated for one of those gleefully beloved worst-sex-scene contests, Prilepin writes: “She lay there, panting, quivering like a smooth lizard, some little-known, regal breed. Perhaps some kind of lunar lizard.” He pays vigilant attention to Sasha’s inner life, often introducing passages of introspection in a way that would be sneered at in some MFA workshops. Here is Sasha in the hospital, recovering after the beating: “a sudden realization simply descended upon him . . .” At the same time, the author is always alert to Sasha’s physical body, the persistent sentience of it that is more honest than Sasha’s unquiet, often drunken mind: “Sasha felt as if someone had taken out all his organs, boiled them, and put them back in—overcooked and trembly.”
I must note one scene in particular that left me devastated. In it, Sasha recalls his father’s funeral. His father is to be buried in the village so that his parents, Sasha’s grandparents, can visit the grave. However, the road to this village is so bad that it’s only accessible by car and only during the warm and dry May. Other times, you need a tractor, or a horse. Sasha gets a van driver to agree to drive the coffin to the village by not telling him where exactly they are heading. The only other people in the mourning party are Sasha’s mother and Bezletov, a former student of Sasha’s father. As they set out from the town, the lightly falling snow turns into a snowstorm. About two-thirds of the way to the village, the car gets stuck in the snow. The driver refuses to go any farther, and Sasha and Bezletov end up dragging the heavy coffin for several hours while his mother follows with a bag of food meant for the wake. As I read this tragic, absurd, darkly humorous scene, I cringed and thought: now this is a truly Russian funeral. The mourners, who are themselves about to expire from cold and exhaustion, are saved in an unexpectedly heartwarming fashion.
This is a novel of ideas, a novel of action, and a novel of heartbreak and beauty. Many might consider Sasha an anti-hero due to his political beliefs and his destructive tendencies, yet it is undeniable that he is trying to fill the well deep within himself with meaning. To me, that makes him a riveting character, and with him at the helm, Sankya takes its place among the best coming-of-age and political novels.