As the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, the emerging Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin attended a literary conference in Munich. At the conference dinner, he raised a toast to Stalin—not as the victor of World War II or the hero of Soviet industrialization, but as “the creator of the repressive mechanism thanks to which I was able to succeed as a writer.”

Sorokin has always been the consummate troll, and it would be easy to write this episode off as an attempt to tweak the sensibilities of his Western colleagues. Yet in this case he was quite sincere. The regime he loathed had provided him a framework within which to operate, a system of tropes and signifiers he’d made it his mission to subvert. His reputation as an author—already considerable in avant-garde circles, though not yet the massive literary celebrity he would come to enjoy—rested on his mastery of Soviet ideological language but also the ruthlessness with which he undermined it. Their Four Hearts, written in 1991 and now released in Max Lawton’s lively translation by Dalkey Archive Press, represents the culmination of this literary project.

Sorokin was born in 1955, shortly after Stalin’s death. His childhood unfolded against a background of popular optimism in the Soviet Union, as the country’s technological and cultural achievements seemed to portend the imminent arrival of the communist utopia. But by the time Sorokin reached adulthood, the promise of those years was already becoming a distant memory. In the era of “developed socialism,” from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, communism was forever deferred in favor of social and cultural stability. 

Sorokin’s first novel, The Norm, was written between 1979 and 1983 and circulated widely as a samizdat manuscript before finally being published in the 1990s. A disjointed assemblage in eight parts held together by a thin narrative frame, The Norm relentlessly satirized the Soviet reality of the late Brezhnev era and the literary culture that sustained it. The first part is a series of naturalistic vignettes whose underlying premise is that every person in the Soviet Union is required to eat a bag of human shit every day; the concluding part is an account of a newspaper editorial meeting, written in classic Socialist Realist prose, in which most of the dialogue is replaced with gibberish, remaining nonetheless comprehensible because of its familiar rhythm of editorial interventions aimed at heightening the newspaper’s propagandistic impact. In between these two sections are devastating parodies of dozens of Soviet and prerevolutionary poets and writers. In contrast to the idealistic dissident writers who criticized the regime from the vantage point of values like freedom and democracy, Sorokin’s text is a work of pure negation, offering no alternative utopia to replace Soviet ideology.

What made The Norm possible was the distinctiveness of the Soviet literary culture it parodied and critiqued. The Bolsheviks took literature seriously as an engine of social transformation. For many of them, literary texts depicting social conflict and political struggle—such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to Be Done?—had launched them on the road to revolutionary activism. For this reason, they were equally serious after the revolution about imposing censorship and creating a new literary aesthetic as well. While the 1920s produced an explosion of aesthetic experiments, in the 1930s under Stalin a conservative Socialist Realism coalesced into the Soviet state’s dominant aesthetic doctrine, enforced not just by censors but by hierarchies of promotion in the academies and the Writers’ Union, as well as by the political supervision of publishing houses and the press and literary pedagogy in schools and universities.

The centerpiece of Socialist Realist literature was the “occupational novel,” which dramatized the building of communism through formulaic, monotonously optimistic depictions of workplace conflict and romance. But despite the diversity of other genres—from science fiction to magical realism—that existed alongside it, no cultural product officially produced in the Soviet Union remained untouched by the party’s tutelage. This supervision extended not just to political questions but to form and language as well—for instance, sexuality, profanity, and obscenity were ruled out. To find works that departed from the official restrictions, readers had to turn to samizdat publications, which exposed them to the risk of political repression. The Norm itself begins by depicting the arrest of an authorial stand-in and the manuscript’s confiscation by KGB agents.

