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.”
A review by Virginia Woolf of Leo Tolstoy’s The Cossacks and Other Tales of the Caucasus (translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude), published in the TLS of February 1, 1917.
It is pleasant to welcome Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks” and other tales of the Caucasus to the World Classics. “The greatest of Russia’s writers,” say Mr. and Mrs. Maude in their introduction. And when we read or re-read these stories, how can we deny Tolstoy’s right to the title ? Of late years both Dostoevsky and Tchekov have become famous in England, so that there has certainly been less discussion, and perhaps less reading of Tolstoy himself. Coming back to him after an interval the shock of his genius seems to us quite surprising ; in his own line it is hard to imagine that he can ever be surpassed. For an English reader proud of the fiction of this country there is even something humiliating in the comparison between such a story as “The Cossacks,” published in 1863, and the novels which were being written at about …