Lunch with the FT

March 1, 2013 6:25 pm

Lunch with the FT: Boris Akunin

Russia’s dissident detective novelist talks about oligarchs, angering the Kremlin and why even peaceful revolution could lead to Russia’s collapse
Illustration of Boris-Akunin by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

Boris Akunin is not just one of Russia’s most popular novelists: much to everyone’s surprise – including his own – he has emerged as a powerful voice in his country’s opposition movement. Better known as the creator of fantastical fiction, involving madcap adventures, murders, and mysteries, he has discovered that real life can sometimes be just as thrilling.

Akunin demonstrates that he is a somewhat singular Russian by arriving perfectly on time at the Mari Vanna restaurant in London’s Knightsbridge, his appearance as much that of the introvert intellectual as the improbable rabble-rouser. Courteous and softly spoken, sporting a trim white beard and round, rimless glasses, the 56-year-old gives the impression that his natural habitat is a library rather than a protest march, hardly someone likely to shake the Kremlin’s walls and provoke the wrath of President Vladimir Putin.

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After taking his place at our corner table, next to shelves stocked with a samovar, matryoshka dolls and jars of pickled gherkins, Akunin delicately inquires what I would like to discuss. First literature, then politics, I suggest, but, before all else, food. Expressing approval of the classic Russian dishes on the menu, he orders kholodets (boiled meat in aspic). I choose the wonderfully named seld pod shuboy, or herring “under a fur coat”, a salted fish enrobed by beetroot, potatoes and sour cream.

Akunin, whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, was born in post-Stalinist Georgia in 1956 to a Georgian soldier and a Russian literature teacher who moved to Moscow when he was a small boy. He began his professional career as a philologist and translator, developing a fascination with Japanese language and culture. But at the age of 40 he says he grew scared at the prospect of doing the same thing for the next 30 years and so he started to write the kind of novels that he and his wife would like to read: wry, fast-paced, intricately plotted detective stories that toy with the conventions of classical Russian literature, yet resonate with our own times. Like many writers who came to prominence during the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s, Akunin revealed a fascination with pre-revolutionary tsarist Russia. His pseudonym, B. Akunin, was a play on the name of Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th-century anarchist. “The style I used at the beginning was anarchistic. Russian literature was either very high or low. I mixed literature with entertainment.”

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He has since written 50 books in 15 years, selling about 30m copies in Russia and abroad. His success has turned him into a literary celebrity and a wealthy man, with four homes in Russia and France. At his peak, he was rattling off a new book every six weeks but the pace of writing has recently slowed. “It is a bit like discovering oil. At first it is close to the surface but now I am drilling at a depth of 10,000 metres,” he says.

Akunin’s most famous literary creation is Erast Fandorin, a dashing detective who, in a series of 13 books including The Winter Queen, She Lover of Death and The Diamond Chariot, courts danger and romance and solves the most baffling criminal cases of late imperial Russia, while rarely betraying his Zen-like calm. I ask Akunin how he created the character of Fandorin. “Chemically,” comes the surprising reply. He mixed together elements from his favourite literary heroes – Prince Andrei Bolkonsky from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pechorin from Lermontov’s Hero of our Times, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond – and threw in others of his own distilled from his knowledge of oriental culture.

“Fandorin is popular because he embodies all the features that our Russian mentality lacks,” he says. “He had to be very moderate and not overstated, a man of order, not of chaos, and very Confucian. At the beginning he was like that but, when he and I got to know each other better and he took on a life of his own, he became more disobedient.”

Some critics, I point out, have suggested that Fandorin resembles the somewhat mythologised figure of Putin in his early days as a KGB spy. “I consider that an insult. And it is not true,” he replies. “Putin is not Confucian. He does not listen to his inner voice. He does not distinguish between what is right and wrong.”

