A decade ago, Zakhar Prilepin was a Russian extremist, and the political party he belonged to was banned. These days he is the mainstream. Prilepin has not changed. Vladimir Putin has.
When Putin’s pet project, the Kerch bridge connecting Russia to Crimea, was bombed and partially destroyed in October, the Russian political hardliner and Ukraine war veteran Prilepin said: “This gives us a chance. Mobilisation in all spheres should finally begin. In all spheres, and I am not only talking about soldiers going to the front.” Eleven days later, Putin announced martial law in the occupied territories of Ukraine and in those Russian areas bordering them.
I met Zakhar Prilepin about thirteen years ago, at a literary event in Bucharest, with his Russian publisher. He had written a prizewinning novel and a book of stories based on his service in Chechnya with OMON, the interior ministry special forces, in 1996 and 1999. A big shaven-haired man in his mid-thirties, somewhat gruff in manner, he had fond memories of the military; his comrades were the finest men he had ever known. He was billed as an anti-Putin activist, though the name of his party set no bells ringing with me at the time. Asked, during a question-and-answer session, about the ever-tightening censorship of Putin’s Russia, Prilepin replied that literature was still uncensored because its power to influence public opinion was negligible; and anyway, Putin didn’t read. That drew a laugh from the audience.
Presented with a writer who was “Anti-Putin activist”, I blandly assumed that Prilepin’s activism was based on the general liberal principles that people who attend literary events tend to share. As though history were not full of writers who were also extremists.
“Let’s go drink,” he announced at one point, losing interest in the panel discussion. His translator did not translate this exclamation.
I liked one of Prilepin’s stories about the war in Chechnya and he agreed to let me use it in an anthology I was putting together at the time for the Stinging Fly Press. The story was called “The Killer and his Little Friend”. I translated it myself; it was published. In the years since, several of Prilepin’s novels were translated into English, but I never had contact with him again.
And then, more recently, his name started popping up in news reports, usually described as a “hardliner”, and a quick search on the web revealed an interesting story.
Putin, as it turns out, had not been hard-core enough for Prilepin a decade ago. Back then, Prilepin was a member of the banned National Bolshevik Party, founded in the early nineties by, among others, Aleksandr Dugin, one of the most radical voices recently calling for the total destruction of the Ukrainian state. The “Nazbols”, as their pageantry suggested (black and red, hammer and sickle combined with a Third-Reich-style double-headed eagle), believed there was nothing wrong with communism a bit of fascism couldn’t put right. Banned by the courts, they were never permitted to compete electorally.
Dugin left the National Bolsheviks in the late nineties, believing it was too Bolshevik, not enough nationalist. Another founder, Eduard Limonov, was imprisoned from 2001 to 2003 for purchasing weapons and plotting to overthrow the state. Branches were established in Ukraine and the Baltic states among ethnic Russians. The Nazbols in eastern Ukraine formed militias in 2014 as part of the pro-Russian insurgency. In 2017, Prilepin served in one such battalion; he boasted of his sub-unit’s success in killing Ukrainians. He is wanted in Ukraine on terrorism charges.
By 2018, following the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, Prilepin decided Putin had come around to his way of thinking; he joined the All-Russia People’s Front, a political grouping founded by Putin that serves as a tolerated semi-opposition to his ruling United Russia Party. He was elected to the Duma. His party affiliations have evolved since then, and he has founded his own faction, “For Truth”, within the fold of the pro-Kremlin “opposition”. With Russia’s liberal opposition assassinated, imprisoned and forced into exile, Putin has gradually co-opted the neo-Nazis who once wanted armed insurrection against him. Dugin has for some years been cited as Putin’s ideologue. And Prilepin, now a party leader, no longer leads battalions in Ukraine; he is more important influencing political opinion at home and calling for Russia’s transformation into a machine for fighting a never-ending war. His fate is now tied to Putin’s.
Putin has declared his intention to de-Nazify Ukraine, and in this has the full support of the neo-Nazis who once wanted to overthrow him.
I still think Zakhar Prilepin is a good writer and do not regret translating that terse, violent story, “The Killer and his Little Friend”, in which the narrator, a member of a special forces brigade in the Chechen War, admires a comrade for his capacity to be cheerful and courageous – “the only thing about men I find appealing”. This comrade, “the Killer” in the story, is not satisfied with combat. Central to the story is an episode where he shoots a prisoner he claims has tried to escape.
And I think about the title, “The Killer and his Little Friend”, how it could refer to the relationship today between Prilepin and Putin. Though I am not sure who is the killer and who the little friend.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh has published over fifty short stories; his most recent collection is Trouble, from the Stinging Fly Press. He lives in Bucharest.