A hit French novel tries to explain Putin. Too well, some critics say

“The Wizard of the Kremlin” by Giuliano da Empoli, on display at a bookstore in Paris. (Photos: NYTimes)
PARIS — There are “two things that Russians require from the state: internal order and external power.”اضافة اعلان

So says a fictional President Vladimir Putin in “Le Mage du Kremlin”, or “The Wizard of the Kremlin”, a novel exploring the inner workings of his government that has captivated France, winning prizes and selling more than 430,000 copies.

Published shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the novel has become a popular guide for understanding Putin’s motives. It has also turned its Swiss Italian author, Giuliano da Empoli, into a coveted “Kremlinologist”, invited to lunch with the French prime minister and to France’s top morning news show to analyze the war’s developments.

The success has illustrated the continued power of literature in France, where novels have long shaped public debate. Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, said through a spokesperson that she “really enjoyed his book, which mixes fiction and reality and echoes international current events and the war in Ukraine.”
“The book conveys the clichés of Russian propaganda, with a few small nuances... When I see its success, that worries me.”
But in a country where literary hits are a kind of Rorschach test, the novel’s success has also raised concerns about whether it is shaping France’s views on Russia. Its detractors say the book conveys a largely sympathetic portrayal of Putin that may influence policy in a country that is already chastised as too forgiving of the Russian leader.

“The Wizard of the Kremlin”, which at times reads like an essay, is built around a fictionalized account of a powerful longtime Putin aide musing on Western decadence, the US’ goal of bringing Russia to “its knees” and Russians’ preference for a strong leader — typical Kremlin talking points that critics say go unchallenged throughout the pages.

At best, the book’s popularity echoes what Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the US, called “a kind of French fascination with Russia” fueled by a shared history of revolution, empire, and cultural masterpieces.

At worst, critics say, it signals lenient views of Putin that are enduring in France and may shape the country’s stance on the war, as reflected in President Emmanuel Macron’s calls not to humiliate Russia.

“The book conveys the clichés of Russian propaganda, with a few small nuances,” said Cécile Vaissié, a political scientist specializing in Russia at Rennes 2 University. “When I see its success, that worries me.”

First foray into fictionDissecting politics was nothing new to da Empoli. A former deputy mayor of Florence, Italy, and adviser to an Italian prime minister, he has already published a dozen political essays in Italian and French, including one on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run.

But da Empoli wanted to try fiction and had a “fascination” with the way Russian power is projected. So he modeled his debut novel’s narrator on one of the country’s most intriguing figures, Vladislav Surkov.

“The challenge of the book is to take the devil’s point of view,” da Empoli said.

Until recently, Surkov was Putin’s chief ideologist and one of the architects of the extreme centralized control exerted by Putin, earning him a reputation as a puppet master and the title “Putin’s Rasputin”.

“The character’s rather novelistic nature struck me,” said da Empoli, a soft-spoken, restrained 49-year-old who now teaches at Sciences Po university in Paris. He added that he had visited Russia four times and had read numerous essays on the country’s politics and the Putin regime during his research.
“Circumstances have obviously changed the way the book was received… I didn’t necessarily expect that.”
The narrator chronicles the inner workings of Putin’s government. He crosses paths with real-life Kremlin players like Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the infamous Wagner mercenary group, with whom he sets up troll farms to spread disinformation and division in the West.

‘A key to understanding Putin’Da Empoli handed in his manuscript to Gallimard, his publisher, two years ago. He said he did not expect much for his first attempt at fiction.

Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The novel, which had long been scheduled for publication in the spring, was one of the first new looks at Putin. It soon became the talk of the town.

“I don’t go to a dinner or a lunch without offering the book,” said Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a specialist in Russian history who has condemned the war but who has also previously defended Putin. “It’s a key to understanding Putin.”

Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, said that “the word-of-mouth was so good” that he felt compelled to read the novel, which he described as “incredibly credible”.

Public reception“The Wizard of the Kremlin” was the fifth bestselling book in France in 2022. It received a prize from the Académie Française and fell short of the Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, by only one vote after an extraordinary 14 rounds of voting.

Top politicians and diplomats publicly praised the novel. Édouard Philippe, a former prime minister, hailed it as a great “meditation on power”. Da Empoli was invited on every talk show to analyze the current conflict.

Giuliano da Empoli, author of “The Wizard of the Kremlin”, in Paris on January 10, 2023.

“Circumstances have obviously changed the way the book was received,” said da Empoli, who sees his novel more as political fiction than as a guide to understanding Russia. “I didn’t necessarily expect that.”

He was not the only one surprised.

Several Russia experts have expressed dismay at the novel’s enthusiastic reception. They say the book is mostly indulgent about Putin, portraying him as fighting oligarchs for the good of the people and “putting Russia back on its feet” in the face of Western contempt.

Vaissié, the political scientist, put it more bluntly. “It’s a bit like Russia Today for Saint-Germain-des-Prés”, she said, referring to the Kremlin-funded television channel and the Paris redoubt of the French literary elite.

Several French diplomats disagreed, arguing that the novel, if anything, is a useful look into the thinking of the Putin government.

“We have to hear this speech, too,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador in Moscow. “It doesn’t mean that we agree with it.”

French right-wing groups have long sung Putin’s praises. And prominent intellectuals, like Carrère d’Encausse, have endorsed the Kremlin’s view that the West humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War.

Real political impact?Under normal circumstances, “The Wizard of the Kremlin” might have fueled a harmless literary quarrel of the sort that periodically grips France.

But not in a time of war.
“This book has become almost a textbook of history and politics for French leaders.”
The arguments over the book are occurring just when divisions persist in Europe over how to deal with Putin. While Eastern European countries like Poland say he must be defeated outright, Western European nations like France have wavered between unequivocal financial and military support of Ukraine and reaching out to Putin.

“This book has become almost a textbook of history and politics for French leaders,” said Alexandre Melnik, a former Russian diplomat who opposes Putin. He pointed to Macron’s remarks that appeared sympathetic to Russia’s grievances.

Three presidential advisers declined to say, or said they did not know, whether Macron had read the novel.

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