Russian Novelist Erofeyev Stalin Is 'Embedded In Our Genes'


Part 2: 'Putin Can't Decide Who He Wants to Be'

SPIEGEL: Was your relationship to your mother more difficult than your relationship to your father? Certain comments in your book can be interpreted this way.

Erofeyev: Yes, we always had a difficult relationship, and I'm grateful to her for that. She ranted about me still playing with toy soldiers, whereas the neighbor's daughter Masha was already reading books. She was always dissatisfied with me. But she didn't stop me from putting a bust of dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in my room. She merely asked me to tell visitors that it was Beethoven.

SPIEGEL: So, despite her criticism, your mother was proud of you and your rebellious streak?

Erofeyev: She never would have shown it. You know, I will soon be made a Knight of the Legion of Honor here by order of the French president. My father would have said: "You earned this award long ago since -- you have done so much for the Russian-French cultural exchange." My mother, who died last year at the age of 91, would have said: "Those idiots! Haven't they read your books? They are full of pornography and you insult everyone in them, including me."

SPIEGEL: You are a Russian who has been influenced by the West, and you believe in democracy. In your book, you have your first-person narrator say that it's necessary to order the Russians to embrace democracy just as sternly as Catherine the Great once ordered Russian farmers to cultivate potatoes, which were unpopular at the time.

Erofeyev: Yes, that's how it has to be done. Putin is probably more liberal than 80 percent of the Russian population. The majority here in the country favors a tougher stance on foreigners -- and the majority wants to reinstate the death penalty. Indeed, it will take a strong political will to push through democracy. In the 19th century, Alexander Pushkin said that the only European in Russia was the government. That still holds true today. Unfortunately.

SPIEGEL: It's not Putin, but rather the people that are the problem?

Erofeyev: If the West unanimously sees Putin as a dictator or semi-dictator, when he's really more liberal than 80 percent of the Russians, then we're in big trouble. On the other hand, there are also signs of a rise in Western values here in Russia. People have an increasingly better understanding of Western books and films, many have protested against electoral fraud and they want more of a say.

SPIEGEL: There seems to be a continuous thread throughout Russian history, from its beginnings 1,000 years ago to today: the desire for a strong czar. That's what Stalin ultimately was. Is Putin a good czar or a bad one?

Erofeyev: He's not a czar. He's an individual with a lack of self-confidence.

SPIEGEL: Many in the West don't like Putin. But he is seen as a strong leader.

Erofeyev: Putin can't really decide who he wants to be. He's constantly sinking into nothingness. He's filling this void with one issue here, and another issue there. And since our country is constantly vacillating over which direction to take, this vacillating Putin is not good for us. Granted, this KGB colonel has become an extraordinary politician, but he hasn't learned how to act in the public sphere. He's also a man who doesn't read. There are moments when I have no objections to him, and sometimes I simply don't care about him. But when I see the ferocity with which this obviously ill-mannered man persecutes people whose opinions differ from his, I have to ask myself who is governing us. When such an individual doesn't have enough during his childhood, he remains hungry his entire life. For people who come from very humble backgrounds, it's difficult for Russians to develop a comprehensive view of the world. This is not a problem that's limited to Putin.

SPIEGEL: In your book, there's a character -- namely the Russian head of state -- who bears an unmistakable resemblance to Putin.

Erofeyev: Let's put it this way: He has characteristics in common with Putin. I had no desire to merely sketch a political caricature. Literature draws its power and mystery from being ambivalent. In my new book, there are references to both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

SPIEGEL: Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and the West are again drifting apart. Why is that?

Erofeyev: Europe would prefer to send Putin into retirement, and it sympathizes with those who chanted at the mass protests one and a half years ago: "Putin in prison." Putin has good ears and he understands that this was no joke. Why should he steer his country toward Europe if Europe wants to force him from power? If I were in Putin's position, I also wouldn't feel an affinity for this Europe -- or for SPIEGEL, which constantly criticizes him. Putin is not a dictator like Stalin. He has been forced to make compromises. And Russia is certainly more than just Putin.

SPIEGEL: In that case, what is Russia?

