Sankya p.1 by Zakhar Prilepin

Buy Zakhar Prilepin's Sankya via our affiliate links* on Bookshop or Amazon

Show Notes

This week, Matt and Cameron will be reading the first half of Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin. Prilepin—a former soldier, OMON officer, and journalist—is famous for his literary work exploring the malaise and directionlessness of young men in modern Russia, and also infamous for his involvement in the National Bolshevik Party and year of combat with a pro-separatist militant group in the Ukranian Civil War. Sankya, published in 2006, focuses on a young member of a fictional political party, the Founding Fathers, and their militant opposition to the modern Russian state. This novel has been praised by the likes of Alexey Navalny and Tatyana Tolstaya for its depictions of modern Russian life—but, as we’ll discuss, there are also some sinister undertones to the book’s conclusions…

27:40 - Before those of you who’ve read the book come for us…we did later realize that it was actually Yana’s friend’s apartment, but if that’s what you’re focusing on here in light of…what comes next, your priorities might be a little out of order.

The music used in this episode was “soviet march,” by Toasted Tomatoes. You can find more of their work on Bandcamp and Youtube.

Content warning: there will be minor discussion of sexual violence at 27:53-28:23, 32:40-32:55, and 34:40-35:13.

There will also be a description of graphic violence at 33:52-34:06.

Also we’ll be reading quotes from…perhaps the worst sex scene that’s been put to print between 28:50 and 30:57.


Cameron 00:17

Hello and welcome. You are listening to Tipsy Tolstoy: Russian Literature for the Inebriated.

Matt 00:24

I'm Matt "e-ink tablet" Gerasimovich.

Cameron 00:27

And I'm Cameron Lallana, who prepared for this episode by eating butterbrot and drinking white wine.

Matt 00:33

That is incredibly thematic. I prepared for this episode by, as my title suggests, taking notes on my new e-ink tablet. Yes, I am that kind of person.

Cameron 00:45

They are really sexy notes. I've seen them.

Matt 00:47

They're pretty sexy. Yep.

Cameron 00:48

I would never have guessed that. They look like a scan.

Matt 00:51

It does.

Cameron 00:51

So not that we're like shilling for this tablet but we kind of are.

Matt 00:54

I won't even say the name. I won't even say the name. That's how much I'm not going to shill for it. But if they wanted to have me shill for them, I probably would.

Cameron 01:06

This and the last episode have really cemented our low standards for being sponsored.

Matt 01:11

I just... you know... I want to feel needed. I want to feel I wouldn't want to feel sponsored, really.

Cameron 01:17

That's fair. Yeah. I want to feel needed in a way that also gets me money.

Matt 01:22

I could use some money. I probably could. So Cameron, what are you drinking this week?

Cameron 01:28

I am actually going to soft doxx myself here. I'm drinking a very local brew from YOLO Brewing Company and Yolo is the county in which it is brewed and Yolo is the county in which I live. It is a red ale... dollar hannes red.

Matt 01:44

You didn't need to include the last part. You could have just said it was just a county, you didn't have to say you lived there.

Cameron 01:50

Well I said I was gonna soft doxx myself and I'm gonna deliver on that. Anyway, it's a very tasty ale. How about you, Matt? What are you drinking?

Matt 01:58

So I'm continuing my train of degeneracy. This week, I'm just drinking simple, classic Jack and Coke. But I am drinking out of the Jack Daniels special edition Christmas glasses that apparently you can buy in grocery stores. It's like a little Jack Daniel's bottle of it comes with this really cute like, highball glass with snowflakes on it. It's pretty cute.

Cameron 02:23

Okay, that does sound pretty cute.

Matt 02:26

It's pretty nice, actually. It's the only highball glass I've ever owned. So it's exciting.

Cameron 02:34

That's fair.

Matt 02:36


Cameron 02:37

Well, it's appropriate.

Matt 02:39

It's gonna be in the mood to talk about our work of the week. What is it Cameron? What is the work?

Cameron 02:47

We are reading Sankya... or we have read half of Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin?

Matt 02:52

Yes, you heard him right. This is a two-parter episode. This week, we are talking about part one of Sankya, through chapter seven. And Cameron is gonna give a quick summary. But before he does, this is just kind of a content warning. This book is pretty graphic, a lot of discussion of violence, of racism, and an implied rape scene, which we will be talking about. So if you're uncomfortable with any of those, check the show notes and we will do our best to direct you around those topics.

Cameron 03:22

Yeah. So in order to get into Sankya, you kind of have to understand the political and historical context of Prilepin writing this in the early 2000s. So I don't assume anyone knows that much about Russian history. So we're gonna start it as all things should be started with the fall of the Soviet Union. I would talk about some of the reasons for that. But there are a lot of economic, cultural, political reasons for that. And depending on which ones I cite, I will get yelled at on the internet. So...

Matt 03:48

Also, I'll yell at you here on the podcast if that'll make you feel better.

Cameron 03:53

Yeah, it'll start here and it'll just continue. So the Soviet Union ceased to be on the 25th of December 1991. In the recent months, there had been a number of republics in the Soviet Union that had been claiming independence. In late 1991, there was the August Coup where Soviet military elites tried to overthrow the premier at that time, Gorbachev. And once that failed, there was a another parade of secessions. And eventually, Gorbachev basically resigns. He declares his office extinct and he hands over the powers that remain, which are essentially in Russia at that time, and he hands that over to Yeltsin. So on 1991, December 26, Russia officially begins to exist again. Now the government of this new Russian Republic, Yeltsin and his cabinet are full of liberals. And when I say liberals, I don't mean that in the liberal-conservative divide. I mean, like economic, political, overall small "l" liberals who believe in capitalism more or less. And in this new system, Yeltsin and his cabinet wanted to lead the Soviet or the former Soviet Republic, which is now Russia, into economic success like they had been seeing in the West after the kind of opening of the country through Glasnost' in the late years of the USSR. At the time, former communist states in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, had been having great success with what we would now term shock therapy or suddenly applying capitalism and like free market tenets into their economies. So, Yeltsin and his cabinet, especially led by Yegor Gaidar, launch into shock therapy, they they implement a number of policies throughout the 90s, and privatizations and all this stuff, and TLDR, it does not go well. The new Russian economy is heavily concentrated in quite few hands, wealth inequality suddenly shoots up, you have the appearance of homelessness, of poverty, of all these things that had previously more or less [been] unknown in the USSR. And it was generally a bad time, business developed, business and gangsterdom were basically the same thing. I actually have a friend who came to the US during this time, because his dad... basically their dad's company and another company were having a gang war and after someone's car got blown up, he decided Russia was not a place to raise kids. It was a wild time.

