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by John Helmer, Moscow 

When a man is drowning, he reportedly sees excerpts from his life story flashing in review in the two minutes it takes for his lungs to fill up with water, stopping the heart and cutting off the oxygen supply to his brain.

When an Italian writer recently attempted over two hundred and eighty-five pages to imagine what President Vladimir Putin is really like, he drowned before he got to the truth.  But not before he managed a great deal of hand-waving and hyper-ventilation which is also typical of drowning victims.

Hand-waving and hyper-ventilation about the leadership of Russia in the present war can make a best-seller in the states which are losing the war. The Financial Times which is owned by Japan and written in England recommends the book for portraying “Putin as a lone wolf who works as others sleep.”   He’s also a cross between a wolf and a pitbull — “a power animal. You end up killing everyone because, in a way, that guarantees your survival. That’s why the last [depiction] of Putin in the book is him alone in a graveyard — with his dog, of course. The dog is always important.”  

Indeed — dogs take five times longer than men to drown. So they see more flashbacks before they succumb.   

The Italian’s name is Giuliano da Empoli – that’s Julian of Empoli, a medieval town turned nondescript industrial zone, which is too far from the sea — sixty kilometres — to drown in. It is only a brisk walk, however, to submerge in the Arno River which marks the northern boundary of the old town.

Da Empoli claims, as do the promotions of the book in the anti-Russia propaganda organs, that he is writing about Putin and how power is exercised in Russian politics. Da Empoli’s method is to have the author’s narrator, a shrinking violet type, interview his opposite, a brash character modelled after Vladislav Surkov (lead image), onetime Kremlin plotter and plodder with the Ukraine portfolio, and self-styled ideologist in chief. In the outcome, the book’s Surkov character reveals next to nothing about the real Surkov’s performance – that’s a discovery which da Empoli, lacking the sources, hasn’t made himself.

More to the point, the book’s title Wizard of the Kremlin    reveals that the alchemy attributed to  Putin is what the alchemical combinations of melanosis (blackening), leucosis (whitening), xanthosis (yellowing) and iosis (reddening) have always proved to be – an illusion of words, a fantasy of colours, a PR trick people are persuaded to pay to believe. At seventeen dollars for da Empoli’s paperback, that’s a more costly illusion than the cheap enlightenment of reading this to the end.

Left: Giuliano da Empoli; right, The Wizard of the Kremlin.  

The real Surkov thought of himself in Russian politics as a powerful wind. The evidence is that he was a windvane whose spinning helped Putin appear to be more directional, less vacillating than he was. This explains.   

But when the General Staff started to blow from its direction, when the talking stopped and the guns roared, there was no use left for the rotational Surkov.  He attempted to save himself by ideologizing for the military, calling it “Putinism”. Surkov released this on February 11, 2019;  a year later on February 20, 2020, he was let go and announced his resignation. “There is no Ukraine”, he declared afterwards, but “coercion to fraternal relations by force is the only method that has historically proven its effectiveness in the Ukrainian direction. I do not think that some other will be invented.” On this point, the windvane was pointing two years before Putin accepted it.  

“The real Putin is hardly a Putinist, just as Marx was not a Marxist, and we can’t be sure he would have agreed to be one had he found out what that’s like.”  Source: https://johnhelmer.net

Through the narrator of his story, the foil to da Empoli’s version of Surkov, the Italian wants the reader to know he has read a lot of books about Russia, starting with Astolphe de Custine,   followed by Isaac Babel and Yevgeny Zamyatin, and eaten in a lot of fashionable Moscow restaurants whose names he remembers for facticity, like Beloye solntse pustyni (White Sun).  

Surkov learned that words aren’t guns; da Empoli has failed to learn that reading isn’t doing. His idea of Russian money-making has been cut and pasted from The [American] Exile of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, minus their sense of humour. “Moscow in the 1990s was the right place…You could leave the house in the afternoon to buy a pack of cigarettes, run into a friend who  was for some reason in a state of excitement, and wake up two days later in a chalet in Courchevel, half-naked,  surrounded by slumbering young [sic] women, and have not the slightest idea how you had gotten there.”

A combination of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Mikhail Fridman makes his appearance in the story by showing off his rich toys in order to race off the narrator’s girlfriend named Ksenia, a Stalin lookalike. “Like great dictators throughout history, Ksenia instinctively knew that nothing inspires more fear than random punishment.” The combo character turns into the real Khodorkovsky when the Putin character tells the Surkov character on the evening of October 24, 2003: “I’ve given orders to have your old friend Khodorkovsky arrested at dawn tomorrow.”  

The lesson da Empoli wants readers to understand is his conclusion about Putin and the oligarchs now: “in Russia a billionaire is perfectly free to spend his money, but not to influence politics. The will of the Russian people — and of the tsar, who is its incarnation – counts for more than any private interest”. As finding of fact from afar, or intelligence from the inside on how the Kremlin works, this is nonsense.

The clichés and the fatuities don’t stop coming, Surkov like.

