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…