Matt 06:17

Yeah, that'll do it,

Cameron 06:19

That... I would come to the same conclusion, I think.

Matt 06:22

Probably. 50/50.

Cameron 06:23

So you have this sudden application of shock therapy and capitalism, and it just didn't go well for a lot of Russia. And in the early 2000s, once you have sort of a settling of this, we move on from Yeltsin to Putin in 1999. And things are settling down, but they're not really good. Society is stricken by this sort of malaise, because they are now the inheritors of a failed empire, the economy is still not good, a lot of people are still suffering from the violence, the deprivation in the 1990s. And people are feeling like, did we do the wrong thing? Maybe we didn't necessarily like the USSR, but it appears that what the West promised us was kind of a false promise, we didn't get the wealth, for the most part. Some of us got a lot of wealth, but for the most part, we did not get the wealth, we thought was somewhat ubiquitous in Western countries. And suddenly, you start to see a lot of political parties of varying elements pop up, and an adherent of one of these most popular political parties was Zakhar Prilepin, who was born in 1975, spent his early years in the 1990s, working as various things working in OMON or riot control as a guard, as a janitor, and later fighting in both the first and second Chechen wars. Now, by the time we reached the 2000s, Prilepin is now a journalist for what he would call kind of... well he called them rags, not obviously... not super into the people who he was writing for. And at this time, he starts to write, and he writes his first book Pathology, which is very well received. And then after that, in 2005, to be published in 2006, he writes Sankya. And Sankya is a tale that was widely embraced by the Russian, and frankly, even Western media apparatus as a diagnosis of an era, of the loss that people felt, of the need for... or the want for something else. And it was maybe a little bit more instructive than a lot of people thought it was meant to be. But we'll get into that a little bit. Matt, how did you react to this book? You read this for the first time within the last year, I think, right?

Matt 08:26

Yeah. So I read this probably in March-ish. Similarly, when my world was coming to an end because of the pandemic and I was finishing my last semester of my undergraduate. So that was when I first read this, and I probably wasn't in the right space to read this. I didn't really think too much of it. I don't think... really just trying to be done with school is what I was trying to do. That is, trying to be done with school before I go on to many more years of school. And so this is the first time that I had really sat down and gave it probably a fair chance of a read, I think. And I liked it. I definitely like the first half, probably more than the second one. If I'm remembering correctly, the first one kind of... it touches on a lot more themes that were relevant at the time. I think that the second half is kind of much more violence. And you know, we'll get into it next week. And it'll still be this will be a great episode of the podcast that you should definitely listen to. But the first episode, I mean, the first episode of the podcast is covering the kind of, I guess, like you said, the diagnosis, kind of what's wrong through the eyes of a young adult in Russia. I mean, how did you... How'd you feel about it?

Cameron 09:45

I think I had a little bit more of a positive response the first time. Not positive like I agreed with Prilepin. I want to say right now I don't. I don't necessarily know if we need to say that but...

Matt 09:56


Cameron 09:57

Maybe. So Prilepin as a writer is partially diagnosing some of the malaise that especially a lot of young men at this time are feeling in Russia. And this was really interesting to me as a political science student, who was doing a lot of work on the early Russian era and late Soviet era. So I thought it was really useful for understanding that sort of mindset. And I still do think it's really useful understanding, I guess, would you call a more radical mindset?

Matt 10:23

Maybe. Yeah, yeah.

Cameron 10:25

So I liked it from that perspective. And I still do really like it from that perspective. But, you know, as a book itself, it definitely... there are rises and falls and points when it is generally quite good. And then I think, as we'll talk about some parts when it gets really quite awful.

Matt 10:41

Yeah, I think in terms of like, the value of the prose as a writer, that's not really why people read this book. I think it's more of the feeling of the book overall. But that being said, there are some chapters that have really excellent writing. And then there are some chapters that read like a Wattpad novel that I would have read when I was 13 years old, and are just like, really, really bad. You know, we'll sprinkle some of those in there to lighten up the episode.

Cameron 11:12

Yeah, let's get into Sankya.

Matt 11:15

So I'm gonna do a brief summary. I guess I'll probably do it chapter by chapter, that's just kind of how my notes are organized. And I'll save kind of the discussion for Cameron and I at the end. So chapter one opens pretty abruptly. Sankya, Sasha, really, as he's known throughout the book, is with his political party at this rally, as part of this party called the Founding Fathers, and they're just kind of this yearly yell and scream kind of rally. It's one of those rallies where like, there are actual people trying to speak and talk about things, but the radical group that he's associated with, the Founders, as they're known colloquially, they start a little a little kerfuffle, to say that lightly. They're yelling, they're screaming, they're disrupting, they're picking up parts of the fence, they're throwing it at the police. And so eventually, there are three agents of OMON called in. That is the Russian like, I don't know how to describe it, like special police almost. Basically like right police or very heavily, heavily militarized police force. And they come in dressed all black, they've got extensive weaponry, access to basically everything. And they're a really faceless kind of figure throughout the book. None of them really have any personalities, per se. And they are able to skirt the law because nobody really knows... well, by the time they get called in, it's pretty serious. So the government kind of, you know, doesn't really care how they take care of the situation. So that's something we'll see, especially throughout the first part,

Cameron 12:57

I think you and I ran to OMON when we were in Russia.

Matt 13:00

Did we?

Cameron 13:01

Maybe I'm misremembering this but I remember there being OMON guys at that hockey game we went to where there were like eight types of security.

Matt 13:07

Well, that's very possible. Because I remember at the hockey game like this little kid in front of us tried to get past this old Grandpa, who was sitting on the aisle seat and the grandpa yell at the kid for disrupting him watching the hockey game. And then the kid's dad yelled at the grandpa, and they started kind of kind of yelling at each other. And that's one of those situations where you're going to need...

Cameron 13:29

That's where you need a precise application of police brutality [sarcasm].

Matt 13:38

Uhhhhhhh... So I mean, possible.

