0 5 mins 7 dys

An exhibition that stirs the spirit and makes us think about the dark pages of history and the precariousness of the future has opened in the heart of London, at the Shtager&Shch gallery, not far from the bustling Oxford Street. “Day of the Oprichnik”, a project based on Vladimir Sorokin’s novel of the same name, takes us to a dystopian Russia of 2028, where totalitarianism reigns and dissent is severely punished.

Feature image: Vladimir Sorokin by Sergey Novikov

From Ivan the Terrible to London

The name itself provides a clue: the oprichniks were essentially Tsar Ivan the Terrible’ s loyal enforcers during the Oprichnina period in the mid-16th century within the Tsardom of Russia. Think of them as a blend of secret police, executioners, and fiercely loyal agents who carried out brutal and repressive actions on the Tsar’s behalf.

Sorokin himself, some years ago, told in an interview to FT: “The Day of Oprichnik was written in 2006. Patriots were already saying that Russia should isolate itself from the West, and I decided to write a fantasy about what might happen if that happened. And now it is happening. Readers reacted with humour at first, but then stopped laughing.”

The novel The Day of the Oprichnik, written in 2006, predicted the possible consequences of Russia’s isolation from the West. Today, almost two decades later, Sorokin’s work has taken on an eerie relevance. The images of the oprichniks – Ivan the Terrible’ s system of punishment – have become a metaphor for modern repressive regimes.

Oprichnik 2.0

The exhibition focuses not only on Sorokin’s literary works, but also on a synthesis of art and technology. The works on display were created with the help of artificial intelligence, based on prompts from Sorokin’s own writing. The author himself selected the final versions, which are balanced with Sorokin’s own graphic works, adding a crucial human dimension.

Masterfully juggling historical allusions and contemporary realities, Sorokin depicts a world in which the oprichniks hunt down dissidents with guns, wiretaps and other gadgets rather than brooms and whips. The broom of the oprichniks was a tool of “purification”: with it they could “sweep” out of the way anyone who displeased the Tsar. In a paradoxical display of brutality, Oprichnik 2.0 rides a futuristic cyborg horse, his historic uniform emblazoned with a distinctive dog-head patch, while dragging his half-naked captive prey with a primitive rope.

“Day of Oprichnik” is not a journey through time, not a history lesson, but a warning about the possible consequences of totalitarianism, a reason for the viewer to think about where we are heading and what awaits us in the future. Sorokin’s images are full of allusions and hidden meanings. An unsophisticated viewer may not immediately grasp the depth of the idea, but for a Russian they read like an open book, reminding us of the dark pages of history and the precariousness of won freedoms.

Prophet’s doubt

Beyond the historical parallels, Sorokin, as a writer and conceptual artist, had the unique opportunity to see his literary characters brought to life by AI. This experience was the catalyst for his questioning of his own relevance, of which he spoke at the private view. Will he become obsolete, confined to libraries and antiquarian bookstores? For readers growing up in this new era, how will his literary legacy resonate? How will the art of storytelling continue to evolve?

In many of his novels he was decades ahead of real events, a writer with a keen sense of his time and historical context. The irony of our time and of the literally gifted and masterful Sorokin, a writer known for his prescient dystopian visions, is that he is left to question the future of human creativity in the face of AI-generated narratives.

For those interested in contemporary Russian literature and art, and not indifferent to the humanitarian conquests of the world, the exhibition “Day of Oprichnik” is a must.

During the exhibition’s opening, Sorokin was approached by a guest with a fascinating request. They wanted him to write a novel about an alternate Russia, free from totalitarian oppression – and what if it comes true?

The exhibition runs until 13 July.

Shtager&Shch (shtager-shch.com)

Lower Ground Floor
51—53 Margaret Street
London W1W 8SQ