Interview: Dmitry Glukhovsky on the ‘Dubious Reality’ of Putin’s Russia

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In today’s Russia, ‘one single government-corporation rules and owns the country,’ says Dmitry Glukhovsky, whose new novel ‘Text’ has sold into 14 languages and/or territories to date. It’s optioned or on submission in 16 more countries.

Dmitry Glukhovsky. Image: Jörg Schulz

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Dubious Reality’
If you have yet to know the name Dmitry Glukhovsky, he wants to assure you, “You’ll hear of me yet. Soon.”

Cover design for the German edition from Europa Verlag

The Moscow-born author flew from this year’s Burning Man in Nevada earlier this month to Europe to make appearances in Zurich and elsewhere to promote the German edition launch on September 12 of his latest book, Text (Europa Verlag).

Since its original publication by Russia’s AST in mid-2017, translation rights to Text have already sold into at least 14 languages and/or territories.

Glukhovsky’s Munich-based agent Bettina Nibbe tells Publishing Perspectives that foreign rights for Text sold to date include:

  • Germany: Europa (September)
  • Poland: Insignis
  • France: L’Atalante
  • Sweden: Ersatz
  • Czech Republic: Euromedia and One Hot Book audio
  • Slovakia: Ikar
  • Hungary: Helikon
  • Serbia: Dereta
  • Bulgaria: Ciela
  • Estonia: Tänapäev
  • Israel: Kinneret
  • China: People’s Literature Publishing House
  • Georgia: Books in Batumi

To anyone who likes to see an author’s work find traction in the proverbial “tenor of the times,” Glukhovsky is your man: Text is classified as a cyber-noir novel set in contemporary Russia—”a corrupt state,” as descriptive copy puts it, with “a decaying value system.”

In the Russia of Vladimir Putin, “The higher caste now wants to free itself of all moral restrictions. Wants to be free of ethics.”Dmitry Glukhovsky

Does Vladimir Putin know this author? That’s one of the questions we put to Glukhovsky in our interview here, and more on the topic will be examined on October 11 at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, when Glukhovsky will appear in a Publishing Perspectives Talk on the International Stage in Hall 5.1 (A128) at 10:30 a.m.: “Politics and Publishing: Sensitive Topics, Fiery Emotions.”

For better or worse, Glukhovsky shows no fear in addressing the Kremlin and, as he puts it, “the ever-rotting, pretentious, cynical, and proudly immoral caste of Russian rulers.

“I believe that we live in truly wonderful times,” Glukhovsky tells us, “wonderful” for the writers willing to see what he defines as “an epoch of not only post-truth but also post-ethic.” It’s a time in which societies, he says, “are re-enacting the biggest traumas of the last century. Dictatorships. Cold War. Fascism.

“These are really the times when all a writer needs to do is sit down and focus carefully on the dubious reality unfolding around him. What’s the point of writing a dystopian fiction nowadays,” he asks, “when the reality is exceeding your wildest fantasies?”

‘A Very Scrupulous Portrait of Today’s Russia’

Text opens in 2016 with Ilja’s return to Moscow after seven years of detention. Not only has he suffered arbitrary police brutality and the excesses of a corrupt investigator, but he also has lost everything. A mistake puts him on the receiving end of a dead man’s smartphone: text messages, videos, and calls from his family, his drug accomplices, his girlfriend. Ilja is being drawn into another person’s identity.

The cover design from Russia (AST) and Poland (Insignis)

The book is a study of individual powerlessness amid the state’s corruption, a drama about the state’s memories of power relations, and a meditation on the profound  influence of prison subculture on Russian mainstream attitudes and politics. Some have compared it to something reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s work in its context of guilt and atonement in a digitally darkening world.

Text,” Glukhovsky tells Publishing Perspectives, “is an attempt to draw a very scrupulous portrait of today’s Russia. Because, strangely enough, very few Russian authors today seem to care—or dare—to describe our present tense. They tend to look back or try to look forward. They choose to ignore the now. And this seemingly so-stable Russia actually contains so many contradictions and tensions under the surface. There are so many streams and counter-streams that it could implode at any time.”