Matt 13:41

Yeah. So basically, they disrupt this rally, they start going absolutely crazy, and Sasha and a couple of his friends, they... you know, they're flipping cars, they're burning stuff, they're, you know, somebody jumpkicks the mayor. It's absolutely insane. And they start to realize that they're kind of being being chased in such a way that's kind of cutting them off, and they're picking them off individually to arrest or whatever they are going to do. Sasha and his friends are, you know, trying to get away, they get on a trolley and they're trying to make a run for it. And they don't quite make it. And several of the OMON pull them off the trolley, and they're, you know, slamming their heads against the side of the bus. And they're beating them pretty, pretty, pretty badly. And the trolley bus driver has to kind of say, like, Can you not do this next to the trolley? There are literally children on board. And so eventually, kind of what happens when, when the when the police catch up with them, the OMON kind of leave them alone, leave them to the police. And the police just... they don't really want to deal with it. They don't want to deal with the paperwork of what would happen if they book them or put them in jail and they have sustained all these kind of injuries, because they're afraid that it'll kind of get out to the media. Which is... media in this still has like some influence. They're worried that, you know, people are going to be outraged by the way that they've treated the kids even though they were, you know, they are burning cars and whatnot. And so they let them go, basically. And that's kind of something that we'll see throughout the next couple chapters whenever the police are involved, like, the level of punishment depends on the level of accountability and the level of do I want to fill out the report that I'm required to fill out?

Cameron 13:41

Yeah. Anyway,

Cameron 15:31

And how much do I hate the people that you've done a crime against?

Matt 15:34

Yeah, well... yeah, that is part of it later, for sure. So chapter two, to I guess kind of escape some of the heat from this last rally that they disrupted in Moscow, Sasha goes back to his village, I don't think it's ever named where he actually lives. It's just not Moscow, basically. Not a very big city. And so he goes home, writes a note to his mom says, alright, I'm gonna go to my grandparents' village, which is even further out. And this is probably my favorite chapter personally. It's a really a really interesting one the way that Sasha kind of experiences his grandparents' village, because I think that's also where he was born, if I'm not mistaken.

Cameron 16:15

Yeah. Born and raised, I think.

Matt 16:16

Yeah. So he has a real like... he has an actual relationship with this village that doesn't come off the way that you would expect it to. So this whole scene basically, is Sasha trying to... the way I read it was he's trying to kind of connect with his youth, which is normally a really happy time for most people. And he's completely unable to. His grandpa is on the brink of death. His grandpa basically begged him to stay just a little bit longer in the village so that he can help him... help his grandma bury him because there are no men left in the village because everyone's dead. And Sasha, kind of, you know, he goes off for a walk one day, he goes down to the beach, where him and his dad used to go as a kid. And everything's dead and dying. It's all... it's weeds, the water is sludge. And just everywhere in the village, like everyone's dying out. There's this really extensive backstory on Sasha's dad and his two brothers how they both died from alcoholism, his brothers from crashing motorcycles and his dad just from drinking.

Cameron 17:22

His brothers... his dad's brothers were also drunk when they crashed those motorcycles, though.

Matt 17:26

Yeah, so it's really like, it's really quite sad the way that he kind of has to, I don't know... Most of us, you know, you go back to where you grew up, it's happy memories, but for Sasha, it's really not. And he has no real relationship with his past. His grandpa and his grandma, they were really thinking, I forget the exact quote, but kind of they were saying that, you know, we hope that our children would eventually be buried next to us. But instead, they've taken our places. So they've watched everything that they've brought into the world, more or less die. The country, the people, it's really sad. And so Sasha, he also has a moment where he's kind of looking at the family photos on the wall. And he's thinking like, when his grandparents die, he's going to be the last person that has ever seen any of the photos that are on the wall, not even just the photos of his family, but kind of like the peripheral people that are in them... the way he's thinking about them just being kind of last time and the next people coming in and throwing out the photos. It was a really good... I thought this was probably the strongest chapter of the novel. For me, at least.

Cameron 18:36

Yeah, no, I couldn see that. It, even beyond what Prilepin intends, it is a pretty dire diagnosis of problems of provincial Russian life.

Matt 18:45

Yeah, I think you get the gist, the story through this chapter. And if this was just a short story, I feel like if you had to pick one of the chapters, this really gets to the root of it, I think. But this, however, is not a short story.

Cameron 18:59

However, he keeps writing.

Matt 19:00

Yeah, he keeps writing. So yes. So chapter three is the one where we are introduced to another Founder. His name is negative. He plays a fairly big role throughout the rest of the book. He's somebody that Sasha is, like, kind of close with. Though, he's not really... it's hard to explain his relationship with the other people in his Party, because they're not like, I don't know, they're all just so angry. It's not like they're just pals. They're kind of like, you know, waiting to burn something down next. So Negative is a couple years younger than Sasha, but Sasha talks about how he grew up in an orphanage, and that makes him seem older than he is. And he's really stern and very serious. And so Sasha and Negative and his two other friends Venka and Rogov come to his town to evade the police in Moscow because they're trying to lay low after the protest. So it's not just trying to figure out okay, where do I take the... where do I take all of these like, tough looking guys from my radical political party, I know I'll take them down to the local university, where Sasha talks with Professor Bezletov who is... so Sasha's dad was a professor. So Professor Bezletov was one of his students, and he was friends with Sasha's father. So Sasha has a standing invitation to come talk with him kind of whenever he wants. They meet up at a cafe, because he doesn't want to talk in his office. And there's a pretty long scene where they're talking about politics, generally, specifically, Bezletov is trying to figure out like, Okay, what do you want? And this is something that comes up throughout most of the book is okay, you're sitting here, you burning stuff? What do you want to come from it? What is your ideal vision for Russia> And neither of them can really see eye to eye, I don't think. Bezletov, Sasha feels like, is really, he has this really kind of almost spiritual approach to it. Bezletov is really like... he exemplifies the liberal view, I think, in Russia. And Sasha talks about kind of the ethnic quality of Russia and preserving, you know, what is Russia, he boils it down to ethnicity, that's a really big thing for him. And a really big thing for the rest of this chapter. They, you know, they kind of decide, you know what, nothing's gonna come from this. So Bezletov and them they split ways. And they go to just this crappy little bar on the outskirts of town. And they're talking with an old like, Afghanistan army vet. And he also kind of says, like, okay, he presses them in a very similar way and says, Okay, what are you going to do for me? What is your Party doing for me? And they get into this whole debate. And a really interesting point that I like from this was when the Afghan vet says, you guys, you know, all you do is throw tomatoes, whereas I actually had throw grenades at people. And one of Sasha's friends says, like, you know, throwing tomatoes is actually much, much worse than throwing a grenade at somebody, because if you throw a grenade, the worst that's gonna happen is someone's going to kill you. Whereas after I throw it, tomato, somebody is going to come and beat me to the brink of death, which is... eh, you know, it's really telling for basically the rest of the novel. And the way the police basically, beat people just kind of freely.

