Beginning in the summer of 2004, with the publication by Random House of The Winter Queen, American readers now have the opportunity to gain insights into some remarkable developments in Russia’s contemporary literary marketplace.
The Winter Queen was first published in Russia in 1998 with the title Azazel, the first detective novel by a 42-year-old writer named Grigory Chkhartishvili. The author is a professional philologist, literary critic, and translator of classic Japanese literature who writes under the pseudonym Boris Akunin. His pen name comes from the last name of the 19th century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin – B. Akunin. “Akunin” is also a Japanese word for “evil-doer” which, he explains, becomes clear in his fourth novel in his detective series. Today he is the most popular author in Russia.
Chkhartishvili’s career reflects the tumultuous transition that Russia has experienced since the implosion of the Soviet regime. The collapse of Communism brought new artistic freedoms, but left intellectuals struggling to survive in a new capitalistic world. Many Russian writers began to produce mass fiction that highlighted the chaos of the 1990s and focused on gangsters, crime, sex and drugs.
In this context, Chkhartishvili’s innovation was to write historical fiction for a popular audience, targeted primarily at the emerging Russian middle class. One critic noted that he has “created the model of the intellectual best-seller in Russian.” As a result of the success of his books, he has amassed wealth that was previously unimaginable for a member of the Russian intelligentsia.
Chkhartishvili was born in the capital of the Republic of Georgia, Tbilisi, and moved to Moscow with his family when he was a child. His father was an army officer and his mother, a schoolteacher. His home was “Soviet Victorian,” he said, meaning it was severe and reserved. He attended Moscow State University, where he studied history and Japanese and then, for fifteen years, worked as an editor at Foreign Language, the only authorized journal for literary works from abroad published in the USSR.
Chkhartishvili has made it clear that he decided to begin writing popular detective novels when his wife and mother began reading trashy crime novels that they were embarrassed about, often covering them so others on the Metro would not see the book covers. In an interview, he said, “Here in Russia, attitudes toward literature and writing have been peculiar for 200 years. Here it is believed that a writer is a person who writes from the heart and with his blood. I write from my head and with ink. For me, it [the detective series] was a calculated project from the beginning.”
The Detective Who Is the Hero
The success of Chkhartisvili’s books is startling since in his books, unlike most other Russian crime novels today, none contain sexual encounters, fights are infrequent, and the language is clean – even pristine. The author has carefully crafted the books using the style of 19th century Russian prose. Every book in the series is dedicated “To the nineteenth century, when literature was great, the belief in progress boundless, and crimes were committed and solved with elegance and taste.”
The hero of the Akunin detective series is a master sleuth who was orphaned at the age of 19 when his father, a bankrupt nobleman, died. The detective is Erast Fandorin, a bright, hardworking young man who is afraid of no one; Fandorin is also a fitness enthusiast who practices Japanese martial arts, which saves him on several occasions. The fact that this trait mirrors the image of the popular president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, does not hurt book sales.
Literary critics have debated endlessly about the author’s intent in writing these detective novels, and the fact that they are set in the context of the last three decades of the 19th century has raised the question of whether or not this time period is being used as a “distant mirror” – a time in history that in some key aspects is similar to what the country is now experiencing. Leon Aron has argued that Chkhartishvili “seems to have constructed his hero as a living antithesis to every negative stereotype of the Russian intelligentsia.” Fandorin is “practical, pragmatic, attentive to detail, energetic, competent, physically fit and disciplined.” As a detective, he makes it clear that he does not serve the chief of police in Moscow or the Moscow mayor or, for that matter, the Tsar. Like the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, who Chkhartishvili admires, the hero Fandorin practices four virtues on a daily basis: decency, dignity, competence and hard work.
A Literary Phenomena
This detective series includes eleven Fandorin novels, and their estimated sales are more than 10 million copies in Russia. Four of these novels (The Winter Queen, Murder on the Leviathan, The Turkish Gambit, and The Death of Achilles) have been published in English as of this date, and you might find them to be fascinating reading. They will take some adjustment on the reader’s part, though; they are not detective stories like those written by popular American writers, John Grisham or John Lescroart, whose books I enjoy. The prose style and the 19th century context for the mysteries is attractive if you appreciate this genre and enjoy studying history. I have read two of the Fandorin tales and will read more.
What I think about, when reading these books, is whether or not their popularity will lead to changes in Russian society. As Leon Aron noted, Fandorin’s ideals are precisely what is required in Russia today – “work hard, be honest, do not take bribes, pay taxes, be creative, take risks, abide by laws and force others to do so.”