“The ruling class” of the Putin era, he says, “is losing touch with the reality. This process is going faster and faster, to the complete amazement of the public. The people deserve something bigger than just  propaganda news stories on Russian TV.

“Very few Russian authors today seem to care—or dare—to describe our present tense. They look back or try to look forward.”Dmitry Glukhovsky

Text speaks not only of the total corruption of Russian law-enforcement, but also of the arrival of a two-caste system within the Russian society. There’s a caste of people who are ‘the system’ or who serve it:  officials, police and special services, the MPs—but also propaganda journalists, organized crime kingpins, and even church leadership. In Putin’s Russia, all of these institutions are just departments of one single government-corporation that rules and owns the country.

“Other, simpler people are like serfs in the old times. Let alone privileges, these ‘serfs’ don’t have any guarantees of such basic human rights as freedom, property, or even life.

“The most interesting part of that phenomenon is, however, that the higher caste now wants to free itself of all moral restrictions. Wants to be free of ethics. It exists in a system of coordinates, in which there’s no good and no evil, no justice or injustice, no right and no wrong. Only strength and weakness are the opposing sides of this system, and the only value is your corporate loyalty.”

‘The West and Us’

In a powerful three-part essay for German newspaper Die Zeit in June, “The West and Us,” Glukhovsky paints a portrait of a baffled post-Soviet Russia filled with resentment, a culture that hasn’t measured up to the expectations and self-absorption of the Western world. From the second part of that essay, subtitled, “Who Is To Blame?”

“Where does this relapse into imperialism come from, why are we starting wars in our former domains, why are we interfering in your politics, why do we consistently choose a strong hand for ourselves – a hand we seek to shyly stroke only to cower when it is raised above us?

“What is eating at us? Why did we not mix with you when communication flowed freely, why have our potentials remained different? Why are walls now being built again where the fences once stood?”

Glukhovsky’s answers to this are canny and at times almost achingly candid. “For us,” he writes, the Cold War “ended in defeat. We have an inferiority complex, particularly those of us to whom the Soviet regime promised the imminent realization of a communist paradise on Earth.”

“We are worse off, but we have taken our own, ‘special path.’ That is what the television tells us.”Dmitry Glukhovsky, Die Zeit

And when he swings around in today’s Red Square, Glukhovsky pulls no punches.

“How could we not recognize that you have it better, and that it is far preferable to work with you than against you? We do recognize it. That’s the worst thing. In an open world in which we can compare everything with everything else, a world in which people are constantly asking why they are worse off than their neighbors, the government must be extremely careful in formulating its explanations and justifications.

“We are worse off, but we have taken our own, ‘special path.’ That is what the television tells us. We may be poorer, but we are proud. And now the evil capitalists are punishing us for grabbing the Crimea.”

‘Even More Politically Charged’

Following the appearance of his piece at Die Zeit, reactions from fellow Russians, Glukhovsky says, have been mixed.

Hungaria cover design from Helikon, in a translation by Miklos Nagy

“Some of them were denying they had any complexes, of course,” he tells Publishing Perspectives, “and accusing me of telling Westerners what Westerners wanted to hear. We long for the times of our past greatness and yet are unable to recognize that our present looks pitiful. We can’t admit Russia was and still is a colonial empire with its colonies simply sticking to its borders—because in the communist mythology, Russia was liberating colonies of the Western powers, and it was a good thing—but we long for the imperial grandeur.

“We can’t admit we’re backward and we’re borrowing constantly the technologies and the lifestyle from the West, which only increases our frustration.

Others said I’m oversimplifying the Russian realities to make them more digestible for a Western reader. Well then, every opinion column is a certain simplification: it’s an emotional Tesla coil, not a well-weighted cold-blooded statistical tractate. But I’m totally convinced that the things I described there are correct.”