Erofeyev: There are many different Russias: the nationalistic, the communist and the religious. By the way, I believe that the greatest danger is not the return of communism or fascism, but rather we need to be wary of the growing strength of the Orthodox Church. The wind in Russia is blowing from different directions. Putin is moving us further away from Europe, while other things, like the opposition movement, are bringing us closer to Europe. During the presidential election, Moscow voted against Putin. He's living in the Kremlin like Napoleon, who forced his way into a city that did not belong to him.

SPIEGEL: Does Russia belong to Europe?

Erofeyev: Since we Russians don't look Chinese, you Germans seem to think that we have a lot in common with you. But that's not true. You live under the terror of security. There are prohibitions everywhere because the bureaucrats in Brussels act as if they are Europe's saviors. Don't eat too much sugar, don't smoke in restaurants and only have sex with a condom. Our Russian chaos leaves more room for creativity.

SPIEGEL: How should the West approach Russia?

Erofeyev: It should take a careful look. The greatest mistake that the West can make is to isolate Russia. Don't forget that I can calmly sit here in the middle of the night and answer all the questions that SPIEGEL asks me without having to fear that the KGB will interrogate me the next morning to find out why SPIEGEL has interviewed me, and not the foreign minister. And don't forget that we Russians can now travel freely. One week ago, I took a vacation in Portofino, Italy. I was able to simply head off and then return home.

SPIEGEL: In your novel a young woman ultimately becomes the model for a democracy movement. In fact, all your female characters are very strong. In today's Russia the most famous dissidents are three young women from the punk band Pussy Riot. Are women Russia's hope for a better future?

Erofeyev: I have always had a high opinion of Russia's beautiful women. They are more interesting than our men. In my debut novel, "Russian Beauty," I created a heroine who was a Gorbachev in a skirt. The Soviet Union still existed, but she was completely free. The character Katya in my new novel is partly based on the women of Pussy Riot -- yes, you could say that. Katya is flamboyant, wicked and holy.

SPIEGEL: The women in your novel don't have a particularly high opinion of the men.

Erofeyev: Russia's women have had enough of us men, and many of them are becoming lesbians. Moscow is the lesbian capital of Europe. This also makes it ridiculous when the Kremlin declares war on homosexuals with a new law.

SPIEGEL: Russia's women are becoming lesbians because the men are useless?

Erofeyev: Exactly. What can they do? Our Soviet men have lied too much at work and drunk too much booze at home. So our women are the stronger sex -- and this explains why modern women here often choose other women as partners. If anyone in Russia is really free today, then it's these women.

SPIEGEL: These women are Russia's salvation?

Erofeyev: Not only these women, but all women of Russia are our salvation. And there is still a way out: Listen to what the dead tell us about ourselves. This is true not only for Russians, but for all people.

SPIEGEL: Victor Vladimirovich, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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danm 09/13/2013
I know many Russians who are wonderful people. But there is no way a culture can endure centuries of trauma as the Russians have endured and not have it leave a mark. But I see no need to spend so much time dwelling on the past. It is the artistic equivalent of staring at your navel and thinking deep thoughts. Live in the moment. Look forward. Reach for the hope of a better future and don't waste your time on anything else.
Jim in MD 09/13/2013
2. Wise Man
Erofeyev is a wise man, but he gives his compatriots too little credit. Many of the regional governors and mayors were changing Russia for the better before Putin tightened control. It happened in 2003 with the rise of oil and gas prices. Putin simply cut the bud before it could blossom. If oil and gas prices head down again, then a modicum of dissent and self-regulation may return to Russian life.
michael_medley 09/15/2013
3. optional
Within the oldest generation of Russians they have experienced two successful revolutions, a failed third, a great war with roots in the Hapsburg dynasty, a war of decimation with Hitler's fascism, The Cold War and assorted economic turmoils and purges.nIs it any wonder they tend to err on the side on caution and stay out of Continental affairs?
jennynumbertwenty 05/13/2014
4. optional
Interesting read, but a couple of contradictions. First Russia is not a part of Europe and Erofeyev states that Germans think just because Russians don't look Asian, and they look like them, that they're European. Then at the end, Moscow is the Lesbian capital of Europe? So Russia is European? In addition, I find it amusing how Erofeyev seems to think homosexuality is a choice. Right, I chose to be a lesbian because I hate men. Scoff.
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