Others have said that Fandorin’s stoicism in the face of danger is more reminiscent of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oligarch who defied Putin and as a result has been languishing in a Siberian jail for the past decade. Akunin is keener on that comparison. “Khodorkovsky really is like someone you would write about in a novel: the richest man in Russia being thrown into prison and becoming a paragon of dignity and courage.”

I tell Akunin about an interview I once had with Khodorkovsky in the late 1990s when I was working as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and he was running the giant Yukos oil group. After discovering that he and I shared the same birth date, we compared our lives. I told the billionaire that I would surely never be as rich as him; he replied that he would never be as free as me – even then, his every move was shadowed by bodyguards. “Now he is one of the freest men in Russia, even if he is in prison,” Akunin shoots back. “All the other oligarchs are bound to the Kremlin hand and foot.”

. . .

Akunin has taken a fierce interest in Khodorkovsky’s fate, in what the novelist sees as the latest saga in Russia’s eternal struggle between the aristocracy (in the sense of the most noble people in society) and its more thuggish arrest-ocracy. What intrigues him is the evolution of public opinion towards the one-time oligarch. When Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, Akunin says, 90 per cent of Russians approved of the move because of his infamous role in ransacking state assets in the 1990s by means of rigged privatisations. But the oligarch’s punishment has increasingly been viewed as persecution, with opinion polls showing that the majority now supports him, according to Akunin. “He has won their respect the hard way.”

Indeed, in 2008 Akunin entered into a fascinating public correspondence with Khodorkovsky about the political state of Russia that ran to 13 pages in the Russian version of Esquire magazine – earning Khodorkovsky 13 days in solitary confinement. At a recent press conference, Putin hinted at the possibility of freeing Khodorkovsky when he completed his prison term, but Akunin is not convinced. “I am absolutely sure that Putin will not release Khodorkovsky while he is in power. He never forgets or forgives. Khodorkovsky’s behaviour is a constant challenge to him,” he says.

Turning back to his food, Akunin declares his kholodets, an unappetising slab of jelly, which he smeared with mustard and consumed with relish, to be delicious. “You have to be Russian to love it,” he says. My technicoloured herring is tasty but bears no comparison with the dish made by Olga, the cook in the FT’s Moscow office in the days when there were almost no decent restaurants in Russia and newspapers could afford such luxuries.

Akunin says it is not just the food that he likes about Moscow; it is also the pulsating energy and unpredictability of the Russian capital that stimulates his creativity. “I was lucky to be born in the Soviet Union and live in Russia. Maybe I am wrong but I have the impression that if you were born in a calm country you could live until 90 without discovering who you really are because life does not test you so harshly. In my 56 years I have lived five or six lifetimes in Russia.”

When he walks along certain boulevards in Moscow, Akunin says, ideas just jump into his head and he has to stop to jot them down. But when he wants to turn those thoughts into words, he retreats to his home in Brittany with his wife, who helps edit his works. “There is a place close to the Yauza river where I walk where the air is thick with culture and energy. Moscow is wonderful for energy. But when it comes to writing the text it needs discipline and order and that is awful there. St Malo is rainy and windy. It is perfect.”

Yet in recent months Akunin’s preoccupations have increasingly turned from sensationalist fiction to serious reality. He says he will soon be done with his rollicking detective novels and that he has already begun work on a big, new writing project. He is coy about revealing many details but suggests it will take many years and weave together fiction and non-fiction. He is immersed in reading history, memoirs, and old newspapers.

This turn in his writing career has coincided, he explains, with a deepening interest in politics occasioned by the tumultuous events of December 2011, when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Moscow in subzero temperatures after the Kremlin was accused of manipulating the results of the parliamentary elections.

Akunin joined the protest movement and spoke on public platforms expressing his outrage at the electoral fraud. But he scoffs at the idea that he might be acting out the traditional role of the Russian writer as the “moral conscience” of his nation. “I cannot say that my moral feeling is sharper than anyone else’s.” In feeling outrage about their leaders’ conduct, “I am like everyone else,” he says. “We do not want to feel ashamed of ourselves.”

