Boris Akunin: the evolution of Russia’s dissident detective novelist into a master historian

5 February 2018

Writer Boris Akunin. Image: A. Savin under a CC License

Boris Akunin is one of Russia’s best known authors of contemporary fiction, but in recent years he has wrapped up the adventures of his most successful character, Erast Fandorin, and re-invented himself as a writer of Russian history. The Calvert Journal caught up with him to talk literature, politics and career change

This month, Grigory Chkhartishvili, who writes under the pseudonym Boris Akunin, will bid farewell to Erast Fandorin, the ingenious sleuth he created for the detective novels that have made him one of Russia’s most well-known writers. The last book featuring Fandorin, ironically titled Not Saying Goodbye, is set to be published on February 8, exactly 20 years to the day after the release of The Winter Queen, the first Fandorin novel. Fans of the eccentric detective will finally be able to find out whether he will be killed off — or will live happily ever after.

Whatever Fandorin’s fate, the character is inextricably associated with Chkhartishvili. Millions of Fandorin books in dozens of languages have been sold over the course of two decades, making the 61-year old Chkhartishvili famous and wealthy.

There is “a bit of sadness”, the author admits, at the prospect of leaving behind Fandorin and the stylised tsarist-era world he inhabits. But he says “relief” is the overwhelming emotion. “I have outgrown this game. I am motivated by other interests now,” he says in an email exchange, his preferred way of giving interviews.

Actor Oleg Menshikov playing Erast Fandorin in a 2005 television adaptation of Akunin's <em> The State Counsellor </em>” src=“Меньшиков_-_уверяю_вас_-_Я_и_есть_Фандорин.png” style=“width: 1000px; height: 615px;” /></p>

<p>There is little mystery as to what has been taking up his time.</p>

<p>In recent years, the immensely prolific Chkhartishvili (he has over 55 books to his name) has switched his focus to the past — and has been working on a monumental nine-volume history of the Russian state up to 1917. The first volume, <em>History of the Russian State: From Origins to the Mongol Invasion</em>, appeared in 2013. Last year, he published the fifth volume about Peter the Great.</p>

<p>Some hail Chkhartishvili as a bellwether for modern Russia: the Fandorin books were beautiful escapism for Russians experiencing political collapse and economic chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union — while his turn to history reflects a search for self-identity under an increasingly ossified and authoritarian regime. But he has also encountered criticism. Some professional historians express anger about the hubris of a fiction writer slipping so easily into their discipline. After the appearance of the first volume, Russian historian Igor Danilevsky dismissively <a href=described Akunin’s history as “folk-history” written “by a dilettante for dilettantes”.

Monument to 1,000 years of Russian history unveiled in Veliky Novogorod 1862

Chkhartishvili is unapologetic. He cheerfully admits he is not a professional historian — maintaining that is the whole point — and mocks the naysayers as unable to see the wood from the trees. Indeed, he does nothing to hide his own ambitions and embraces a comparison with Nikolai Karamzin, the most famous Russian historian of the 19th century, who started out as a poet. Chkhartishvili’s History of the Russian State has almost exactly the same name as Karamzin’s 12-volume work.

By his own admission, Chkhartishvili’s history is carefully structured: we are currently seeing, he says, the Russian state’s sixth iteration — the fifth being the Soviet Union and the first the 10th-century kingdom of Kiev Rus. But schematism is combined with a lightness of touch and sense of mischief. To find an example you have to look no further than the front cover: the title, The History of the Russian State, is juxtaposed with his pseudonym, Boris Akunin, an obvious reference to 19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, a sworn enemy of states in general, and the the Russian state in particular.

Every attempt to make Russia a freer country inevitably ended in another, often worse, form of unfreedom. Is there something wrong with Russia and Russians, I started to ask myself?

Chkhartishvili has not given up literature: each volume of history is accompanied by a book of fiction set in the same period, giving the project a more playful feel, and perhaps helping it sell better. Alongside the volume about Kievan Rus and the origins of the Russian state, for example, he has written a trilogy of novellas: The Flaming Finger, The Spit of the Devil and Prince Cranberry. But despite the constant switching between history and literature, Chkhartishvili says he has two separate approaches. “In a sense these two genres are opposite,” he explains. “When writing, say, a novel or a play you can never be direct with your message – or you’ll dilute it. The right way to hit the target is to be like Chekhov. You write about some silly cherry orchard that’s due to be cut down, and your reader sighs and thinks: ‘why am I wasting my life?’ But this approach wouldn’t work with history. You have to be as clear as possible.”

