Blair is one of the bad guys in Russia's new War and
MAY 14, 2006
THE SUNDAY TIMES
A RUSSIAN artist is being heralded as the new Tolstoy after his debut novel sold
out within four weeks in Moscow despite being a daunting 1,500 pages long.
Maxim Kantor, 48, achieved fame on the Russian underground art scene of the 1980s
and 1990s and has 140 etchings in the British Museum. He decided to write his
modern-day War and Peace because he was so disillusioned by his country's experience
"I always thought I'd write a hig novel about what happened to my country
and to the world." he said. "It was obvious that in the last 20 years
we were passing through a very dramatic and important period and big questions
needed to be asked about freedom and civilisation.
"I had been thinking about it for years. Then one day I was suddenly 44 and
I thought if I don't start now, I never will."
He spent four years on the epic work, The Drawing Textbook, which opens with the
emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader in 1985 and follows the subsequent
20 years of change in Russia.
Although it traces the fortunes and thwarted loves of one family of intelligentsia,
it is also a political satire with a huge cast of artists, critics, secret policemen,
oligarchs and politicians, including Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and even Tony
"The book is about the crisis of Christian ethics, about the twilight of
Europe and European humanism," Kantor explained. "It's about love. It's
about Russia's fate. It's about what freedom really is and whether the last 20
years have all been for nothing."
When the book was released six weeks ago, word of mouth about its explosive contents
resulted in the sale of 1 ,000 copies on the first day, even though it costs a
hefty 27 pounds. The first print run of 5,000 was sold within a month and a further
3.000 within the past two weeks, making it Russia's fastest selling first novel.
Kantor has been overwhelmed by the response. He has received hundreds of letters
from readers, acclaim from critics describing it as "a political earthquake",
and interest from publishers from London to Milan. Valery Melnikov, of the daily
newspaper Kommersant, called it "the first great Russian novel since Dr Zhivago"
and said he felt on reading it as "if a bomb had gone off.
Despite the book's ambitious sweep, Kantor insists he never intended it to be
so long, "First I thought it would be 300 pages. Then when it was already
4001 thought 1 still haven't answered the important questions, so I just kept
The book has an unusual structure. Each chapter begins with a couple of pages
on drawings which together Form a textbook. Alter every two fiction chapters,
there is a political chronicle commenting on the economy, the arts, and world
events such as the war in Iraq.
Events hang round the Richter dynasty of German Jews, loosely based on Kantor's
own family. "My mother is a Russian from a northern Russian village and very
severe, while my father is a Jew from Argentina, very intellectual, a philosopher
who was imprisoned by Stalin."
Pavel Richter, the main character, is an artist who falls in love with a journalist
but, in true Tolstoy tradition, is betrayed, "The love story is a mirror
of what happens to the country, the betrayal of values."
The book pulls no punches with its expose of corruption and biting portraits of
those in power, as well as oligarchs, their characterisations based on Roman Abramovich
and Boris Berezovsky. It describes Yeltsin as a drunk and "an uncouth loudmouth
with a big, meaty head", then moves on to the teetotal Putin.
"Some citizens took fright at the arrival of the new president," he
wrote. "What scared them was that the tidy man with his eyes closed together
was a colonel in the state security service; an employee of that awful KGB that
had been used to frighten them all their lives. 'What's going on?' they asked.
'We spent all that time fighting for democracy, we unmasked the tyrant, and now
look what's happened! They've appointed a KGB colonel to run the country!'"
Many publishers were relucant to take it on, well aware of apparent contract killings
in a climate of hostility towards those who dare to question authority. When Kantor
finally found a brave publisher, he insisted the book be brought out immediately.
It has caused consternation among the community of which Kantor was long part.
Fellow artists feel betrayed at his expose, particularly as he blames the intelligentsia
for Putin. "You have to realise," says one of his characters, "he
was appointed by people with the most democratic of convictions."
Kantor has no regrets: "One of the reasons 1 wrote this book was shame. People
in Russia feel cheated. All these words — 'democracy', 'progress' and 'bright
future' — we aspired to have become nonsense and one of the reasons is the betrayal
by us in the intelligentsia."
He saves much of his ire for Blair, "British society has got used to evildoing,"
he writes, citing arms sales and the Iraq war. "Britain is a country I have
adored since childhood and which to me embodied certain standards of morality
and conscience. But over the last eight years that has been lost and I blame Blair
and his hypocrisy for destroying it."