There are “two things that Russians demand from the state: internal order and external power.” So says a fictional President Vladimir V. Putin in “Le Mage du Kremlin” or “The Wizard of the Kremlin,” a novel exploring the inner workings of his government that captivated France, winning awards and selling more than 430,000 copies.
Published shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the novel has become a popular guide to understanding Putin’s motivations. He also invited his Italian-Swiss author, Giuliano da Empoli, a sought-after “Kremlinologist”, to lunch with the French prime minister and to France’s main morning news to discuss war developments.
The success illustrates the continuing power of literature in France, where novels have long shaped public debate. Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, said through a spokeswoman that she “really enjoyed her book, which mixes fiction and reality and echoes international news and the war in Ukraine.”
But the novel’s success has also raised questions about whether it is shaping France’s opinion of Russia.
Critics say the book conveys a broadly sympathetic portrait of Putin that can influence policy in a country already chastised for being too lenient on the Russian leader.
“The Wizard of the Kremlin”, which sometimes reads like a sage, it is based on a fictional account by a powerful aide of Putin He’s pondered at length about the decadence of the West, America’s goal of bringing Russia “to its knees,” and Russians’ preference for a strong leader — typical Kremlin talking points that critics say go unchallenged in all the pages.
At best, the book’s popularity echoes what Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to the United States, called “a sort of French fascination with Russia” fueled by a shared history of revolution, empire, and cultural masterpieces.
At worst, critics say, it indicates lenient views on Putin which remain in France and can shape the country’s stance on the war, as reflected in President Emmanuel Macron’s calls not to humiliate Russia.
“The book conveys Russian propaganda clichés with some small nuances,” said Cécile Vaissié, a political scientist specializing in Russia at Rennes 2 University. “When I see its success, it worries me.”
The dissection of politics was nothing new for 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 bid.
But from Empoli he wanted to try his hand at fiction and had a “fascination” for the way Russian power is projected. So she modeled the narrator of her debut novel after one of the country’s most intriguing figures, Vladislav Y. Surkov. “The challenge of the book is to assume the point of view of the devil,” he said from Empoli.
Until recently, Surkov was Putin’s main ideologist and one of the architects of extreme centralized control exercised by the Russian president, earning a reputation as a puppeteer and the title of “Putin’s Rasputin”.
“The rather fictitious nature of the character struck me,” said da Empoli, a soft-spoken and sober 49-year-old who now teaches at the Sciences Po University in Paris. He added that he has visited Russia four times and read numerous essays on the country’s politics and Putin’s regime while researching him.
The narrator recounts the inner workings of Putin’s rule. He crosses paths with real-life Kremlin players like Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the infamous Wagner mercenary group, with whom he creates troll farms to spread disinformation and division in the West.
From Empoli he delivered his manuscript to Gallimard, his publisher, two years ago. He said he didn’t expect much from his first attempt at fiction. Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The novel, long 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 dinner or lunch without offering the book,” said Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a specialist in Russian history who has condemned the war but also defended Putin. “It’s a key to understanding Putin.”
Hubert Védrine, former French foreign minister, said “the word of mouth was so good” that he felt compelled to read the novel, which he described as “incredibly believable”.
“The Wizard of the Kremlin” was the fifth best-selling book in France in 2022. He received an award from the Académie Française and didn’t make it to the Goncourt, the most prestigious in France.
Leading politicians and diplomats publicly praised the novel. Édouard Philippe, former prime minister, called it a great “meditation on power”. From Empoli he has been invited to all the talk shows to discuss the ongoing conflict.
“Obviously, circumstances have changed the way the book has been received,” said da Empoli, who sees his novel more as a political fiction than a guide to understanding Russia. “I didn’t necessarily expect that.” He wasn’t the only one surprised.
Several pundits in Russia have expressed their dismay at the novel’s enthusiastic reception. They say the book is mostly lenient towards Putin, portraying him alongside oligarchs who fight for the good of the people and “get Russia back on its feet” in the face of Western scorn.
In one passage, the narrator describes Russian pride upon learning that Putin paid a surprise visit to troops fighting in Chechnya on January 1, 2000, his first day as president. “There was a leader in charge again,” he says.
Françoise Thom, professor of Russian history at the Sorbonne, said these descriptions “completely hide the sordid dimension of Putin’s reality” and are “very close to the image of Russian propaganda”.
The political scientist Vaissié put it more directly. “It’s a bit like Russia Today for Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” he said, referring to the Kremlin-funded TV channel and Parisian stronghold of France’s literary elite.
Several French diplomats disagreed, arguing that the novel is, if anything, a useful look into the thinking of the Putin government. “We must also listen to this speech,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to Moscow. “It doesn’t mean we agree with that.”
French right-wing groups have long been singing Putin’s praises. And leading intellectuals like Carrère d’Encausse have endorsed the Kremlin’s view that the West would humiliate Russia after the end of the Cold War.
Under normal circumstances, “The Wizard of the Kremlin” might have stoked a harmless literary dispute of the kind that regularly grips France. But not in wartime.
Book discussions occur just as the divisions in Europe on how to deal with Putin. While Eastern European countries like Poland say it must be finally defeated, Western European nations like France have vacillated between unequivocal financial and military support for Ukraine and rapprochement with Putin.
“This book has almost become a history and politics textbook for French leaders,” said Alexandre Melnik, a former Russian diplomat who opposes Putin. He pointed to Macron’s comments that seemed sympathetic to Russia’s grievances. Three presidential aides have refused to say, or said they do not know, whether Macron has read the novel.
Védrine, the former foreign minister who has sometimes advised Macron on Russia, acknowledged that if the French president read the book, it would not lead him to take an aggressive stance towards Russia. He added that he saw a medium-term benefit in the book’s popularity: advocating the need to communicate with Putin, “whenever it’s acceptable.”
“The Magician of the Kremlin” was published in Italian last summer, sold around 20,000 copies and was appreciated in Italy as a great novel. Nearly 30 translations have been published or are on the way, including in English, but so far not in Russian or Ukrainian.
Font: The New York Times
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.