Stalin and Satan

Vladimir Sharov, who would have turned seventy this week, died on August 17, 2018, shortly after publishing his ninth novel, Tsarstvo Agamemnona (The Kingdom of Agamemnon). Later that year the Russian-American philosopher and literary scholar Mikhail Epstein coined the term “satanodicy” in an essay arguing that Zhestovsky, the novel’s protagonist, articulates a pattern in Russian thought and history whereby “the heavenly kingdom exists and, in order to gain it, one must undergo torments in this life and be cleansed of all sins through the death of the innocent.” Epstein traces this idea from the seventeenth-century Schism in Russian Orthodoxy to Alexander Dugin, the radical nationalist “magus” whose influence on the highest political circles in Russia has long been a matter of speculation, and who has written that “through the Russian people will be realized the last thought of God, the thought of the End of the World.”

“Satanodicy” was published in the commemorative volume Vladimir Sharov: Po tu storonu istorii (Vladimir Sharov: On the far side of history, 2020), edited by Mark Lipovetsky and Anastasia de La Fortelle. The following translation is based on an extract that appeared on snob.ru on the third anniversary of Sharov’s death.


What Vladimir Sharov discovered in his books has not remained in the past: it defines the twenty-first century, and not only in Russia. A mixture of politics and sectarianism, madness and pragmatism, utopia and apocalypse. Although the chronology of Sharov’s novels is limited, as a rule, to the Soviet era, they accurately divine the historical vector that extends into the post-Soviet era.

Two months after Sharov’s death, in October 2018, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) veered sharply onto the path of schism by taking the decision to cut itself off from universal Orthodoxy. In other words it allied itself, in spirit and jurisdiction, with the Old Belief, going back in time by reversing the seventeenth-century reforms of Patriarch Nikon, which had brought Russian Orthodoxy closer to the Greek rite. As a result, the ROC ceased to be “Greek-Catholic”, or “Greek-Russian”, as it was often officially known. Instead, the “truth of the Old Belief” won the day in the ROC. Now it is not only the western, Catholic-Protestant world but also the contemporary Orthodox and, first and foremost, “brotherly Ukrainian” world that, from the viewpoint of the ROC, “lieth in evil” and has succumbed to the Antichrist. On October 15, 2018, the Synod of the ROC decided on complete cessation of full communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. If in the eleventh century the Russian church, together with the Byzantine church, broke away from western Christianity, now, a thousand years later and before our very eyes, it has split from its Orthodox brothers to the west and embarked on further schism, that is, a kind of self-immolation of faith.

The monk, theologian, Gulag inmate and informer Nikolai Zhestovsky, protagonist of Tsarstvo Agamemnonahas the following epiphany:

“So he, Stalin, erects an enormous altar and, to make us pure, offers a sacrifice after sacrifice. Vast purgative sacrifices – entire hecatombs – are needed to redeem our sins… He does everything he can to save us. The innocent dead will intercede and pray for us before the Lord, which is why, for as long as the world is still in the grip of the Antichrist, we too must help them save themselves from sin; After all, there’s no place for them on Earth either way. The main thing is this: by accepting their suffering here, they will be spared the torments of the Last Judgment.”

Stalin, in this sectarian vision, becomes a kind of saviour precisely because he is a relentless murderer and the spawn of hell. According to this logic, God allows Satan to take over the world before His second and final coming in order to save as many souls as possible and gather them into His heavenly kingdom. In this schismatic belief that the world lieth in evil and the more evil there is, the sooner it will blaze with a purgative fire, we find precisely the “inside-out” faith that has impelled powerful political, surreptitiously religious movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, both in Russia and in the world at large.

Sharov left us when the Russian world began sliding headlong towards the kind of catastrophe modelled by his own novels: “more hell!”. By this logic, the world will become entirely “Russian” not when a few more territories of Russia’s near abroad fall into its hands, but when it (the world) no longer exists at all. The void will open, or nuclear ash will fall, and all Sharov’s sectarians and passion-bear will find their place at the end of history towards which they have striven so single-mindedly. Sharov, to an even greater extent than Andrei Platonov, is a writer of the apocalypse bearing down on the planet from the direction of those well-armed “Magi of the Great Tradition” who see in this their mission.

“As victims of aggression, we’ll go straight to heaven as martyrs, while they’ll just die—because they won’t even have time to repent.” Vladimir Putin’s famous words of October 2018 about possible nuclear war initially prompted laughter among the audience, then universal bewilderment even among his like-minded associates. What was this – a sinister joke, a cruel warning, a gesture of readiness for sacrifice or revenge?

The meaning of those words can be most easily grasped by those familiar with the work of Vladimir Sharov. His characters are seekers of the end of the world, martyrs and hedonists of the impending apocalypse, who, splitting off from one and all, have made the death of humanity their craft and trade. Nobody can explain better than Sharov, to readers all over the world, that cannot be explained: this obstinate, absurd but theologically justified will, in one separate country, to ruin universal. It was for this, beginning with Peter the Great, that Russia assimilated technology, science and all civilization, whose collateral – and in essence undesired – products turned out to be great literature and music. The main impetus was to increase the energy of “antimatter”, “anticivilization”, sufficient to destroy the world. Those schismatics who considered Peter the enemy of Holy Rus were mistaken. In turning to the West for the fruits of civilization, he was seeking the means to make Russia stronger than the West.

Sharov allows us to trace the religious roots of the will to apocalypse that is generating a special alarm today, when satanodicy is acquiring a technological embodiment worthy of its name. Missiles of the “Satan” class (as dubbed by NATO) are the most powerful of all nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. “On the vast lands of the USA and western Europe”, one Russian website promises menacingly, “these Russian missiles will create hell.” Perhaps it is no accident, but “providential”, that “Satan” is produced at the Russian nuclear center that was built on the site of the Sarov Monastery, where the great saint Serafim Sarovsky lived out his days. In fact, in 2007 the saint was declared the heavenly protector of nuclear weapons and their builders, and the federal nuclear center in Sarov has purchased a large consignment of icons bearing the saint’s image. The center boasts a staff in the tens of thousands and the most powerful supercomputer in Russia, which specifically serves, among others, the “Satan” nuclear fleet. There could be no clearer illustration of the profound interdependence of the theology and technology of hell.

Sharov’s books, which trace the sources of his country’s satanodicy, may serve as an ironic and grotesque commentary on “Satan’s” missiles. As if to say to readers: here is Russia’s gift to you, while from the novels you can learn just why it is that Russia loves you so much and wants the end to come so soon.

You’ve forgotten such a thing exists –
a love that burns and kills!…

We love flesh – its taste, its colour,
its stifling, deathly smell…
Are we to blame if your bones crunch
in our heavy, tender clutches?

This “Scythian” love note, which Alexander Blok addressed to the world in 1918, was continued and completed precisely a hundred years later in Tsarstvo Agamemnona. Sharov’s narrator sets out a sectarian world view that, he claims, has survived even the deaths of its teachers and followers in the Gulag. “The Antichrist – he is here already… which means that the Promised Land itself, our land with all it has contained and contains, has given itself up to Satan and become an unclean kingdom.” By such reasoning, it is out of love for “our” brothers, for all humanity, that “we” must save this kingdom from itself. This logic, Sharov shows, is rooted in the very nature of schism, which is splitting the “Russian world” from the rest of the world and which, in the name of “salvation”, burns and kills.

Translated by Oliver Ready

Mikhail Epstein is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University and the author, most recently, of Ideas Against Ideocracy: Non-Marxist thought of the late Soviet period (1953–1991)2022

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