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Zakhar Prilepin, Vzvod. Ofitsery i opolchentsy russkoi literatury

Moskva: AST, 2017, 736 pages
Stanislav Lvovsky
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Zakhar Prilepin, Vzvod. Ofitsery i opolchentsy russkoi literatury,

Moskva: AST, 2017, 736 pages

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Editor's notes

Pipss is grateful to Marat Iliyasov who edited this book review.

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1According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) survey, Zakhar Prilepin, is one of the three most popular writers in the country. He is also named as the most frequently mentioned in the country’s media writer by the press monitoring company “Medialogia.” Both ratings make Prilepin one of the most influential writers in contemporary Russia. He rose to this position from the absolute obscurity over the time-period of eleven years. Out of many public figures, who contributed to his rise and the impressive career, two were very particular. One of them is Russian president Vladimir Putin and another one is a politician of contradictory reputation Eduard Limonov. Arguably, it was Putin who turned Prilepin into a writer. To be precise, it was "Putin’s" Second Chechen war of 1999 that Prilepin described in his debuting novel. Prilepin’s second novel "San’ka", that brought him fame, came out from his connection with Limonov. This novel is centered around the figure of Sasha Tishin, who is a member of the revolutionary organization “The Founders”. The latter, in essence, describes the National-Bolshevik Party [NBP], founded and led by Limonov. Prilepin himself was a member of that party for some time and even held a position of the chief editor of the party’s newspaper “People's Observer”, which used to be published in Nizhny Novgorod. It was this position that allowed Prilepin to publish his first tries in literature— mostly short fiction stories, essays, and some poetry.

2The breakthrough in his career happened in 2006 when “San’ka” was shortlisted for the two prizes - aesthetically conservative and politically somewhat liberal Russian Booker, and the aesthetically scandalous and politically right-leaning National Bestseller. After "San'ka", Prilepin has published three more novels, three collections of short fiction, four collections of essays, one collection of political essays, a biography of the Soviet prose writer Leonid Leonov, a book about three Russian poets of the twentieth century (Anatolii Mariengof, Boris Kornilov, and Vladimir Lugovskoi), and finally “The Platoon: commanders and militiamen of the Russian literature”.

3The word “militiamen” in the title of his last book (in Russian transcription “opolchentsy”) is widely used in contemporary Russia’s political discourse. Usually, it refers to the members of Russian and/or Russia-backed paramilitary fractions, who are based in the Eastern parts of Ukraine (the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics). By using specifically this word while talking about the events in Ukraine, Russian political elite denies the presence of the Russian regular military troops there. It also implies that the territories of the “People’s republics” are controlled exclusively by the local populations, who "do not recognize the Ukrainian authority over their land". Contrary to these intentions, the word gained a negative connotation. Today, it is associated with the Russian mercenaries, who fight against the Ukrainian forces in the self-declared independent republics. Prilepin uses this term for a reason, which can be understood from his political affiliations. His views were, apparently, influenced by Limonov, whose political trajectory he followed. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 marked the changes in his political views and made him one of the most noticeable proponents of the current Russian political course. He is one of the very few public figures whose loyalty to the Kremlin is beyond any doubts. This is clear from the fact that Prilepin runs his own TV show “Lessons of Russian” on the NTV channel.

4In 2017 Prilepin has formed his own paramilitary battalion, which was under direct command of Alexander Zakharchenko - the self-proclaimed leader of the “Donetsk people’s republic”. His involvement in Donetsk, however, started earlier. Prilepin was traveling to the region from the very beginning of turmoil there. It’s not quite clear in what capacity he was involved though. He gave rather an ambiguous answer when he was asked about it by a journalist of RIA Novosti: “I was [involved] there as a war correspondent, as a humanitarian aid provider, as anything but a kitchen sink”. The pride he is taking from the participation in this enterprise is of a dubious background. Despite his military experience, Prilepin is not exactly the Hemingway type, therefore, his "resignation" in July 2018 came as no surprise. It is more surprising that “The Platoon” is closely related to his former status of a high-rank volunteer officer in the DPR paramilitary.

5The book consists of ten biographical essays (plus the concluding chapter). These essays feature prominent Russian intellectuals, who were involved in various military campaigns and wars of the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries. Prilepin refers to this time-period as to the “Golden age”. The "Golden age" characters that he has chosen for the «Platoon» are Gavriil Derzhavin, Aleksandr Shishkov, Denis Davydov, Fiodor Glinka, Konstantin Batyushkov, Pavel Katenin, Piotr Vyazemschkii, Piotr Chaadaev, Vladimir Raevskii, and Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinskii.

