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Boris Akunin in Berlin: "We are all fixated on the question 'Who is to blame?' rather than 'What can be done?’


Anna Rosch attended Boris Akunin's meeting with other readers in Berlin.

There was already a queue in front of the hall half an hour before it started. Noise filled the room as acquaintances unexpectedly found each other.

- And you're here?
- Everyone is here!
- Everybody wants to let others know what side they are on!

There were so many people that there weren’t enough seats for everyone. An organiser approached the microphone and announced:

- "Dear friends, don't worry! We will seat everyone!

The audience responded in laughter. "Thank you, we'll stand."

He appeared quietly: he walked along the edge of the hall and up onto the stage. Arguments about seats were replaced by applause. Akunin began by saying that the proceeds from the meeting will be donated to the True Russia organisation. He set it up with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sergei Guriev to unite people of Russian culture who oppose the war in Ukraine and help the affected Ukrainians.

Photo: Anna Rosch

As an introduction, the author read the first two chapters of a new novel, The Devil's Advocate, which spoke of the "not so distant future". The tale begins like this:

"Yandex news: - McDonald's is coming back to Russia. The "repa fries", "borschtchovik pai" and "ivanchai cola" beloved by Russians will remain on the menu".

After the National Leader had a stroke, the freed political prisoner Mandelny became president. In the new, beautiful Russia, human rights have been declared the main value, and in prisons, bars are shaped like the sun with rays. Writer Boris Turgenchikov, who left the former regime, returns to Russia and is asked to become the "public defender" of the most hated criminal in the country - the former vice-secretary of the office of the "National Leader". What happens next we shall find out in a couple of weeks, when the story is published in electronic form.

At the meeting Grigory Shalvich was asked whether his story is a prophecy or a warning?

“It is a warning. Everything that happens is very scary.

I think we should be afraid. We should fear the future of Russia because if we don't, the country will fall back into the pit it has already fallen into.

We must be mature, we must be responsible, we must understand these dangers, we must foresee them. And when this regime collapses, and it will, what will replace it must not follow the same road and path. We have already seen once how this country, from being the freest in the world, is again turning into some kind of North Korea.”

After the reading Akunin answered questions. They were written on pieces of paper and passed forward. Suddenly, from somewhere in the back of the hall came a voice:

“Can I have a question from Ukraine?”

A girl with a dark karee and a chequered shirt came to the microphone:

“I come from Ukraine and meeting my favourite writer is the best thing that has happened to me in the last six months of my life”

The crowd applauded. The girl asked:

“When do you think the war in my country will end?”

“I am afraid it will not end soon. I am of course happy for the Ukrainian army, which is celebrating victories now. However, I am very well aware that this war will not be won on the battlefield. For it to be won, there must be some very different events and changes - both within Russia and in the world. So, endurance, patience and solidarity are all we have left.”


Regarding the war in Ukraine he said:

“[The danger of the red button] I often assess. A huge nuclear power is being practically indiscriminately led by the man who on February 24th arranged what he arranged. [...] [He] can arrange anything when he has no way out and nowhere to retreat to. [...] I believe the world has been in such a dangerous situation as this, since, well, maybe never.

[After February 24th], first of all, there was a feeling in my perception of reality that it could all come to an end. A sense of the fragility of the world. Not my personal world, as it's clear that a brick can fall on any of us at any moment, but the world as a whole. Secondly, a very painful and important thing for me is the feeling of a collapse of the Russian civilization, which we are already beginning to see. The word "Russian world" became an obscene word which is already indecent to pronounce though there is nothing bad in the word "Russian" or in "world"; they have merged with this brutal, aggressive force to such an extent that it is very difficult to separate one from the other.

Whilst tragedies are occuring in Ukraine, I don't think any of us have any serious fears about Ukraine's future. We understand that everything will be okay in the end. It will pass through these trials, it will be stronger, it will survive. Unfortunately, however, we can't say the same about Russia. This feeling is very difficult for me, as a Russian author.

I think Ukrainians have to decide for themselves whether they want to divide Russians into 'good' and 'bad'. [...] We have our own interests and we are us. If Ukrainians treat all of us badly, it is sad. This, however, would not relieve us from the need to solve our own problems. We ourselves must divide our compatriots into those who are against the war and dictatorship and those who are on the other side. [...] We still have to unite with some and divide with others, because this is our common task. We are not going anywhere from it.

As for these discussions about responsibility, collective or not, whether all Russians should or should not kneel for life, I have to tell you that personally I am fed up with these discussions. Not because they are meaningless, they are meaningful. Rather, because of the two eternal Russian questions, for some reason we are all fixated on the question "Who is to blame?" rather than "What can be done?" [...].”


About the future of Russia he said:

“I see a lot of excitement and discussion right now about how Russian culture is under attack and how difficult it is for the poor Russian culture. It is a difficult time, but I don't really need to think about it now, because there are much more tragic and serious things going on. You can't kill culture. If you cripple it, it will only recover and be healthier than before. Therefore I am not especially worried about Russian culture.

