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The Wizard of the Kremlin

Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin

Ever wondered what goes through Vladimir Putin’s mind? How he and his cronies see the world? We’ll never know for sure, of course, but in The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli we get a what appears to be a pretty good guess. Da Empoli worked as Italian ex-Prime Minister Renzi’s advisor and spent some time in Russia. This best-selling, Prix Goncourt nominated novel is his fictionalised account of Putin’s rise up the ranks. A must read for anyone interested in Russia and geo-politics.

The novel’s central character is Vadim Baranov, apparently based on Vladislav Surkov, a real-life politician and strategist who helped Putin to power. Baranov has retreated to a relatively modest, secluded house in a forest outside Moscow. We sense things have not worked out so well, but at least he’s alive; more than can be said many of Putin’s other ex-henchmen.

Baranov, of White Russian decent, has seen his aristocratic rebellious grandfather be followed by an obedient, apparatchik father and is now himself in the vortex of Russian power. Besides his role as advisor to Putin, his trade is in the theatre. No coincidence, we realise, as Putin’s world is a world of pretence, lies and mirages.

Da Empoli weaves actual events into the story. We learn about the role of oligarch Boris Berezovsky in identifying FSB head Vladimir Putin as the perfect prime ministerial candidate, mistakenly seeing in him a technocrat with limited ambitions. He portrays the Wild West party days of Moscow in the 1990s and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s, another doomed oligarch, rise and fall. We get to meet a familiar face, the most influential caterer of all time, Yevgeny Prigozhin, long before his failed march on Moscow. But most of all, we get an insight into the twisted mind of Vladimir Putin, how he justifies his brutal killing of political opponents, his paranoia of the West and his longing for the days of the Soviet Union.

If you’re interested in what goes on in Russia these days, this page-turning book, written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will be for you.

The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli is translated by Willard Wood and published by Pushkin Press, 285 pages.

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