6Firstly, despite the really excessive use of the direct speech (mostly excerpts from diaries and memoirs), the figures of the Russian littérateurs in the book are far from reality. In the short introduction, Prilepin sets himself a goal - to show the reader what’s hidden behind the romantic image of the Russian literateurs of the nineteenth century – the image, which was so popular amongst the liberal intellectuals of the late Soviet times. He starts debunking this image by presenting it first through Bulat Okudzhava’s songs and historical novels. “The one listening attentively to the slow current of the novels about the Golden Age”, - Prilepin writes, - “was able to grasp the secret speech, understandable only to the chosen. Bulat was winking at Nathan. Nathan was winking at Bulat. Others were just winking. But in the end, lots of things remained somewhat unclear, unspoken. Brilliant lieutenants set off to the Caucasus. But what were they into there in particular? They’ve been putting themselves in jeopardy as if of spite to someone. Sometimes they were shot. By whom? Sometimes they did shoot, but who did they shoot at? Who were those highlanders? From which mountain?” (Prilepin 2017). All these questions Prilepin asks to demonstrate that, in fact, the most well-known poets and other public intellectuals had very little in common with the image, created by the official Soviet popular culture. In Prilepin’s opinion, rather than seeing them as the ardent opponents of tyranny, we should recognize their patriotism, their support to the monarchy, and the most important, their straightforward militarism. He is out to show that the most brilliant figures of the Golden Age literary scene, beloved by the Soviet liberal intelligentsia, were rather attracted by war as it was a fulfilling enterprise for them. Prilepin tries to prove that they consciously sought an opportunity to go to war. This is the first goal of his book, the one that he announced in advance.

7The second goal, which most likely emerged from the narrative during the process of writing, is to show that none of these figures were liberal. And even if they were, their patriotic Slavophilism made them hardly comparable to the liberals in today's Russia. His view is not completely wrong. Clearly, the Soviet readers were aware of what Lermontov or Odoevskii were doing in the mountains of the Caucasus. However, the grand narrative of the Soviet historiography, including that of the nineteenth century, tended to depict Russian writers and intellectuals of the "Golden Age" as some kind of crypto-leftists who were disproportionately concerned with the well-being of the “common people”. The few "least fortunate" of them were regarded as anticipating Marxist if not Leninist vision of society and its future.

8Prilepin is right claiming that it was quite normal for Russian nobility to begin their career in the military. Hence, their participation in the military campaigns, of which the Empire rarely ran shot. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that they were the only educated people in the state before the class of the raznochintsy appeared on the public scene in the 1840s. Therefore, all the writings could appear only through them. Of course, they were not professional littérateurs and writing poetry for them was just another honorable activity among many others. On contrary to this, Prilepin attempts to demonstrate that war for them was not just a part of career, but a true passion. However, this puts Prilepin’s argument under critique from the very beginning. Indeed, Gavriil Derzhavin is, probably, the only person of those considered in the book, whose life truly fits into Prilepin’s scheme. It might be the reason why the book opens with the essay about him. Derzhavin is one of the key figures in Russian literature on the one hand and a successful military officer on the other. It would be an exaggeration to claim that his military accomplishments are in any way comparable with his literary achievements though. Best-case scenario, Derzhavin’s military achievements can be placed in the third position after those in literature and state finances.

9On contrary, Denis Davydov was a legendary military officer, but less successful writer and poet. His contribution to Russian literature is not completely forgotten mostly because he was mentioned in Pushkin's poems as a poet. Prilepin understands this but tries hard to present Davydov as someone equal to his more talented writers and poets. He does it unconvincingly. The same can be said about Shishkov. He also was a considerably successful military officer (but as well as Derzhavin, even more successful in his capacity of a civil servant). Further, Prilepin attempts to depict Batyushkov, another poet of a great significance for the Russian tradition, as a true militarist. However, he fails in it too. Batyushkov served in the military for only three years, eight months of which he spent in a hospital treating the wound that he received in the Battle of Heilsburg. On the contrary, Fedor Glinka was a devoted military officer and a considerably loyal royalist. However, his poetic heritage barely amounts to only three texts, which all are songs’ lyrics.

