France Contemplates the Bear
A novel presenting Putin’s worldview sympathetically has taken France by storm.
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.
The book has divided France’s intellectuals. Very broadly speaking, Russophiles (like the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse) loved it; Russophobes (like the Sovietologist Françoise Thom) hated it. But French readers, presumably skeptical about Putin, have not been so divided. Not since Michel Houellebecq’s Submission have they gone into such a swoon over a serious novel.
Le Mage du Kremlin hit number one on the best-seller lists. Last October it won the prize for top novel from the Académie Française. Its failure to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, became a national scandal. When da Empoli was edged out by Brigitte Giraud’s romantic autobiography Vivre Vite (“Live Fast”) on a tiebreaker vote, the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, who had backed da Empoli along with four other members of the Goncourt jury, denounced the choice. Already translated into 30 languages, the book will be published in the United States in October.
No follower of da Empoli’s political and journalistic career would mistake him for one of Putin’s defenders. He is as establishment as they get. His father, Antonio da Empoli, was a top economic adviser to Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi and survived a shooting by members of the Red Brigade in 1986. Giuliano became an aide to the mayor of Florence (and future Italian prime minister) Matteo Renzi, who did for the Italian center-left what Bill and Hillary Clinton did for Democrats in the United States, transforming a party of workers into into a party of lawyers and managers. In his Renzi years, da Empoli founded Volta, a Milan-based think tank that promotes “progressive governance.” It is still up and running.
Da Empoli has written a dozen books, most in Italian, a couple in French, none of them translated into English until now. He has focused on the savvy modern technicians who make troglodytic populist movements palatable to those who, in his view, ought to know better. In La Rabbia e l’algoritmo (“The Rage and the Algorithm”), Italy’s left-populist Five Star Movement appears less as a political party than as a ladler-out of search-engine-optimized ideological chum to Italy’s internet surfers. In Les ingénieurs du chaos (“The Engineers of Chaos”) he profiles the marketers of populism behind Donald Trump, the Italian conservative Matteo Salvini, Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán, and Brexit.
There are plenty of European writers who whine about populism and snigger at its followers. But there is a difference between them and da Empoli that makes his writing on the subject uniquely informative. Just as Heinrich Mann saw Napoleon as a cannonball fired by the French revolution, da Empoli calls Italian populism “a cannonball fired by Tangentopoli”—the massive bribery scandal that led to the collapse of Italy’s party system in the early 1990s and brought Silvio Berlusconi to power. Since the Cold War, in fact, all Western countries have seen similar failures, similar revelations, similar uprisings. In other words, da Empoli never doubts that populism has genuine grievances. It is not about nothing. Neither is Putinism.
The inspiration for Vadim Baranov is a real person: Vladislav Surkov, born 1964, often called “Putin’s Rasputin” or “the Gray Cardinal.” He, too, had literary ambitions, publishing novels, essays, poems, and even rock lyrics. He came to Putin after a stint working for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most rapacious and politically savvy oligarch, whom Putin would later arrest. Surkov and Putin parted ways in 2020. Up until then, Surkov was clearly doing a variety of important jobs, though it was not always clear what they were. Philip Short, Putin’s most recent biographer, calls Surkov an “ideologist.”
Of Chechen background, born Aslambek Dudayev in the North Caucasus, he was said to manage Putin’s relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov, strongman of Chechnya. He is credited with coining the term “sovereign democracy,” which Russians understand to mean a democracy free from Western meddling. Western media use the term to describe a system in which national interests guide elections rather than vice versa. Surkov has been credited with magical feats of worldwide fake-news creation. Two months into the Trump presidency, Vanity Fair ran an article, almost devoid of factual support, beneath the subhead: “Is the Trump administration using a sophisticated propaganda model developed by Vladimir Putin and his adviser Vladislav Surkov?”
An anglophone cosmopolitan whom Western elites might recognize as one of their own, who has nonetheless been on intimate terms with Putin and had access to his strategic thinking—the fact that there exists such a person as Surkov is clearly what inspired da Empoli’s novel. But Baranov the protagonist is not Surkov. He is the grandson of a hunting nobleman who somehow managed to survive the Stalin years with his library and his aristocratic arrogance intact. In the 1960s and ’70s Baranov’s father became a literary apparatchik, a regime-friendly intellectual rewarded for his obedience with the kremlyovka (a hamper of fine foods prepared for top functionaries) and the vertushka (a special telephone with a four-digit number, enabling the 9,999 top comrades in the Soviet Union to communicate among themselves … and the regime to listen in on them as they did).
