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In the harsh winter of 1895, Tolstoy wrote a story called “Master and Man,” which tells of a merchant named Brekhunov who, on a day that threatens a blizzard, orders his servant Nikita to take him to purchase a grove from a fellow landowner before a rival bidder can beat him to it:

Sometimes they got onto a winter-rye field, or a fallow field on which they could see stalks of wormwood, and straws sticking up through the snow and swaying in the wind; sometimes they came onto deep and even white snow, above which nothing was to be seen.

St. Petersburg, Russia © Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos.

St. Petersburg, Russia © Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos.

After various troubles with the horse and sledge, master and man (Tolstoy’s “robotnik” is actually closer to “worker”) become lost. With Nikita suffering from hypothermia, they stop to get their bearings: “The thought that he might, and very probably would, die that night occurred to [Nikita], but did not seem particularly unpleasant or dreadful.” Brekhunov takes the reins, abandons Nikita, and rides on, only to get turned around in concentric circles and return, by chance, divine or otherwise, to the site of his suffering retainer, splayed prone on the wastes and barely conscious. As much to forestall his terror as to repent of his guilt, Brekhunov lies atop Nikita’s body, to warm as much as to be warmed. The next morning, Brekhunov is “a frozen carcass,” but Nikita has survived, and is rescued by peasants from a nearby estate, who take him to the hospital, where three of his toes are amputated — one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost, presumably.

Vladimir Sorokin, the translatosphere’s favorite contemporary Russian novelist, writes about, and with the pitilessness of, his country’s unremitting cold. In his first novel, The Queue (1985), Russia appears as an interminable line of interchangeable comrades, all waiting out in the gusts for a government office to open, or for ration coupons, or for theater tickets, or, most likely, for nothing at all. In his most famous set of novels, the Ice trilogy (2002–5), the impact of a meteorite in Siberia brings on the Bolshevik Revolution and, as if in aftershock, a near-futuristic rapture. His new novel, The Blizzard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23), published in Russian in 2010, is a crazed fantasia on Tolstoy’s tale, with all the moralizing ingeniously whited out.

Sorokin’s storm descends on an absurdist 1895 equipped with smartphones and beset by “the Bolivian plague”: in the village of Dolgoye, corpses are crawling out of cemeteries, while the living are becoming zombies who desecrate churches. Sorokin’s master is Platon Ilich Garin, a district doctor who possesses a vaccine. The man is Crouper, who possesses a sleigh and fifty miniature horses. The weather is predictable: “flakes the size of oats.” Garin is a classic incarnation of the prerevolutionary liberal spirit, a cultured, chain-smoking, pince-nez’d neurotic who is utterly devoted to making the hazardous winter’s journey to relieve the afflicted, on the condition that a comfy izba, with a comfy bed (and perhaps a miller’s wenchy wife “to plow”), may be found en route. Crouper, for his part, is a classic Russian drunk, though vodka is the least of the substances he encounters. There’s Vishnevsky Ointment+Protogen 17W, which can bind wounds and even a shattered sleigh runner, and Metalgin, which Garin uses to resuscitate a comatose Vitaminder — Sorokin’s term for a tribe of Kazakh junkies who roam on snowmobiles dealing their own vaporizable product in a trinity of strains: cube, sphere, pyramid. The doctor indulges in the lattermost, and the hallucinations he experiences are worthy of a Dostoevsky character coming to Christ by way of crystal meth.

This trip within the trip turns Garin into an addict, though Crouper seems none the wiser and cheerily patters on in an ersatz Cockney that is translator Jamey Gambrell’s shrewd homage to Constance Garnett: “No one’d believe it, if’n we told ’em, yur ’onor.” As the twosome, with their midget roans, approach the dead souls of Dolgoye — which in Russian means “long” — so does the reader approach the etiology of that “blasted epidemic, brought to Russia by some swine from a far-off, godforsaken, goddamned Bolivia.” Which is to say, the snow that swirls on nearly every page has become the organic version of not a few benumbing synthetic powders — sometimes slowing the travelers like heroin, sometimes speeding them like cocaine, the analgesic of choice for both the pre- and post-Soviet bourgeoisie. Sorokin’s ending swerves from Tolstoy’s, by refusing the high road of didactic idealism for the low road of reality: the workingman is the one who dies, while the drug-addled master of the culture class is rescued by peasants from China.

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