.
A

t the end of last year, director Ridley Scott released his much–anticipated film “Napoleon.” The trailer generated a great deal of excitement, and how could it not? Scott, known for previous epics such as “Gladiator,” looked set to bring this larger–than–life figure to the big screen. In his hands the epic scale of eighteenth and early nineteenth century warfare was sure to excite and horrify in equal measures. Joaquin Phoenix would bring this complex historical figure to life for modern audiences. 

Except none of that came to pass. Historical inaccuracies abounded and Phoenix’s Napoleon was reduced to a petulant man–child, found in places where he never was, acting in ways he never did, and confounding audiences and experts alike. Scott, perhaps channeling Phoenix’s attitude, dismissed criticism suggesting that historians “get a life.”  

“Napoleon” highlights a central challenge of historical fiction—capturing known events and figures, while creating a compelling story. Too much of the former can render the latter bland. Too much storytelling can create self–perpetuating popular myths, especially on the big screen with audiences receiving just enough of the truth to see the broad outlines, but too little to separate fact from fiction. Distilling the truth from lies is even more challenging in a place like Russia where, as Peter Pomerantsev wrote, “nothing is true and everything is possible.”  

Giuliano da Empoli straddles this line rather well and quite enjoyably, but at considerable potential peril, in his fictional insiders account of president Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, “The Wizard of the Kremlin.” As someone who is not predisposed to reading or enjoying fiction, I must unequivocally say that I loved Empoli’s novel.  

The reputation of Empoli’s book preceded its English–language arrival. Now published in over 30 languages, it won high acclaim and several literary prizes in France, turning the Swiss–Italian author into a “Kremlinologist” for some. Its reach and influence even caused some worry within Paris that it could influence the debate on Russia and Ukraine. Whether it will or not affect Paris’ political debate is unclear, and perhaps ascribes too much influence to a single novel no matter how good it is; it nonetheless certainly captured a great deal of interest within French elite circles. More pertinently for readers of any varietal, appreciating “The Wizard of the Kremlin” requires the careful separation of Empoli’s book into two parts—a narrative story and a political story. The risk, one due to no fault of Empoli, is that less savvy readers will conflate the two. 

As a narrative story, Empoli’s book is truly superb. A former, seemingly retired, Kremlin insider recounts his life and experiences to a French researcher, with whom he happens to share a love of obscure literature. Modeled on Vladislav Y. Surkov, a close Putin advisor who is often credited with creating “Putinism,” the protagonist, Vadim Baranov, weaves a story from his grandfather’s time in the Russian Imperial Court through his father’s role in the Soviet Union, to his own experiences in the heady times of post–collapse Russia and Moscow’s resurgence. Baranov, an aspiring theater student, is taken into Putin’s confidence, after having been originally tapped on the shoulder by Boris Berezovsky. He has his paramour stolen by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and is in all the right places at the right times in recent Russian history. He finds himself in the midst of, participating in, or merely observing the consequential events of Putin’s rise and the creation of contemporary Russia. 

Its literary device is superb and compelling. How fascinating would it be to share an expensive Scotch with Nikolai Patrushev? Perhaps I am alone here, but I would welcome a chance to hear what ostensibly happened during key events in Russia’s modern history from someone in the room (taken with a very hefty grain of salt). It is a clever narrative device, but also one that exposes its vulnerabilities and structural challenges. Narratively, the reader must assume that Baranov is a reliable narrator, that what he says is the truth. The reader is given no reason to suspect that what he says isn’t fact, but there are also plenty of reasons to doubt Baranov’s story. Is he really the only Russian politico who isn’t entirely self–serving? The one Kremlin insider without an ax to grind? Perhaps he is the exception to the rule. 

