Review: Fiction and reality in Putin’s Russia

The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli. Published by Pushkin Press, 2024, £16.99

The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli Published by Pushkin Press, 2024, £16.99. Reviewed by Clare Doyle

On April 5 Vladimir Putin was ‘elected’ as president of Russia for a fifth six-year term. One or two other candidates were on the list, but by the time the election was held, Putin’s nearest rival, Alexei Navalny, was dead and an anti-war candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, had been disqualified for allegedly being nominated by ‘dead souls’, like those in the famous Gogol novel of that name.

All other expressions of opposition to the war, let alone for genuine democracy and socialist change, are ruthlessly crushed. In an atmosphere where even the moderate left academic, Boris Kagarlitsky, has been locked up in prison for five years, the prospect of another two terms for Vladimir Putin looms large. If he survives, he will have lasted longer even than the dictator, Stalin. Such is Putin’s authoritarianism that he has come to be known in some circles as ‘The Tsar’.

Soon after the beginning of Putin’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine, an unusual novel appeared called The Wizard of the Kremlin. The main character is a certain Vadim Baranov – fictional chief confidant and adviser to ‘the tsar’ – believed to be modeled most closely on Vladislav Surkov. The  BBC documentary film-maker, Adam Curtis, credits Surkov’s blend of theatre and politics with keeping Putin in power since 2000. 

In an interview carried in the Financial Times, Henry Foy wrote, “Surkov is a founding father of Putinism, and one of its key enablers”. He was Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration from 1999 to 2011. He was often viewed as the main ideologist of the Kremlin – known variously as the ‘Grey Cardinal’ and ‘Putin’s Rasputin’ among other titles. 

Written in French by an Italian author (at one time adviser to Matteo Renzi when in government), The Wizard of the Kremlin rapidly became a best-seller in France and has already been translated into more than 30 languages. This year saw it published in English. It follows the ‘colourful’ life of Baranov who becomes the right-hand man of Putin during the tumultuous period of the 1990s and up to what appears to be almost the present day. Oligarchs and gangsters come and go – Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, even the now deceased Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin – some almost as friends, others as elements to be eliminated.

Giuliano da Empoli, as a novelist and not a historian, returns on several occasions to Baranov’s troubled love life and the infidelities of his mistress.  But he ends the story with a scene of stark tranquility. This apparently heartless central character of the drama is now totally absorbed in, and delighted by, a three-year-old daughter he has fathered with the femme fatale of his life, now living with both of them far away from the Tsar and the Kremlin.

The novelist, with the aim of shocking his reader, manages to give the impression that there really could have been a character like Baranov in the Kremlin. It was he who had, supposedly, convinced Putin to leave the seclusion of the Lubianka KGB headquarters and take on the top post where he could be, quite cynically, manipulated by this ‘Wizard’. Baranov would become a sinister version of the adviser to the British prime minister in the TV programme ‘Yes Minister!’ – convincing the leader that the ideas suggested to him are his very own!

Many of the manoeuvres and bloody schemes carried through by Putin in the wake of Yeltsin’s chaotic rule and the brutal ‘transition to the market’ are there in the pages of the book. There is the freezing out and death in Britain of Berezovsky, the imprisonment and exile of the richest oligarch, Khodorkovsky, the assassination of whistleblowers and journalists like Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, and the blowing up of apartments in Moscow as the causus belli for further war and carnage in Chechnya.

There is a very plausible ‘discussion’ between Putin and his fictional adviser on how to stage the biggest and best winter Olympics in Sochi – a run-down tourist resort on the Black Sea.  There is the visit with ‘the tsar’ to an old friend in Saint Petersburg who runs an excellent restaurant and a few other ‘enterprises’ as well.  Baranov is told a few home truths by Prigozhin as he is escorted round the most opulent, oligarch-ridden area of Kamenny Island.

Da Empoli’s picture of Putin also seems to fit in with reality.  He describes a keep fit fanatic – someone without his predecessor’s (literally) fatal addiction to drink. He is often found alone in the vast halls of the Kremlin (apart from a devoted Labrador) and brooking no opposition from any quarter. The elongated table for interviews with visiting heads of state or their representatives indicates a certain paranoia (more than one Tsar has been assassinated in the Kremlin!).

A recent BBC2 series – Putin vs the West: At War – confirms the picture of a lone president with only fearful and obedient lackeys around him. It also portrays a cold-hearted indifference to suffering when the city of Mariupol is razed to the ground like Grozny in Chechnya.

As the killing in Ukraine goes on, and Putin appears unassailable as president, the popularity of this book is understandable. It is, as it says on the cover, a ‘page-turner’. If anything, the author is a bit too enamoured of ‘the best Russian tradition’ – constantly juxtaposing thoughts or things that actually happen with their immediate opposite. The author also aims to shock the reader with gruesome descriptions of violent events, some cynical portrayals of human (‘love’) relationships and a generous scattering of expletives.

Da Empoli’s ‘analysis’ of Russian history – of the October revolution and relations between its leaders and what happened under Stalin (and his successors) – is by no means Trotskyist or even Marxist in the vaguest of ways. He seems to be enamoured of the writer and one-time Bolshevik, Yevgeni Zamyatin, and his dystopian novel ‘We’.

The main character in Da Empoli’s book, Baranov, at one point looks towards Eduard Limonov – leader of the ‘New Bolsheviks’ who came onto the scene as the USSR broke up. This group was by no means Bolshevik, but Baranov sees them as suggesting “a different route”.

The Wizard of the Kremlin is annoying for a Marxist to read (as are the over plentiful expletives!). But the exaggerations and drama of events described in this book – many of them true, others fictional – may explain its worldwide popularity.

However, for a reader who lived in Putin’s home city (as I did) during the tumultuous and bloody years of the ‘transition to the market’ and the collapse of the Soviet Union, an author who makes entertainment out of the tragedy that befell so many millions in Russia and the former Republics, not least Ukraine, is intriguing but not attractive. See what you think.

The over-riding concern of socialists is to explain the past in terms of the struggle between the classes and to gather the forces that can fight for a new world – a socialist world.