Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigori Chkhartishvili, Russia’s best-known writer of detective and historical fiction. Akunin is an expert on Japanese literature (he’s editor-in-chief of the 20-volume Anthology of Japanese Literature). He is also a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Akunin spoke out in 2014 against the annexation of Crimea, and has lived in self-imposed exile since. The 63-year-old writer resides today in France. He recently spoke with TAI editor-in-chief Jeffrey Gedmin and Le Figaro correspondent Laure Mandeville.
Laure Mandeville and Jeff Gedmin for TAI: You are known as Russia’s finest crime fiction writer. Your roots are Georgian and Jewish, and while you lived in Moscow from 1958 to 2014, you have lived abroad the past five years. What led you to leave Russia? With so much talk these days about identity, how do you see and understand yourself? Are you Russian?
Boris Akunin: I left Russia in 2014, when things started moving toward dictatorship for life for Vladimir Putin. This was a nauseating process to watch, and even more so to live inside of. I haven’t been in my country for five years and I won’t go there until things start to change. Am I Russian? I am me. I cannot describe myself in a more exact and adequate manner. I am definitely a part of Russian culture—or rather Russian culture is a part of me. Like most people who grew up in a vast multi-ethnic megalopolis, I do not have an ethnic feeling. A Muscovite is like a Londoner, a Parisian, a New Yorker. We are all children of asphalt, of human multitudes, and of noise.
TAI: You became an expert on Japanese language and culture, and Japanese theater and literature have been major influences for you. Why Japan? How did this interest come about?
BA: I owe a lot to Japan. It taught me two important things, and at the right age, when I was a student. First, that “how” means more than “what for.” And second, that real beauty often hides in simple things.
TAI: You’re a writer, but also a political creature. You condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Why exactly? Was this a political awakening for you? At what point did you see Russia moving in the wrong direction?
BA: Oh, I never fell asleep and I never hid from the public what I thought of Putin’s regime. But the general post-imperial hysteria in 2014 was too much for me. I got up and left.
TAI: Could you actually live in Russia again? Has it become a dangerous place for you personally?
BA: Dangerous? No. Just depressing. I cannot write books when I am depressed. That’s possibly the main reason for my expatriation.
TAI: Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is an arguably freer place. What challenges do writers, intellectuals, and artists face today? Is there censorship? Self-censorship?
BA: Depends on what you do. Writers are more or less free. Thank God, Putin doesn’t read books and doesn’t think that literature has any importance. So in publishing there is no censorship. Press, especially television, is different. The internet too has been under increasing pressure. And any creative activity that needs financing—film, theatre, big-scale arts—is very much dependent on the state. People have to censor themselves; otherwise they cannot work. And of course many artists turn into conformists. I am lucky to be a writer. All I need is paper and pen—sorry, computer and cartridge!
TAI: Vladimir Putin seems to be popular. Or is he? How do ordinary Russians see Putin today? How do intellectuals and writers think about Putin?
BA: Everybody I know personally hates him and mocks him. It’s more or less how all the Americans I know see Trump. But the majority of Russians look at Putin differently. Some genuinely love him, but those are not numerous. The majority just tolerates him. If the man disappeared today there wouldn’t be many tears shed, and soon he’d be forgotten.
TAI: How would you define Putin’s Russia? What kind of political animal is it?
BA: I think that Putin’s Russia is conservative and scared of change. That’s the principal feature. Putin’s popular support is based on this fear. Life under Putin ain’t great, people think, but who knows, maybe it will become worse without him. All the resources of the state propaganda machine work for this purpose. Is modern Russia so much different from its earlier incarnations? I don’t think so. It still is a hyper-centralized system where all important decisions are made at the center. Such a system is chemically incompatible with democracy. The new element is that capitalism works, a lot of people have learned to provide for themselves, and now we have a considerable middle class.
TAI: If Putin were to vanish, would the roots of Putinism disappear? Is there by now a system in place that would post-date Putin’s rule?
BA: It’s not Putinism. It’s a 500-year-old state system which relies on the monopoly of executive power and on hyper-centralism. I tend to think that any new leader or a new political force, even initially democratic, would after a while recreate the same matrix—unless the system is changed at the very foundation.
TAI: You recently gave a talk at the Tocqueville Conversations conference in Normandy on the importance of the Tatar-Mongolian tradition in understanding the historical trap in which Russia seems to find itself. Can you explain exactly what you have in mind? Is Russia condemned to autocracy?
BA: I am writing a multi-volume “History of the Russian State.” I decided to go the very roots of my country to perhaps find answers why every attempt at building a freer society has always ended in more unfreedom. And I think that I found the answer. When the great ruler Ivan III (1462–1505), the founder of the Russian state, was laying down the foundation of the future he used the best historical template he knew—that of the great Ghengisian empire. The amazing expansion of medieval Mongolia could be achieved because that system was amazingly effective. There were four main pillars on which that vast state stood, and Ivan faithfully recreated them: hyper-centralization; sacredness of the monarch; the submission of laws to the monarch’s will; and the supremacy of state interest over private interest. It was, probably the only state model that could hold together an empire stretching through half of Europe and half of Asia. This structure outlived its usefulness at least 200 years ago, but no real effort at changing the “four pillars” has ever been made. They’ve tried again and again, but when any of the pillars weakened, the country immediately started to fall apart: in 1905, in 1917, in 1991. So each time those “eternal” pillars had to be reconstructed. Now, in the 21st century, we again have the Great Khan who is sacred, who makes all the decisions by himself, who is above the law and who says now that liberalism is dead.