The same conceit that makes “The Wizard of the Kremlin” such a smashing novel also contains the central risk: that less savvy readers will succumb to a literary version of confirmation bias. Empoli recounts events with which readers are likely at least passingly familiar, but presents them in a way that fits neatly within preexisting notions and conceptions about Putin and modern Russia. These readers will see that which they assume to be true. The bold narrative line drawing that Empoli presents loses its fidelity the closer it gets to political reality. 

Critics have said that Empoli presents a Putin that is too sympathetic. Arguably the issue is that the Putin that is presented fits too neatly with what readers would expect. Putin is, in Empoli’s telling, a reluctant but calculating figure plucked from relative obscurity, who grew into the “tsar,” as he is referred to throughout the book. Sitting behind the walls of the Kremlin, he orchestrates events. He is isolated in the Kremlin, alone except for his dog. The characterization approaches cliches that present Putin as a master manipulator, a narrative that has far too strong a hold on the public’s understanding of Russia’s president. It mirrors propaganda more than reality, which is disappointing as the reality is arguably far more interesting. 

In the broadest strokes possible this may be accurate, but it misses Putin’s dithering and unwillingness to act until necessary, his inability to decide until he has no other choice, and the extent to which he is shaped by the waves of events. It also assumes a Sauron-esque omniscience that is decidedly not reflected in reality—when Putin pays attention, things get done. When his attention is elsewhere, governors and politicos alike will pursue their own agendas. 

The Russian actors in Empoli’s narrative move with far too neat, clear–cut one–dimensional purpose, either of their own accord or through the manipulation of Baranov. Here again, an audience less au fait with Russian politics or power dynamics would nod along and see a literary reflection of the reality they assume is true. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin, for example, makes an appearance presenting his solution to the information war with the West—the Internet Research Agency. Prigozhin offers up a Russian political wunderkind before being slapped down by Baranov who tells the (now–late) Prigozhin the real master plan to manipulate the West. This scene is just missing ominous Bond–esque theme music to accompany the grand twist, that Moscow wanted the West to find out about the Kremlin’s meddling. Here again, audiences will reference what they think they know versus what actually happened. 

Baranov ventures to Donbas after the illegal annexation of Crimea and opening salvos of war with Ukraine. In this scene he expounds on how the war was never meant to be won and that the fighters are merely pawns in a larger game—much to the disappointment of his battlefield interlocutor. This whole narrative strays too close to the conception that it was all about Russia and Putin’s grand master plan, and not as much about political entrepreneurs, mercenaries, disaffected Ukrainians, and more that forced the Kremlin’s hand (as brilliant recounted by Anna Arutunyan in her book “Hybrid Warriors: Proxies, Freelancers and Moscow’s Struggle for Ukraine.”)

Novels are meant to introduce us to the lives of others; to see the world through others’ eyes in a manner that nonfiction is unable to provide. Empoli certainly achieves this. The Russia he presents is alien to Western readers; the power and purpose of the Kremlin is out of step with elite, intellectual European sensibilities. 

In the blurring of this narrative and political story, then, lies the rub. Empoli has penned what is a truly enjoyable novelization of politics and power in contemporary Russia (for the reviewer it ticks many boxes). If it is accepted as such, Empoli will have met with deserved literary success. If it is taken as more than that, as many seem to have done, problems arise. Indeed, how many fiction books have received a full treatment in Foreign Policy magazine? 

Is “The Wizard of the Kremlin” a must–read because it is a superb novel? Most definitely. It is very rare that a fictional work grips me as fully as Empoli’s book did. Is it a must–read because it somehow explains Russia’s politics and pursuit of power? Not entirely. It offers a teasing glimpse of the world through the eyes of Russia’s leaders. Yet, there is no one single book that will explain any country—fiction or otherwise. While the desire to find “the” answer or a single key to unlocking understanding is perhaps understandable, it is an ultimately fruitless venture and risks damaging real insights and understanding. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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A literary exploration of the Kremlin’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

The Kremlin at night. Image by Adam Bortnowski from Pixabay

January 20, 2024

In “The Wizard of the Kremlin,” Giuliano da Empoli writes a fictitious, narrative and political account of life as a Kremlin insider. While the storytelling is superb, the Putin that is presented fits too neatly with what readers would expect, writes Joshua C. Huminski.

