SPIEGEL: Victor Vladimirovich, you've written quite a crazy book about your homeland. Can only crazy things be written about Russia?
Erofeyev: You have to write different kinds of books to explain Russia. Crazy books don't hurt.
SPIEGEL: The genre alone that you have selected is unusual. It's a mixture of history and science fiction.
Erofeyev: Oh, thank you, that's the greatest possible compliment that you could have given me. Every writer dreams of creating a new genre. Writing is like mining -- just about everyone digs at the same spot, wants to write classic novels and eventually shouts: The novel is dead! But there are other places where you can dig, and I've discovered a new one.
SPIEGEL: You've created a wild scenario in your novel: The dead come back to life, seize power and see themselves as the saviors of Russia and the entire world. Does this metaphor mean that Russia is haunted by its past?
Erofeyev: My book is a novel about the human soul and nature. It could be said that every individual is somehow ruled by the dead, who block their path to the future. I've applied this realization to the entire country.
SPIEGEL: And why have you done that?
Erofeyev: To show that Russia is a land of the dead. After the Communist revolution in 1917, there were hardly any proper cemeteries. During the Civil War, many corpses rotted in the fields -- and in the villages there were sometimes no men left to bury the dead. There were mass shootings and mass graves. People were killed because someone wanted their position, their apartment or their wife. Indeed, in Russia all of the dead bear a grudge. The dead live in discord among us.
SPIEGEL: Your scenario functions as a textbook example of psychoanalysis: If you run away from your past, it will eventually catch up with you -- with dire consequences.
Erofeyev: Yes. To understand the past, you need the ability to analyze and reflect. This ability is not very widespread in Russia. This also has to do with our intelligentsia. Many of them believe in Rousseau and his natural man. Ivan Turgenev summed it up nicely in his 19th-century novel "Fathers and Sons," in which he has his hero Yevgeny Bazarov say: "Man is good, only the circumstances are bad." In Russia we always only think about the circumstances and never about the people themselves. We wanted to exchange the czar for socialism, and then socialism for capitalism. Now we want to exchange Putinism for something more decent.
SPIEGEL: That sounds like the country is rushing ahead and spinning its wheels at the same time.
Erofeyev: That's how it is.
SPIEGEL: Why do you live in Russia? During your childhood, you lived in France for four years, and your work is very successful abroad.
Erofeyev: Russia's problems are a blessing for a writer. If life were better here, I would lose the inspiration for my works. If I weren't a writer, I would rather live in Berlin or Paris. Writers are like old radios in the dachas of grandfathers and babushkas. You turn the dial and at first just hear static, followed by voices far off in the distance. It's the writer's job to capture the radio waves. When you don't listen attentively to the voice inside you, and to the world around you, the next morning you're embarrassed by what you've written. You notice that you've just made it all up. But if you listen carefully, you'll find your subject. Mine is death.
SPIEGEL: You've written a satirical parable based on the resurrection of the dead. You don't seem to take this subject all that seriously.
Erofeyev: Humor is an expression of desperation. The question of what we should make of our lives -- given the existence of death -- is extremely serious. The fact of the matter is that we're now more familiar with our cell phones than the meaning of life. The West has degenerated into an agnostic bog that every metaphysical thought sinks into. It's the opposite in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone immersed themselves in metaphysics. At funerals people here used to bid an eternal farewell to the departed. But today they say: "See you soon, Piotr." Neither Western agnosticism nor the new Russian mysticism suits me.
SPIEGEL: What would suit you?
Erofeyev: We should recognize that we have a conflicting relationship with the dead. On the one hand, the dead are a threat because they embody what awaits us: the end. On the other hand, they are our past -- our forefathers -- and they stand for tradition.
SPIEGEL: The dead in your book seize power, and some of them resort to Stalinist methods. Stalin and his rule come up often in your work. Why is that?
Erofeyev: Stalin has embedded himself in our genes. He tries again and again to rise from the dead. Please don't forget that the best were killed after the October Revolution in 1917: the best aristocrats, the best of the bourgeoisie, the best officers, the best farmers -- even the best workers. We, including myself, are merely the best remnants of the inferior leftovers. A nation with these genes is susceptible to Stalin. Stalin has also left his mark on my genes.
SPIEGEL: Your father knew Stalin well -- he was his French interpreter. The first-person narrator in your novel has a past that is similar to yours, and you make fun of him and his family's fixation with Stalin.
Erofeyev: Yes, there is a direct path between my experiences and the book. Just imagine, when I was a child, my father showed me Stalin's embalmed body. It was horrible. My father took me along to the mausoleum, one and a half or two years after Stalin's death. I must have been about seven years old. At the time, my father was the assistant to Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and had received tickets to the mausoleum as gifts, much the way people get theater tickets as gifts. The two of them lay there, Lenin and Stalin, as if they were in a double bed. At the time, I was overwhelmed by the fear of death. Lenin and Stalin became the most important corpses of my life. Shortly thereafter, in 1955, we moved to Paris, where my father became the Soviet cultural attaché. My father suggested that we visit Napoleon's tomb under the dome of Les Invalides, but I successfully resisted.
SPIEGEL: During the final years of his life, Stalin reportedly had a friendly relationship with your father. Is that a burden for you?
Erofeyev: As a writer, I find it extremely interesting. Writers often create characters to convey a notion to their readers. Thanks to my father, I understood how multifaceted a single life can be. You have to understand people based on their contradictions. My father worked in the Kremlin, he had no objections to Stalin, yet he was a decent man.
SPIEGEL: Can you explain what Stalin, one of the greatest butchers in the history of mankind, liked about your father?
Erofeyev: He saw in him the new Soviet man: handsome, well mannered, modest and restrained.
SPIEGEL: You opposed the Soviet regime at an early stage. What led to this?
Erofeyev: The first years of my life were the final years of Stalin's life. I had a happy childhood -- my grandmother was delighted with my appetite when I ate an entire can of black caviar for breakfast. We lived terribly well in the early 1950s in Moscow. For me, Stalinism was all about my father's fabulous official cars. After this paradise, we moved to Paris, where my father soon met many artists. Picasso and Chagall used to sit at our table. It wasn't clear whether the Stalin childhood or the France childhood was more wonderful. When I returned to Moscow at the age of 12, I realized that everything was a disaster here. In the heart of Moscow, people lived in basements with rats and no heating. I saw the deception.
SPIEGEL: In 1979, you printed oppositional articles in the literary almanac Metropol, which you initiated. As punishment for his son's behavior, your father was recalled from his position as the Soviet ambassador in Vienna and banished to a backroom of the Foreign Ministry. Did he resent you for this?
Erofeyev: My father never said a word about it. He died two years ago, at the age of 90, and in his last interview he said: "Victor was ahead of his time." Oh, my parents dug their own grave when they gave me an opportunity to live in Paris and read the rebellious works of de Sade, Heidegger and Jaspers. That put an end to any thoughts of me becoming a Soviet man.
'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.