Just like his Fandorin novels, Chkhartishvili’s volumes of history have been popular with readers, often topping weekly bestseller lists in Russia. They have not yet, however, been translated into English — although Chkhartishvili says a condensed one-volume history might appear in due course.

Many of Akunin's novels have been translated into English

But where did his preoccupation come from? Chkhartishvili’s fascination with history did not emerge out of nowhere: it has been closely tied up with his political activism, which was born during the anti-Putin movement in Moscow during 2011 and 2012 (the first volume of his histories was published in 2013). Chkhartishvili was closely involved in street rallies, sometimes addressing the crowd from the stage, and in 2012 even led his own “writer’s walk” with authors Dmitry Bykov and Lyudmilla Ulitskaya, which was attended by thousands of supporters. But the anti-Putin movement fizzled out later that year amid a Kremlin crackdown and a failure to achieve any concrete change. Chkhartishvili left Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, amid growing nationalism and what he describes as intolerable “ugliness.”

“I began to feel that I do not understand my own country,” says Chkhartishvili of the decision to write history. “I saw how Russia got rid of totalitarianism in 1991 – and then how it started to create another version of an unfree society. I knew from history that similar things had happened before. Every attempt to make Russia a freer country inevitably ended in another, often worse, form of unfreedom. Is there something wrong with Russia and Russians, I started to ask myself?”

Moscow crowds at the anti-Kremlin Writers Walk organised by Akunin in 2012. Image: Howard Amos

Although he describes himself as an expat (rather than an emigre), Chkhartishvili has not returned to Russia since 2014. The author, who wears full-moon glasses and has a something of an owlish air, currently divides his time between the United Kingdom, France and Spain. Flitting between countries and cultures is something he has been doing his whole life. Born in Georgia, he learned Japanese in Moscow and spent years working as a Russian-Japanese translator before becoming a detective fiction writer (readers of the Fandorin books are very familiar with Chkhartishvili’s love of Japanese culture). In December, he took a month off writing to learn Spanish. Geography, he says, defines his writing habits. “I am very surrounding-dependent,” he explains. “London is ideal for writing non-fiction, the north of France — for serious fiction, the south of Spain — for hilarious adventure novels.”

London is ideal for writing non-fiction, the north of France — for serious fiction, the south of Spain — for hilarious adventure novels

Despite culture-hopping, Chkhartishvili remains closely tied to Russia. He says he would never attempt to write fiction in a language other than Russian, and last year he was one of a group of experts who drafted a political programme for Kremlin-critic Alexey Navalny ahead of Russia’s presidential elections in March.

Chkhartishvili maintains his history is “non-ideological” — but discussions about the past have increasingly become a proxy for political debates in contmporary Russia, for both supporters of the regime and their opponents. Officials pronounce on the merits of past leaders, from Stalin to Ivan the Terrible, and monuments are erected, or toppled according to the ideological demands of the moment.

Akunin in conversation with the two subjects he spent most of his time writing about in 2017: Erast Fandorin and Peter the Great. Image: borisakunin / Facebook

Unlike many in the Kremlin, Chkhartishvili rejects the notion of a “European” origin for the Russian state, instead locating its beginnings in the “Asian” political traditions imported under the Mongols. “The Russian state was built in the second half of the 15th century (not in ninth like they taught me at school) according to rules of statesmanship devised by Ghenghis Khan. And no Russian ruler, no revolution or reform has ever seriously tried to remake that original layout,” he says. Two of the “indestructible” cornerstones of this Mongol state, which survived through tsarist rule and communism, he says, are an absolute centralisation of power and the sacralisation of the ruler.

Though it has persisted for half a millennium, Chkhartishvili does not see this type of Russia government as inevitable. “There are two ways of ruling such a diverse and immense territory,” he says. “One is the Ghengisian state, totally centralised and autocratic. This method has been tested and found wanting. The other is to remodel Russia into a real federation united by a common purpose.”

It’s hard not to see Chkhartishvili’s history writing project as an attempt to nudge his homeland towards the latter.

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