A

t the end of last year, director Ridley Scott released his much–anticipated film “Napoleon.” The trailer generated a great deal of excitement, and how could it not? Scott, known for previous epics such as “Gladiator,” looked set to bring this larger–than–life figure to the big screen. In his hands the epic scale of eighteenth and early nineteenth century warfare was sure to excite and horrify in equal measures. Joaquin Phoenix would bring this complex historical figure to life for modern audiences. 

Except none of that came to pass. Historical inaccuracies abounded and Phoenix’s Napoleon was reduced to a petulant man–child, found in places where he never was, acting in ways he never did, and confounding audiences and experts alike. Scott, perhaps channeling Phoenix’s attitude, dismissed criticism suggesting that historians “get a life.”  

“Napoleon” highlights a central challenge of historical fiction—capturing known events and figures, while creating a compelling story. Too much of the former can render the latter bland. Too much storytelling can create self–perpetuating popular myths, especially on the big screen with audiences receiving just enough of the truth to see the broad outlines, but too little to separate fact from fiction. Distilling the truth from lies is even more challenging in a place like Russia where, as Peter Pomerantsev wrote, “nothing is true and everything is possible.”  

Giuliano da Empoli straddles this line rather well and quite enjoyably, but at considerable potential peril, in his fictional insiders account of president Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, “The Wizard of the Kremlin.” As someone who is not predisposed to reading or enjoying fiction, I must unequivocally say that I loved Empoli’s novel.  

The reputation of Empoli’s book preceded its English–language arrival. Now published in over 30 languages, it won high acclaim and several literary prizes in France, turning the Swiss–Italian author into a “Kremlinologist” for some. Its reach and influence even caused some worry within Paris that it could influence the debate on Russia and Ukraine. Whether it will or not affect Paris’ political debate is unclear, and perhaps ascribes too much influence to a single novel no matter how good it is; it nonetheless certainly captured a great deal of interest within French elite circles. More pertinently for readers of any varietal, appreciating “The Wizard of the Kremlin” requires the careful separation of Empoli’s book into two parts—a narrative story and a political story. The risk, one due to no fault of Empoli, is that less savvy readers will conflate the two. 

As a narrative story, Empoli’s book is truly superb. A former, seemingly retired, Kremlin insider recounts his life and experiences to a French researcher, with whom he happens to share a love of obscure literature. Modeled on Vladislav Y. Surkov, a close Putin advisor who is often credited with creating “Putinism,” the protagonist, Vadim Baranov, weaves a story from his grandfather’s time in the Russian Imperial Court through his father’s role in the Soviet Union, to his own experiences in the heady times of post–collapse Russia and Moscow’s resurgence. Baranov, an aspiring theater student, is taken into Putin’s confidence, after having been originally tapped on the shoulder by Boris Berezovsky. He has his paramour stolen by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and is in all the right places at the right times in recent Russian history. He finds himself in the midst of, participating in, or merely observing the consequential events of Putin’s rise and the creation of contemporary Russia. 

Its literary device is superb and compelling. How fascinating would it be to share an expensive Scotch with Nikolai Patrushev? Perhaps I am alone here, but I would welcome a chance to hear what ostensibly happened during key events in Russia’s modern history from someone in the room (taken with a very hefty grain of salt). It is a clever narrative device, but also one that exposes its vulnerabilities and structural challenges. Narratively, the reader must assume that Baranov is a reliable narrator, that what he says is the truth. The reader is given no reason to suspect that what he says isn’t fact, but there are also plenty of reasons to doubt Baranov’s story. Is he really the only Russian politico who isn’t entirely self–serving? The one Kremlin insider without an ax to grind? Perhaps he is the exception to the rule. 

