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by Bamber Gascoigne

Vladimir Sorokin (b. 1955)


Russian novelist, playwright, screenwriter, who has challenged in his work societal norms and aeshetic taboos through a mixture of provocative sexual themes, stylistic parodies, pastiches, and foul language. A member of the generation of writers, who appeared on literary scene during the perestroika period, Sorokin has turned away from conventional realistic prose in favor of postmodern artistic devices.

"We still live in a country that was established by Ivan the Terrible." (Sorokin in an interview, Spiegel Magazine, February 2, 2007)

Vladimir Georgievich Sorokin was born in Bykovo, a small town near Moscow. His father was a professor of metallurgy. As a child, Sorokin stuttered badly, but art provided an opportunity for self-expression. He listened to all kinds of music and from the ages of eight to 12, he studied at Moscow's Pushkin Museum at an art workshop. He also began to read Russian classics. Sorokin has said that this helped him to learn from an early age to discern good literature from trash like Nikolai Ostrovsky's How the Steel Was Tempered, one of the most famous books in the USSR. 

In the mid-1970s Sorokin joined a group of artists and writers, who rejected the conventions of traditional art and aesthetic values exemplified in Socialist realism. In the same year he graduated as an engineer from the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas, but instead of pursuing a career in industry or in the public sector, he turned to book illustration, participated in art exhibitions, and took various jobs. After working for a year in the Smena (Change) magazine, he was forced to leave for refusing to join the Komsomol (communist youth organization). He also taught Russian literature and language in Japan. In 1977 Sorokin married a music teacher named Irina; they had two children.

Sorokin's early stories were circulated in samizdat editions. Ochered' (The Queue), initially published in 1985 in Paris by the journal Syntaxe, was a Soviet version of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. It consisted of street dialogue of Russian shoppers, lined up and waiting to buy an unspecified item of clothing, perhaps denims. Using a range of voices, Sorokin portrayed a stagnated society that has stopped making sense. Because queues are a common every-day experience, Sorokin has played with the idea of writing a sequel to the novel.  

Sorokin's first book, which was published in Russia, was Sbornik rasskazov (1992). This collection of stories was nominated for a Russian Booker Award. Norma (1994), a Brezhnev-era grotesque fantasy, and Roman (1994) both experimented with stylistic devices; the latter, which begins like a classic Russian novel, ends in the destruction of all old values, when the protagonist, a young artist named Roman, butchers all of his wedding guests.

Like Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille, Sorokin has used pornographic imagery in order to accentuate his views on art and society. In Tridtsataia liubov’ Mariny (1995), which was written as a litetary bomb, Sorokin parallels pornography with Soviet-type literary conventions. Marina, the protagonist, hops from bed to bed in pastiches of fiction depicting sex scenes. After 29 lesbian relationships and raped by Communist ideology, Marina's last empty role is a model Soviet citizen. The last chapters, written without any attempt to authenticity, are practicaly unreadable, and destroy the very idea of literature. Sorokin has called the novel a travesty of Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection.

From the beginning of his literary career, Sorokin has attacked all forms of totalitarian thought and practice. Mesiats v Dakhau (1992) dealt with the relationship between German and Russian totalitarianism within a sado-masochist and cannibalistic frame. In Denj' oprichnika (2006), in which Sorokin's target was the Kremlin, the heart of Russia, the times of Ivan the Terrible were transposed to the near future, in the year 2027. Russia has isolated itself from Europe and the Caucasus by building a great wall. "Bit by bit, Russia is slipping back into an authoritarian empire", Sorokin has prophesied in an interview. The title of the book refers to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel Odin Den' Ivana Denisovicha (1962). Sorokin wrote his book in a month, in a burst of creative energy.

In the 1990s and early 2000s Sorokin wrote screenplays for such films as Moskva, directed by Alexander Zeldovich, Kopeyka and Veshch, directed by Ivan Dykhovichnyj, and 4, a surrealistic tale filled with hypnotic long takes and images of decay and waste. This film, directed by Il'ia Khrzhanovskii who refused to cut it any shorter, illustrates some of Sorokin's favorite themes, such as cloning and food, but it is also a fierce attack on traditional Russian mentality represented by "babushkas" (old women), whose sexual needs Khrzhanovskii observes with almost anthropological detachment. Sorokin's opera libretto Deti Rozentalya (2005, The Children of Rosenthal), commissioned by the Bolshoi Theater, was labelled by a member of the State Duma as "pornography" and the cultural committee of the Duma was ordered to review the opera. Sorokin's libretto tells the story of five cloned classical composers who have fallen on hard times. They drink poisoned vodka; only Mozart survives.

Sorokin's most famous and controversial novel is the science-fiction story Goluboe Salo (1999, Blue Lard). The title of the book refers to a special substance, blue fat or lard, which cloned humanlike creatures produce when they write and which is used as fuel. "Blue" is also a slang term for "gay man". A scene, in which the clones of the former Soviet rulers Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev ("Count Khrushchev") have a homosexual encounter, was considered by the pro-Putin youth movement Idušcie vmeste (Walking Together) particularly offensive. "Khrushchev unbuttoned his own pants and took out his long, uneven penis with its bumpy head, its shiny skin tattooed with a pentacle. The count spat in his palm, lubricated Stalin's anus with his saliva, and, falling upon him from behind, started to thrust his penis softly into the leader." (International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800-2000 by Lisa Z. Sigel, 2005, p. 232) Pornography charges, which later were dropped, were brought against Vladimir Sorokin and the publisher Ad Marginem. During a protest in Moscow, members of the movement dumped copies of the book in a mock toilet bowl in front of the Bolshoi Theatre. This manifestation of outrage was arranged nearly three years after the publication of the book, proving that pornography still has an ideological edge in Russia. Unnamed officials at the Moscow's prosecutor's office read the novel and released an announcement, that the Sorokin case was closed "for lack of a criminal offense". To escape the campaign of harassment, Sorokin went with his wife to Estonia for a month.

Many of Sorokin's works show his fascination of cooking and eating and bodily fluids. Pir (2000) is a collection of stories that are thematically built around food, in Norma the characters are forced to consume their daily ration of shit, and in Lyod (2002, Ice), the first book of a trilogy which continued with Put' Bro (2004, Bro's Way) and 23000 (2005), blue-eyed, blond vegetarians kill people, "empty dingalings", with hammers made of ice. Their mission is to hear the true speech of their captives' hearts. Sorokin has called the work as a kind of memorial to the 20th century. In Put' Bro the protagonist is born in the year 1908 when the Tunguska meteorite fell in Siberia. Sorokin got the idea for the Ice trilogy in Japan during a very hot summer.

Drugs, zombies, and the image of a sledge in a snow storm dominate the novel Metel´ (2010). Telluria (2013) is a bacchanal of ideas and obsessions of familiar from Sorokin's earliers stores, added with a magical drug, Telluria, that helps people to realize their innermost  dreams. The drug is nailed in the head. (Noteworthy, in Sorokin's future Putin's dream of reuniting the Russian empire has fallen apart. Russia existed to give the world a lesson, argues one of the charaters.) In the 2015 Venice Biennal, Sorokin set up with the painter Evgeny Sheff the exhibition "Pavillion Telluria" at Palazzo Corfú.

In 2000, Sorokin received the National Booker Award and the Award of Andrey Beliy. He lives in Moscow, a city with which he has a love-hate relationship. He has also an apartment in Berlin. Sorokin's works have been translated into some twenty languages. In 2011, he traveled to the US to appear at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City. Sorokin has said that Putin's regime has provided him a treasure trove of subjec matter. Writing on the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, he argued that the "trump card of Putin’s first decade was stability, which he used to destroy opposition and drive it underground. Now he’s playing the capricious, unpredictable Queen of Spades."

For further reading: 'Post-Soviet Neo-Modernism': an Approach to 'Postmodernism' and Humour in the post-Soviet Russian Fiction of Vladimir Sorokin, Vladimir Tuchkov and Aleksandr Khurgin by Nicolas D. Dreyer (2011)  World Authors 200-2005, ed. Jennifer Curry et al. (2007); Russian Literature 1995-2002 by N.N. Shneidman (2004); 'Flowers of Evil: The Poetics of Monstrosity in Contemporary Russian Literature (Erofeev, Mamleev, Sokolov, Sorokin' by Ulrich Schmid, in Russian Literature 48 (2000); Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell (1998); 'Sex, Violence and the Video Nasty: The Ferocious Prose of Vladimir Sorokin' by David Gillespie, in Essays in Poetics 22 (1997); Russia's Alternative Prose by Robert Porter (1994). For further information: Salla Räsänen: Kohtauksia eräästä kirjasodasta, in Idäntutkimus 2 (2006)

Selected works:

  • Ochered', 1985 - The Queue (tr. Sally Laird, 1988) - Jono (suom. Jukka Mallinen, 1990)
  • Doverie, 1989 (play)
  • Vladimir Sorokin: Sbornik rasskazov, 1992
  • Mesiats v Dakhau, 1992
  • Sbornik rasskazov, 1992
  • Norma, 1994
  • Roman, 1994
  • Serdtsa chetyrekh, 1994 (in Konets veka: Nazavisimyi al'manakh, ed. A. Nikishin)
  • Tridtsataia liubov’ Mariny, 1995 - Marinan kolmaskymmenes rakkaus (suom. Jukka Mallinen, 1992)
  • Russkii Bog Trubetskoi, 1996
  • Pervy Subbotnik, 1998
  • Shchi, 1999
  • Dostoevsky-Trip, 1999 (play)
  • Goluboe Salo, 1999 [Blue Lard]
  • Pir, 2000
  • Moskva, 2001 (screenplay, film dir. Alexander Zeldovich)
  • Kopeyka, 2002 (screenplay, film dir. Ivan Dykhovichnyj)
  • Veshch, 2002 (screenplay, dir. Ivan Dykhovichnyj)
  • Cashfire, 2002 (screenplay, film dir. by Alexander Zeldovich)
  • Lyod, 2002 - Ice (tr. Jamey Gambrell, 2007)
  • 4 (screenplay, film dir. Il'ia Khrzhanovskii), 2004
  • Put' Bro, 2004 - The Ice Trilogy (part 2, translated by Jamey Gambrell, 2011)
  • 4: Rasskazy. Stsenarii. Libretto, 2005
  • 23000, 2005 - The Ice Trilogy (part 3, translated by Jamey Gambrell, 2011)
  • Deti Rozentalya, 2005 - The Children of Rosenthal (libretto, music by Leonid Desyatnikov) - Rosenthalin lapset: libretto (suom. 2007)
  • Trilogija, 2006 - The Ice Trilogy (translated by Jamey Gambrell, 2011)
  • Denj' oprichnika, 2006 - Day of the Oprichnik (tr. Jamey Gambrell, 2011) - Pyhän Venäjän palveluksessa (suom. Arvi Perttu, 2008)
  • Zaplyv: rannie rasskazy i povesti, 2008
  • Sakharnyí Kreml´, 2008
  • Metel´, 2010 - The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell, 2015)
  • Dau, 2011 (screenplay, with Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Kora Landau-Drobantseva, Susanne Marian)
  • Mishen, 2011 (screenplay, film dir. by Alexander Zeldovich)
  • Telluriya, 2013 - Telluuria (suom. Anna Taitto, 2015) 

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