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France Contemplates the Bear

A novel presenting Putin’s worldview sympathetically has taken France by storm.

(FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past year there has been an unusual literary rebellion in France. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the country’s mainstream TV news shows and newspapers have been as incurious as their American counterparts about the war’s causes and vicissitudes. There have been exceptions—particularly from former Socialist foreign minister Hubert Védrine and former conservative presidential aide Henri Guaino on the pages of Le Figaro—but in general, the French reading public has been asked to content itself with a geostrategic explanation out of Mother Goose: Vladimir Putin, tired of acting as the secret puppeteer of all political dissent in Western Europe and the United States, decided to blow up a neighboring country out of sheer evil. Or nostalgia for the Russia of Catherine the Great, or the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin. Russia’s casus belli—the threat from NATO’s militarization of Ukraine—goes unmentioned. It doesn’t even merit a sneer.

The French seem content with this caricature; Putin enjoys an 11 percent approval rating there. But perhaps appearances deceive. Six weeks after the invasion, the publisher Gallimard brought out, under its prestigious NRF imprint, a first novel by the Franco-Italian political adviser and essayist Giuliano da Empoli. Le Mage du Kremlin (“The Wizard of the Kremlin”) is the first-person narrative of Vadim Baranov, a sharp-witted and sensitive Russian intellectual fed up with the way his country has been insulted, humiliated, and ripped off since the fall of Communism. Not always wholly convinced that Putin is the man to restore the country to its proper place in the world, Baranov is nonetheless eager to help. He becomes Putin’s spin doctor and a versatile kind of political fixer, winning our sympathy as he falls in love, makes his way in cutthroat Moscow, and reflects on the double-edged sword of Western modernity. Laid out by such a character, his boss’s view of the world comes off as sometimes cynical, frequently courageous, always rational.