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Head of Zeus
Guardian REVIEW interview with author Sergei Lebedev

This interview first appeared in The Guardian REVIEW supplement on 13th February 2021.

The Russian novelist Sergei Lebedev is currently based in Berlin. But it is the popular uprising in Moscow that hangs darkly over our conversation. Hours before we speak, protesters calling for the release of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny take to the streets in towns and cities right across Russia. The Kremlin’s response is a familiar one: thuggish violence.

The TV images make a Mordor-like tableau. Faceless riot police clash their shields together in a rhythmic display of power; demonstrators raise their arms in a plucky counter-clap. There are arrests, many thousands of them. Young men are savagely beaten and dragged through grey slush into waiting police vans. One sets himself alight in an apparent act of rebellion.

After 20 years of repressive rule by Vladimir Putin, and his fellow KGB alumni, discontent is boiling over in Russia. But to what end? Lebedev is optimistic about political change, of a civic thaw after a long winter. “Putin is no Gorby. We are not in perestroika,” he admits. “But our grandparents and parents lived with the idea they would die in the USSR. Then all of a sudden, in two or three years, you are in an absolutely different reality. I think that could happen again.”

It is Russia’s dialectical past – shot through with collaborators and resisters, martyrs and monsters – that inspired Lebedev’s new novel Untraceable. That, and the dramatic events in Salisbury. In 2018 Lebedev was watching news reports of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Two assassins from Moscow smeared the nerve agent novichok on the front door handle of Skripal’s home.

Lebedev spotted an overlooked detail. Scientists invented novichok in the closed town of Shikhany, 600 miles south of Moscow, on the banks of the Volga. It was there, in the 1920s, that Soviet and Weimar republic German scientists secretly tested chemical weapons. The cooperation lasted until 1932. “I was fascinated by the dark romance between people of knowledge and people of power,” Lebedev explains.

In Untraceable Lebedev transforms Shikhany into “the Island”, a forbidden history-haunted place that is “everywhere and nowhere”. The novel’s main character, Professor Kalitin, is a talented Soviet youth. He invents “neophyte” – a neurotoxin that cannot be traced – in a special laboratory built within a former Orthodox church. An angel, half scrubbed out, watches him from above. When the USSR falls, Kalitin defects to the west, taking with him a vial of his own unique poison.

The novel begins with a quote from Faust and the Skripal-like murder of another Russian émigré in a Mitteleuropean restaurant. Kalitin’s hiding place in Germany is discovered and two killers are sent by Moscow to poison the professor with his own creation. Meanwhile, a German priest persecuted under communism wrestles with his own inner ghosts.

The Island, you gather, is the USSR. Its citizens are cut off from the outside world, impersonal elements in a giant, malign social experiment. One of the assassins, Shershnev is a “particle of state power”; Kalitin fails to confront the ethical choices of his scientific work and becomes a kind of human novichok. “His inner essence opens this door so he can work in this lab without any moral issues,” Lebedev says.

Untraceable is Lebedev’s fifth novel, out next month in the UK. He’s had a busy and prolific decade. The New York Review of Books calls him “arguably the best” of Russia’s younger generation of authors – he is 39 – and his work has won praise from Karl Ove Knausgaard and Svetlana Alexievich. For my part, I was captured by the velvet lyricism of his prose and his le Carré-ish plot. Lebedev calls his latest book a “political rather than a spy thriller”. There’s no espionage, he stresses, saying: “It’s something in between.”

One major theme in his fiction is the continuity between the old organs of repression during the 20th century and the new. Stalin regularly wiped out “enemies” at home and abroad. There was a justification of sorts: murders were necessary to defend a progressive state from capitalist wolves. Victims died in ingenious ways, with the killings on a spectrum from the secret to the splashy: silent poisons and cyanide spray-guns versus exploding cakes and ice picks.

The Leninist rationale for political murder has disappeared. But Putin has brought back old methods of intimidation and – in certain cases – what the KGB called “physical removal”. Dissidents and troublesome journalists have perished in murky ways. And poison has once again become an exotic instrument of state terror, as evidenced by the Skripal case and the radioactive teapot murder in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Lebedev’s attitude towards these crimes is “deeply personal”, he says. “Between 1917 and 1991 state security wrote my family’s story. We lost about 20 people.” His relatives were targets for Bolshevik persecution. They included Orthodox priests from St Petersburg, provincial nobles from Kaluga and Vladimir, and the descendants of Germans who emigrated to Russia in the 19th century.

After the Berlin wall fell, Lebedev’s grandmother took him to visit Moscow’s German cemetery. She revealed the family’s hidden backstory: they had German ancestors, a connection that spelled doom during the Stalin period. The episode features in Lebedev’s novel The Goose Fritz, in which a young historian seeks out clues to his roots. A geologist by training, Lebedev’s fiction excavates what lies beneath: the inner lives of earlier generations, buried under layers of official myth and self-deceit.