. . .

He sketches out four possible futures for Russia. The first is that Putin will somehow succeed in turning the tide and winning back the trust of the population. The second is that there will be a peaceful revolution after half a million protesters come out on the streets of Moscow and refuse to go home. The third is that protests will turn bloody, which would either result in the overthrow of the regime or a return to a variant one. And the last possibility is that the regime will take the hint and initiate real reforms – what Akunin calls “perestroika 2”. “A year ago I was sure that this was the most probable solution because it is the least painful for everyone. But unfortunately the fissure between Putin and society is growing wider. Putin is acting in a stupid way and the possibility of revolution has grown stronger,” he says.

Declaring himself to be an “exotic” optimist, Akunin is convinced that change will come because Moscow’s blossoming middle class will demand an end to corruption and real democratic reform. “I hate to admit it, because it is against my convictions – I was always against him – but maybe the development of our state and society needed someone like Putin. But now Putin has become a real obstacle to the development of the country. It is impossible to survive with this level of corruption.”

But Akunin fears that even a peaceful revolution could lead to Russia’s collapse. The country is strained by regional tensions and stuffed with nuclear weapons. “If there is chaos, we will have 10 Chechnyas,” he says.

“Last year Putin said in his wonderful KGB manner that he was a big fan of Akunin the writer”

Given his family’s Georgian descent, Akunin is acutely sensitive to the threat of resurgent Russian nationalism, both in the Kremlin and in parts of the opposition movement. He says he has always felt in a privileged – and relatively safe – position as a writer but was disgusted by Russia’s treatment of its own ethnic populations during the war with Georgia in 2008. Since becoming politically active, Akunin’s email account has been hacked and his blog hijacked but he seems unperturbed. The hacker, who called himself Hell, did not even publish many of his emails. “‘This is just boring shit,’ he said, and it was true,” Akunin laughs. But his views have clearly aroused anger in the Kremlin.

“Last year Putin said in his wonderful KGB manner that he was a big fan of Akunin the writer, but unfortunately this man does not support the Russian state because he is Georgian,” he says.

Like many Moscow intellectuals, Akunin is also wary of nationalist talk among the opposition, from the likes of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner and unofficial leader of the movement who has famously denounced Putin’s United Russia party as a bunch of “crooks and thieves”. In a public dialogue with Navalny, published on Akunin’s blog during the political upheaval in December 2011, the author quizzed Navalny on his nationalism. “I liked the man and I thought he was intelligent and interesting,” he says. “But I cannot say that I entirely support Navalny’s political views; I view nationalism quite harshly.”

With little fuss, Akunin has succeeded in polishing off his main course of Siberian pelmeni (dumplings stuffed with crabmeat) while I have tucked into my delicious golubtsy (veal and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves). He says it is rare to find such a good Russian restaurant outside his homeland that serves such authentic food. His only complaint is that the Russian folk music that has accompanied our meal has been too loud – in spite of his request to lower the volume.

After declining dessert and ordering a gin and a tonic to complete his meal, Akunin makes clear that his involvement in politics is only temporary and that he far prefers the comforts of literature. He has no appetite for the dull organisational work required to turn a spontaneous opposition movement into a disciplined political force. As he puts it, he wants to help put out the fire that is raging in Russia, but has no desire to become a professional firefighter.

“I want people to forget their troubles,” he says. “The compliments I treasure most are when people have written to me saying that ‘I was reading your novel in hospital before my operation and I wanted to know what happened. It helped me to survive’.”

John Thornhill is deputy editor of the FT and a former Moscow bureau chief

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Mari Vanna

116 Knightsbridge, London

Kholodets £9

Seld pod shuboy £11

Pelmeni £18

Golubtsy £15

Bottle mineral water £4.50

Tea with lemon x2 £9.50

Gin and tonic £9

Total (incl service) £85.50

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