THE WIZARD OF THE KREMLIN. Giuliano da Empoli is an Italian and Swiss political essayist, journalist and novelist. The founding chairman of Volta, a think tank based in Milan, he was an advisor to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi from 2014 to 2016. Now he is a professor at Sciences Po, The Paris Institute of Political Studies. In 2022 da Empoli published in French his debut novel Le mage du Kremlin, for which he received Le Grand Prix du Roman from l’Académie française. In the process of being translated all over the world, the English language title is The Wizard of the Kremlin.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Giuliano da Empoli, your novel The Wizard of the Kremlin plunges us into the psyche of Vadim Baranov, a fictional alter ego of Vladislav Surkov, who was Vladimir Putin‘s spin doctor until 2021. Did you foresee that events in Russia would go as they have?
The novel was entirely written before the war in Ukraine and came out when Putin started his offensive in Spring 2022. I don’t think it predicted the war, because war in Crimea had already started in 2014. The main character in my book, Vadim Baranov, is one of Putin’s spin doctors, an advisor who comes from the world of theatre and sees propaganda as a piece of performance art. He’s putting in place a whole political theatre, almost as if he was an artist. At the beginning he’s on Putin’s side, but then he has to face the fact that even with all his communication and manipulation skills, still there is a foundation of violence to Putin’s power that he will have to come to terms with. All this actually led to war, and in the end is very coherent with the trajectory of the novel.
Your character Vadim Baranov was inspired by Vladislav Surkov, the grey eminence of Putin. Baranov tells the fascinating story about when Yeltsin was losing power and why they chose Putin, not understanding what would happen?
Yeltsin’s system of power, Yeltsin’s family – not just his direct family but also the oligarchs and all the people that became rich during the Yeltsin period – made a mistake in terms of casting, because they chose Putin. That often happens in systems of power, because when you choose someone, you don’t usually choose the cleverest or the strongest leader. You try to choose someone that you will be able to control. Although Putin looked like that, actually he was quite different from what they expected him to be. One of the first things he did was to get rid of the so-called oligarchs, which they also didn’t see coming because they thought that that would be impossible. They had power and also had established themselves as businessmen and thought that they would be protected by the fact that they were public figures and part of the business community. What they didn’t realise was that they were very unpopular in Russia, and that when Putin started banishing them, exiling some and putting others in jail, it was good publicity for him. It was at the core of his re-election campaign in 2004 because he was punishing people that were seen as profiteers by most of the Russian public. In the book I quote the example of Stalin when the Russian Soviet railways wouldn’t work. He made the Director General of the Soviet railways confess publicly that it was his fault because he was sabotaging and stealing. Then Stalin would not only fire him, but put him in front of a firing squad. It wouldn’t solve the problem of the Soviet railways, but it would be popular, because people would say, oh, well, that’s why the railways don’t work, and now we have a culprit and he’s been punished, and so this is good. Punishing the oligarchs was in one way a power play from Putin’s side, but it was also very popular with the public.
“The great paradox is that the longer you have power the less you listen.”
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the Russian politician and former intelligence officer serving as the current president of Russia. Putin has served continuously as president or prime minister since 1999: as prime minister from 1999 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2012, and as president from 2000 to 2008 and since 2012.
Giuliano da Empoli, your fictional character Vadim Baranov becomes the grey eminence of Putin. Did Putin know his destiny would be to assume power because he was in the KGB? How did it go?
It’s always a combination of different things. Circumstances interacted with something in Putin’s character and life experience. My character Baranov comes from the theatre world. When he starts to get to know Putin he says that Stanislavski, the great practitioner of Russian theatre, used to say there are three types of actor. There’s a brilliant actor who is very good one evening and the next evening he’s so bad, he’s erratic. Then there’s a steady actor, and he’s not so good but he’s reliable and if you put him in a play he’s always good. And then he says there’s a great actor, and the great actor is someone that practically doesn’t even need to act, because he’s acting himself – so he’s completely identified with the part. After the first few days with Putin, Baranov starts thinking that Putin is that third kind of actor, a great actor completely identified with the part. The tragedy is that Baranov is an unusual character who is fond of and fully immersed in Western pop culture. He uses it to consolidate Putin’s power, but in the end this leads him very far from European culture and from the West. His work is this sort of post-modern theatrical internet, and Putin doesn’t have that. Putin is pre-modern, he’s never been on the Internet, not on social media. So he needed to have someone that would add that whole post-modern communication Internet 2.0 strata to him. But all this is playing into a model of leadership that’s very far from Western standards, one that’s based on violence from the very beginning of Putin’s rise.
