Putin Foes Have an Ally in Best-Selling Author

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PARIS -- A writer's voice has always had special weight in Russia, but it matters only when Russians are ready to listen. At least that is the experience of Boris Akunin, the best-selling detective novelist who popped up late last year as a prominent member of the political opposition to President Vladimir V. Putin.

"I've always said what I thought," said Mr. Akunin, 56, whose round glasses and slight beard give him the look of an impish owl. "Before, I was rarely asked about my political opinion. When I was, I would say what I thought, but no one was particularly interested."

On a recent rainy evening in Paris, on his way back to Moscow, where the anti-Putin opposition is engaged in an ever riskier game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, Mr. Akunin explained how Russian society, with its growing middle class, was finally coming of age.

"If in the early 1990s, Russia was clearly not ready, now there is a chance to become a democracy, and stay a democracy," he said during an hourlong conversation over a glass of whiskey. "There's a slow movement toward the democratic awareness of Russian society. It's not going fast, but that is good, because fast can be dangerous."

Akunin is in fact a pen name, one of several chosen over the years by Grigori Chkhartishvili, a historian and expert on Japanese culture. Five years ago, he dreamed up two others; one was Anna Borisova, a female writer whose picture was a digitally altered version of himself and whose critical success was a secret delight he shared only with his wife and his publisher, until all was revealed earlier this year.

But Akunin is the name that stuck, and it is the one he uses publicly (it is certainly easier to pronounce), mainly because Akunin is the creator of Erast Fandorin, a 19th-century Russian dandy and gambler whose swashbuckling exploits are told in 14 books that have sold about 30 million copies in Russia alone and been made into three movies.

Mr. Akunin said his value to the protest movement had been precisely his contact with a broad demographic of Russian readers that reaches well beyond the traditional intelligentsia. "If my role is noticed, it is because I am a writer, a writer of mass literature," he said. "My main audience is the middle class."

Still, he has no intention of giving up his writer's life -- quite a comfortable one, at that -- to become a political activist. "Some of us are like a volunteer fire brigade," he said, "but that doesn't mean we want to become professional firefighters."

In what Mr. Akunin considers a "very important" development, about 80,000 members of the Russian opposition went online last month to vote for a "coordinating council." The top vote-getter was the anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, and the second was Dmitry Bykov, a well-known Russian writer and critic.

Mr. Akunin hopes this will finally give leadership and discipline to government opponents who he said had made plenty of mistakes. Luckily for them, he said, the authorities have made even more.

"This face-off, I call it a contest between the 'dumb' and the 'dumber,"' he said. In this case, he says the "dumber" is "the power," the collective noun Russians use to describe their rulers.

Mr. Akunin's political involvement dates from Sept. 24, 2011, when Mr. Putin laid claim to a third term as president. Then came the mass protests over evident fraud during parliamentary elections last December. By the time Mr. Putin was sworn in as president in May, the situation had become clear, Mr. Akunin said.

"There's been an important change," Mr. Akunin said. "He no longer makes any effort to appeal to educated people."

For the past seven years, Mr. Akunin has divided his time between Moscow and Saint-Malo, on the Brittany coast of France, where he writes his books at an astonishing pace. Boris Akunin produces two novels a year "at cruising speed," he said. His other two pseudonyms -- Borisova and Anatoly Brusnikin -- produced three books apiece between 2007 and 2011.

If Mr. Akunin needs the isolation and orderly life of Northern Europe to write, he still relies on Russia for inspiration. "It's easier to come up with ideas in Russia, but when you need discipline, it's not there, it's not an organized place," he said.

As he stepped up his political activities, Mr. Akunin also decided to switch his literary style. First he had to plot an end for Fandorin (how he will do it over the course of two more books remains a secret). "It's not that I am sick of him," he said blithely. "I've just exhausted him: He was like a big cow that I have been milking for so long that there's no milk left."

Then he produced "a heavy depressive Russian novel," called "Aristonomia." "For the first time, I wrote for myself, it was stream of consciousness, something of that sort," he said. He shrugged when asked to explain the title. "The word doesn't exist," he said. "I made it up."

In recent months, the Russian government has stepped up pressure on the opposition. A national television channel has aired two documentaries attacking its motives and methods, in a style redolent of Soviet-era propaganda. Several key leaders have been arrested; one was said to have been kidnapped in Ukraine and brought back to a Moscow prison.

Mr. Akunin has been spared direct attacks, although the tax police have scoured his returns, and his books have been "investigated" for passages that might violate Russia's arcane anti-extremism laws. "It's pretty absurd to talk about extremism in a novel about the 19th century," he said.

The Russian government's heavy-handed tactics give Mr. Akunin reason to be optimistic. "They're getting nervous, first, and second, they're stupid," Mr. Akunin said. "When they try scare tactics, people switch from being indifferent to getting irritated."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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