“In Russia even a smile is considered a sign of idiocy”

“No one ever says anything in Moscow in principle”

“No one knows anything in Russia, and either you cope or you leave”

“In Moscow power and bourgeois comfort always rest on a solid foundation of oppression”

“The only thing that matters in Russia is privilege, proximity to power”

“Russia’s fate is to be governed by the descendants of Ivan the Terrible”

“Whoever lives in the Kremlin owns time”

“[Russian] politics has just one goal: to address men’s terrors”

“Russians have always forged their way ahead, swinging an axe”

“Force has always been at the heart of the Russian state, its raison d’etre”

“Life is a fatal disease”

There is a lengthy section in which the suicide oligarch in exile, Boris Berezovsky, is introduced by the Italian as if from the mouth of his Russian character, the Surkov lookalike. This reveals how little da Empoli has learned about Russian business, Berezovsky’s business in particular. Berezovsky’s chauffeurs know more and will tell – da Empoli is too much of a snob to have asked them, and too poor to pay.  

Italian journalists have produced drivel on Russia for years: they are da Empoli’s sources. The Italians who know much more worth telling include Italian politicians like Silvio Berlusconi; executives of the Eni oil and gas company and Unicredit bank; several mafiosi; and the papal nuncio. Da Empoli doesn’t know any of them; his purported service as a staffman for a two-year Italian prime minister appears to have passed harmlessly without his learning anything he has put into his book.

Da Empoli introduces Berezovsky in order to repeat the well-known boast of Berezovsky that he had created Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, and also introduced Surkov as an election-winning PR adviser. This is reported as happening at a French restaurant “on a street off the Arbat” – a factoid which Empoli embroiders with another of his clichés: “It was the first time I would notice Putin’s complete indifference  to food, just as I would later his imperviousness to the other pleasures that make life agreeable.”

Surkov’s brilliant idea which inspired Putin so much then that he hired him turns out, according to da Empoli, to have been Greta Garbo, about whom Surkov instructs Putin: “An idol who withdraws from public view gains in power. Mystery creates energy. Distance fosters veneration.”

The Italian machismo in da Empoli is irrepressible. From the triumph over Putin of the Surkov lookalike’s Greta Garbo idea, da Empoli’s narrator heads towards his own happy ending when Ksenia returns with “her legs crossed, her small breasts pointing”. That point is the new cliché, the conclusion of the book: “One of the main aspects of a Russian woman’s charm is her ferocity.”

All of a sudden, however, da Empoli has gotten confused. He has Ksenia call the narrator, who isn’t the Surkov lookalike, by the diminutive Vadya, which is assigned by the Italian as the diminutive or nickname of the Surkov lookalike. This is easier for an Italian to pronounce than Vlad or Vladik, the usual diminutives for Vladislav, but Vadya is usually used with the name Vadim, not with Vladislav.  Da Empoli’s alter ego, the foil, thus turns into the main man, and off into the sunset he (who he? кто он? lui chi?) walks with his old flame. “Our footsteps sank into the snow, taking the place of words…We looked at each other from time to time, seeking confirmation in each other’s eyes.”

That’s the climax, the money shot. The anti-climax follows, several of them.

The Surkov lookalike resumes boasting about his power over real characters – German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Igor Sechin, Yevgeny Prigozhin. He claims to be the inspiration, if not exactly the script writer of Putin’s 1999 remark about “hitting them in the shithouse”; then Putin’s introduction of his dog to Merkel in 2007 to trigger her canine phobia. He also claims to have persuaded Putin to release Khodorkovsky from prison in December 2013;   to have followed that in 2014 with the idea of the Donetsk revolt during a drinking session with a Night Wolf biker; also the scheme of employing Prigozhin and his internet hackers to intervene in the US elections in 2016.  

Left to right: Angela Merkel, Koni the labrador, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi on January 21, 2007.  Da Empoli puts in the mouth of his Surkov lookalike: “the tactic was not entirely original, as the precedent had already been set by a Roman emperor. But we Russians did him one better, because Caligula only made his horse a consul, whereas we promoted the dog to minister of foreign affairs.”

The book ends with the Surkov lookalike going for a skinny-dip in winter waters off an island in the Stockholm archipelago, where he and Ksenia are staying after he had been released from his Kremlin job.  Da Empoli’s Surkov claims he resigned after he had been sanctioned by the US because “I consider it [US and European Union sanction] an Oscar, the crown of my political career. It indicates that I’ve served my country with honour”. In truth, the US sanction was imposed on Surkov in March 2014;   his Kremlin exit  didn’t occur for another six years, until February 2020.

Back to the icy water for the false Surkov and Ksenia: “I pressed her luminous [sic] body against mine in the dark water, I read for the first time in her eyes  the full majesty of the mystery growing inside her…I had the feeling of being able once more to breathe”.

In the plot the Surkov lookalike and his amour continue to breathe.  The Italian author, however, goes down like a lead weight.  As da Empoli drowns, his past clichés flash across his page. “Russia is the West’s nightmare machine” is the penultimate; the last of them is: “the real race is not between power  and apocalypse,  but between the coming of the Lord and the apocalypse.”

Da Empoli’s narrator then returns out of the blue to record being introduced to a little girl of four. This, according to the Surkov lookalike, is his only child; the real Surkov has four children. There’s a brief conversation about a pet cat and a toy rabbit. Da Empoli’s foil then goes out the front door, recording on his very last line “snow was falling gently”.

That was the end of the oxygen supply to da Empoli’s brain. The invention of Putin was dead, but selling well.

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