Dictators and rulers usually don’t listen to other people but Putin has an ear for Vadim Baranov. Putin likes him, and only much later gets tired of him?
Putin understands that Baranov is bringing something that he doesn’t have. Putin can’t be controlled. He is a leader. But again, he’s a kind of a pre-modern leader, and while he goes back to the Russian tradition of autocracy and the Soviet tradition of the KGB and all that, he also understands that that is not enough, especially if you want to keep up the pretense of having a democratic debate inside your own society, and especially if you want to project that outside in your relationship with the West and with the rest of the world. He needs Baranov because he needs his skills, and the way that Baranov will use and manipulate the media and create a whole system will be useful to Putin. To get power, you need to listen to others and to understand situations because that’s how you get power. Even in a dictatorship it works like that, not just in a democracy. But then, once you have power, you focus much more on yourself and you listen to others less, and anyway the others just tell you what they think you want to hear and there’s a court mechanism. The great paradox is that the longer you have power the less you listen – and that’s why in the West we try to limit the time that people can spend in power. After more than 20 years in the Russian system, where there are few checks on power, of course Putin would listen less and less, and accept contradiction less and less.
Angela Merkel, the most respected Western European leader, was another leader in power for a long time. Baranov describes that she had a kind of shyness vis a vis Putin, and there is this fantastic scene when Putin, who knows that she hates and is afraid of dogs, arrives to meet her with his black Labrador. Obviously Angela is nervous, not at all at ease. Is that something that Baranov/Surkov organised for Putin or was it instinctive to him?
In the book he says it was Putin’s idea because it was really brutal. The video of the actual event is still online. Labradors are nice dogs, but they’re quite big and it becomes a very violent scene if you consider Merkel’s phobia for dogs. I describe that scene and say that that’s when Putin decided that the dog would be his Foreign Minister. Caligula designated a horse to be in the Senate, but Putin did even better by designating his dog as a Foreign Minister. It’s a metaphor but it also means something, because when you introduce this black dog into the picture in 2007 you’re violating all the rules of polite international relations. That is the moment you see Putin deciding to bring in an element of chaos and violence in his relationship with the West, including with his main partner that was Germany and Angela Merkel at the time. Of course, for a novel you need revealing images like that, because a novel is really a tale. The whole point was not to write an essay and a geopolitical analysis of Putin, but to tell a story.
At the end of the day what will happen to Vadim Baranov?
Like his very different real life model Surkov they’re both retired but they haven’t escaped. They’re just staying home. Even recently a rumour was going around that Surkov was under house arrest. Apparently that is untrue, but what is true is that there’s very little space for a character like this in the current situation. Putin doesn’t accept any form of contradiction anymore, plus naked violence has replaced manipulation. There’s very little room for a character like Baranov, who considers violence a kind of sloppiness and thinks that manipulating is much better. But now we’re in in a violent dimension. Even internally, if you disagree with the official line in Russia you go to jail. It’s not about manipulation anymore, it’s very black or white. People like the fictitious Baranov and the real Surkov don’t have much room to do things.
“All our technology and all our advancement on so many levels can also be used the wrong way.”
Giuliano da Empoli, how did you get to know so well the nomenklatura, life in Russia and the Russian mentality?
I’m certainly not a Kremlin insider, but I did a lot of research and reading. I did go to Russia a few times and met people over the years, but fundamentally I still made a big effort of imagination. Ever since the first time I went to Moscow, it really impressed me. It’s a city where you feel the presence of power – and of an oppressive power – more than anywhere else in the world. There are other places where power is stronger, like in Beijing, but you feel it less. In Moscow, you feel it. You experience it physically. You have the Kremlin at the centre. You have the Stalinist architecture all around. The way people walk, the way people speak. It scared me and impressed me a lot, and made me feel like going deeper into it, and so I studied a lot. Also I do have an experience of power in a different context, and I believe that some mechanisms of power are the same wherever you go.