I am even less worried about the Russian language. The Russian language is not going anywhere. I think that a lot of people in Ukraine, probably all, or at least the majority [...] will now want to speak Ukrainian. That's normal. A big, important country is emerging before our eyes. It will have a strong culture: and thank God. There will be one "big" culture in Europe and in the world. The Russian language, however, will of course not go anywhere. It will get rid of all those horrible new languages that have now emerged. "Denazification", "special operation", "claptrap" and so on.

We - I mean the people who are against the dictatorship and against the war - have no other tool and weapon than words. We do not have police, and we do not have the "A" Department. We do however, have views, we have convictions. Most of us have a good education. Most of us have a pretty high IQ.

When we talk to people who, from our point of view, are influenced by propaganda or turn a blind eye, or don't want to think about unpleasant things and shun politics, by no means should we berate them, call them "cottonmouths", "morons", "a nation of slaves" etc. That's counterproductive. We should talk to them respectfully.

People need to be reassured. In my experience, in many cases this works. I am not talking to Ukrainians, I am talking to Russians. We must understand very well that neither the West nor Ukraine will solve our problems. Russians must defeat the dictatorship themselves.

I think that Russia will become a normal country no sooner than it changes its state structure. This state was created in the 15th century by the rules which imply hypercentralism. Over the centuries this tendency has only intensified, because there is no other way of keeping this huge and motley country together: only through hypercentralism, through violence, through fear when necessary.

We all remember, as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, as soon as the central stranglehold and fear disappeared, everybody started to disperse.

The quality of a country is not determined by its size, but by the quality of life of the people who live there. [...] Russia must go through a stage of self-sufficient growth and development of different regions. They should stop considering themselves younger brothers in relation to Moscow. At the next stage, I think it is quite possible that these subjects will want to unite again in one form or another given their common history and common economic interests.

If we're not afraid of each other, if we understand why we need to do something together, everything will be fine. All this nonsense about slavery, rooted in genetics, will be dissolved in one generation and there will be nothing left.

Just as Ukrainians lived for 30 years in a non-imperial system - and grew up a free nation.”

To the question whether he is waiting for Putin's death:

“No. You see, the thing is... I have some feeling that we shouldn't count on freebies.”

Photo: David Levenson / Getty Images

About human civilisation and values:

“I'm a positivist by nature. That means that my glass is half-full. I don't want to live my life any other way. I am convinced that there is progress, and a lot of it. For me, the indicator of progress is not some gadgets but the level of relations between people in society. Even if just look at the last century, we can see how much more tolerant, kinder, and empathic people have become.

I want to say that human beings as a species should be judged by the part that is in the most privileged position to live. I think this, as when human beings exist under unbearable conditions, they become dehumanised. [...]

A hundred years ago, many European people enjoyed going to see public executions. Now, I don't think there are many who would like to. The fact that it is fashionable and 'trendy' to help and sympathise is also very important, because with the exception of some particularly unique people, most of us are not. We are like frogs. We are made by the temperature of the water in the pond. If society benefits from being a decent person, it is a good society.

The main criterion for the development of civilization is self-esteem.”

About creativity:

“Ever since I became a writer, I have stopped reading fiction written by other authors. I feel it's bad for me to read fiction written by others. They throw me off my own wavelength.

The reader who follows the story shouldn't notice that I'm bogging it down. I put them in a kind of space woven of words, and it's much more important than the plot. If the reader reads it and thinks, "Oh, how beautifully written," it means the writer has screwed up.

In order to describe a place, I have to go there, I have to feel it. I'm very sensitive to places. I need to go to a place and understand something irrational about it, and it begins to affect me. Or I don't understand it, I try not to write about it. Or I do write, and it sucks.

Well-written prose isn't built on the plot. It's built on characters. They have to be alive. All of them, even the little ones.

When I write a novel, I first make files on all the characters that are there. Even before I even have a plot, I learn about each of them and their entire lives. Ninety percent of the stuff I learn never makes it into the novel, but because that person is alive to me, every word or movement he makes has some logic of its own that relates to this deep understanding of the character.”

When asked if there would be a sequel to Fandorin's adventures or something like that:

I ended up in Berlin because I'm now travelling through cities and towns and trying to fumble for some history, to find traces of it. The more experience I have and the older I get, the less writerly self-confidence I have and the more I start to trust in some irrational things that you have to guess and grasp from somewhere, not make it up. It's a very interesting process, the functioning of which I don't really understand myself. [...] If things work out, I might very well compose something else.

I'm afraid of fear, so I try to keep it out of me. There is only one fear that I don't want to let go of, and that I keep to myself. It is the fear of not doing my job well.

Note by: Anna Roche

Cover photo:

«We'll wait for brighter times». Zemfira's concert in Berlin

«We'll wait for brighter times». Zemfira's concert in Berlin

Lavon Volski's charity concert in Utrecht on 2 December
Event/The Netherlands

Lavon Volski's charity concert in Utrecht on 2 December