Yet political control was not just a suppressive force but also a productive one: From the Stalinist years to the era of perestroika, the state valued writers and artists and rewarded many of them with comfortable lifestyles and positions of cultural authority. The Communist Party was committed to a democratic vision rooted in the ideals of high culture, and it worked constantly to make art and literature accessible to the masses, inculcate classical aesthetic values, and subsidize cultural production. As a result, the Soviet people inhabited a common and integrated cultural space to a greater extent than seems imaginable in capitalist countries, where a wide gulf separates mass culture from elite literary and artistic work. All of this was cold comfort to dissident and avant-garde writers and artists, who regarded official Soviet culture as a suffocating prison patrolled at the margins by the tireless enforcers of state repression. Despite their mutual loathing, both the opposition and the Communist Party remained invested in the importance of art and literature, making artistic critique a meaningful and high-stakes enterprise. 

During the late 1970s and ’80s, Sorokin made a living as an artist and illustrator. Meanwhile, The Norm and his other writings gained increasing renown in the circle of writers and artists known as the Moscow Conceptualists, which included figures like Dmitrii Prigov, Il’ia Kabakov, and the artistic team of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Like Sorokin, the conceptualists played with the formal elements made available to them by Soviet culture, rearranging and recontextualizing them to subversive—and often hilarious—effect. While state repression was by this time no longer as heavy-handed as it once was, the conceptualists faced persistent harassment by the KGB; Prigov, for instance, was forcibly, albeit briefly, institutionalized in a mental hospital—a common repressive practice in the late Soviet era.

Despite not working professionally as a writer in the Soviet Union, Sorokin continued to experiment through underground media, and in 1985 his first published novel, The Queue, appeared in the Paris-based émigré journal Sintaksis. The Queue proved to be both a biting critique and an oddly tender depiction of Soviet society as an eternal queue for scarce goods. Narrated entirely through the unattributed dialogue among the thousands of people standing in a horrendously long line, the novel explored the social norms and interpersonal relationships that Soviet citizens had habitually developed as a response to endemic shortages.

Since The Queue, like The Norm, could not be published legally in the Soviet Union, neither novel brought Sorokin widespread recognition, but that very lack of a mass audience enabled him to pursue further conceptual explorations. In 1982-84, he wrote Marina’s Thirtieth Love, which dealt with the adventures of a rapacious lesbian femme fatale who, after a whirlwind tour of Moscow’s bohemian and dissident underground, finds her way to heterosexuality and the true communist faith. Sorokin depicted this discovery in form as well as content: With Marina now a fully dedicated shock worker, the novel, too, embraces the literary conventions of Socialist Realism—but only half-­seriously, first parodying the so-called occupational novel’s depictions of factory life and then transforming into a direct transcription of an issue of Pravda. Roman, written in the late 1980s, showed that Sorokin was capable of imitating more than just official Soviet prose: A pastiche of 19-century Russian classics and filled with stock characters like the wise village schoolteacher and the cynical doctor, it offered an unbearably saccharine Slavophile rural idyll that collapses at the finale into an orgy of brutal, ritualistic violence.

Roman and Marina’s Thirtieth Love showcased two essential elements that defined Sorokin’s work until the early 1990s. Both novels were driven not by plot or character development per se but by meta-level changes in literary form and genre. They exemplified his view of characters as “simply letters on paper,” with whom the author was free to do whatever he wished. If the shit-eating in The Norm could easily be seen as a direct critique of Soviet daily life, the torments to which Sorokin began to subject his characters in subsequent books were more and more arbitrary, and perhaps not just Soviet in nature. (Indeed, several scenes depict the sexual abuse of a minor.) Yet this play of representations, too, had a political function. Graphic depictions of sex and violence represented a challenge to the enforced inoffensiveness of Soviet literature by demonstrating just how much it had excluded. On a deeper level, breaking the link between literary work and the world it claimed to depict—treating it as a series of arbitrary signs with connections only to other texts rather than an external reality—undermined the central premise of Socialist Realism: that the purpose of literature was to reflect, dramatize, and inspire the ongoing communist project.

