"The Idiot Has Started A War" — A Secret Meeting With Exiled Russian Author Dmitry Glukhovsky
Dmitry Glukhovsky, the Russian author of Metro 2033, is currently standing trial in absentia in Moscow for speaking out against Putin. He has gone into hiding in Europe, where Die Welt has met up with him in a secret location in Berlin.
BERLIN — "It’s happened, the idiot has started a war..."
Founded in 1909 by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes had been traveling all around Europe to perform. Fokine and Balanchine choreographed pieces for the company, Nijinsky danced for them, Satie composed music, as did Stravinsky – the ballet company performed his masterpiece The Rite of Spring – Cocteau wrote libretti, while Bakst, Matisse and Picasso designed the sets.
It was an explosion of the avant-garde. In 1917 the artists were caught off guard by the October Revolution. They were cut off from returning home. They stayed in Europe, in most cases for the rest of their lives. Diaghilev died in Venice in 1929.
In hindsight, this episode seems like an ominous foreshadowing of the reality facing many Russians today.
In the nondescript lobby of a Berlin hotel, the author Dmitry Glukhovsky reflects on this history as he speaks about his own forced exile in Europe. He is currently on trial in Moscow, accused of “knowingly spreading false information about the Russian army.” The likely sentence will be 15 years in a penal camp.
So he has gone into hiding, and is cautious about meeting strangers. In the lead-up to our meeting, we exchanged messages on an encrypted app.
Glukhovsky’s Metro novel series and the computer games based on them have sold millions of copies and made the 43-year-old famous. They take place in a future version of Russia, after a nuclear apocalypse. The first novel was published in 2007, when Putin had been in power for seven years. Now he has been in power for 25. Despite Glukhovsky’s training as a political journalist and although he saw the trouble approaching, he says that the war took him by surprise.
The risk of writing
After the annexation of Crimea, he argued with relatives, who bought into the propaganda message and refused to denounce the annexation, saying, “It’s not an issue. No lives have been lost, either Russian or Ukrainian.” Glukhovsky countered that the annexation had still broken international law. And what was worse, that it was laying the groundwork for future actions: “They have to find a justification for the annexation, that is the task of propaganda, which has to invent bigger and bigger lies. At the same time, people’s few remaining freedoms become more restricted. Everything is moving in the direction of a dictatorship.”
But he didn’t predict a war like this, where tanks and missiles lay waste to vast swathes of land, where soldiers are digging trenches and fighting for every meter of territory, where civilians with their hands tied behind their backs are shot dead, where every Russian wakes up each morning to the possibility of receiving their call-up. Glukhovsky thought that was a story that belonged in the twentieth century.
"If I write something now, I will lose my assets and any chance to go home.”
“I remember the day very precisely,” he says, sipping black tea from a plastic mug. “It was 24th February 2022. Two days earlier, I’d seen Putin’s speech, where he openly announced the invasion. When nothing happened the next day, my shock subsided a bit. On the morning of the 24th, I woke up and saw all the messages that friends had sent me from Moscow. They were writing: ‘It’s happened, the idiot has started a war.’ I hesitated for around 30 seconds, wondering if I should write something. And I said to myself, now we’re at war, now they’ll go after anyone who stands against them. This time it’s really serious. Every voice will be seen as dangerous. If I write something now, I will lose my assets and any chance to go home.”
He thought of his Ukrainian friends, of old love stories. “If I don’t write something, I thought, I will be betraying all these people – out of fear.” What’s more, he was all too aware that he owed his prosperity – which would allow him to live fairly comfortably in exile – to three novels about dictatorships that manipulated their citizens, three deeply pacifist books that warned of a Third World War. “If I now, please excuse the expression, hide my tongue up my ass – that’s what we say in Russian – then I would not have passed my own test. Then everything would have been in vain, I would be a hypocrite and I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye.”
A collection of the Metro 2033 series written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky is displayed during a book fair
He says that these thoughts ran through his head for about 30 seconds. Then he sat down and wrote an online piece expressing his anger towards those who’d started this war. In response, his apartment in Moscow was seized. Since last June, he has been the subject of an international manhunt. His trial in absentia began on 21 March. It is expected to result in the maximum sentence.
