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OPINION

“All Putin can hope to achieve is to become China’s junior partner”: In conversation with Boris Akunin, best-selling author and historian

While Putin’s regime is busy labeling bestselling author Boris Akunin a terrorist and extremist, prosecuting him, and putting him on the wanted list, he continues to write. The tenth volume of Akunin’s “A History of the Russian State,” which covers the period from 1917 to 1953, could not be printed in Russia, so it had to be laid out anew for release by a foreign publisher. Boris Akunin shared with The Insider how he responds to censorship of his works, what makes Putin different from Stalin, and how he manages to write three books at the same time.

RU

Even though your books have been banned in Russia, you still managed to get the tenth volume out...

First of all, I was fueled by indignation at dumb idiots who think they can separate a writer from their readers in the 21st century. So we laid out and illustrated the book in record time, and what was even more challenging, we built the printing system from scratch. The entire project took us four months. Now that the railroad track has been laid, there should be no delays. And this track will carry books by other authors as well.

The BAbook Book Club, which started as a one-man show, currently features “bookshelves” displaying works by Dmitry Bykov, Boris Grebenshchikov, Sergey Guriev, Andrei Makarevich, Oleg Radzinsky, Viktor Shenderovich, and several friendly publishers. It sells banned books by Mikhail Shishkin, Vladimir Sorokin, Dmitry Glukhovsky, and other remarkable authors. BA stands for “best authors,” and this is no overstatement.

Purchases from Russia are no longer available, but I have launched a section titled “Books To Be Continued” on my website, where all of my new books will be published for free, chapter by chapter. So no one can keep me and my readers apart.

BABook has a phenomenal director, Pavel Istomin, who runs a great team. What started as a small project, an author’s website selling digital versions of books for the Russian-speaking diaspora, has now evolved into a full-fledged publishing house working with more and more new authors, printing real books, and making ambitious plans. This metamorphosis occurred in line with the mass conservation principle. As 18th-century academic Mikhail Lomonosov said, “If there is a loss of matter in any place, there will be an increase in some other place.”

Since Bykov, Glukhovsky, Sorokin, and I are no longer in Russia, you can find us on BABook. The trend will most likely continue.

Has the current war impacted the content of your “History”?

I added a phrase to the afterword, where the main conclusions are drawn:

“The geopolitical struggle between the United States and the USSR for zones of influence, the competition of economies, and the arms race formed the centerpiece of the historical plot in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and after the collapse of the Soviet ‘superpower,’ they would lead the Russia of the 2020s to attempt to restore its former greatness. The story unfolding before our eyes is a logical continuation of the events that happened a century ago — it’s a branch of the tree that took root in 1917.”

We are reaping what was sown back then.

Your book is not available for purchase in Russia — at least not officially. Have you received any feedback despite this?

Readers write to me all the time. Many want to present their own vision of a particular historical event or argue with mine. This is to be expected; this is the effect I hoped for. People turn to the recent past again and again in their thoughts, looking for explanations and answers.

In your book, you mention the “Golden Horde” model of statehood, which has been rekindled yet again as the most efficient method of controlling a vast, heterogeneous space. However, why does the instinct of controlling it reproduce itself in the first place? And why has the territory of the Russian Empire been plagued with this particular case of a “broken record”?

This is a very resilient and, in a way, very logical governance structure. Any historical attempt to change it has invariably resulted in a crisis — which is why it has always been reestablished, eventually. The most recent time it happened was after the chaos of the 1990s, right before our eyes.

The thing is, this system must not be restored — it must be dismantled entirely. The state must become a real, not a nominal federation. Or even a confederation. Until it happens, the Russian variation of “A House That Jack Built” will go on and on.

You write about a “tree of possibilities,” a forked trajectory along which history evolves. Have there been any such forks in post-Soviet Russia?

Certainly. I can give you two examples: the year 1994, when Russia was faced with a dilemma: to let Chechnya go or send troops there. Once the second path was chosen, the mechanism of restoring the empire was set in motion, causing the inevitable oppression of freedoms. In 1999, a similar choice was made when Russia launched another Chechen war and installed a securocrat as [President Yeltsin's] successor. This turn is the reason why I do not share the popular liberal nostalgia for Boris Yeltsin. Both choices are his doing.

I do not share the popular liberal nostalgia for Boris Yeltsin

According to you, in 1917 Russia was faced with a choice between leftist and the rightist dictatorship. Is it correct to assume that Russia chose a left turn back then and has chosen a right turn now?

The entire period of Putin’s rule is not a turn but a gradual return to the primeval model of statehood that can have no federation, no separation of powers, no free press, and no independent courts. We have been moving backwards, to the year 1985. All they have left to do is bring the Soviet republics back to the fold — and they are already working on it. As slipshod an effort as it has been, they are relentless.