Cameron 22:12

Yeah, Rogov, who is talking to the vet, has also fought, and points out that the environment that the vet fought in, which is two sides, each armed against each other is a different environment from one side with tomatoes, who are then arrested, put away for years, and are tortured by the police. And he argues having experienced both, or at least claiming to have experienced both, that the latter is worse.

Matt 22:34

Yeah. So that's kind of their, you know, that's their thought on it. And the chapter ends in kind of an interesting way, also still very telling way. They go to a marketplace, which is normally run by people from the Caucasus. And they do not like those people, because they are really big into the idea of ethnic purity in Russia, and, you know, really supporting like, Russians, meaning specifically not people from the Caucasus, who are not thought very highly of throughout Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. And so they are kind of like reenacting an offensive play of people in the Caucasus. And there are some Caucasian men who see them and they, you know, they get into a fight. Basically Sasha his friends are about to get beat, because there's, you know, more men from the Caucasus that are coming to join this fight until the police show up. And they, they arrest everybody. They don't hold them for very long. But one of the interesting parts of the book was at the end of this chapter when the policeman lets them out. And he basically says, like, Hey, I would have picked a fight with those worms, too, if I was you. And Sasha, not that he disagrees with the policeman... So the point he takes issue with is not the point that a normal person probably would have taken issue with. It's not that he's dehumanizing the people from the Caucasus. It's the fact that he thinks he's on the same side as Sasha. And Sasha does not like this because he doesn't want to be on the same side as the police, as anybody that's representative of the government or the state as broadly as you can think of it. So he's just kind of, you know, disgusted by that and that's kind of where the chapter ends.

Matt 24:21

Chapter four is a pretty somber one. It's hinted at throughout the first three chapters. Sasha is kind of talking about his father after he died and how he had to bury him, which was a complete disaster because Sasha's grandparents' village where he went to bury him can only really be accessed in the summer because it's so remote. The roads are so bad that unless you have a really heavy duty tractor, you can't really get out there. So him and his mother in the winter, they hire some guy in his bus or his truck to take them and his dad in the coffin out there. Sasha's dad has no friends that are willing to really help him except for Professor Bezletov who was the only one that goes and helps. So Sasha has this kind of interesting relationship with him throughout the book as kind of the remaining link to his father, but also somebody who he now resents because of his politics. So basically, as you might imagine, the truck, bus, whatever, it can't make it out there. The guy says... he gets to a point and he says, I can't go any further, we're gonna get snowed in. And so Sasha and Bezletov take Sasha's father from the back of the truck in his coffin, and they have to drag him about 10 miles to where the village is, which is not what you want to do in the really heavy snow. It's an absolute disaster. It's a really fascinating chapter, I won't go into all the details, but basically, they're able to make it only because before leaving, Sasha had left a message with one of the neighbors saying that they were coming that day, and one of the neighbors had seen that it was, you know, snowing, really difficult conditions. So he fortunately comes out in his like tractor to kind of look in the surrounding area in the woods to see if they maybe gotten stuck anywhere. And he had been able to help them, so fortunate, but an absolute disaster of a trip. Basically, everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. So it's an interesting chapter that Prilepin chose to kind of nestle after the first three chapters. To me, I think it's interesting how he kind of keeps coming back to his childhood. And this is not a chapter that like... it's not a memory that would necessarily make you happy. I think for a lot of people thinking about like, a relationship with a deceased relative usually it's like, positive memories, whereas this... every time he talks about his dad, it's just a disaster.

Matt 26:43

Next chapter, chapter five, is back in the present. Sasha decides to go back to Moscow, because he's just, he's kind of fed up with being in his his local village, he doesn't really want to be... he wants to be in the center of the action, basically, with the rest of the founders. And he meets Yana, who is one of the kind of really important Founders, she was in a relationship with the head Founder, Kostenko. And he is currently in jail, though. So... heats us up for a little spicy drama in chapter five, where Sasha...

Cameron 27:20

Please don't call it that. Please do not call it that.

Matt 27:23

I say it with a really heavy drop of sarcasm, because I'm gonna read the best and worst excerpt from a book ever written in a little bit. So Sasha meets her outside the Founder's bunker. That's what they call this, like, a basement that they coordinate in. They go back to Yana's place, she invites Sasha there, and she's really distant. She's like, not really... Sasha's trying to basically figure out like, Am I gonna have sex with her or not? Is basically what he's trying to figure out. And he's having a hard time getting a read on her. It's in this chapter is the first time when it's... The way I read it was it was implied that she was that she was raped by one of the OMON people, because she was able to get away after the protests in chapter one, and it was kind of a sore spot for her. Sasha definitely doesn't pick up on that because he's kind of an idiot throughout.

Cameron 28:16

Yeah, well, yeah. He's not real concerned with their consent.

Matt 28:19

No, he's definitely not. So yeah. So basically, they they go back to Yana's place, and they have what is probably the most poorly written sex scene in World Literature. I would say, like, what do you think?

Cameron 28:34

I've read worse, but only on like fanfiction.com.

Matt 28:37


Cameron 28:38

Dot net, excuse me. Sorry.

Matt 28:40

Dot net, you got to get it right. So should I read the thing that I read to you before we started recording?

Cameron 28:45

I wish you wouldn't, but I think they deserve to know.

Matt 28:48

Okay, this is the funniest thing that I've read probably. "He stroked Yana. She was slender, delicately slender, and still a little damp from the shower. Slightly cool and moist. But in one place, she was hot and surprisingly wet. His hand touched her there. She sighed faintly." So this was the worst thing I've ever had to read in my entire life. I wrote LMAO in the margin of my copy throughout the whole sex scene. This prompted me to write an email to my professor after reading this exact chapter when I was an undergrad and said, Can we please read a book by a woman please? You think? Just because I hated it so much. I hated every second of it.