At the same time, Glukhovsky is adding fuel to the fire; to use his image, his tongue is most definitely still in his mouth. In response to the start of the trial, he posted a speech on Facebook, in which he says that there is no possible justification for the war, that its horrors and meaninglessness are clear to see. “However, the people who started it – Vladimir Putin and his inner circle – cannot back down. Because according to all human laws, they are the true criminals here, and they are afraid of being punished for their crimes.”
The whole world is wondering what is going on inside Putin’s mind, why he is doing this. Glukhovsky believes it is a combination of cowardice and an inferiority complex. He says that Putin started the war out of a personal sense of powerlessness because for so long he has been the leader of a country that has nothing to offer its citizens except the undisguised threat of violence.
Glukhovsky says Putin is driven by the fear of not having achieved anything that will secure him a legacy. Therefore he always needs to create new, more severe crises, in order to distract the population from the failure of his regime, from his kleptocracy and immorality.
The totalitarianisms of the past – fascism and communism – raised Utopian banners proclaiming happiness and justice for all – that is, for their own people. None of that remains. Putin has stripped Russia of its ideological heart, to the point where we may now apply the Hobbesian formula: “Man is wolf to man.”
Reflecting the leader's beliefs
In the meantime, says Glukhovsky, one supposed success or another – the annexation of Crimea, for example – is a good way to temporarily assuage the national inferiority complex. He says Putin now just wants to survive, and that means he is unlikely to use nuclear weapons – but also that he is unlikely to back down. That would mean acknowledging defeat, or at least showing a sign of weakness. And among Russia’s political elite, weakness is fatal – and we don’t mean metaphorically.
Glukhovsky says Russians are like everyone else. After the hard years of the Cold War came to an end, during the chaos of the nineties, they just longed for peace and prosperity. “But the regime did not want any reforms to the economy or society. It sees the middle class as a threat. Because the middle class is independent.” The dissatisfaction that arose around the economic stagnation of 2008 was quelled with resentment, with post-imperial nostalgia, with the myth of Russia as a fallen global superpower. The government found scapegoats, traitors who had sold Russian wealth, in the form of oil and gas, abroad. And the people swallowed these lies.
“Over the last year I have learned something about conformism,” says Glukhovsky. “People don’t need to be afraid of losing their freedom or their life. It is enough to fear being taken out of their comfort zone, losing their house or their job. They would rather fit in, and publicly say what they don’t actually believe. Then, over time, they start to believe it.”
He argues that this means most Russians are now living lives entirely devoid of meaning. They are still poor and they don’t believe in anything. But they long for something to believe in. The war offers them that. It is their last chance to be involved in the great patriotic war against the – this time, supposed – Nazis, their last chance at heroism. This is how the leader’s beliefs are reflected in the minds of the humblest people, those who will be cannon fodder on the battlefield.
T-72B3 tanks are seen heading to Red Square for a rehearsal of the Victory Day parade
The exile community
So what about those who want nothing to do with Putin’s war, the artists and dissidents who, like him, have fled abroad? Is there a sense of solidarity, a network?
“We actually felt quite jealous of each other,” says Glukhovsky. “Of being integrated and recognized in the West. The tragedy that we are now experiencing together is drawing us closer. We are helping each other with moving abroad, with surviving.”
He says that Andrey Zvyagintsev, who directed the film Leviathan, a searing portrayal of the banal brutality of contemporary Russia, has become a friend, as has Vladimir Sorokin. The director Kirill Serebrennikov sent him an encouraging message. A community is forming, of Russians living in exile, a diaspora. “We have the feeling that we must create an alternative Russia abroad,” says Glukhovsky. “As an alternative to what Putin is doing with our country.”
He says that one day the regime will topple – and the spell cast by lies, hatred and paranoia will be broken. Then Russia will need to find a new identity. Glukhovsky and his comrades have one to offer.
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