With this summer's publication by Random House of The Winter Queen, the American reader will finally have a chance to savor what is without doubt the most interesting phenomenon in Russia's contemporary literary marketplace. Published in 1998 as Azazel, it was the first detective novel by the then 42 year-old Grigory Chkhartishvili, a professional philologist, literary critic, editor and translator of classic Japanese literature who writes under the pseudonym Boris Akunin.
Today, Chkhartisvhili is Russia's most popular writer, having sold over 8 million copies since 1998 despite their unusually high--for Russian books--price of a ruble equivalent of almost $3 each (his latest book, Almaznaya Kolesnitza, or "The Diamond Chariot", sold its first printing of 200,000 in a week's time). His success in Russia is particularly startling, since none of his books contains the ingredients said to be the sine qua non of popularity in a post-authoritarian, post-censorship literary market: There is little sex (and its brief descriptions are positively Victorian); fights, while brutal and explicitly portrayed, are infrequent; the language is not just clean but pristinely old-fashioned. The texts are crafted carefully and tastefully after the classic 19th-century Russian prose of Nikolai Leskov, Ivan Goncharov and Sergei Aksakov, with echoes of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Indeed, every novel in the Fandorin 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."
In keeping with the genre, the Akunin books owe much of their appeal to the hero, the master sleuth. Orphaned at 19 when his father, a bankrupt nobleman, died, Fandorin is a descendant of German knights, crusaders and soldiers of fortune, one of whom, by the name of Von Dorn, came to Russia in the 17th century and became the captain of Czar Alexei Mikhailovich's palace guards. (Every one of those details is important, for sooner or later all are put to work by the author.) Fandorin is intelligent, hardworking and fearless. A fitness enthusiast, he practices Japanese martial arts daily, which get him out of many tight corners. (Mirroring the lifelong judo hobby of the country's widely popular and youthful president apparently does not hurt sales.)
A tall, broad-shouldered, trim brunette with bright blue eyes and a neat moustache, Fandorin dresses impeccably and looks like "a model in the latest Paris fashion magazine", with his perfectly tailored coats and snow-white collars and cuffs. Unless working undercover, he is never without gloves, top hat and elegant walking stick, which, naturally, conceals a razor-sharp blade. The finishing touch is his gray temples, incongruous because of the youth and vigor that the rest of his body signals, even as we see him approach and pass the forty-year mark. They invariably pique women's curiosity and pity--a combination that proves fatal to many a female heart. The grayness is the result of a personal tragedy at the end of the first book. Losing his bride to a terrorist bombing makes Fandorin a confirmed bachelor and thus opens the narratives to all manner of sidelines and subplots to enliven the mysteries with the hero's intense but almost always chaste relationships with willful, independent, strong, intelligent, feminist-minded and beautiful young women.
In the sleuthing pantheon, Fandorin most closely resembles Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers's athletic, smart and charming aristocratic playboy (like Fandorin, a car enthusiast)--at least until he renounces bachelorhood by marrying Harriet Vane. Chkhartishvili would want Hugh Grant to play his hero.
Yet there is far more to Fandorin's appeal than his smarts, courage and good looks. In Chkhartishvili's intricate narratives, multi-layered and chock-full of allusions, the hero's attractiveness to the Russian reader is likely to be magnified by the era in which the author placed him.
The Mirror of History
Born on January 8, 1856, Fandorin, in The Winter Queen, investigates his first case in 1876. The most recent book of the Fandorin cycle, Almaznaya Kolesnitza, is set in 1905. If today's Russia can be found in a "distant mirror" (that is, following Barbara Tuchman, a moment in history that in some key respects is remarkably similar to the way a country lives now), such a mirror is almost certainly located in the last three decades of the 19th century.
