My first three novels are thrillers mostly set in modern-day Russia—a country where history, culture, wealth, lifestyle, and religion collide like atoms in the particle accelerator of politics—an ideal place for fiction.
What other powerful country has undergone so much change in so little time? Perestroika failed to revive the staggering economy. The Wall crumbled. The deadening blanket of the Soviet state was ripped away, and the ruble plunged. Communism metamorphosed into—what?—a mercurial cocktail of gunpoint capitalism ruled by KGB shadow-warriors, former Party apparatchiks, and ex-military thugs; Russia and all her bountiful resources suddenly up for grabs in a cage fight. Yeltsin turned the tank turrets on Parliament, then (had he never read Tolstoy’s Hadji Murád?) blazed to war in Chechnya. And now a former secret policeman rules the Kremlin.
Some say that Russia is ready for primetime. They say that the perception of crime, chaos, and corruption is a cyber-illusion created by YouTube and its Internet ilk. Two decades on the crack pipe of economic transformation are over; the Russian patient is healed. Or so the argument goes.
Others say the country suffers the worst of both worlds: steroid-pumped capitalism sucked through the filter of a police state.
But can we write about that?
The opposition media is vanishing. Kremlin-owned businesses buy news outlets like trinkets, paying a “free market price” in a market as free as a camp ringed by concertina wire and guard towers. And journalists keep dying. Since Putin took office: eighteen murders, three trials, zero convictions. One chilling example is Anna Politkovskaya, the most outspoken critic of “Putin’s Russia,” murdered in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block on Putin's fifty-fourth birthday.
Consider the price of dissent: a cup of tea in a London hotel that coiled like a hot snake down a dissident’s throat and caught fire in his belly. Recall Alexander Litvenenko on his deathbed, burning alive on the inside from Polonium 210 that left a radioactive trail—from hotels, restaurants, and planes—back to Moscow.
Many Russians believe that Putin, like Stalin, straddles the ocean and fills the sky. Most like the way he projects power. Sure a few of Putin’s enemies end up dead, exiled, or rotting in Siberian prisons, but the Russian prime minister is a maestro with the geopolitical lever of energy. Is the European Union getting uppity? Close the gas pipes. Reopen them once the point has been made, like Master-Blaster: “Who runs Bartertown?”
All of which deadens criticism. To say the least, a journalist casting a critical eye toward the Kremlin must have great courage. But surely a novelist has nothing to fear. Journalists are targeted because they reach for the truth, but fiction is fiction, right?
Russian icons are not intended to depict the “real” world. They’re meant to do more. The lines of the icon converge on a point in front of the picture, so the devout become a part of it, physically as well as spiritually—just as the words that make up a story project images, ideas, and emotions into the mind of the reader. Some novels, like the icons, are even more powerful than the “real” thing. Think of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, or any of Dostoevsky’s four great novels.
So perhaps it’s best to write about “the Kremlin,” a monolithic place or thing. Kremlin, Inc., not Putin, Inc. Use surrogates—ministers, generals, operatives, oligarchs—rather than real people.
Or don’t portray politics at all. Ethnic, religious, and cultural fissures have been widened into great divides by money, the new Russian orthodoxy. Choose one or meld them all together into an epic. Replace Tolstoy’s peasants and nobles with Wal-Mart shopping wage slaves, conscripted soldiers, gap-toothed babushkas and—uh-oh, there they are again, the new nobles: ministers, generals, operatives, oligarchs. Back to where we started, because everything in Russia is politics.
The thing to do is to explore this strange new world. Pick a thread in the Russian tapestry. Pull it. Follow the story, for in Russia the story is liable to take you anywhere.