A RUSSIAN artist is being heralded as the new Tolstoy after his debut novel sold out within four weeks in Moscow despite being a daunting 1,500 pages long.
Maxim Kantor, 48, achieved fame on the Russian underground art scene of the 1980s and 1990s and has 140 etchings in the British Museum. He decided to write his modern-day War and Peace because he was so disillusioned by his country’s experience of democracy.
“I always thought I’d write a big novel about what happened to my country and to the world,” he said. “It was obvious that in the last 20 years we were passing through a very dramatic and important period and big questions needed to be asked about freedom and civilisation.
“I had been thinking about it for years. Then one day I was suddenly 44 and I thought if I don’t start now, I never will.”
He spent four years on the epic work, The Drawing Textbook, which opens with the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader in 1985 and follows the subsequent 20 years of change in Russia.
Although it traces the fortunes and thwarted loves of one family of intelligentsia, it is also a political satire with a huge cast of artists, critics, secret policemen, oligarchs and politicians, including Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and even Tony Blair.
“The book is about the crisis of Christian ethics, about the twilight of Europe and European humanism,” Kantor explained. “It’s about love. It’s about Russia’s fate. It’s about what freedom really is and whether the last 20 years have all been for nothing.”
When the book was released six weeks ago, word of mouth about its explosive contents resulted in the sale of 1,000 copies on the first day, even though it costs a hefty £27. The first print run of 5,000 was sold within a month and a further 3,000 within the past two weeks, making it Russia’s fastest selling first novel.
Kantor has been overwhelmed by the response. He has received hundreds of letters from readers, acclaim from critics describing it as “a political earthquake”, and interest from publishers from London to Milan. Valery Melnikov, of the daily newspaper Kommersant, called it “the first great Russian novel since Dr Zhivago” and said he felt on reading it as “if a bomb had gone off”.
Despite the book’s ambitious sweep, Kantor insists he never intended it to be so long. “First I thought it would be 300 pages. Then when it was already 400 I thought I still haven’t answered the important questions, so I just kept going.”
The book has an unusual structure. Each chapter begins with a couple of pages on drawing, which together form a textbook. After every two fiction chapters, there is a political chronicle commenting on the economy, the arts, and world events such as the war in Iraq.
Events hang round the Richter dynasty of German Jews, loosely based on Kantor’s own family. “My mother is a Russian from a northern Russian village and very severe, while my father is a Jew from Argentina, very intellectual, a philosopher who was imprisoned by Stalin.”
Pavel Richter, the main character, is an artist who falls in love with a journalist but, in true Tolstoy tradition, is betrayed. “The love story is a mirror of what happens to the country, the betrayal of values.”
The book pulls no punches with its exposé of corruption and biting portraits of those in power, as well as oligarchs, their characterisations based on Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky. It describes Yeltsin as a drunk and “an uncouth loudmouth with a big, meaty head”, then moves on to the teetotal Putin.
“Some citizens took fright at the arrival of the new president,” he wrote. “What scared them was that the tidy man with his eyes closed together was a colonel in the state security service; an employee of that awful KGB that had been used to frighten them all their lives. ‘What’s going on?’ they asked. ‘We spent all that time fighting for democracy, we unmasked the tyrant, and now look what’s happened! They’ve appointed a KGB colonel to run the country!’” Many publishers were relucant to take it on, well aware of apparent contract killings in a climate of hostility towards those who dare to question authority. When Kantor finally found a brave publisher, he insisted the book be brought out immediately.
It has caused consternation among the community of which Kantor was long part. Fellow artists feel betrayed at his exposé, particularly as he blames the intelligentsia for Putin. “You have to realise,” says one of his characters, “he was appointed by people with the most democratic of convictions.”
Kantor has no regrets: “One of the reasons I wrote this book was shame. People in Russia feel cheated. All these words — ‘democracy’, ‘progress’ and ‘bright future’ — we aspired to have become nonsense and one of the reasons is the betrayal by us in the intelligentsia.”
He saves much of his ire for Blair. “British society has got used to evildoing,” he writes, citing arms sales and the Iraq war. “Britain is a country I have adored since childhood and which to me embodied certain standards of morality and conscience. But over the last eight years that has been lost and I blame Blair and his hypocrisy for destroying it.”