First came the abolition of serfdom in 1861--an event in its impact on the national economy and psyche not unlike the elimination of price controls and privatization in 1992-93. There followed Russia's first and, until Gorbachev, only liberal revolution from above. In addition to the manumission of the serfs, Alexander II's reforms brought radical decentralization and local self-government by elected representatives; abolition or curtailment of nobility privileges; courts "in which all the subjects were equal" before the law; trial by jury in capital cases and a competitive judicial process, in which the defense (advokaty) freely vied with state prosecutors for juries' votes (which, among other marvels, resulted in the verdict of not guilty for the female assassin of the head of the Russian secret police); huge increases in the number of primary schools, funded and run by local authorities and open to children of all social and ethnic origins; access to higher education for women and Jews; and growing autonomy and self-government for universities.
Enormous gains in personal freedom included the ability to leave the country and to return. Newspaper, magazine and book publishers were freed from prepublication censorship, placing late 19th-century Russian periodicals and books among the most raucously polemical in the world. The number of books printed and sold skyrocketed. Russian culture reached its apogee in the music of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky; the books by Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev; and the theater of Stanislavsky.
After the assassination of the czar-liberator Alexander II in 1881, the boundaries of self-government were tightened and liberties cut back, again, very much like the change that followed the transfer of power from Yeltsin to Putin. Still, major newspapers continued to be exempt from pre-publication censorship, intense political and social debates went on, and civil society would never again be terrorized by the state into complete subjugation.
Meanwhile, Russian capitalism grew by leaps and bounds. Banks and saving-and-loan associations mushroomed. Foreign investments poured in. The economy expanded rapidly and became one of the world's fastest-growing. Cities burgeoned as former serfs became workers. Thousands of miles of railroads were laid, including the Trans-Siberian railroad, which for the first time connected European Russia to the Far East. Large capitalist farms made Russia Europe's main producer of grain.
The vulgar displays of wealth by the nouveau riches all but replaced the discreet enjoyment of power and privilege of the old nobility--just like the outrageously expensive boutiques, restaurants and gyms for the "new Russians" supplanted the secret food and clothing depots, drug stores and "cafeterias" savored by the Soviet nomenklatura amid the squalor and poverty of the USSR. Almost every day, thousands became the victims of crooked banking and stock schemes. Part and parcel of the Russian state for centuries, corruption (which everywhere attends a transition from a state-dominated economy to an early capitalist system) became brazen.
As is always the case after a revolution, exhaustion and disillusion set in. The liberals were bitterly disappointed in freedom's inability to deliver wealth quickly and equitably. Liberal ideals were badly damaged, and everyone doubted that Russia could ever become part of what the Russians then called "Europe" (what the Russians now call the "civilized world"). The old ethical canon, enforced by state repression, was gone; the new mores were shocking. There commenced a desperate search for something to replace them both. As Chekhov observed, "It is as though we were all in love, fell out of love and now are looking for something new to enchant us."
It is in relation to this search for "something new", as fateful in the Fandorin-Chekhov time as it is today, that the stunning popularity of Grigoriy Chkhartishvili's hero acquires an importance that extends far beyond the literary realm.
Intelligentsia Contra Individualism
Then, as now, the national tradition assigned the role of the seeker after the "new" to a class that has monopolized such endeavors since the 1830's, a class central to both the best and the worst chapters of Russian history. That class, of course, is the intelligentsia, and the singular significance of the Fandorin series is that it offers an alternative to both the means and, more important still, the ends of the intelligentsia political culture.
Much in that culture can be explained by the intelligentsia's origins. The emergence of secular education in Russia coincided with (indeed, was caused by) the expansion of the Russian state under Peter the Great to nearly totalitarian proportions. (Every nobleman was, at least pro forma, the czar's soldier.) Unlike western Europe, the spawning ground of the intelligentsia--the Russian university--was never independent and private. It was set up not by church or city but state. The professors were salaried state employees.
Educated by the state, the intelligentsia were overwhelmingly in the state's employ: in innumerable "committees", "commissions", "archives" or ministries. (Three of Russia's greatest poets--Griboedov, Pushkin and Tyutchev--served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). In Soviet times, one had state-owned "research institutes", as well the official "creative unions" of writers, composers, architects, artists and journalists. What Nabokov wrote of Nicholas I, who volunteered to be Pushkin's personal censor, held true for the general relationship between the Russian (and Soviet) state and the intelligentsia:Essay Types: Book Review