The Wizard of the Kremlin

The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli review – a tsar is born: The imagined life story of a shadowy Kremlin insider offers a chilling perspective on Putin’s Russia

Marcel Theroux in The Guardian: Just who is Vladimir Putin? In the 20-odd years he’s been in power, even the Russian leader’s physical appearance has undergone a series of ominous transformations. The alert but colorless apparatchik of his early years first became a smooth-faced enigma, then a tsar of such feline menace that you half expect to see bloody feathers at the corner of his mouth. And that’s nothing compared to the changes that have happened in Russia: at the dawn of the millennium it seemed to be stumbling towards democracy. It had, albeit imperfectly, such things as free speech and opposition politicians. Even Putin seemed to talk sincerely of partnership with his former cold war opponents. So what on earth happened? One person who is qualified to tell us is the protagonist of Giuliano da Empoli’s gripping debut novel, The Wizard of the Kremlin. His name is Vadim Baranov and he’s the consummate Kremlin insider. Baranov was by Putin’s side as he rose to power and remade Russia. Now he’s retired, a shadowy figure with an extraordinary story to tell.

The novel opens with its unnamed narrator visiting Moscow to research the writer Yevgeny Zamyatin. It turns out that the elusive Baranov also has a soft spot for Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, We. An encounter on social media leads the narrator to the remote country house to which Baranov has retired after the apparent end of his career in politics. Over a single night, the wizard of the Kremlin shares the story of his life with his visitor. There is something self-consciously arch about this 19th-century framing device, the gothic scene of the encounter and the implausibly fluent act of narration that makes up the rest of the book. Then again, this is a book about artifice and the manipulation of reality, and Baranov is such an entertaining raconteur that the reader quickly falls under his spell. Translated from the original French by Willard Wood, The Wizard of the Kremlin moves propulsively through the turmoil of Russia in the 1990s to the eve of the present war in Ukraine.

Baranov tells us about his childhood and coming of age in the intoxicating era towards the end of the USSR. The end of censorship gives new impetus to Russia’s cultural life and the country’s artists and intellectuals seem to be pointing the way towards a more hopeful future. For Baranov, always ahead of the curve, disappointment sets in quickly. He becomes repelled by Russia’s verbose and impractical intelligentsia: “I was now revolted by the mortal sadness of the man of letters, his inability to generate joy, his general unfitness for reality.” Baranov senses that the future will belong to colder and more practical individuals, and he’s right. He finds himself in a sequence of collaborations with other ambitious Russians on the make, all of them real people: first the entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and finally and most significantly, Vladimir Putin himself. To each of these men, he is an indispensable auxiliary. He’s a strategist, an organizer and a PR man. Despite his eventual contempt for the art world, Baranov sees himself as an artist – but one who works in the medium of human consciousness and in the service of political power.

Baranov’s outlook on events has been shaped by his relationships with his orthodox Soviet dad and his renegade grandfather. The humiliation that the country suffered after the breakup of the Soviet Union is a very personal matter. This becomes a shared point of contact when he meets Putin, who is determined to raise Russia from its knees and restore its imperial glory. “Maybe the frenzied imitation of the West that we’d thrown ourselves into during the late 1990s was not the right path,” Baranov concludes, after an encounter with the (real) writer Eduard Limonov. “Maybe the moment had come to take a different route.” This route – Baranov using his genius for manipulation to press ahead with a vision of Russian specialness, to build up its national myth, and cultivate a sense of grievance about its treatment by the rest of the world – leads us to the present day, and the war in Ukraine. More here.