Literature | Russia

“The powers-that-be dance with you”

The author Sergei Lebedev talks about Russia’s internal conflicts, fear as a form of political pressure, and the craft of writing

The author Sergei Lebedev is standing on a bridge. He is leaning with his back to the bridge railing. In the background is a high-rise building with several towers in the socialist classicist style.

Sergei Lebedev, born in Moscow in 1981, is a writer, geologist and journalist. He currently lives in Berlin

Interview by Aljoscha Prange


Mr Lebedev, the Russian constitution was changed in 2020, and Vladimir Putin could remain in office for 15 more years. Meanwhile, Alexei Navalny is still behind bars. What’s your perspective on all this?

I’m shocked. A lot of people are saying the worst-case scenario in Russia is just round the corner, though it’s long since started. Alexei Navalny had trained his sights on corrupt politicians who have taken over all the country’s positions of power, on this gang of criminals who steal and steal. Putin is corrupt without a doubt, but that’s not the real problem. The problem is that there’s war, inside and outside Russia – think of Chechnya or the Ukraine – while no-one’s talking about the responsibility for these criminal acts. On the other side, civil society is ruled by a dangerous mix of fear and helplessness. Underlying this is the long instilled habit of living in the shadow of the state. Many people in Russia still don’t see themselves as acting subjects, neither of their own life nor in the political sense. Even if a miracle occurred and Putin was abducted by aliens, the entire system – based on this absence of responsibility and punishment – would survive. But because of all that’s been happening over the last 30 years, the current situation was more or less foreseeable.

Your most recent book, “The Perfect Poison”, reads like a forecast. Navalny was poisoned in August 2020. Your book came out in Russia in November. In it, you deal with the consequences of the Cold War that still leave their traces today. And it’s about the work of the secret services, their hunting of people and lethal poison attacks on former agents. Did you suspect what would happen with Navalny?

When it comes to political activists, the state’s security authorities start with the basics. First your brother is detained. Then you’re charged with some trumped-up nonsense like alleged tax offences. But when you put up some resistance, things go further. We saw precisely how this was done with the journalist Vladimir Kara-Mursa, with Pyotr Versilov from Pussy Riot, and with many others. You can predict exactly how things will turn out. The powers-that-be start with tiny little steps and then they begin to dance with you. It takes a certain amount of time, but eventually they dance you to death. Putin’s regime saw the protests in Belarus last year and were afraid that these could carry over into Russia. Alexey Navalny was maybe the only figure with the ability to mobilise people. Unfortunately, what happened with Navalny was unavoidable in the end.

You’re very vocal in your criticism of the government. Do you fear for your own safety?

I have the feeling that literature offers me a kind of protective shield. It’s the political journalists who are hunted down first. An exception here is definitely the case of Dmitri Bykov, a satirical poet who went after Putin personally. In 2019 he was poisoned. Whereas I leave times and places unnamed in “Untraceable”. I didn’t want the book to be read as a specific story in a particular time. That isn’t fool-proof protection, however. I wanted above all, with this approach, to make it evident that every state finally is a machine. Regardless of whether this machine is called Russia, China or Germany.

Apart from the time and place, your novel depicts other things very specifically, like a lethal nerve agent smuggled over the border in a perfume bottle, or secret service work. How did you do your research? 

I read and travel a lot. It’s important for me to see places and get a feel for what I write about. In Moscow I visited several chemistry institutes that were behind the development of the Novichok nerve agent. I also viewed documents in KGB archives in Lithuania and the Ukraine, and in this way studied the inner workings of the secret services. To ensure that the depictions of secret service activities in my novel are as realistic as possible.

Can literature be an antidote to the poison of fear?

At the moment, there aren’t many Russian authors pursuing this in their work. The most difficult and dangerous, the really burning issues, are very rarely addressed in contemporary Russian literature. So we can’t really say whether literature is an effective antidote – not yet. I actually think “Untraceable” is an atypical book. I hope it encourages other authors to finally stop playing hide-and-seek and to start writing. Tolstoy, Chekhov and other giants of Russian literature were realists and reacted quickly to events – a tradition we lost during the Soviet era. I’d like to try and revive this tradition. We should believe once again in literature as reality’s magnifying glass. Books should be instruments for comprehending reality, not escaping it.

What, in your view, will the future bring for Russia?

Some political analysts are prophesying Putin’s downfall. But for me, President Lukashenko of Belarus is currently evidence for the opposite view. He survived the unrest in his country. And bit by bit he’s regaining all his power. For a few days it looked as if Minsk was a liberated city. When Lukashenko was up in a helicopter somewhere, not knowing where he was going and looking like he was finished. But he wasn’t. When the protests were at their most active, the opposition hesitated – just a little. A wobble that Lukashenko recognised and knew how to use. Now he’s more powerful and dangerous than ever. I think Putin watched all this very carefully. For him, what happened in Belarus is the best-case scenario. Of course he’s afraid of what happened in the Ukraine – the Maidan Square movement with its powerful opposition. But Lukashenko has shown that these kinds of mass protest can be withstood. Putin will stay in place, because in a crisis he doesn’t flinch from using violence.

Translated by Scott Martingell