One of the more extraordinary literary successes in France last year was a debut novel called Le Mage du Kremlin (“The Wizard of the Kremlin”) by the political scientist Giuliano da Empoli. The book takes the form of a confessional by Vadim Baranov, a character who based on the real-life figure of Vladislav Surkov, who was a key adviser to Vladimir Putin and his chief head of communications. Surkov was relieved of these roles in 2020 on Putin’s orders, but his influence and ideology lingers on in the Putin administration.
In the novel Surkov/Baranov takes us on a guided tour of the secret workings of the Kremlin, revealing the thinking and methods that have guided Russia’s actions in recent conflicts, from the war in Chechnya to the present crisis in the Ukraine. Empoli is a skilled storyteller and with such rich material to hand it is unsurprising that the book is compelling and convincing, fully deserving of its bestseller status.
Although Le Mage du Kremlin has received an overwhelmingly positive response in France, there has been a certain amount of unease about whether the book may have represented Putin (who is referred to only as the Tsar) in a favourable light. This is a particularly difficult issue in France, where there is a long-standing Russophilia among intellectual and politicians, and it is all the more important right now as France commits to Nato, sending materials and other support to Ukraine.
Until the war in Ukraine, support for Putin came from both ends of the political spectrum. On the left Jean-Luc Mélenchon was brought closer to Putin by their shared opposition to Nato. On the right Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen have admired Putin’s strongman image and his anti-Europeanism. Le Pen was not above taking loans from Russia to support her political party. All of that changed, however, when Putin launched his illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Mélenchon rushed to publicly condemn the war (although in the same breath he denounced Nato as “a useless organisation”). Le Pen made it clear that she was against the war, although when I asked her about it last February, only a few days after Putin had launched his “special operation”, she pointed the finger too at Nato’s game-playing and self-interest.
The loudest dissenting voices about French policy towards Ukraine have come from the fringes, the likes of the far-right polemicist Alain Soral or the provocative comedian Dieudonné (who has named his cat “Putin”). Michel Eltchaninoff, an expert on Russian affairs and Putin’s strategies, has written that the real danger is not that French intellectuals offer open support for Putin’s war but that they manage to throw doubt on Ukraine’s narrative of the war.
Two recent examples of this came in September 2022. Ségolène Royal, who was the Socialist candidate for the presidency in 2007, publicly questioned “Ukrainian propaganda” on French TV. At the same Arno Klarsfeld, a Franco-Israeli lawyer close to Nicolas Sarkozy (once a prominent ally of Putin), condemned in the press Ukraine’s “glorification” of Nazi collaborators during the Second World War.
The great strength of Le Mage du Kremlin, however, is that no matter how seductive and intriguing you might find the voice of Vadim Baranov, the author never lets you forget that you are in the presence of evil. Its literary achievement elevates the novel above a reductive political analysis of the workings of the Kremlin, bringing it at times closer to Dostoevsky than an academic article or an op-ed.
Most importantly, though, the popularity and critical debates around this book have shown that there is still a residual sympathy with Russia among French intellectuals and politicians. Despite Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s a fascination that has not altogether disappeared.
[See also: Best books of the year]