Photo: Predrag Trokicic
Photo: Predrag Trokicic

The role of the writer in Putin’s empire

The connection between poets and the fall of society into the hands of tyrants was long pointed out by Josif Brodsky, who described this relationship as follows: “If a poet has any obligation towards society, it is to write well… Society, on the other hand, has no obligation towards the poet… Not reading, however, results in the decay of society to the point where it easily falls into the clutches of demagogues or tyrants. It is society’s equivalent of oblivion; a tyrant may, of course, try to save his subjects with some spectacular bloodshed.” However, today’s poets flock to the arms of tyrants and give them legitimacy with their poetry and thoughts. Why the old story about poets and tyrants if, in the last quarter of a century since Brodsky’s death, their relationship was redefined?

After all, Yevgeny Nikolayevich Prilepin, which is the real name of the main actor of this story, never referred to Brodsky. The two of them shared nothing except for a mother tongue. Although he refers to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky at every opportunity, politically and poetically, he is actually much closer to another emigrant, who returned to his homeland after the collapse of the USSR – Eduard Limonov. These two have a lot in common: Party history, national-Bolshevik ideology, literary fascination with weaponry, the Russian people, militarism, the aestheticization of death, bodily decay due to the effects of wartime destruction, and various manifestations of war, such as rockets and hand grenades. After all, the symbol of the National Bolshevik (Nazbol) Party newsletter was the Limonka – a hand grenade. According to the Nazbol program, only a pure-blooded Russian can be the president of Russia, Russian women are prohibited from abortion, and Russia’s territory should cover all of Europe and Asia. The party salute is “till death” and a raised hand with a clenched fist. The symbol is a black hammer and sickle in a white circle, on a red background.

Zakhar Prilepin was a guest in Belgrade on more than twenty occasions, as he once stated. His work was translated into Serbian for the first time in 2010, first in Logos and Draslar, then he eventually became one of Laguna’s star names. He is a laureate of the “Ivo Andric” award. His understanding of literature is completely in the spirit of the ideology of Dugin and Limonov, as a literary fusion of the national and the social – national socialism. While staying in Belgrade as a guest of the 2016 Book Fair, he stated that he “sees literature as one of the last islands of freedom where honorable and brave people are held accountable to their nations.” As a former veteran of the war in Chechnya and the commander of a special police unit, Prilepin combines two ideals of Putin’s Russia: militarism and Nazi art. On one occasion, speaking about his book Pathology, he said that his intention was to write a book about love, but, in the end, it turned out to be about war, because “anything a Russian takes up, eventually turns into fire from the barrel of a Kalashnikov.”

It’s no wonder that Prilepin visited Serbia so many times, given that his international field of action narrowed sharply after Putin’s annexation of Crimea. He couldn’t even go to Poland anymore, so Belgrade was a convenient retreat for him, with everyone still mesmerized by his Letters from the Donbass and The Black Monkey. By the way, this was the period during which Prilepin’s party, Just Russia – For Truth, of which he is the vice-president, was fully integrating its program with Putin’s United Russia.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Prilepin and his party have intensified their propaganda work, together with drafting of new legal measures against citizens and artists who express anti-Putin attitudes. Thus followed the attack against the Gogol Center, the former Gogol Theater in Moscow, whose last play “I Do Not Take Part in the War”, shown just before the start of Putin’s Special Military Operation, was declared a scandalous anti-Russian performance. The Gogol Center was sanctioned and director Kirill Serebrennikov had to flee the country.

Prilepin, the esthete and militarist, introduced another form of agitation for Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine. He designed patriotic-combat lessons in a television format called “Russian lessons”, that are now broadcasted on the federal channel NTV. What does the “grammar” of the Russian language sound like when interpreted by the militarist writer Prilepin? First of all, there is one supreme principle according to which the entire syntax is organized – Russia. And not just any Russia, but the Russian empire, which is emphasized on the website of Prilepin’s party: Russia – Empire, was, is and will be! In this catchphrase, taken from an Orthodox religious rite, Russia replaces Christ, simplistically suggesting the importance and greatness of this war and what it is being fought for. This is why Prilepin was delighted with the frescoes of holy warriors in Belgrade churches. It was no coincidence that, in 2017, he announced a big global change that would happen in five years. He meant precisely 2022, because he was certainly familiar with Vladimir Vladimirovich’s long-term plans. “In five years, we will live in a different world,” announced Prilepin on that occasion. And indeed, life has changed drastically since the beginning of Russian aggression, and he himself took on the role of a media-based herald of death in Ukraine.

Each Russian lesson begins with Prilepin, in civilian or military uniform, entering the improvised classroom, walking up to the desk, leaning lightly on it and starting to shout militaristic phrases: “We want peace, but only after Russian victory in Ukraine! – President Putin must continue with the mobilization! – Donbass must return to Russia! – With the increase in the accumulation of deaths in Ukraine, Ukrainian statehood is decreasing! – I am in solidarity, but only with my dead. – Behind me stand Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, God and the Russian people. – The culture must not be against its people. – The war in Ukraine is a fight between lies and truth. – Russian soldiers in Ukraine are the joy and the salt of my country!” These are just some of the lessons of Zahar Prilepin, which he teaches every day to citizens from Donbass to Kamchatka. In that pedagogy of death, everything is permitted. Subterfuge, name-calling, forgery. The most important lesson is that of the imperative to kill in Ukraine.

“We must finish what we started,” says Prilepin. He believes that Ukrainians must not look forward to the arrival of the invaders from Moscow due to the punishments prescribed by the local government for cooperation with the Russians. Prilepin is so blinded by the proximity of the tyrant who promises the return of Russia’s imperial glory, that he forgets notorious facts and convinces himself and others that behind him and Putin is the great Russian culture, primarily Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. But of course, the very Empire that fascinates the Prilepins and Dugins of the world once tried to execute Dostoyevsky, then sent him into exile, while the Russian Orthodox Church anathemized Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Those two did not stand with tyrants.

Dostoyevsky himself wrote that he made a point of avoiding town squares that had monuments and symbols of imperial power. Prilepin, however, shouts his war slogans from the TV, brandishing the sonorous names of writers as if they were hand grenades. Due to Russian society’s deep fascination with militarism and the glory of past centuries, nobody actually reads real literature anymore, but only authors proclaimed as “modern classics” by Putin’s propaganda. Hence the recognition of the only solution in spectacular bloodshed (in Ukraine), which Prilepin has demonstrated in his books so many times, supporting his tyrant’s program.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 29.10.2022.

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Saša Ilić, rođen 1972. u Jagodini, diplomirao na Filološkom fakultetu u Beogradu. Objavio 3 knjige priča: Predosećanje građanskog rata (2000), Dušanovac. Pošta (2015), Lov na ježeve (2015) i 3 romana: Berlinsko okno (2005), Pad Kolumbije (2010) i Pas i kontrabas (2019) za koji je dobio NIN-ovu nagradu. Jedan je od pokretača i urednik književnog podlistka Beton u dnevnom listu Danas od osnivanja 2006. do oktobra 2013. U decembru iste godine osnovao je sa Alidom Bremer list Beton International, koji periodično izlazi na nemačkom jeziku kao podlistak Tageszeitunga i Frankfurtera Rundschaua. Jedan je od urednika Međunarodnog književnog festivala POLIP u Prištini. Njegova proza dostupna je u prevodu na albanski, francuski, makedonski i nemački jezik.

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