By the late 1980s, Socialist Realism was in crisis, threatened not just by conceptualists like Sorokin but by a broader collapse. As glasnost and perestroika broke down the established censorship structures and artistic hierarchies, a new wave of film, literature, journalism, and art turned to portraying the dark sides of Soviet life. Known colloquially as chernukha, from the Russian word for “black,” this work often seemed to be a simple reversal of earlier Socialist Realist optimism, a reflection of the social disintegration that had begun to overtake the Soviet Union in its final years. Rather than overfulfilling production plans and falling innocently in love, the characters now struggled for individual advantage and survival in a cruel, purposeless world where crime, alienation, and drug addiction had broken down all social bonds.

Out of this context—the accelerating implosion of Socialist Realism and Soviet culture, together with the parallel collapse of the Soviet Union itself—came Their Four Hearts. Its four protagonists are sexualized, perverse, ultraviolent renderings of some of the staple heroes of Soviet fiction: the courageous Young Pioneer, the idealistic and driven athlete, the stoic intelligence officer, and the wise old war veteran. The novel consists of a series of strange, ritualistic, but also highly technical actions that these characters perform as part of a complex plan whose ultimate purpose is never explained. One shocking scene follows the next with hardly a break or pause for reflection. There are no discernible good guys or bad guys: The victim of violence in one scene can become its perpetrator in the next, and the novel’s characters generally treat this ambient insanity with a remarkable degree of sangfroid. Red herrings abound: One step in the plan is the acquisition of millions of hypodermic needles, whose steel tips are melted down and cast as a massively enlarged scale model of a mite, which is then immersed in butter. Thereupon the steel skin mite disappears from the narrative entirely.

What distinguishes Their Four Hearts from other works of late-Soviet chernukha is not simply the scale or arbitrariness of the violence and absurdity. It is that, like Roman, the novel is not meant to be a representation of reality at all, even if scenes drawn from daily life are occasionally interspersed throughout. (An obvious comparison might be the films of Quentin Tarantino, which only appear to be about career criminals or World War II commandos while actually being about other films about these things.) Their Four Hearts is a view from within the Socialist Realist literary universe as it buckles, cracks, and falls apart. Scenes like the casting of the steel skin mite or the protagonists’ journey on the Trans-­Siberian Railway formally resemble the settings of Socialist Realist fiction, but they are stripped of any underlying narrative or political logic. The elderly war hero Henry Shtaube repeatedly attempts to embark on one of the exhortatory speeches so common in Soviet fiction as a vehicle for didactic messages, but he succeeds only in declaiming random, disconnected fragments from different kinds of texts, his words ultimately degenerating into an expletive-ridden glossolalia. In its death throes, Socialist Realism also swallows up its mortal enemy, the liberal Soviet literature of the Thaw and perestroika eras, whose tropes also feature heavily in the novel.

In the most explicitly political scene in Their Four Hearts, Shtaube and the steely-eyed intelligence officer Rebrov discuss the current ideological situation as the Communist Party totters on the brink of oblivion. Rebrov is a loyal party man committed to its post-perestroika line: “In our current situation, the communists are capable of positive, truly democratic approaches. The reverse is also true: the democrats, or perhaps it would be better to say quasi-democrats, have a totalitarian approach to authority.” Shtaube, who has earlier called Boris Yeltsin a “true communist,” defends an ultra-Stalinist viewpoint that criticizes the repression of the 1930s for not being repressive enough. Needless to say, neither of these positions is Sorokin’s. Yet neither is he lampooning them: Although both are incoherent, they are the logical end points of late-stage Socialist Realism as it comes unmoored from the ideological core and material base that gave it meaning.

After 1991, ironically, the viewpoints of both Rebrov and Shtaube would be well represented on the real-life Russian political scene. Rebrov’s view would evolve into the dominant political strain of the 1990s and early 2000s: the idea that democracy and capitalism could be safeguarded only by a strong presidential authority willing to break the rules if necessary. Shtaube’s position would become the “red-brown” standpoint of the reborn Communist Party, which distilled the nationalist and pro-Stalinist elements of late Soviet ideology while largely rejecting its anti-capitalist, internationalist, and revolutionary components.