Cameron 29:34

Can I just come in and make it a little bit worse?

Matt 29:37


Cameron 29:38

So here's the part that got me, this is the part that I hate the most. "And Yana's breasts weren't round and hard like apples, and her nipples weren't pointy. No, on the contrary her breasts undulated. Milky, small, childlike, soft and almost nebulous, only pink semicircles. But when she was dressed her nipples seemed sharp, defiant, flashed through Sasha's mind."

Matt 30:10


Cameron 30:11

What the fuck?

Matt 30:11

I am not sure if Sasha to this point in the book has ever met a woman, if Prilepin has ever met a woman. This was just like... this chapter where like, you didn't need to write the sex scene. I'll just say that first off, it was super clear what was going to happen all throughout... the way, like Sasha was like leading her in the small of her back through the metro. And I was just like, okay, yeah, this is where this is leading. And it's really, you know, you just didn't have to do it. You just didn't have to do it. And you made me read it, which is worse.

Cameron 30:48

Genuinely, please, I beg of you, literally never describe anything about your sexual partner as childlike.

Matt 30:55


Cameron 30:55

For the love of God, Jesus Christ.

Matt 30:58

I'd like to move on from this because it was horrible every time I've had to read it.

Cameron 31:04


Matt 31:05

So chapter six, we get to the juicy action of the Party. Yana asks Sasha if he has any friends that might be for some sort of mission. So Sasha enlists his friend Negative back from all the way in the beginning of the book for this mission. He has to go home to get him and then he comes back to Moscow. And so basically, the Party would like Negative to go to Riga to seize an observation deck in a central square to protest the government there that is bringing criminal charges against Russian World War Two vets living in the country on the anniversary of the victory of World War Two, the Great Patriotic War. And so here, you kind of see they're trying to advance their... or bring attention to... It's hard to... I don't know, I don't want to call it like nationalist agenda, per se. It totally is. But you know, so that's basically what they're trying to do. Basically, he goes and does just that. It's not that exciting of a chapter, I don't think. I don't know, anything else in this chapter?

Cameron 32:17

This kind of starts... sets up some stuff, later chapters where Sasha himself shows that he wants to be more involved, that he wants to be in. He actually wants to be involved in the same operation that negative is. He asks Matvey, who is now the leader in Kostenko's absence, if there's anything else for him to do. And Matvey says yes, but hold on. And also kind of the chapter where Yana confirms, or at least heavily implies to Sasha, that the reason why she escaped being arrested like about, I think about 90 other Founding Fathers in the first chapter was because an OMON officer had raped her, and then asked him to leave her alone, basically, because he's been kind of almost openly lusting after her for this whole chapter and is kind of expecting her to reciprocate. And she is basically like, no, and then walks out.

Matt 33:09

Now, I do want to bring this up as we go on to chapter seven. That is the reading. That is how I totally understand this to have happened. I think that is what is most important in the text. However, there's this little part in chapter seven, that gives me just a little bit of pause, and it's something that was brought up when I took the class. And it's that we don't know a lot about Yana. And somebody kind of brought this up. So in the beginning of chapter seven, Yana gives Sasha a burner phone and he doesn't know why. So at one point, she calls him to say that Negative has seized the tower in Riga, and almost immediately after, Sasha is abducted off the streets by a couple OMON officers, he's taken to this like detention facility for interrogation. They beat him because he does not cooperate, they break his nose, there's blood everywhere, they drive him out to the middle of the woods, they undress him, they beat him, they cut him with a broken bottle. It's horribly, horribly graphic. And he doesn't give anybody up, he refuses to cooperate, and they basically leave him on the brink of death in the middle of a ditch in the middle of nowhere. So the only part about this that really gave me pause about Yana was just like, the fact that she gave him this burner and called him to tell him that they had successfully completed this mission, which Sasha wasn't really involved in. Like he set Negative up, but he wasn't involved... he didn't have any role to play in this. And so somebody had posed in a class that I had taken previously that Yana is kind of working this inside job. They didn't really necessarily talk about like whether or not she was raped, it was just her role really was like as an informant more or less, and that's why she's able to evade kind of some of the consequences. It's interesting because it ties up some of the things that aren't really talked about ever again, like the fact that she was dating Kostenko and like, I don't know... There's a lot to it. And it's not to say that the two necessarily couldn't have happened. Like they could have both very well happened. But there are I feel like, you know, definitely one of them's confirmed, the other one's a little bit more ambiguous, at least in this point of the book. But more or less, that's where we left off with Sankya. Is he dead in the middle of a ditch somewhere? We'll find out when we starte chapter eight.

Cameron 35:21

His vision fades to black, and it says, along the lines of, and that was the end. So yeah, literally, that was... and that was the end. So that's where we are halfway through Sankya. So there are a lot of themes to get at here. That was kind of a long summary. But it's important to know for getting into what we're talking about. And next week, we're going to be talking a little bit more I think about the political ideology Sankya kind of puts forward. But this week, we're going to focus more so on kind of the diagnoses that Sankya makes, which is, I think, for both of us, maybe more interesting. But certainly next week will be an interesting exploration of how that... what that implies.

Matt 35:57

Interesting in a different sort of way. Definitely. Yeah.

Cameron 36:00

Yeah. I want to ask you a question. What, I know that you had a couple things that struck you, but what really stuck out to you about the first half of the book, what comes to mind when you want to talk about it?

Matt 36:09

Definitely chapter two for me, I don't know, it was really emotional. just reading through it. I think that is the strongest writing in the book, for sure. Because I think it kind of meshes really well, with Sasha's kind of I don't know... he's really kind of blunt. He's really quite, I don't know how to describe him exactly. He's just he's very angry. And this is kind of the place where you can see where it kind of stems from, I think. I think it's the most interesting probably, like, historically, with his grandparents and his parents and everything going on in that chapter, just the difference between the rural-urban divide in Russia that very much exists. And it's... it's good. It's also the only place that I'm aware of where he's called Sankya is by his grandma. And, to me, that was interesting. This was pointed out to me. I'm not a native Russian speaker, so I probably would not have picked up on this. Sankya and Sasha are both diminutive names of Alexander. But Sasha is way more common. That's what everybody calls him. Sankya is not really a diminutive... like it is, in this case, a diminutive of Alexander, but it's a really weird one, like it's not a natural one, it's not one that people would normally ordinarily go towards. So it points even further to this divide that he has between not just rural and urban, but like his disconnect between his childhood and his present, and how that plays into his future. He really, he feels like, he has no place whatsoever in society. He has no connection to his past, he has nothing to do in the future, and that only fuels more violence in the future.

