A Hit French Novel Tries to Explain Putin. Too Well, Some Critics Say.
There are “two things that Russians require from the state: internal order and external power.”
So says a fictional President Vladimir V. Putin in “Le Mage du Kremlin,” or “The Wizard of the Kremlin,” a novel exploring the inner workings of his government that has captivated France, winning prizes and selling over 430,000 copies.
Published shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the novel has become a popular guide for understanding Mr. Putin’s motives. It has also turned its Swiss-Italian author, Giuliano da Empoli, into a coveted “Kremlinologist,” invited to lunch with the French prime minister and to France’s top morning news show to analyze the war’s developments.
The success has illustrated the continued power of literature in France, where novels have long shaped public debate. Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, said through a spokesman that she “really enjoyed his book, which mixes fiction and reality and echoes international current events and the war in Ukraine.”
But in a country where literary hits are a kind of Rorschach test, the novel’s success has also raised concerns about whether it is shaping France’s views on Russia. Its detractors say the book conveys a largely sympathetic portrayal of Mr. Putin that may influence policy in a country that is already chastised as too forgiving of the Russian leader.
“The Wizard of the Kremlin,” which at times reads like an essay, is built around a fictionalized account of a powerful longtime Putin aide musing on Western decadence, the United States’ goal of bringing Russia to “its knees” and Russians’ preference for a strong leader — typical Kremlin talking points that critics say go unchallenged throughout the pages.
At best, the book’s popularity echoes what Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the United States, called “a kind of French fascination with Russia” fueled by a shared history of revolution, empire and cultural masterpieces.
At worst, critics say, it signals lenient views of Mr. Putin that are enduring in France and may shape the country’s stance on the war, as reflected in President Emmanuel Macron’s calls not to humiliate Russia.
“The book conveys the clichés of Russian propaganda with a few small nuances,” said Cécile Vaissié, a political scientist specializing in Russia at Rennes 2 University. “When I see its success, that worries me.”
Dissecting politics was nothing new to Mr. da Empoli. A former deputy mayor of Florence, Italy, and adviser to an Italian prime minister, he has already published a dozen political essays in Italian and French, including one on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run.
The State of the War
- Western Military Aid: Efforts to arm Kyiv have stepped up in recent weeks as the war enters a critical phase. So far missing from the new military aid infusion pledged by Western nations are American and German-made tanks that Ukraine’s leaders say are desperately needed.
- Helicopter Crash: A helicopter crashed in a fireball in a Kyiv suburb, killing a member of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s cabinet and more than a dozen other people, and dealing a blow to Ukraine’s wartime leadership.
- Dnipro: A Russian strike on an apartment complex in the central Ukrainian city was one of the deadliest for civilians away from the front line since the war began. The attack prompted renewed calls for Moscow to be charged with war crimes.
But Mr. da Empoli wanted to try fiction and had a “fascination” with the way Russian power is projected. So he modeled his debut novel’s narrator on one of the country’s most intriguing figures, Vladislav Y. Surkov.
“The challenge of the book is to take the devil’s point of view,” Mr. da Empoli said.
Until recently, Mr. Surkov was Mr. Putin’s chief ideologist and one of the architects of the extreme centralized control exerted by Mr. Putin, earning him a reputation as a puppet master and the title, “Putin’s Rasputin.”
“The character’s rather novelistic nature struck me,” said Mr. da Empoli, a soft-spoken, restrained 49-year-old who now teaches at Sciences Po university in Paris. He added that he had visited Russia four times and had read numerous essays on the country’s politics and the Putin regime during his research.
The narrator chronicles the inner workings of Mr. Putin’s government. He crosses paths with real-life Kremlin players like Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the infamous Wagner mercenary group, with whom he sets up troll farms to spread disinformation and division in the West.
Mr. da Empoli handed in his manuscript to Gallimard, his publisher, two years ago. He said he did not expect much for his first attempt at fiction.
Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The novel, which had long been scheduled for publication in the spring, was one of the first new looks at Mr. Putin. It soon became the talk of the town.
“I don’t go to a dinner or a lunch without offering the book,” said Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a specialist in Russian history who has condemned the war but who has also previously defended Mr. Putin. “It’s a key to understanding Putin.”
Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, said that “the word of mouth was so good” that he felt compelled to read the novel, which he described as “incredibly credible.”
“The Wizard of the Kremlin” was the fifth best-selling book in France in 2022. It received a prize from the Académie Française and fell short of the Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, by only one vote after an extraordinary 14 rounds of voting.
Top politicians and diplomats publicly praised the novel. Édouard Philippe, a former prime minister, hailed it as a great “meditation on power.” Mr. da Empoli was invited on every talk show to analyze the current conflict.
“Circumstances have obviously changed the way the book was received,” said Mr. da Empoli, who sees his novel more as political fiction than as a guide to understanding Russia. “I didn’t necessarily expect that.”
He was not the only one surprised.
Several Russia experts have expressed dismay at the novel’s enthusiastic reception. They say the book is mostly indulgent about Mr. Putin, portraying him as fighting oligarchs for the good of the people and “putting Russia back on its feet” in the face of Western contempt.
In one passage, the narrator describes the pride of Russians upon learning that Mr. Putin had paid a surprise visit to troops fighting in Chechnya on Jan. 1, 2000, his first day as president. “There was a leader in charge again,” he says.
Françoise Thom, a professor of Russian history at the Sorbonne, said these descriptions “completely conceal the sordid dimension of the Putin reality” and are “very close to the Russian propaganda image.”
Ms. Vaissié, the political scientist, put it more bluntly. “It’s a bit like Russia Today for Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” she said, referring to the Kremlin-funded television channel and the Paris redoubt of the French literary elite.
Several French diplomats disagreed, arguing that the novel, if anything, is a useful look into the thinking of the Putin government.
“We have to hear this speech, too,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador in Moscow. “It doesn’t mean that we agree with it.”
French right-wing groups have long sung Mr. Putin’s praises. And prominent intellectuals, like Ms. Carrère d’Encausse, have endorsed the Kremlin’s view that the West humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War.
Under normal circumstances, “The Wizard of the Kremlin” might have fueled a harmless literary quarrel of the sort that periodically grips France.
But not in a time of war.
The arguments over the book are occurring just when divisions persist in Europe over how to deal with Mr. Putin. While Eastern European countries like Poland say he must be defeated outright, Western European nations like France have wavered between unequivocal financial and military support of Ukraine and reaching out to Mr. Putin.
“This book has become almost a textbook of history and politics for French leaders,” said Alexandre Melnik, a former Russian diplomat who opposes Mr. Putin. He pointed to Mr. Macron’s remarks that appeared sympathetic to Russia’s grievances.
Three presidential advisers declined to say, or said they did not know, whether Mr. Macron had read the novel.
Mr. Védrine, the former foreign minister, who has sometimes advised Mr. Macron on Russia, acknowledged that if the French president read the book, it would not lead him to adopt an aggressive stance toward Russia. He added that he saw a medium-term benefit to the book’s popularity: making the case for reaching out to Mr. Putin, “when it will be acceptable.”
“The Wizard of the Kremlin” was released in Italian this past summer, selling about 20,000 copies and earning praise in Italy as a great novel. Nearly 30 translations have been released or are on their way, including into English, but not into Russian or Ukrainian, so far.
Mr. da Empoli said that his only aim was to write a “credible” novel, nothing more. “The book, once it’s out,” he said, “has its own life.”