Russian author Akunin: Putin sees Ukraine as a threat to his rule
Detective fiction novelist Boris Akunin on the war, the cancellation of Russian culture, and a post-Putin future.
Russian author Boris Akunin is among several celebrities and cultural figures to have spoken out against the war in Ukraine.
Of Georgian and Jewish descent, Akunin, whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, is best known for his series of historical mystery novels centred around Erast Fandorin, a 19th-century Russian detective.
Chkhartishvili is also a well-known translator of Japanese works into Russian; his pen name, Akunin, means “bad guy” or “villain” in Japanese.
Akunin is also known for his opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, earning Putin’s ire, and now lives in London.
Al Jazeera spoke to him about the continuing war, the “cancelling” of Russian culture, and his project gathering funds for Ukrainian refugees.
Al Jazeera: You’ve been against the government of Vladimir Putin for a long time. Why?
Boris Akunin: Initially, the reason was that I have no trust for KGB people at all. So someone who comes from the KGB, from my point of view, should not become the president of Russia. So I never voted for Putin. I was always, let’s say, suspicious of him. And my suspicions proved to be true very fast, because the first thing that Putin did, he attacked the independent media. I remember quite well signing letters in support of independent media, and well, we lost.
And then that man was very methodically killing all the branches of democracy. He started with television, he monopolised propaganda and used TV channels to zombify people, and this has been going on for more than 20 years.
So it’s absolutely not surprising that lots of Russians believe all the lies that are being told about Ukraine and about the world in general, not surprising at all.
Then he destroyed the independent courts and judicial system, he destroyed the parliamentary system, then he corrupted presidential elections. There hasn’t been any free presidential election during Putin’s times.
I’ve always spoken out against it. But the problem is that we Russians, we only talk and talk and talk. And that’s what I’ve been doing. Writing, talking, while this man, he was not talking. He was seizing power.
We see what it has brought us to eventually: Russia, Ukraine, and now the whole world is seriously discussing the possibility of nuclear war in the 21st century. This is all Putin’s doing.
Al Jazeera: Your father was a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia. What do you think of Putin evoking the spirit of that fight against Nazism in Russia’s so-called ‘special operation’ today?
Akunin: My father was not a hero. He was an officer in the army and he was at the battle line for all four years of the war, and it was a very rare thing that someone was able to survive the whole war; he was just extremely lucky.
Now, Putin’s propaganda uses words like Nazism very freely. It doesn’t mean anything. For them, it is just a curse word. They call anyone they don’t like Nazis and fascists. Although actually, they, themselves are totally following in Hitler’s and Goebbels’ lines, totally; in their rhetoric, in their politics, in those shameless lies that they use. You know, they do not even allow to use the word, war. You can get arrested if you live in Russia, and you say that there is war in Ukraine. You can only say “special operation”.
There is a popular joke in Russia: Tolstoy’s War and Peace should be now renamed Special Operation and Peace.
Al Jazeera: Many observers thought this war wouldn’t happen because they couldn’t see what Russia has to gain. What’s the end goal?
Akunin: Oh, it’s pretty evident. The reason that Putin has been so hostile to Ukraine since 2014 is very simple, actually. He sees Ukraine as a threat to his rule. Because if Ukraine – which overthrew its government as a result of a revolution in December 2013 – if democratic Ukraine ever becomes a successful state, it would be a constant temptation for Russians to follow suit, because Russia and Ukraine are very close. What’s happening in Ukraine, Russians watch it.
Putin couldn’t afford Ukraine to become a successful state, he needed it to be a failed state, to show to his people that democracy does not work – that if you go against him, then you’re ruined. And that’s why he attacked Ukraine.
Now of course, he also has this crazy idea of restoring the Soviet Empire. He sees himself as a unifier of the nation, or at least the Slavic peoples like Belarus or Ukraine, that was his general idea. In fact, he is destroying not only this unity, he’s destroying the state of the Russian Federation as well in the process.
Al Jazeera: Do you think this war has much support among ordinary Russians?
Akunin: If you look at the results of public opinion polls, you see that 70 to 80 percent of the people support Putin. I looked into these statistics closer, and it’s a very interesting thing. [In one example], they asked by telephone 32,000 people during this poll, which looks impressive. But 29,000 of these refused to answer, so they had to make do with the remaining 3,000. In today’s Russia, it’s not safe to tell someone who calls on the phone what you really think. You shouldn’t believe this data at all.
A lot of Russians now are just bewildered because they do not really, especially if they only watch television, they do not have a clear picture of what is happening because lies and fakes are massive in Russia.
But still, I don’t think that anybody, except paid propaganda people, likes the idea of fighting with the Ukrainians, who are so close to Russians. Nobody wants their sons to be sent to this war and to die there. Besides, sanctions are starting to work. And I think it will be very soon now, probably a matter of months, before Russians will start asking questions. I really do believe that we have now entered the last chapter of the history of Putin’s state.
Al Jazeera: The pro-Russian or pro-Putin camps often talk about the people of Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, who have been dying at the hands of Ukrainian forces for eight years, since the start of the war there in 2014 …
Akunin: During all these eight years, me and a lot of people like me, have said that the conflict in Donbas was provoked and started by Putin, who sent his troops there, who supported separatists, who paid them all this time.
It is a conflict which wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Putin. We have always been against it, and we were very clear about this.
Al Jazeera: You’ve said before that a BBC deal to adapt your Fandorin books collapsed after the Skripal case in 2018. Now, we’re seeing planned events for Russian pianists being cancelled, even if they’ve spoken out against the war. How do you characterise the “cancelling” of Russian culture?
Akunin: This is sadly a side-effect of this war, because in the eyes of the world, the words Russia and Russian have become almost curse words. Everything related to Russia has become toxic. It is not fair, it is a mistake, but it is very understandable emotionally.
Us Russians understand very well that it is Putin’s war, it’s not Russia’s war. But to other people, it is not so evident.
This is why we have recently started a new movement, which is called True Russia; which is against Putin and aims to unite the Russian diaspora all over the world; to show that there are lots of us; that we are for democracy that we are for freedom, and that we are against dictatorship.
The total priority now, we need to help Ukrainian refugees. So far we’ve been able to collect over one million dollars, and there will be more.
After that, after the war in Ukraine is hopefully finished and after the ceasefire, we will continue to unite Russians who believe in democracy to devise a new Russia, which would exist after Putin.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.