‘Tales of the Motherland,’ original Russian cover design

Text, Glukhovsky says, “isn’t my first political book. Tales of the Motherland, a collection, “was even more politically charged, having the relationships between the rulers and the ruled as its main point. The next novel I’ve got plans for is not political at all—but then, I continue writing columns for Russia’s last independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, and for a few European newspapers, including Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Gazeta Wyborcza. And these columns are very political, clearly.”

While both Text and Tales of the Motherland have yet to be translated to English, Glukhovsky’s better-known and most popular work, the Metro saga, began with his first book, Metro 2033, which he self-published on his website in 2002. The book was developed into a video game and has been translated into 37 languages, with more than 3 million copies sold. In February, the Metro Exodus PC game is to be released, and other authors now are creating new content in the The Universe of Metro 2033 franchise, which saw 70 books published by October 2015.

Glukhovsky graduated from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and worked as a television journalist in France and Russia, as well as doing reporting for the national radio outlets of both Germany and Israel. He speaks six languages and splits his time between Moscow and Barcelona.

‘The Lord’s Ire and the Lord’s Love’

And what does the Russian government say about Glukhovsky’s new political direction in his work?

Czech cover design from Euromedia and One Hot Book audio

“I try to stay as far as possible from Russian officials,” he says. “After my book of satirical political stories, Tales of the Motherland, was released in Russia, they tried to tame me, inviting me to presidential meetings with artists and writers, and I even once was invited to join the presidential council for culture. But there’s a line by a Russian classical poet, saying ‘May we be saved from that which is worse than any misfortune—the lord’s ire and the lord’s love.’ So I never answered those calls.

“But taming is the first step: those who keep angering the authorities can also be punished. So Kirill Serebrennikov, a renowned Russian theatrical director, has been, and still is, under house arrest, accused of stealing the state financing of his theater projects. And the former producer of Pussy Riot, Petr Verzilov, has been poisoned.”

National Public Radio’s Scott Neuman in the States is reporting on Monday (September 17) that Versilov has been flown to Berlin for treatment. And Serebrennikov was ordered last week to remain in detention until at least October 19,after more than a year under house arrest, per a report from Radio Free Europe.

Despite these cases, Glukhovsky says he has little fear in writing what he does.

“The truth is,” he says, “the Russian regime doesn’t consider literature as too influential a medium. The bestselling books in Russia can only boast 100,000 sold copies per year. Their impact can’t be compared to that of politically charged talk shows, bluntly used to manipulate and construct the public opinion on the most crucial issues of the agenda—or to distract public attention from those. These shows have a daily audience of dozens of millions of spectators, and they’re being used to brainwash them remorselessly.

“After my book of satirical political stories Tales of the Motherland was released in Russia, they tried to tame me, inviting me to presidential meetings with artists and writers.”Dmitry Glukhovsky

“That said, books that are labeled as ‘extremist’ (calling for revolutions or giving recipes for them) are getting banned from publication and sale, and their publishers get serious problems with the law. However, Text is rather a contemplation of the reality, or, at its best, a merciless diagnosis of the state of things. It has a clear message. But you have to want to hear this message in order to get it.”

To our question about whether publishers in Russia may be pressured for carrying his work, Glukhovsky says he’s wary.

“Every time I’m submitting a manuscript to my editor, I kind of expect them to call me back saying, ‘You don’t really want us to publish it, do you? You don’t want to get us into trouble!’ That has happened to my opinion columns, by the way.”

And his next work, he says, is “a family drama, leading to a catastrophe. Apart from that, I just completed a theatrical play turning around wartime memories of a Polish Jew and his life in the ghetto of Lodz, One Night of Joseph Kaufman. My other ideas are very diverse, ranging from film scripts to audio series projects.”

Dmitry Glukhovsky is an author on a roll, a critical voice from Russia with many options: “I feel I need to focus,” he tells Publishing Perspectives. “Focus.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Russian market is here. And on Frankfurt Book Fair, here

And our Summer Magazine is ready for your free download and is themed on politics and publishing.

It includes our extensive preview of Frankfurter Buchmesse. Download the PDF here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.