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The Wizard of the Kremlin takes us inside the mind of Putin’s spin-master

Giuliano da Empoli’s fictionalised portrait of Vladislav Surkov dramatises the birth of the post-truth world.

By David Sexton

The Wizard of the Kremlin, a novelised account of the career of Vladimir Putin’s long-term adviser and spin doctor Vladislav Surkov, has enjoyed phenomenal success since its publication in France in 2022, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some 650,000 copies have been sold. It’s the first novel by Giuliano da Empoli, a 50-year-old French-Italian political essayist and academic, who teaches at Sciences Po Paris and chairs a think tank, Volta, in Milan and was himself a special adviser to Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister from 2014 to 2016.

Da Empoli’s novel renames Surkov as Vadim Baranov, but it tracks his career closely and all of the major figures he meets appear undisguised, including Boris Yeltsin, the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Putin. There’s even a chapter devoted to Putin’s Labrador, Koni, whom he used to intimidate the dog-phobic Angela Merkel.

The fictional set-up is creaky but effective. An unnamed narrator is in Moscow to study Yevgeny Zamyatin, the author of the pioneering dystopian novel We (1924). He spots that a Twitter account he follows, attributed to the now retired “Wizard of the Kremlin”, has cited the writer, and promptly responds by completing the quote. The following evening, a Mercedes whisks him to Baranov’s elegant house, where the Wizard, for no particular reason (“you’ve come all this way”), launches into the full story of his life, over glasses of whisky, through the night. The pretence of the fireside chat is soon dropped, however; the yarn incorporates much extended explanatory dialogue, supposedly recalled verbatim. The one apparently wholly fictional component of the story is Baranov’s grand amour, the beautiful and demanding Ksenia, whom he hooks up with while a penniless theatre student, but loses to his nerdy but super-rich friend Mikhail (Khodorkovsky). Ksenia is, I fear, a cipher for the spirit of Russia, “a tigress”, “a strange and cruel nymph”.

This humiliating experience drives Baranov into a new career, initially working for Berezovsky at the newly privatised Channel One. “Leveraging my theatre experience to enter a career as a television producer was like going from a steam-driven carriage to a Lamborghini”, he says – the whole novel is delivered in such excited prose, like a cross between Jeffrey Archer and the French novelist Frédéric Beigbeder.

Having managed the re-election of the ailing Yeltsin, Berezovsky alights on Putin as a suitable successor, a fresh face, “young, competent, modern”, not realising his imperiousness. Baranov does, though, and immediately becomes Putin’s man, his Rasputin, dispatching Berezovzky into exile, with Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment to follow. Soon, Baranov develops his special brand of post-modern political destabilisation, creating such concepts as “sovereign democracy” and “non-linear warfare”, the baffling strategies that many credit with allowing Russia to take Crimea in 2014 without much response.

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Surkov’s role in the creation of the post-truth world we all now inhabit has been portrayed before, in Peter Pomerantsev’s brilliant account Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2015), for example. Here, though, Surkov/Baranov is made to explain himself quite baldly. Truth and falsity don’t matter compared to making people madder and madder, he says. “What we’re aiming for is not conquest but chaos.”

Da Empoli’s book has been criticised for being too sympathetic to Putin, but where it turns sentimental is with the Wizard himself. After 20 years, Baranov decides to quit, on picking up a child’s mutilated doll on a visit to the Donbas. All his happiness now is the little daughter he has with the recaptured goddess Ksenia. Why did he ever pursue power and follow Putin? “Because, in the end, I had nothing better to do.”

The Wizard of the Kremlin is a fast, easy read, smartly translated by Willard Wood, which efficiently dramatises great sweeps of Russia’s recent political history. Its success in France can be attributed both to the country’s special relationship with Russia and to its flattering embrace of a familiar literary perspective on Russia and its tsars. Baranov repeatedly quotes from the French aristocrat Astolphe de Custine’s scathing Letters from Russia (1839). Baranov says that his revered grandfather told him that Custine, that “son of a bitch” who said the whole country was a prison, remains the best interpreter of Russia. Robin Buss’s Penguin Classics translation of the letters is a treat.

The Wizard of the Kremlin
Giuliano da Empoli, translated by Willard Wood
Pushkin, 304pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge