'I'm no Havel' says campaigning Russian author Akunin

By Ray Furlong
BBC News

image sourceAFP
image captionAkunin is best known internationally for his historical detective novels featuring the detective Fandorin

He is one of Russia's leading opposition activists and a best-selling crime writer, but Boris Akunin says he has gone off protest rallies and detective fiction.

Akunin - real name Grigory Chkhartishvili - has sold more than 18 million books, and played an influential role in anti-Putin demonstrations which have filled the streets of Moscow.

"Speaking in front of a demonstration is a nightmare to me," he told the BBC in London. "I did it twice last year and each time it was an ordeal."

Akunin abandoned a novel he was writing in France and flew back to Moscow in December 2011, amid mass protests against alleged fraud in Russia's parliamentary elections.

Last year there were more mass rallies, as Vladimir Putin was re-elected president in controversial elections. Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the votes were "skewed" in his favour.

But Akunin says he had felt uncomfortable, as if he were being drawn into the role of a dissident writer.

"The pressure was quite high. Everybody wants you to behave like Vaclav Havel, the [late] Czech president and writer. They say: 'Are you the Russian Havel?' I'm not. I'm not going to run for the presidency, to be a deputy or a minister or whatever. I want to stay a writer."

That does not mean Akunin is losing interest in Russian politics, merely that his approach is changing.

"I've now discovered that I don't have to speak before tens of thousands of people. I'm a writer. I have a blog which people can read."

Last week Human Rights Watch released a report saying the Russian authorities were launching their worst political crackdown since Soviet times. Akunin believes Russia is at a dangerous turning point.

"Putin's support is 62% in Russia. But trust in Putin is only 32%. It means people support him because they don't see a choice, but they don't trust him."

A new perestroika?

Is he disappointed that the mass protests that struck Moscow in 2011 and 2012 have petered out?

"Putin could survive for years, or he could go down in a couple of days. It could easily happen - just by accident they'll kill someone, and the next day there will be hundreds of thousands of Muscovites in the streets.

"But I'm afraid of abrupt changes in a country like Russia, which has nuclear weapons. I do not want revolution, even a peaceful revolution. We are not Czechoslovakia, we are Russia. I hope for something like a new perestroika."

Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" reforms in the 1980s sought to pull Soviet society out of stagnation without dismantling the communist system.

Akunin is careful how he describes his stance. He says it puts him at odds with other opposition leaders, who do want more rapid change - but he does not want to criticise them, because they are being targeted by the authorities.

For example, the blogger Alexei Navalny is currently fighting a tax investigation, which is often seen as a deliberate means the authorities use to apply pressure on political opponents.

But Akunin says he does not fear repression himself.

"I do not really think they are going to do this to a writer, because the history of political persecution of writers in Russia is so big. But, it could happen. I have my readers and they write to me about everything that happens. I know I have secret checks on my income every now and then."

Fandorin fans

But Akunin, speaking over a gin-and-tonic in a London hotel bar, was perhaps about to disappoint some of his readers. He was in London to discuss an English-language TV mini-series based on his detective hero, Erast Fandorin.

The Fandorin novels, a glamorous romp through tsarist Russia, have been best-sellers since the 1990s. Other detective heroes, including the crime-solving nun Sister Pelagia, have also been hugely popular - and helped make Akunin such an asset to the opposition movement.

Nevertheless, when asked about the future, Akunin says there will be two more Fandorin books and then he will quit crime writing.

"I am changing. I am quite fed up with crime fiction. I'll finish the Fandorin series and then I won't do it any longer. I think I have drunk this bottle to the last drop. You cannot do the same thing over and over again."

He is deliberately vague on what is coming next.

"I've started working on a big new project for the years to come. It will consist of two parts - one fictional and one non-fictional. I don't want to be more specific. I've finished the first book and put it aside for a few months - to see with fresh eyes whether it's worth something or I need to throw it in the waste basket."

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