Thus begins the story that, in the book’s third chapter, Baranov begins narrating to a Western visitor who shares his fascination with the early 20th century dissident writer Evgeny Zamyatin.
Baranov, born in the 1960s, was bred for the world of Communism and, after 1989, forced to make his way in the world of capitalism. “There would be a guy who used to show up to meetings on his grandfather’s bicycle,” Baranov explains to his Western visitor, “and the next day you’d see him arrive in an armored Bentley surrounded by bodyguards.” You could call this transition exciting, but it was dizzying, too. Baranov’s literary father died humiliated and forgotten.
Baranov came to think that the same fate might await literature itself, doomed to matter less and less as money was valued more and more. He and his girlfriend, a mercurial beauty named Ksenia, at first enjoyed their bohemian existence in a humble apartment. “With our American books and our connections in Berlin, we felt we were part of the avant-garde, but we were just the last light from a dead star, from the world of our parents, parents whom we’d mocked for their cowardice, but who had at least given us a passion for books and ideas, and interminable discussions about one and the other.”
Baranov has a friend, Mikhail, who belongs to the new world, with its passion for money. He loves the company of this bohemian couple and admires their independence and their conversation. He takes them for rides in his limousine. He invites them to Georgian restaurants and gallery openings. One night, he even brings a sushi chef to their apartment to prepare them dinner. The relationship begins to change. “The readings, the concerts, the all-night discussions that had marked the first stage of our relationship had practically disappeared, giving way to activities with a higher monetary content, in which it was more and more difficult to keep my place.” It is a long time before it dawns on Baranov that Mikhail is interested in Ksenia, not in literary chitchat. A lot of the novel’s credibility flows out of this magnificently narrated account what is was like to be of falling-in-love age at the end of the twentieth century, as society took a turn for the materialistic—and not just in Russia.
Struggling to keep his place, Baranov becomes a producer for the oligarch Boris Berezovsky at ORT, Russia’s first private television network. Much of his work consists of providing Russian-language versions of the “barbarous and vulgar” material shown on American TV. “It is we who, in this phase, reshaped the collective imagination of the country,” Baranov recalls. It is a phantasmagoric world where a lot of business is transacted in nightclubs alongside prostitutes and gangsters, though this is maybe not as big a change as it looks. “Power has always been this way in Moscow,” Baranov explains. “It has never been detached from life.”
An ability to gin up and even create reality is, of course, valuable in a media-based democracy. Premier Boris Yeltsin’s circle was “a close-knit court of cronies covered in diamonds,” and in their company Berezovsky is a powerhouse. At one point he uses his network to help secure an election victory for Yeltsin by covering up a massive coronary the president suffers in mid-campaign. Baranov comes to see Berezovsky as “the real boss of Russia.”
That’s what Berezovsky thinks, too. He schemes to replace Yeltsin with a bland and simple-minded KGB apparatchik who will be easy to manipulate. “He looks the part,” he tells Baranov. “We’ll send him to our PR guys and he’ll come back sounding like the next Alexander Nevsky.” It is a fatal mistake for Berezovsky, because the KGB apparatchik turns out not to be as simple-minded as he looks. He turns out to be Vladimir Putin.
Baranov is captivated by Putin’s deadly serious promise to take Russia back from the armed gangsters who run it and to restore it to the place in the world it deserves. For the rest of the novel, he accompanies the man he comes to call “The Tsar” from adventure to adventure. Baranov describes the operation of political power with an aphoristic richness that evokes 16th century Florence more than 21st century Moscow. On the confidence of most leaders that one can ensure loyalty by surrounding oneself with mediocrities: “A serious error,” Baranov tells us. “They are always the first to betray you. The weak cannot permit themselves the luxury of sincerity.” On Putin’s leadership style: “The Tsar never says anything precisely,” Baranov explains, “but he never says anything for no reason, either.”