10Prilepin also takes some trouble attempting to show the influence of these poets on the poetry produced during the Silver Age of the Russian literature. Moreover, he tries to prove their influence on our contemporaries, but his argument is not very persuasive. It is only the case of Derzhavin that meets this criterion. Indeed, the influence of Derzhavin is quite noticeable throughout the whole Russian literary tradition. His influence can be found in very unexpected places. For instance, the famous 1940 “Lyrical digression” by Pavel Kogan, who refers to Derzhavin’s 1794 “My idol”. However, Prilepin’s fails to find the links connecting Vyazemschkii with Boris Ryzhii and Maxim Amelin or Denis Davydov with Igor Severyanin and Georgy Shengelia. In the end, Prilepin partly recognizes his failure, admitting that there is no such connection between Davydov and Vladimir Vysotsky.

11Further Prilepin abandons his attempts in proving that prominent Russian writers of the nineteenth century found great pleasure taking part in the imperial wars. Presenting Chaadaev and the Decembrists, he already tries to prove that they were true royalists and patriots. These attempts entail new problems with the consistency of his narrative. It is not surprising because even a very thorough selection of sources barely allows for the persuasive depiction of the Decembrist Bestuzhev-Marlinskii as a royalist and patriotic Slavophile. In order to solve this mismatch, Prilepin suggests a hypothesis. He claims that the Decembrists’ movement was driven not only by the disagreement with the serfdom, absolutism, and lack of political liberties but also by the disagreement with the overly favorable attitude of Alexander I to Poland. However, even this unexpected move does not help Prilepin to depict Decembrists as loyal royalists. The essay on Chaadaev is almost uncomfortable to read. Prilepin cannot claim that Chaadaev, same as Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, regretted participating in the Decembrist movement. The harsh verdict to Russia by Chaadaev can be only softened by the fact that he was the same harsh to other countries too.

12The last essay features Alexander Pushkin in the title, but he does not consider Pushkin in the text. Probably, Prilepin considers Pushkinists too numerous and dangerous to engage with. Instead, Prilepin offers a short version of his literary historiosophy. It is designed for those who were not paying enough attention to the rest of the book. All his historiosophy can be boiled down to roughly the following: war is evil, but there will be always war. The inevitability of war he proves referring to the Bible. According to Prilepin, even the most published poet in history David the Psalmist was a poet-combatant. Thus, in Prilepin’s view, an ordinary Russian writer was never an intellectual, a freak, a drunk, a conspirator, or anyone who cared about “abstract” common goodness. On the contrary, an ordinary Russian writer is someone who served in the military in times of war and during short periods of peace, was constantly alert, ready to go to another war the very moment when he is summoned to his duty. And this is how it should be. And therefore, Russian literature flourished in this Golden Age.

13The situation, according to Prilepin, has radically changed with the appearance of raznochintsy. They formed culture, which intentionally suppressed the victorious Russian literature of the Golden Age. They derided Shishkov and dethroned Davydov. And today's writers follow this incorrect path. They talk about progress, but this is just a dangerous illusion. The world today is the same as it was back then. It is clear to the military, which stayed here, with us, “amidst soil and blood” (Prilepin 2017). Therefore, Prilepin invites to return to the times of the true literature, when a literateur was a military officer, militiaman, or a soldier. These were the times when the literature was “genuinely humanist, full of cordial, filial love of the Fatherland, full of the kind incentives and acts of severity” (Prilepin 2017).

14It’s clear that Prilepin considers his “Platoon” as a book, which offers an alternative to the Soviet progressivist narrative of the Russian literary history. This narrative, according to him, was undoubtedly biased and ultimately crafted to serve the political needs of the regime. It ignored or, to be precise, censored some facts and downplayed the importance of others. This narrative was exploiting history in order to produce an argument that can be seen as “hard evidence” of the accuracy and impeccability of the state's ideology. The alternative to such an instrumental approach to history would be a consideration of the incredible complexity of the cultural machinery, human motives, and attitudes. In fact, Prilepin suggests the blueprint of the Soviet approach. This blueprint is less consistent, rougher, and totally deprived of any hope, though. Unlike the Soviet narrative, which processed history as a means to secure particular image of the future, Prilepin and contemporary Russian narrative (so vividly exemplified by the “Platoon”) is unable to imagine any future. It processes history to annul it.

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Electronic reference

Stanislav Lvovsky, « Zakhar Prilepin, Vzvod. Ofitsery i opolchentsy russkoi literatury », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 16 November 2018, connection on 18 November 2019. URL :

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About the author

Stanislav Lvovsky

Oxford University

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