Cameron 37:51

Yeah, I also really enjoyed that chapter for similar reasons. In that I think it is, really... I don't know if it was necessarily intended as such, but it really reads as a metaphor for kind of like old Russia, and Sankya, or Sasha, is very concerned with preserving the Russianness of Russia. And here, you kind of see that it's it's kind of dying. The village is mostly dead. Almost everyone who is in the story, with the exception of his grandparents, a lot of people that Sasha knew growing up are all dead at this point. And at one point Sankya's grandfather probably says the saddest thing I've read in the book, which is that when he's wondering if there will be any men left to bury him, he mentions that he was there when almost all of the boys in the town were born, and he was also there to bury all of the boys in the town. And now there's no one left. And it really reflects on what you said earlier about how everything seems dead. Where Sasha grew up swimming is now covered in trash and full of weeds. And there's just really nothing there. And Sasha's grandfather outright says that he's trying to die. Sasha's grandmother says, you know, your grandfather doesn't eat anything. He just drinks a little bit of water. And Sasha's grandfather's basically just like I'm trying to die, why can't I die? And asks Sasha to stay just because he's trying so hard to die that he just wants them to be there for a few more days to bury him so his grandmother... so she doesn't have to bury him alone.

Matt 39:13

Yeah, this... it ties into actually a lot of themes about this book, which is why I liked it. Because the only scene I think, where Sasha does anything productive is when he actually cleans up the beach that him and his father used to swim at. He sees there's all trash and weeds and just bushes and just all crap all over the beach. So he takes some time and he actually cleans it out. And he says, you know, it doesn't look bad. It doesn't look like how it used to look. There's basically no going back to how it used to look. But it's okay. And so there's like this frustration because he knows that... I think he knows that there's no going back, there's only going forward, but he almost doesn't have anything to really completely tether him to the past and certainly really nothing to look forward to going forward. So this idea of like, this is the only productive thing he does throughout the book is interesting, because when he's talking with Bezletov, there's this one line, which goes hundreds and hundreds of years back in Russian literature where he says, Why are you destroying the city? Did you build any of this? Or maybe it was a police officer that said this to him, I can't remember. And they respond... What did we build? What? What are you talking about? And this idea of building versus destroying, it goes back and back and back. The most famous instance is probably Fathers and Children by Turgenev, where that's kind of the main gist of it is, do you build or do you destroy and then figure out whether or not to rebuild? And one of the characters says, basically, it's not my job to rebuild, my job was to destroy, and then somebody else will figure it out from there. And that is exactly what Sasha and his friends are trying to do, I feel like.

Cameron 40:54

Yeah. Actually, I want to get deeper into the Bezletov conversation, because for me, that is kind of the thesis statement of the book. But before we get there, I just want to say one last thing about the village, which is that it also shows the divide between the old Soviet way and the modern Russian era, where Sasha's grandfather was a soldier in the Russian army during World War Two, he was captured, he survived, he showed model behavior. Even before that he was the model tractor operator for his entire region. He is like, what the Soviet Union wanted you to be. And now here he is at the end of his life, all of his children dead, wanting to die. And when he and his wife asked, Sasha, are you working? and Sasha says, well, working for the older generations, like them, meant plowing the fields or doing some kind of hard labor. And for his generation doing that kind of thing was indicative of someone who was basically economically unstable, that they were not doing well in life. So this exact same type of work, which was once prestigious is now indicative of someone who is not doing super well, economically.

Matt 42:01

Yeah. Though, I'll say Prilepin doesn't let you just have that. He doesn't just say like that... he doesn't let you say the Soviet Union was the better way to go. Because he does clearly point out the way that Sasha's grandpa was a prisoner of war during World War Two, and he wasn't allowed to be a member of the Communist Party, because he was a prisoner of war. And even though he was this like model citizen, model tractor operator. And so it's interesting, it goes even further, where I think, Sasha, kind of... he doesn't really have any connection with that. There's a point where he says... He talks about the collective farms, and he says, You know, I meant to ask my grandma how all that worked. I don't really get it. So he's just like, I don't know, he's not the deepest thinker for sure.

Cameron 42:43

No, and that is actually really relevant to his conversation with Bezletov. And I really want to get to that, because I think that's really indicative of what Prilepen is trying to say in this book. So like you said earlier, Bezletov is kind of representative of liberals. Actually, in the book, one of the other characters, Rogov, calls Bezletov a former liberal, one of the ones who had created the modern situation they're in. But basically, when Sasha and Bezletov have their conversation, Bezletov is asking Sasha, like, Well, what do you want? Give me a coherent message. And there is no coherent message for the Founding Fathers to give. They just, as you said, they're looking to destroy the current order because they don't like what they see. And they aren't as concerned with the building up as with what happens after. And when Bezletov kind of pushes and says, well, what's your national idea? Because he's sort of a... he's representative of the liberal systematic thinker of like creating systems and does not think about things like blood and soil nationalism. And he keeps pushing for this national idea. And Sankya says, Well, I'm Russian, that's enough. I don't need any idea. And I didn't read the translation, but I'm willing to bet when he says, I'm Russian, he says I'm русский. Which in the Russian language, again, I'm not a native speaker. But saying that a person is русский and a person is российский, are two different things. And I would... willing to bet that he said русский, which is a more restricted definition, which is only ethnic Russians rather than российский, which means like citizens of Russia, which is a really important difference here, in that he is really focused, he being Sasha, is really focused on the need for Russian ethnic people to have their soil to be living on it and to keep existing. Where Bezletov, he doesn't like the fact that Sankya keeps talking about the Russian homeland. At one point when Sankya talks about the need for a Russian homeland, he says something along the lines of wow Russian homeland? there's no need for those kinds of words just wow. You know, kind of offended that Sankya is talking about it. Because Sankya really is talking about blood and soil nationalism. I mean, this is sort of like lampshading the actual real life National Bolshevik Party. Especially when the the Afghan vet that you were talking about says that they kind of ape Nazism in a way. They're like bordering on that but they're not quite taking that last step. Although at least they say they're not, but we can kind of talk about a little bit later. How they kind of are existing in this interesting space where they both do and do not engage in straightforward blood and soil nationalism.

