The Wizard of the Kremlin

A French novel offers a fascinating, fictionalized look at Vladimir Putin’s longtime spin doctor.

de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
Caroline de Gruyter
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin lean their heads close together to confer privately.
Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin lean their heads close together to confer privately.
Russia’s then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin confers with his deputy, Vladislav Surkov, in the Urals city of Kurgan, Russia, on Feb. 13, 2012. Alexei Nikolsky /AFP via Getty Images

“No one ever escapes his fate, and the fate of the Russians is that they are ruled by descendants of Ivan the Terrible,” says Vadim Baranov, the main character in Le mage du Kremlin, a novel that is all the rage in France and Italy this summer. “You can invent whatever you like—a proletarian revolution or unfettered liberalism—but the result is always the same: The oprichniki, the tsar’s elite watchdogs, are at the top.”

The novel, which was published in French in April and in Italian at the end of June, is a must-read for anyone wondering what Russian President Vladimir Putin is up to and what the Russian people have had to go through during his tenure.

It is not that the author, Giuliano da Empoli, a Swiss Italian political scientist who teaches at Sciences Po in Paris, has a lively imagination. The opposite, rather: Most of the book, whose title translates into English as “The Wizard of the Kremlin,” is one long monologue by Baranov, who is modeled on Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s longtime spin doctor. Surkov, who was a close advisor of Putin for almost two decades, is one of the oprichniki who seems to have fallen from grace recently—although that may well be spin, too.

“No one ever escapes his fate, and the fate of the Russians is that they are ruled by descendants of Ivan the Terrible,” says Vadim Baranov, the main character in Le mage du Kremlin, a novel that is all the rage in France and Italy this summer. “You can invent whatever you like—a proletarian revolution or unfettered liberalism—but the result is always the same: The oprichniki, the tsar’s elite watchdogs, are at the top.”

The novel, which was published in French in April and in Italian at the end of June, is a must-read for anyone wondering what Russian President Vladimir Putin is up to and what the Russian people have had to go through during his tenure.

It is not that the author, Giuliano da Empoli, a Swiss Italian political scientist who teaches at Sciences Po in Paris, has a lively imagination. The opposite, rather: Most of the book, whose title translates into English as “The Wizard of the Kremlin,” is one long monologue by Baranov, who is modeled on Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s longtime spin doctor. Surkov, who was a close advisor of Putin for almost two decades, is one of the oprichniki who seems to have fallen from grace recently—although that may well be spin, too.

Fiction or not, this powerful book, written before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, makes very clear what Putin is after: establishing a totalitarian reign of terror on the ruins of chaos that he has created. This spring and summer, as Putin’s war in Ukraine raged on, da Empoli often appeared on French talk shows to analyze Putin’s motives. In July, the same happened in Italy.

Although the book has not really changed the current debates in France or Italy on the war in Ukraine, it does add insight into something Europeans still know little about: the inner workings of the Kremlin and Putin’s long-term political motives for Russia and the wider region. Several additional translations of the book are on the way.

In the late 1990s, Surkov, then in his 30s, suddenly had the chance to help Putin—then the head of the FSB, Russia’s secret service and the main successor to the KGB—succeed Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country had become a free-for-all. Yeltsin drank too much. He survived a coup but lost control of the country.

Media mogul Boris Berezovsky and other oligarchs who had accumulated immense wealth during Yeltsin’s reign decided that Russia needed order and a strong leader and pushed Putin for president. Surkov—a former soldier and bodyguard of humble, half-Chechen descent—helped Berezovsky promote Putin as a presidential candidate nationwide. Surkov had hung around in Moscow’s absurdist, avant-garde theater scene for some time, which was all about re-creating society on a new basis—exactly what he was about to do for Putin.

Back then, few Russians had heard of the FSB chief. But thanks to Berezovsky’s media campaigns, which had little to do with truth, Putin won. Soon enough, though, the new president removed Berezovsky from his inner circle because the media mogul expected political favors in return. Surkov stayed on, becoming Putin’s deputy chief of staff and later deputy prime minister for some time.

Putin found Surkov’s theories on “vertical power” and “sovereign democracy”—which involved plans to set up an autocratic system that looked like a democracy, complete with fake opposition parties controlled by the Kremlin—highly appealing. These theories and many others of Surkov’s that Putin put into practice, slowly turning Russia into a dictatorship over the years and starting to subjugate neighboring countries such as Ukraine, are center stage in the novel.

For many readers, this story will hit home for the first time. Da Empoli is not the only one fascinated by the “gray cardinal” or “Putin’s Rasputin,” as Surkov is nicknamed. In recent years, countless profile of and interviews with Surkov have been published. Peter Pomerantsev describes him and others in Putin’s coterie in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, as does Catherine Belton in her book, Putin’s People.

But these books and articles do not always reach average citizens. And even for those who do read these works of nonfiction, Surkov’s biting cynicism can be hard to bear. By turning Surkov into a fictional character and complex human being with a family and real-life dilemmas of his own, da Empoli lets the man get under his readers’ skin and hold them captive until the end. Le mage du Kremlin is a page turner.

The author, a former advisor to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi from 2014 to 2016, originally wanted to include Surkov in his 2019 nonfiction book about spin doctors, titled Les ingénieurs du chaos (“The Engineers of Chaos”), which featured figures such as Steve Bannon (former chief strategist to then-U.S. President Donald Trump) as well as advisors working for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other autocratic leaders.

