Zahar Prilepin and the Anti-Putin Nationalists

Owen Matthews has a terrific profile of the fascinating Russian author Zahar Prilepin, whose two tours of duty in Chechnya and fervent nationalism have given his work a strikingly visceral quality.  What is interesting about Matthew’s profile of Prilepin is the unpacking of influences that have shaped his worldview and those of many young Russians – childhood under Brezhnevian stagnation, teen years of perestroika and collapse, and then young adult years in Yeltin’s gangster’s paradise.  Assumptions fall apart before your eyes in these experiences.  In fact, one could argue that it’s not especially remarkable for a nationalist to engage in the decidedly unhealthy practice of opposition politics (Alexei Navalny, for example), but rather, it’s surprising that more self-described patriots haven’t yet become a majority of those fighting from outside the power structure.  From Matthews at the Daily Beast:

To understand Russia today, you need to understand Prilepin—first and foremost because he doesn’t fit into the preconceptions most outsiders have about the place. He hates Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the “thieves” in the Kremlin. But unlike the liberal opposition, Prilepin cheered when Russian tanks rolled into the breakaway republics of Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. He served in Chechnya but was an admirer and colleague of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who criticized abuses by Prilepin’s own brutal unit, the OMON (and who was slain in 2006). Much of his writing is dark and violent, yet it shines with a Tolstoy-like faith in the Russian people. “In Russia everything has been destroyed except the people, with all their reserves of strength, love, and patience,” he says. (…)

Where San’ka is just a doomed rebel, Prilepin is a literary revolutionary, that peculiarly Russian figure who believes that his words and ideas can transform his country. It’s no coincidence, Prilepin thinks, that all the great Russian writers of the last 150 years have been intensely political. The old cursed questions of Russia—What is to be done? Who is to blame?—are as important today as ever. Such questions don’t allow Russian writers to stray far from politics, “not even Nabokov, running around with his butterfly net.” One can’t write about Russians without writing about their relations with the state. (…)

In the end, what makes Prilepin such an important figure is that he’s been into the heart of Russia’s darkness and seen some kind of light. Despite his dystopic portraits of the lost generation, he says that in real life he’s met plenty of Russian kids who are “smart, curious, intelligent, kids who want to travel and learn languages.” And unlike his nihilistic characters, Prilepin actually gives a damn—which is another way of saying he still has hope. “The apocalypse starts within each of us,” he says, echoing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s call to reject the passivity and conformism that allows the state to trample its people.