Matt 45:06

Yeah, I think well... Bezletov, like right after he says, right after Sasha says, I'm Russian, that's enough, I don't need any national idea. He mocks them. And he says, Oh, I'm Russian. But what are you going to do with the non-Russians? That's immediately where he jumps to. And that's not something Sasha, I don't think, really thinks about that much. But when he's in like this next chapter, it's inviting you to think back to this conversation, where Sasha isn't really, he's not thinking about that. He says, you know, listen, Professor, no one's talking about doing anything with the non-Russians, and you know it. But the interaction he has with the men from the Caucasus right after when he gets into a fight with them shows that like, he does have this deeply ingrained... he doesn't like them. Bezletov, I think, asks him something that he's not really willing to consider that deeply because he doesn't have a very deep understanding of the world. He goes back to... he really describes Kostenko, and the other founders of the Founders, and really says how they describe the world in terms of black and white, in terms of childish language, in like a primordial, as if you were to be a one year old child just learning about the world for the first time. It's very black and white, magnificent, terrible, like, you know, kind of almost childish language.

Cameron 46:24

Yeah. And so Bezletov, when he's making fun of them, he is talking about how they do not have a bigger idea. But at the same time, Bezletov is... I think he's written in a way that's purposefully kind of meaningless, because he outright says after this part, that like Russia's dead. And we are here to steward it's soul, basically. That we need to look towards sort of a spiritualism to maintain that. And like, Look, there are Russian communities all over the world that maintain their Russianness, and he points towards Jewish people specifically as a community that has existed for 1000s of years, prior to the existence of the State of Israel, without a state and they are still a coherent people. And he's like, well, that's kind of what Russia needs to do. We are a dying state, but the Russian spirits still exists, and it will be preserved. And then Sankya responds, even though even just a few pages before, he says, as you pointed out, no one's talking about these ethnic minorities. He said, like, where will Russian culture be preserved? In the country that will be extinct in 30 years populated by Chinese and Chechens? Clearly indicating this sort of, you know, unease about immigrants coming into Russia,

Matt 47:28

It's still really persuasive... not persuasive--pervasive in Russia. Like even my host mom when we were abroad in St. Petersburg, she really did not like people from Central Asia. Like all the prejudices that are in this book were brought to life off the page for me in front of me on a nightly basis when we would watch the news or whatever. So it's not just like it's in the book. Itt really is... That's why it's such an influential book because it does capture something that's definitely there, whether people want to acknowledge that or not.

Cameron 48:01

And kind of as a wrap up to your point about this, the Founding Father's almost like childish view of the world, although not calling him childish as it's immature, but purposefully black and white, is really exemplified by Rogov, when after Bezletov leaves, Sasha, who is clearly feeling not confident about the situation turns to Rogov and asked him what he what he thinks about it. And Rogov says, Oh, well, Bezletov is obviously one of the ones who was a former liberal who made this state what it is today. And, you know, he says, they're quick to call upon God and spirituality in times like this, but they were the same ones who invoked the name of God, when they were torturing this country with the dull knife of capitalism, of shock therapy in the early 90s. And then finally Rogov says, Well, he's the guardian of Russian culture, let him guard it. And then he says, We're gonna go to the people. And the people are where we drink. In a warm room, with some okay food, and cheap vodka. So it kind of exemplifies that they are kind of exhibiting this sort of, not intellectualism, which is almost like a way of just getting away from the problem where they are kind of represented as well, we're getting right at it. And we're getting right at the heart of the issue. And we're not necessarily putting the deepest thought into it, but you don't need to because we have soil. And that's enough. And I actually want to quote from a couple chapters later, where Sasha thinks about when he comes back. Sasha was in the army for a while as all young Russian men have to be. When he's thinking about his fatherlessness, he understands this, quote, ever since he matured army age, everything became clear. Insoluble problems no longer arose. God exists. Things are difficult without father. Mother is kind and dear. There is forever one's motherland. And I think that's kind of the thesis statement here. That there is this sense of loss, even if the Soviet Union was not a good state. It was a proper Russian state. It had a Russian homeland and now there is a class of people, the liberals, small "l" liberal, not liberal-conservative divide, who are trying to destroy that.

Matt 50:06

Yeah. It's also really interesting, the more that I am reading or rereading this part with you as we're talking about it, literally just now. It still really does make me think about Fathers and Children. But this is like Fathers and Children but so much worse because both people in the argument, like don't really have a coherent anything. At least in fathers and children you have, like Nihilism, and then like, not Nihilism, and it's like somewhat coherent. And Turgenev kind of points to the contradictions in them. But I think that Prilepin does a good job of pointing to how nobody really has a good or coherent idea. And it's really obvious throughout everything that they do. It's exemplified in the arguments, it's exemplified in basically all of everyone's actions throughout the entire book. And that just leads to like you were saying, because of this loss that they feel and the state that they've never had, it leads to a situation in which there is a group of young, angry men and women in Russia, and they don't know what to do, except to flip cars and burn stuff.

Cameron 51:12

Yeah. And Bezletov tells them you're going to let loose enough blood to drown half this continent. And later on, Rogov says, well, it's more honest to kill your own citizens than to bomb children of other countries.

Matt 51:22

Oh, yeah. This was an interesting... I like this. This is an interesting part.

Cameron 51:25

Yeah, actually, I feel like that was a really interesting line when Sasha is like, really? And Rogov says, Well, yeah, it's a sort of truth finding. We have citizens of our country killing citizens of our country. And he uses the example of dekulakization as like truth finding. That means that we have two groups of people who have two opposite sides of truth. And in killing each other, they're attempting to settle on like the ultimate truth. And like that sort of truth finding, which is an interesting idea.

Matt 51:53

It's a challenging idea, for sure. And not in the sense that I'm challenged by the concept of it, but it challenges what I would think. This is why I think it was so interesting to read as a Western viewer, because we're so accustomed this idea of like, debate, as we'd love to say, when I think we kind of generally know that nobody's mind has ever really changed through the debate. But yet, we do this little song and dance. And I think Sasha has friends, like they realize that and they're kind of willing to accept that. And so the way that they take that instead of finding something different, that's not violent, is they jump straight to violence. And they're like, okay, this is now our truth finding.