Can we consider Putin’s Russia to be a continuation of Lenin's, though?

Not Lenin's, that’s for sure. Lenin did not want to restore the empire; he wanted to ignite a global revolution. Putin continues not only Brezhnev’s and Stalin's but also the House of Romanov's course. Once again, the triad “Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality” and the “Third Rome” — the global stronghold of reactionary and conservative values — are making a comeback.

Some have referred to both Stalin and Putin as “mediocre, small men.” How justified is this perspective?

I don’t think Stalin and Putin are mediocre. Much as I detest them, both are extremely gifted politicians. They are alike in their megalomaniacal ambitions and the ease with which they dispose of people (although Putin has nothing on Stalin in this regard even now). However, the two have a profound difference as rulers, and I expand on it in my book. Stalin was good at strategy and weak at tactics. That is, he was capable of designing great goals (including criminal ones) but often stumbled as he sought to achieve them, causing immense losses to the nation. By contrast, Putin is an apt tactician, but the strategic goals he pursues are either self-sabotaging or entirely unattainable. He will never become a political leader of global significance or the ruler of a superpower. All Putin can hope to achieve is to become China’s junior partner instead of occupying a similar position in relation to the West.

The strategic goals pursued by Putin are either self-sabotaging or entirely unattainable

How important was the secret police (Cheka, NKVD, KGB, and so on) in Soviet history? How important are its successors today?

Throughout history, Russia’s repressive apparatus has never been an independent political force. Under the Communists, it was a tool wielded by the party leaders. Today, it is a pack of hounds Putin keeps on a chain and continues pitting against each other. This is one example of a tactic he has mastered to perfection. We cannot rule out the possibility, however, that one of the hounds will break the chain and tear his master to pieces.

Lenin made Ukraine part of the Soviet Union just as Ukraine was trying to obtain independence, but Putin claimed that Lenin “created” it. Can we find the roots of the current war in the last century, or is it a product of the Putin era?

Lenin annexed not only Ukraine, but every fragment of the empire he could get his hands on. Still, history has nothing to do with this. The war in Ukraine is without doubt Putin’s personal project. And his failure.

The dictator thought he could swallow Ukraine whole but ended up breaking his teeth. His state has nothing on the USSR, which may have been lagging behind the world's leaders in many parameters but was nevertheless an economically self-sustainable and technologically autonomous power — a true empire. The Russian Federation falls short of this title. Without its own Silicon Valley analog, or even the ersatz Chinese equivalent, it will turn into a pumpkin.

Was the current war truly inevitable for the Putin regime? Why did he attack Ukraine specifically?

I believe Euromaidan was the trigger. Putin feared that Russia might follow the same scenario. The second factor was his deeply entrenched belief that the world has been divided into “spheres of influence” and that Ukraine's departure for Europe would violate [Russia's] unspoken agreements with the West. The gist of Putin's war is “Stay away! This is mine!”

Putin was convinced that Ukraine's departure for Europe would violate Russia’s unspoken agreements with the West

What's your take on the fierce debate sparked by the release of the film “Traitors” by the Anti-Corruption Foundation?

The debate upset me. I was sad to see that the participants of this debate — or rather, this quarrel — had so little regard for the common cause. The main purpose of any political propaganda is not to show how abhorrent your adversary is, but to demonstrate how great you are. To make people think: “These are the guys I want to follow! They are so cool.” However, hardly anyone would want to follow the guys and gals on either side of this argument. Therefore, the effect has been detrimental.

After Crimea, Donbas, and the beginning of the full-scale war, Ukrainians’ anger and resentment towards the Russians as a nation are understandable. Have you felt this personally?

Of course, the rejection of all things Russian has affected me. What exasperated, angry nonsense have Ukrainians not spewed on me! What accusations have they not thrown my way? I do not answer in such cases. These people are going through immense grief and sorrow, a tragedy. They are screaming from pain. However, many Ukrainians write kind words to me. And to these I reply, trying to offer help and support.

Do you feel separated from Russia? In what ways?

From which Russia? There are at least two. There is the Russia I love and the one that makes me sick. The first one is forever with me. As for the second one, we have always been at odds.

Your prolificacy is impressive. How do you manage to produce so many works?

It is a mode of existence. It’s called sakkado — “the writer's Tao.” You conceive life by constructing texts. A bee buzzes; a bird flaps its wings; I write. I don't do weekends or vacations. My entire life is a never-ending weekend and vacation. When I grow tired of a book, I turn to another one. Normally, I work on three books in parallel, and switching between genres is a way to unwind.

How will the war end?

At the moment, the “Korean option” seems the most probable: not peace, but a temporary ceasefire agreement with a demarcation line and the permanent threat of a new armed conflict. It will be very bad. For everyone involved.

Interview by Oleg Pshenichny

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