You have been close to power and have been in power yourself, but it seems that you are most fascinated by the aesthetics of power?
Abraham Lincoln used to say almost everybody can face trouble and problems and crisis, but if you want to know someone, give him power. That’s very true. It’s such a magnifying lens on people’s characters and feelings, who they are and how they behave. It’s something that has been very present in my life from the very beginning for several reasons, and yes I am fascinated by it but I would say I have an attitude of méfiance, of distrust. It’s something that you’re also very wary of. That’s probably also the attitude of my character in the book.
In your book you describe very well the difference between influence and power, and also the limits of influence. After a certain point, a man of influence cannot go?
Exactly. That is the point where power goes to its essence. The connection between politics and violence is a very intimate one. In theory politics is there to prevent people from killing each other, but it’s also very violent in itself because it accumulates all that violence, and then, when you go back to basics, it tends to revert to violence. That’s where the influencers, people who are more in that sphere – like the character in my book – reach their own limits.
You are a Professor and teach at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies. What do you think about hundreds of thousands of young people dying today in conditions like the First World War?
It’s shocking and painful. If you were growing up like I did in the 80s and 90s you would study history, World War One, the 20s and the 30s and what happened around Europe and elsewhere. But you wouldn’t really understand it because it was something in books that felt very, very far from what you were experiencing. What’s terrifying about what we’ve been living for the last few years is that now we understand it again because we see it again. We see it in different forms and some things have changed, but the basic emotions, some of the basic mechanisms, some of that stuff that happened to Europe in the first half of the 20th century, now we are going through an experience that makes us understand not just intellectually but in our bones. It’s with us again. It will play out in a different way, because circumstances are different, but it’s very scary, and the antidotes that we have against that are very weak. All our technology and all our advancement on so many levels can also be used the wrong way. It’s not protecting us.
Giuliano da Empoli was a political advisor to Matteo Renzi, who served as prime minister of Italy from 2014 to 2016
“Part of the new thinking is that if you go all the way, Putin will have to back down and surrender. Maybe. But maybe not.”
Giuliano da Empoli, having studied Putin’s character and the environment and the situation so deeply because of writing the Wizard of the Kremlin , what is your personal view about Putin and how this war will end?
Putin only understands and only respects strength, so he needs to be faced with strength. The European reaction has been good until now. On the other hand, we have to be very careful, because I don’t think that he will back down. There was a lot written about Putin being the richest man in the world, accumulating a huge amount of money and things, which is true. He did become very rich, and lots of people around him became very rich during his regime, but that wasn’t defining for him. If he had just wanted to enjoy his money he wouldn’t be in the situation he is in now. Berlusconi would not have started a war, because he wants to enjoy life and his money and all that more than anything else. Putin is not like that. He might have all the villas and all the things, but it’s not his main goal.
There’s an immense pride in being Russian, and Russia is a tough country, almost another world?
Yes. And even now confronting a very difficult situation there’s a sort of pride and almost of glee in Putin, in people from his circle, but also in a part of the general population which is, of course, suffering and now facing the whole world. But the thinking is, we’re stronger than they are and we can take much more suffering than they can so in the end we will prevail. All this is so different from our way of thinking and of seeing things. We should always take this into account when we make our calculations. Now people are saying we can’t afford a long war, we should make it as short as possible, we have to go and crush him, and we have to take back Crimea. Part of the new thinking is that if you go all the way, Putin will have to back down and surrender. Maybe. But maybe not.
Do you think he’s mocking Western Europe in a way?
I think he was surprised, and unpleasantly surprised, by the European reaction. He didn’t expect the strength of the European reaction on every count. So this was a surprise for him. He probably still thinks that that we’re fundamentally weak and that we will relent. It’s up to us to try to show him that we’re not.
The Russians are unpredictable, because they are romantic and they’re also violent.
That’s why some of us love Russian literature and culture in so many ways, but if you transfer that into public and political affairs and you are at war with that, it becomes more problematic.
Good luck Giuliano da Empoli. Let’s hope you will keep writing novels.
I’ll try my best.
Thank you so much.
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