Cameron 52:34

Yeah. So kind of the last major thing I want to touch upon isn't specific to Sankya, but I think it's actually kind of relevant in the way that we approach any... almost any country can approach this sort of nationalism, in the modern era, which this sort of borderline between, you know, are we racist, or are we not? And that's really best shown in the book when Bezletov kind of accuses Sasha of being a racist. And he asks him, What do you want to do with the other races? and Sasha says, Well, of course, no one's talking about the other races, but they are, they just don't explicitly talk about it. Earlier in the book, I think this is about chapter three. When Sasha goes to see Negative, his brother Positive, opens the door in the house and Positive greets Sankya. With Allahu Akbar, glory to God, which is like a bit of... at first it seems a little bit out of place. Throughout the book, they they make fun of the idea that they're racists, when they pick a fight with the Chechens in the market. It starts off because Rogov is pretending to be a miserly Chechen merchant who's trying to sell Venka, their friend, a half-drunk bottle of alcohol, and the Chechens take offense to that and they end up in a fight. And when they're in prison, the Chechens get let go first and they're kind of commiserating over that fact. Like, I can't believe they would do that. Or like, why would they do that to our... and then I think Sasha responds, To our objects of racial hatred? And then all of them smirked. And I think what they're trying to imply there is like, oh, everyone says like, this is our object of racial hatred. Like, isn't it funny that they think that? Even though it's obviously true, but it's not something that they among themselves admit to. It's like lampshaded where they kind of take on the phrasings of, yeah, maybe among Chechen people it might be a common greeting to say Allahu Akbar, to like, you know, just glory to God when you see your friend. That is an innocent phrase, but they're attaching onto these cultural signifiers and also making fun of the idea that they could be racist to kind of separate themselves from the fact that they actually are very racist. That they're worried about Chechens and Chinese taking over the country and replacing them, that when when they are let go, because the police officer says, Oh, I would have jumped those black ass worms to. Their their objection to that is We didn't jump them, they started the fight. And cop is like, Sure. So it's kind of this weird, interesting embrace of something that they kind of also deny, which kind of plays into a lot of, I guess the, the Party that they're in where it's like, you were talking about kind of this sense of destruction, where they do not have an idea for after. And that goes for this to where their ideology is pretty explicitly racist, but there is no like, Well, what do we do next kind of thing. There's just like the well, it plays into it, which I think is true for also... even among American politics, they'd have that kind of back and forth where you have that kind of humor, which you could call edgy, which is, might itself be done by racist people. But there's like, also that kind of ironic embrace of that, of their racism and denial thereof. And I think it's interesting to see it played out.

Matt 55:30

Yeah, it's a lot of contradiction. Basically, throughout the book. Contradictions between modern, Soviet and I don't know, everything, basically. The Party is a party of contradiction. They see the world as black and white. They say that they're not racist, they clearly are. It's interesting, but it does... I think it touches on a lot of important things for modern Russia, for sure. It's, I don't know. I think that this is definitely... it's probably.... some of the sentiments linger even today. But this is a book that's already almost 15 years old, right? So like, elements of it, for sure are no longer there, though, a lot of elements, I think still remain.

Cameron 56:14

And at the time it came out, there were many people who credited Prilepin as a great, sensitive and intelligent critic of his country's condition, which I'm pulling from a Newsweek quote, which is right in the front of my copy of the book. And Alexei Navalny writes the opening for this book, and they all credit Prilepin as a great diagnoser of the malaise of the young men in the country. I don't think they maybe these very people understood, this wasn't quite a diagnosis period as a diagnosis followed by a, So here's what we do now kind of thing, which we will be getting to more so next week.

Matt 56:51

Yeah. What are we reading next week, though?

Cameron 56:55

So next week, we are going to be reading the second half of Sankya.

Matt 56:58

Alright, that makes sense.

Cameron 57:00

Yeah, it does. The part where Matt... which Matt described to me as..w what was that? The re Sankya mad now part of the book, which, is basically true. This is now the logical conclusion of what the first half of the book has set up. And it is a little bit less, as Matt talked about earlier, perhaps intellectually stimulating. However, I think it's essential to understanding the point of this book as sort of a treatise on what to do with this modern era. We will also be talking about what has happened to Prilein today, which is really interesting, and maybe is something that might cast sort of... spoken in a different light as the Russian political situation has developed over the years.

Matt 57:44

Yeah. Well, I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to another read of the second half because maybe I'll feel differently about it.

Cameron 57:50

Well, we'll see next week, I guess. So you'll have to tune in to find out if Matt changes his mind.

Matt 57:54

I guess I'll also have to tune in to find out too, so it'll be good for me.

Cameron 58:00

That's good. Good. Good.

Matt 58:01

All right. So Cameron, now that we're approaching the end of our podcast. On a scale of one to Yeltsin, how drunk would you happen to be?

Cameron 58:08

I would say my average is like a character who we only mentioned once in this entire podcast. I'm about a Venka, who is the group drunkard. How about you? Where are you at?

Matt 58:22

I think I am not on an ideological position... but I think on a drunkard position of Sasha where I say I don't like to drink, but yet here I am. I'm feeling good drinking out of my Christmas Jack Daniels glass right now.

Cameron 58:37

You're at the point of like Sasha's grandmother, who was like, are you drinking? And he's like, not in the way you mean. But also she just casually pours her grandson moonshine after dinner.

Matt 58:46

You know, just a casual village drink.

Cameron 58:49

Okay, well, you'll see us again next week.

Matt 58:51

God I hope.

Cameron 58:54

The music used in this episode was "soviet march" by toasted tomatoes. You can find more of their stuff on toastedtomatoes.bandcamp.com and also on YouTube under the same username. If you enjoyed the episode, well, first of all, that makes us happy. But also grad school doesn't pay very well. So if you happen to have a few dollars to spare, you can find us on Patreon at patreon.com/tipsytolstoy. It'll help us buy the books we'll be reading in the future. If you're looking for other places to find us. You can also follow us on Instagram at tipsytolstoypodcast or visit our website, tipsytolstoy.com. You'll hear from us again soon.

Research Notes