Da Empoli’s knowledge of Moscow is not noticeably insiderish. The novel’s plot is strung between episodes that will be familiar to anyone who has recently read a Putin biography, or even a magazine profile: Putin’s response as prime minister in 1999 to a journalist who asked why he had ordered the bombing of Grozny airport in Chechnya: “We will strike the terrorists wherever they are hiding. If they are in the airport, we’ll strike the airport. If they are going to the bathroom, we’ll, pardon my language, kill them in the shithouse.” (A response that, according to Baranov, caused Russians nervous about the Chechen war to breathe an “immense sigh of relief.”) Putin’s arrest of Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia, six weeks before the 2003 legislative elections. (“That would be an absolute taboo for you Westerners. Arrest a politician? Sure. But a billionaire? Unimaginable, because your society is founded on the principle that there is nothing superior to money.”) Putin inviting his Labrador retriever into a meeting with the dog-fearing Angela Merkel.
Nor does da Empoli have any kind of “fresh take” or new theory about Putin or Putinism. Indeed, his book assumes as reality a fairly standard Western idea that the main thing Russia’s secret services do is drip poison into the Western media in order to “divide us.” At one point Baranov says to Putin’s associate Evgeny Prigozhin:
We don’t need to convert anybody Evgeni, just to find out what they believe and convince them to believe it even more, you understand? We can give them news, true or false arguments—it doesn’t matter. Just make them mad. All of them. Madder and madder. Animal rights activists on one hand and hunters on the other. Black Power and white supremacy. Gay activists and neo-Nazis.
This picture of Russian meddling was conventional wisdom during the Trump administration, but the evidence for it is scant—$2,930 worth of Facebook ads.
The appeal of da Empoli’s book, then, is not that he has a better narrative about Russia. It is that he approaches the subject in a better spirit. Most of the Western press presents Russia as an all-purpose bogeyman—not so much to hold Russian leaders accountable for their misdeeds as to exonerate Western leaders for theirs.
The failure is particularly pronounced in France. French readers of L’Express in early April were treated to a bundle of stories on “Putin’s Secret War” and an interview in which the Social Democratic member of the European parliament Raphaël Glucksmann accused the Russian regime not only of violence against its adversaries abroad (certainly worthy of condemnation) but also of manipulating the U.S. presidential election, the French presidential election, and the Brexit referendum, not to mention turning Africans against the French military expedition force stationed in Mali, cyberattacks on French hospitals during the Covid pandemic,
and, last but not least, the energy war that attempts to make us dependent on Russia. The confrontation is everywhere at once.
We’re talking about a war [the interviewer says] without a military confrontation
Exactly. It’s somewhere between the two, which makes it hard to understand, because it erases the classical categories of analysis and thought.
A novelist cannot get away with such evasion. You cannot go blaming Russia for a decade’s worth of Western progressive setbacks, while rejecting any burden of proof for yourself by declaring that “the classical categories of analysis and thought” have been erased.
Da Empoli’s actual political opinions are probably not all that far from Glucksmann’s. But a good novel has an honesty about it that a political harangue lacks. This may seem paradoxical. A novel is “made up,” after all. But precisely because people can do strange and even perverse things in a novel, fictional actions must rest on a plausible idea of human nature. Where Glucksmann provides a cartoon, da Empoli shows that Russia’s present grievances with the West have been developing in complex ways over three decades.
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There are a lot of generalizations about Russia in Le Mage du Kremlin, but little bile. It is a welcome change to find a writer who can distinguish present crises from enduring realities. An article of faith for most Americans during the Cold War was that the West was engaged in a fight against Communism, not a fight against Russia. Indeed, the people managing U.S. Cold War policy were often Russophones in a particularly good position to measure the irreplaceable contribution that, say, Tolstoy and Repin and Blok had made to Western civilization, and to treasure the contributions that, say, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn were making even at the Cold War’s height.
Da Empoli shows that Russia’s present grievances with the West have been developing in complex ways over three decades.
Today many commentators talk not about understanding Russia but about dismantling it. It is as if there is a hydraulics of intolerance, such that all the crude bigotries that Western leaders claim to be suppressing wind up finding a new outlet somewhere. Da Empoli has warned throughout his career that the Western establishment’s preferred style of politics—two credentialed experts arguing over a growth curve—does not get at what the voters in a democracy are looking for. If elites don’t listen, their voters will look elsewhere, because there is something novelistic about politics to begin with. “Putin’s politics,” da Empoli said in an interview with Le Figaro last fall, “touches on the essentials: Life, death, honor, the sense of a nation, roots, etc. It is a powerful drug, and if the only thing the defenders of democracy have to put up against it is Power Point slides, they’re obviously going to be swept away.”