Boris Akunin: Russia's Dissident Detective Novelist
Grigory Chkhartishvili has his best ideas in the morning. When he first wakes up, the fifty-six-year-old writer—who, under the pseudonym Boris Akunin, is one of Russia’s most widely read contemporary authors—might think of a new predicament in which to ensnare his popular hero, Erast Fandorin, the dashing nineteenth-century detective who can see into people’s souls and always wins at games of chance. (Locked in a cellar by a pint-sized lord of Moscow’s criminal underworld known as “Little Misha”? Bested in a ship’s salon by a pregnant French psychopath posing as a gutbürgerlich Swiss questing for a trove of priceless Indian emeralds? Tricked by the butler out of winning the heart of Romanov princess Xenia?)
Before his first cup of coffee, Akunin might hit on a solution to one of these predicaments (An arsenal of traditional Japanese weapons hidden in the crutches of Fandorin’s impeccable beggar disguise; a very ugly grandfather clock that falls on the pregnant psychopath just as she pulls the trigger, causing her to miss, but not miscarry; alas, to the last, there is no solution. Fandorin loses the princess).
The Fandorin novels, which first appeared in 1998, have sold thirteen million copies in Russia. They’ve been adapted for television and film, and have made their author well known and wealthy. The books are delightful romps through a stylized late nineteenth century—so much fun that one readily forgives the sometimes harebrained plot twists that, following closely one on another, are part of what make them so hard to put down. One Russian magazine editor wrote that he refuses to read any more Fandorin novels, likening the experience to being hooked to a catheter: once you open a book, you have no choice but to ingest the whole thing, immediately.
But in recent months—ever since the novelist became a driving force in the anti-Putin protests—his early-morning planning might well concern politics rather than art.
With his metal-rimmed glasses and introvert’s posture—shoulders up, head forward— Akunin might, in the hands of a caricaturist, look very much Kenneth Grahame’s sympathetic Mole; while not an Adonis like Fandorin, Akunin does share his hero’s “piercing” blue gaze. In the deep-blue study in his Old Moscow apartment, not far from the Kremlin, he recently described to me his dizzying and unexpected entry into political life.
When it was announced last fall that Putin would resume the Presidency, Akunin thought it was finally time for him to emigrate from Russia: the country now truly belonged to Putin, and there was no place for the intelligentsia. But with the street protests that followed the December 4th parliamentary elections, his feelings changed. From his house in Brittany, he drove to Paris and bought a ticket for the next flight to Moscow. At the airport, he wrote on his blog that he was on his way home, and his political career began. The next day, he was one of the first—and some say, best—speakers at the December 10th rally on Bolotnaya Square, possessed of a soft-spoken moral authority. “He is not a professional politician,” said Yuri Saprykin, a journalist and member of the winter protests’ organizing committee. “He’s a person who didn’t look for power, or a place in the political system. He is moved by his moral values, and everybody sees that.”
In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”
The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…
In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.
In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.
When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-So…
One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us …