Le Mage du Kremlin ‘Giuliano Da Empoli’

—That’s where you are wrong, Vadim Alexeïevitch, you’ve let yourself be persuaded by westerners that an election campaign consists of two teams of economists arguing over a PowerPoint file. This is not the case: in Russia power is something different.

This book, read for the Roman de Rochefort and written by Da Empoli before the Russian invasion of Ukraine was written to give us insight into what Putin’s Russia had become and to try to explain its logic. Da Empoli has chosen to tell us the story through the eyes of the « Wizard of the Kremlin », come from the world of television production and giving us the idea that everything is a production.

Vadim Alexeïevitch Baranov ties together everything that happens in Russia since the 90’s, he is present when Berezovsky presents this unknown man from the security establishment to him, the latest in a number of prime ministers, thinking that he will be able to control him:

Berezovsky had asked me to meet him at the FSB headquarters, what used to be the KGB. He welcomed me with a wide smile in the dark mausoleum of the entry hall as if he was in the lounge of his house Logovaz. He seemed perfectly at ease in this sinister setting, and, at the same time he couldn’t resist the temptation to try to scare me. « Do you know what the Muscovites used to say about the Loubianka back in the days of the USSR? That it was the tallest building in the city because from’its cellars you could see Siberia.

Baranov tells us of the rise of the Oligarchs in the 90’s through his ex school friend, Khodorkovsi who wants and gets Baranov’s girlfriend,and the incidentally of their fall:

Mikhaïl began regularly coming around to our house. He turned up alone or accompanied by young girls selected from the four corners of the empire for the clarity of their skin and the geometry of their features. He picked us up in his Bentley, or his Jaguar, or in an enormous Mercedes, and took us out to the best Géorgien restaurants in town.

But the main aim is of course to give us insights into the way Putin works, the opening quote for instance, should be no surprise, elections, first in Russia, shouldn’t be left to such a random process as presenting competing ideas and choosing. What Putin was trying to establish at the time is of no surprise in retrospect, A sovereign democracy where Putin controls everything:

A sovereign democracy, that was the objective. To manage it we needed men of steel, capable of ensuring the primary function of any state, to be capable of both defence and of attack this elite already existed. It was the siloviki, men from the security forces. Poutine was one of theirs…. He placed them one by one in positions of command. At the head of the state, of course, but also at the head of private enterprises, which he took back one by one from the hands of the speculators from the nineties. Energy, raw materials, transport, communications. Men from the security forces replaced the oligarchs in every sector.

Baranov tells us of the way Putin, referred to throughout as the Tsar, doesn’t give direct orders but sets out a framework then sits back and waits. He tells us of his meetings with Evgueni Prigogine and the directions he, as a producer, gives Prigogine to interfere in the American elections, as in judo, the opponent is far too large, you must use his own hatred for his opponents against him, just fan the flames. He also reminds him that of course he shouldn’t worry about being caught, that is the whole point of the operation, in being caught that will project much more power than you actually have.

And a last one for the road, when Baranov explains to the local militia in the Russian occupied areas of the east of Ukraine that war is a process, that the whole point is that the war is never over, that the aim is not to conquer but to cause chaos, to illustrate that you can’t trust the west. This strategy may have been outed in the last six months since the book was published.

First Published in French by Gallimard in 2023.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—C’est là que vous faites erreur, Vadim Alexeïevitch, vous vous êtes laissé convaincre par les occidentaux qu’une campagne électorale consiste en deux équipes d’économistes qui se disputent autour d’un dossier en PowerPoint. Ce n’est pas le cas: en Russie, le pouvoir c’est autre choses.”

Berezovsky m’avait donné rendez-vous au siège du FSB, l’ancien KGB. Il m’accueillit tout sourire, dans le sombre sépulcre du hall d’entrée comme s’il se trouvait au salon de la maison Logovaz. Il semblait parfaitement à son aise en ce lieu sinistre et, en même temps, il ne résistait pas à la tentation d’essayer de me faire peur. “sais-tu ce que disaient les Moscovites de la Loubianka à l’époque de l’URSS? Que c’était l’immeuble le plus haut de la ville car de ses caves on voyait la Sibérie….”

Mikhaïl se mit à fréquenter assidûment notre maison. Il se présentait seul ou accompagné de jeunes filles sélectionnées aux quatre coins de l’empire pour la luminosité de leur teint et la géométrie de leurs traits. Il nous embarquait dans sa Bentley, ou sa Jaguar, ou dans une énorme Mercedes, et nous conduisait dans le meilleur restaurant géorgien de la ville.

Une démocratie souveraine, tel était l’objectif. Pour le réaliser, nous avions besoin d’hommes d’acier, capables d’assurer la fonction primordiale, de tout état: être une arme de défense et d’attaque. Cette élite existe déjà. C’était des siloviki, les hommes des services de sécurité. Poutine était un de leurs…ils les a placés un à un dans les positions de commandement. Au sommet de l’état, certes, mais aussi à la tête d’entreprises privées, qu’il a récupérées une à une des mains des affairistes des années quatre-vingt-dix. L’énergie, les matières premières, les transports, les communications. Les hommes de la force ont remplacé les oligarques dans tous les secteurs.

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