What Russia needs to do in order to break from this vicious circle is to decentralize, to became a real federation or maybe even a confederation. But this is a long conversation. I wrote a novel, a utopia about the federalized Russia of the future. It’s called Happy Russia. Sounds like an oxymoron today.
TAI: In an attempt to assert a “special path” for Russia, the current authorities have encouraged a massive reinterpretation and rewriting of Russian and Soviet history, enhancing Stalin’s “positive role,” rehabilitating events like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Are you worried by this trend?
BA: Absolutely not. In Soviet times history books were even worse. We students were bored by them and did not believe a word. The same will happen again.
TAI: How can Europe and the United States influence developments inside Russia, if we want to see Russia strong, pluralistic, and more democratic in spirit?
BA: Leave Russia to its own destiny. It is a country which needs to grow up, to make some difficult choices by itself. What the West can do and, I think, should do is to help Ukraine, a new country, a young democracy, still unstable and very vulnerable. If democracy in Ukraine wins, it would be a huge boost to the democratic movement in Russia. For us Ukraine is a sort of alternative Russia—only without the burden of imperialist nostalgia and free to elect its leaders. But it is a poor and disorganized country. Russians look at this and tell themselves: democracy is no good. To put it very simply: if Ukrainians under democracy start to live better than Russians, Russia will turn in that direction too. So help us by helping them.
TAI: There is a constant debate in the West about how we “lost” Russia and were not up to the challenge of helping the country out of the shambles of communism. What do you think of this debate? What were and are our mistakes, in respect to Russia?
BA: I do not look at it that way. I did not expect anything from the West. You don’t owe us anything. All the mistakes made were ours. We are paying for them and will pay more. I believe that the blame lies with my generation, with the intelligentsia. In the 1990s, instead of shunning politics, because it’s dirty and kitsch, instead of being immersed in our personal success stories, we should have been defending democracy. By the time we woke up it was too late. So, what am I now? A writer who made it to the bestseller list, and then lost his country.
TAI: The supporters of Putin constantly accuse those who criticize the current political regime of being Russophobes. What do you say?
BA: I think that the main engine of Russophobia in today’s world is Putin. Due to his actions Russia has become ostracized, ridiculed, despised.
TAI: What does the West represent for Russia? Are we a compass or an anti-compass? Or both?
BA: Of course you are a compass. What else can we look to? The East? No one wants to live like in China.
TAI: There is a crisis across the West today. There is doubt about elites, about mainstream parties, and in some circles basic questions about the health of democratic institutions and culture. How do you see all this? What do you see as the roots of the problem?
BA: I think that democracy has reached a certain level and cannot go further. Like a giraffe who grew up and reached the ceiling with its head. Now is the time to break into the next stage. New forms and new words have to be discovered. The main threat to Western democracy today, I think, is the inability of the intellectual elite to communicate adequately with the electorate. Mass media, public intellectuals, liberal politicians have become too arrogant, too stuck within their own milieu. They speak and write a lot, but Trump with his Twitter, or Erdogan with his speeches, or Putin with his patriotic blah-blah-blah, or irresponsible loudmouthed populists in France and the UK, in Poland and Hungary, they sell their merchandise to the public in a much more effective way. So we wake up one morning and gasp: “What?! Brexit? How is that even possible?! Didn’t we persuade each other that this is absurd and will never happen? Who is the president? Trump !? Am I dreaming?” We must become better salesmen of human dignity, of freedom of choice, of tolerance, of social and international empathy.
TAI: Vladimir Putin has been creating strong connections with ultra-right and traditional Right parties, pushing the idea that liberalism is a “dead ideology” and the West a disqualified concept. What is his goal?
BA: To make himself more important internationally. He wants to be someone who has to be reckoned with. He wants to be respected. If not respected, then feared. Don’t look for any sophisticated goals here.
TAI: You have preferred historical settings throughout your writing career. Why is that?
BA: Because all the witnesses have died. I can fictionalize as much as I like. Besides, I have a historical education and all my life I have read mostly books on history.
TAI: Is fiction entertainment? Is history a hobby? Can we learn something from these things, something that can be relevant to our lives today?
BA: It depends on the fiction. A great novel that is read at the right moment in your life can transform you. And reading fiction is the only opportunity a human has of getting into the skin of another person, of becoming someone else. Neither cinema nor theatre makes this possible. As for history—well, knowing it well is a must for any normal person. I honestly do not understand how one can live without caring about all the generations who were here previously, about their mistakes, their victories, about who left us with this civilization, so awful and so beautiful.
TAI: You must have younger people asking you how one becomes a writer. What advice do you offer?
BA: Nowadays I usually say: “Start writing literary texts on your blog or on Facebook. See if people want to read it or not. When and if you have at least 1,000 followers, come and ask me again.”