“The Magician of the Kremlin”: Giuliani Da Empoli’s novel about Putin’s whisperers and rise

Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin is now well known from analogue and social media. However, he rarely does so under his name, but as head of the paramilitary group Wagner, a mercenary army that has been trying to take the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine together with the Russian army for months.

Born in 1961 in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, Prigozhin sat in prison for almost a decade until 1990. After his release, he ran various restaurants in his hometown and became Vladimir Putin’s favorite chef, the “Chef of the Kremlin”.

Giuliano da Empoli’s novel The Magician in the Kremlin describes Prigozhin as an “unassuming-looking, bald-headed man who smiled modestly and actually stuck to his role throughout the meal”, namely that, Putin and his entourage “everyone to fulfill gastronomic desires.” Da Empoli then explains that he is more than just Putin’s cook with “an expression between a gangster and a janitor”.

Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky

His second narrator, the same magician of the Kremlin who gave the title, Vadim Baranov, a fictional adviser to Putin here, meets Prigozhin several times after the restaurant visit in order to have an intellectual exchange with him about God and the world, about casinos as “monuments to human irrationality “, but above all about the possibilities of influencing the politics of western countries.

It’s about taking sides with a wide variety of system-critical groups from the right and left, be it the gun lobby or climate activists, the production of chaos and the most contradictory revelations: “You will no longer know who or what to believe! The only thing they will understand is that we have entered their brains and are playing with their neural circuits as if it were one of your slot machines.”

The meeting of Prigozhin and Baranov is one of the highlights of this novel. Because Empoli tells the story of how Putin came to power, was initially underestimated and then gradually expanded his power system – not least with the help of his close confidant Vadim Baranov. Its real role model is said to be Putin’s longtime advisor Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief ideologist from 2013 to 2020, often referred to as the “third man in the state”.

In fact, “The Kremlin Magician” is populated by many real figures from recent Russian history, most notably, of course, Putin, “the Tsar,” and his early patron and later defector, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. But Mikhail Khodorkovsky or Alexander Saldostanov, founder and president of the Russian motorcycle and rocker club “Night Wolves”, also have appearances, all men whose Wikipedia entries are longer than Da Empoli could portray them exhaustively.

Nominated for the Prix Goncourt

What is special about his novel, which was nominated for the Prix Goncourt last year, is that it puts Europe and Russia together, so to speak, and bundles and describes developments that resulted in Russia’s attack on Ukraine and this war that has been going on for more than a year from perestroika through the wild, ultra-capitalist nineties to the time of the Maidan in 2013 and 2014 in Ukraine, from the first murders of Putin critics to the staging of the Olympic spectacle in Sochi. (Which is why Baranov could also be an amalgamation of Surkov and Konstantin Ernst, a Russian media mogul who also directed in Sochi.)

“The Magician of the Kremlin” has two narrative levels that are clearly separated from each other: First, there is a first-person narrator, who is a literary scholar by profession, who sets out in Moscow on the trail of the forgotten 1920s writer Yevgeny Zamyatin and, in turn, is tracked down by Baranov becomes. He invites him to his house on the outskirts of Moscow and finally begins to tell the story of his life and that of Russian politics up to the present day.

The Tsarist Empire was born out of war, and it was only natural that it eventually returned to war.

Giuliani Da Empoli

Da Empoli, who, as a trained political scientist, was himself an adviser to the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzo, tells a fast-paced, direct and exciting story, including a few colorful superfluities. Above all, his dialogues give an idea of ​​how things are at the center of Russian power, possibly even in Putin’s mind.

Here the obvious Machiavellianism unfolds best; here in Baranov’s melancholy sinister reflections there are compellingly logical sentences at the end of his story: “The empire of the tsar was born out of war, and it was only logical that it finally returned to war. That was the unshakable basis of our power, our original sin.” The nightmare, which is also a fundamental essence of the novel, will never end.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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