Lebedev’s personal history features perpetrators too. His grandmother’s second husband was a colonel in the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. A family friend lived an outwardly non-Soviet life, independent and free-thinking. His job was to devise bioweapons. Lebedev says his books explore these “contradictory moral shapes”, the strange dualism that allows loving fathers to serve tyranny by day and to tuck their children up at night.

One of the Salisbury poisoners, Anatoliy Chepiga, is a father with a young family. In Untraceable the fictional hit-man Shershnev has a difficult relationship with his son Maxim. Lebedev says the liberal Russian media treated Chepiga and his military intelligence colleague Alexander Mishkin as a comedy duo. “It wasn’t funny at all. They did their jobs. I take them seriously,” he observes.

The Kremlin, naturally enough, denies it has anything to do with novichok. This, Lebedev thinks, is part of a wider failure by post-Soviet Russians to admit their misdeeds. After a period out in the cold in the early 1990s, Putin and his KGB friends came back. They carried out a counter-revolution against Russian democracy. Once in power they got rich. Habits of secrecy and conspiratorial thinking returned. Foreign policy became stridently anti-western and xenophobic.

The charge sheet against Putin and his cronies goes beyond rampant personal corruption, showcased by Navalny in his recent video of the president’s secret palace on the Black Sea coast, now watched more than 100m times. The regime’s greatest sins have taken place over the past two decades in Chechnya and in invaded Ukraine, Lebedev suggests. The Russian opposition has largely ignored these war crimes, he says, in which thousands have died.

“An important person is missing from our historical record. It’s the figure of the evil-doer,” Lebedev adds. “Russians don’t want to talk about responsibility for these murders. In the 30 years since Russia became an independent state our law enforcement agencies have committed lots of crimes that can’t be attributed to the Soviet period. Where is the source of this evil? I’m interested in who did this, and why.”

As part of his research, Lebedev went through the archives of the Stasi, East Germany’s surveillance-fixated spy agency. There was plenty of material in the files that demonstrated what Lebedev calls the “creativity of evil”. In Untraceable, the authorities persecute the charismatic GDR pastor by sending him goods he hasn’t ordered: women’s clothes, mannequins, coffins, tins of condensed milk. “Torture through abundance,” the priest discovers.

Putin spent the late cold war as a junior KGB officer in the city of Dresden. The Soviet Union and its East German counterpart both carried out clandestine operations in the 1970s and 1980s but also tried to observe legal technicalities, Lebedev says. These days, he argues, the Putin regime behaves with shameless impunity. “The new evil is rooted in the old evil,” he suggests, adding that Russia is now part of a modern tyrants’ club, with Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

Lebedev hasn’t visited Britain but is a fan of English literature: in 1979 his geologist father travelled to London as part of a Soviet delegation. Dad came back with a suitcase full of Agatha Christies and other detective novels. Growing up, Lebedev immersed himself in an eight-volume translation of Sherlock Holmes. There’s a simplicity about Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, he thinks – and a “philosophical aspect”. “For me, Holmes embodies the idea of justice. Morality is based on the fact that every crime has its trace,” he says.

As a professional geologist Lebedev roamed around Russia, visiting the far north, with its reindeer herders and frozen tundra, as well as Kazakhstan. He spent 14 years working as a journalist in Moscow on an education newspaper, ending up as its deputy editor in chief. Since 2014 he has written full time; poems and novels. The Kremlin has “mostly ignored” him, he says, despite his growing international reputation.

I ask Lebedev about the state of modern letters in his homeland. He is unimpressed. In the 19th and 20th centuries Russian authors engaged with the great issues of the day. During the Putin era, he says, the intelligentsia has largely shut its eyes to the “reality of what’s going on”: that the country is rapidly turning into a full-blown autocracy. “Consciously or sub-consciously, people are trying to avoid some harsh and important questions,” he thinks.

By way of example, he mentions a list of the 100 best Russian books of the 21st century, compiled by the Moscow literary journal Polka. “There was only one book on the war in Chechnya and nothing from the writings of Anna Politkovskaya,” Lebedev complains. “For me Russian literature at the moment consists of non-written books. I can clearly see the gaps. Writers have a moral and creative responsibility to reflect reality”.

Lebedev finished Untraceable before a group of secret operatives poisoned Navalny last summer in Siberia. The undercover hit squad worked for the FSB, the spy agency that Putin ran before he became PM and president-for-life. According to a confession from one of the team, the assassins applied novichok to the inner seams of Navalny’s blue underpants. He collapsed on a flight to Moscow. Navalny survived only because a quick-thinking pilot made an emergency landing in Omsk.

Lebedev says there is something “supernatural” in the way Navalny’s case coincides with the release of his latest book. Last week a court jailed the opposition leader for two years and eight months. He’s now in a penal colony. The fate of Putin’s most prominent critic is grimly uncertain; you suspect further vengeance awaits. What will happen? “He will be kept in captivity as a hostage,” Lebedev predicts. He adds: “I don’t know what is possible. I can only wish him stamina, health and resilience.”

Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev, translated by Antonina W Bouis, is published on 4 March by Head of Zeus, and is available from New Vessel Press now in the US and Canada. Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West by Luke Harding is published by Guardian Faber.