Despite its refusal to depict reality, Their Four Hearts is eerily prescient in other ways too. As late-Soviet social dysfunction turned into outright societal collapse in the wake of the “shock therapy” of the early 1990s—excess mortality reached millions of deaths in the former USSR over the first half of the decade—Russia became one of the most violent societies in the world. In retrospect, the bloody shoot-outs that make up much of the novel’s plot seem less like dreadful disruptions of the placid surface of Socialist Realist fiction and more like a preview of daily life to come. The way the novel erodes distinctions between state actors, criminals, and private businessmen is another feature that would soon become familiar.

The post-Soviet era confronted Russia’s underground writers and artists with an unexpected new problem. As Victor Pelevin put it in one of his novels, “the eternity” that his protagonist ­Tatarskii “once believed in could exist only with the help of state subsidies—or as something forbidden by the state, which amounts to the same thing.” Precisely because the Soviet state attached so much importance to culture, Sorokin’s and his comrades’ attack on it had real political weight. After the collapse, for anyone with real power, upholding the traditions of classic Russian literature—let alone the exhausted and irrelevant legacy of Socialist Realism—was no longer a priority. Avant-garde culture was free to subvert whatever it wanted to subvert without a KGB officer knocking at the door, but in the end what counted was money—and money had no aesthetic commitments of its own.

For Sorokin, the post-Soviet decades were a triumph. His samizdat work began to see the light of day in real publications, and new audiences were able to discover books that had previously been limited to a narrow circle of connoisseurs. As a result, his reputation grew both domestically and abroad, putting him in the very top ranks of post-Soviet novelists. In the early 2000s, he was even able to rediscover his role as a scandalous literary enfant terrible when he was targeted by the now-defunct pro-­Putin youth movement Walking Together for his “propaganda” glorifying pornography and obscenity. Walking Together constructed a giant toilet outside the Bolshoi Theater, which they threw Sorokin’s books into. Yet this and subsequent scandals over the obscene content of his books brought him even more readers and commercial success.

Starting in the late 1990s, Sorokin embraced the possibilities of a new genre: science fiction. His 1999 novel Blue Lard became notorious for its depictions of sexuality, but it broke from his previous books in other ways, written in a dense and opaque Sino-Russian pidgin replete with neologisms. The plot revolved around cloning experiments in a future Siberia and a bizarre alternate history in which Stalin and Hitler are still alive. Meanwhile, the novels of his Ice Trilogy explored a mysterious cult obsessed with the quasi-magical powers of the ice deposited in Siberia by the Tunguska meteorite. His most prominent work in this vein was the 2006 dystopian novel Day of the Oprichnik (published in English in 2011), which depicted an autocratic, neo-medieval future Russia dependent on Chinese imports but otherwise literally walled off from the rest of the world. Despite the creativity and originality of these more recent novels, Sorokin’s ongoing confrontation with the philistinism, authoritarianism, and cultural conservatism of Putin’s Russia has, at times, appeared to lack the punch of his earlier works. Though the regime has gradually clamped down on public obscenity in various forms (for instance, 2013 and 2014 laws imposed fines on the use of profanity in film, literature, and theater), Sorokin’s novels don’t seem to pose much of a challenge to this consensus: His explicit scenes of sex and violence have become such a calling card that he has begun to seem like a one-trick pony. In this sense, he is a victim of his own success, having allowed the most outwardly provocative elements of his work to overshadow his deeper aesthetic goals.

For Sorokin, the end of the Soviet literary culture that he began his career by critiquing has meant the loss of a powerful and generative foil, one that the capitalist normality of the post-1991 era has never quite replaced. With Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, that normality has decisively ended. When the war started, Sorokin penned an essay in The Guardian condemning the invasion and describing Putin as the latest holder of “the fatal Ring of Russian Power,” the tip of an authoritarian pyramid constructed in the 16th century by Ivan the Terrible. Such views are commonplace among Russian liberals. What remains to be seen is whether Sorokin can once again find his way between the edifice of state propaganda and the platitudes of its well-meaning critics—as he did so powerfully and compellingly in the 1980s and early ’90s, and in particular with Their Four Hearts.