The same conceit that makes “The Wizard of the Kremlin” such a smashing novel also contains the central risk: that less savvy readers will succumb to a literary version of confirmation bias. Empoli recounts events with which readers are likely at least passingly familiar, but presents them in a way that fits neatly within preexisting notions and conceptions about Putin and modern Russia. These readers will see that which they assume to be true. The bold narrative line drawing that Empoli presents loses its fidelity the closer it gets to political reality. 

Critics have said that Empoli presents a Putin that is too sympathetic. Arguably the issue is that the Putin that is presented fits too neatly with what readers would expect. Putin is, in Empoli’s telling, a reluctant but calculating figure plucked from relative obscurity, who grew into the “tsar,” as he is referred to throughout the book. Sitting behind the walls of the Kremlin, he orchestrates events. He is isolated in the Kremlin, alone except for his dog. The characterization approaches cliches that present Putin as a master manipulator, a narrative that has far too strong a hold on the public’s understanding of Russia’s president. It mirrors propaganda more than reality, which is disappointing as the reality is arguably far more interesting. 

In the broadest strokes possible this may be accurate, but it misses Putin’s dithering and unwillingness to act until necessary, his inability to decide until he has no other choice, and the extent to which he is shaped by the waves of events. It also assumes a Sauron-esque omniscience that is decidedly not reflected in reality—when Putin pays attention, things get done. When his attention is elsewhere, governors and politicos alike will pursue their own agendas. 

The Russian actors in Empoli’s narrative move with far too neat, clear–cut one–dimensional purpose, either of their own accord or through the manipulation of Baranov. Here again, an audience less au fait with Russian politics or power dynamics would nod along and see a literary reflection of the reality they assume is true. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin, for example, makes an appearance presenting his solution to the information war with the West—the Internet Research Agency. Prigozhin offers up a Russian political wunderkind before being slapped down by Baranov who tells the (now–late) Prigozhin the real master plan to manipulate the West. This scene is just missing ominous Bond–esque theme music to accompany the grand twist, that Moscow wanted the West to find out about the Kremlin’s meddling. Here again, audiences will reference what they think they know versus what actually happened. 

Baranov ventures to Donbas after the illegal annexation of Crimea and opening salvos of war with Ukraine. In this scene he expounds on how the war was never meant to be won and that the fighters are merely pawns in a larger game—much to the disappointment of his battlefield interlocutor. This whole narrative strays too close to the conception that it was all about Russia and Putin’s grand master plan, and not as much about political entrepreneurs, mercenaries, disaffected Ukrainians, and more that forced the Kremlin’s hand (as brilliant recounted by Anna Arutunyan in her book “Hybrid Warriors: Proxies, Freelancers and Moscow’s Struggle for Ukraine.”)

Novels are meant to introduce us to the lives of others; to see the world through others’ eyes in a manner that nonfiction is unable to provide. Empoli certainly achieves this. The Russia he presents is alien to Western readers; the power and purpose of the Kremlin is out of step with elite, intellectual European sensibilities. 

In the blurring of this narrative and political story, then, lies the rub. Empoli has penned what is a truly enjoyable novelization of politics and power in contemporary Russia (for the reviewer it ticks many boxes). If it is accepted as such, Empoli will have met with deserved literary success. If it is taken as more than that, as many seem to have done, problems arise. Indeed, how many fiction books have received a full treatment in Foreign Policy magazine? 

Is “The Wizard of the Kremlin” a must–read because it is a superb novel? Most definitely. It is very rare that a fictional work grips me as fully as Empoli’s book did. Is it a must–read because it somehow explains Russia’s politics and pursuit of power? Not entirely. It offers a teasing glimpse of the world through the eyes of Russia’s leaders. Yet, there is no one single book that will explain any country—fiction or otherwise. While the desire to find “the” answer or a single key to unlocking understanding is perhaps understandable, it is an ultimately fruitless venture and risks damaging real insights and understanding. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.