But da Empoli found Surkov’s story so powerful that he decided to turn it into fiction for maximum impact. He told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that in this case, “paradoxically, fiction is the best way to touch on some form of reality.”

This became Le mage du Kremlin, whose story encompasses one long nocturnal conversation between Baranov (the fictionalized Surkov) and a European literature lover. On Twitter, the two find out they share a fascination for the Russian science fiction author and political satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin. Since the European is living in Moscow for a short time—for reasons that remain vague—they decide to meet in Baranov’s house outside the capital.

Most of the novel is a monologue by Baranov, who has recently left the Kremlin and talks about his life. Unlike Surkov, he is an aristocrat and has no Chechen roots. Also unlike Surkov, Baranov is married to a woman named Ksenia, the ex-wife of former Yukos oil company executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky—who, like many other characters, appears in the novel under his own name. Ksenia left Khodorkovsky after he was put in prison.

Baranov’s description of the restlessness and boundlessness of the “new Russia” under Yeltsin is marvelous and provides essential context to the subsequent rise of the tsar. “You could leave home in the afternoon to buy cigarettes,” Baranov remembers, “meet a friend, and wake up two days later in a chalet in Courchevel [in the French Alps], half-naked, surrounded by sleeping beauties, with no idea whatsoever how you had gotten there.”

Young people like him pirouetted from art galleries, rave concerts, and lunches with Dutch minimalist architects to the latest “in” restaurants. They thought they were part of something new, cultured, and international. But in fact, Baranov says, “we were just the last followers of a dead star, the star of our parents, whom we had despised because of their cowardice but who had passed on to us their love of books, ideas, and long, endless discussions on both.”

Left by his girlfriend and with his theatrical ambitions drowned in a society where plutocrats’ money dictated everything, Baranov eagerly accepts the chance to work for Berezovsky—and then for the president, who in the book is only referred to as “le tsar” but is 100 percent Putin. Baranov finds that it is just a small step from absurdist theater to the post of key political strategist: Both are about reshaping society. The difference was that he “stopped creating fiction to start creating reality.”

Soon, the tsar starts implementing Baranov’s distinction between a “systemic opposition” and a “non-systemic opposition.” The former—one that obeys the rules, laws, and customs set by the regime—is allowed because “people need some diversity” (but not too much diversity, because that would weaken the regime). Non-systemic opposition parties, which are not controlled by the regime, are banned or eliminated.

This explains why politically ambitious oligarchs such as Khodorkovsky or Berezovsky and independent politicians such as Alexey Navalny are prosecuted, locked up, or worse, while various small liberal or nationalist parties in Russia’s parliament that generally support government policies are tolerated or even subsidized. As the real Surkov once said: Just as in commedia dell’arte, which he (and the character Baranov) studied during the 1990s, “in society there can only be a limited group of players.”

War and violence are the basis of the tsar’s power, Baranov explains. The tsar started off as a weak, uncharismatic politician. Suddenly, in the novel as in real life, this changed after a series of mysterious explosions in Moscow, presumably by Chechen terrorists (or the FSB?). The tsar responded by bombing Chechnya flat—just as Putin did in 1999 and the way he now bombs entire Ukrainian villages and towns.

This made him rather popular in Russia: Finally, after the chaos and humiliations of the Yeltsin years, here was a strong president who didn’t let anyone walk over him. The tsar, like Putin, invaded Georgia in 2008 and snatched parts of Ukraine in 2014. Each time, Baranov was in charge of the preparations, as Surkov was in real life.

Russia is too weak to behave like a superpower, Baranov explains, so the only way to influence the world is “to destabilize everything and everyone who does not treat Russia as a great power.” For instance, already in the early 2000s, he started supporting both Russian ultra-nationalists and their left-wing opponents and then let them clash. Later, he began doing this abroad, supporting both far-right politicians such as Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France and European LGBTQ activists, pitting one against the other by feeding both sides with fake news.

This, of course, is exactly how Surkov operated, too. “The aim of manipulation with fake news is not to convince people,” Baranov tells his visitor when daylight dawns, “but to sow doubt about reality. This is how you create apathy. Slowly, slowly, you can do what you want. Use violence as a raison d’état. Inflate dangers in the media, scare people to death, then deal with Evil. After that, peace will come, and Good will triumph.”

In the tsar’s world, nothing is real, and everything is staged—just as in Baranov’s wildly experimental theaters in the 1990s. The novel takes its motto from Alexandre Kojève, the Russian French philosopher: “Life is a comedy. One must play it seriously.”

In the book, the tsar remains distant, cold as a fish. He trusts no one and lives a secluded life out of town. He sleeps until late in the morning and then does sports. When he steps out of the pool, his advisors are waiting. One by one, they tell him what he needs to know. Then they are dismissed. The tsar is driven to the Kremlin, where he stays until deep in the night. These descriptions remind us of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s biographies of former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, who were so out of sync with the outside world that they relied on the brutality of the secret service for survival.

In the end, Baranov, like Surkov, does not work in the Kremlin anymore—though the circumstances of their dismissals remain unclear. There is, however, nothing reassuring about this. On the contrary: It means that the genie Baranov has cultivated and orchestrated for two decades in the Kremlin is out of the bottle. In the novel, Baranov tells one of the provocateurs whom he has instructed to destabilize the Donbas: “You are actors in a much bigger drama, which goes beyond this here.”

“How far does it go?” the provocateur asks.

Baranov replies: “Until we no longer find it useful.”

This is pure nihilism. Perhaps the only way to understand this horrible reality is to read it as fiction.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

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