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Prominent Russians: Boris Akunin

Born May 20, 1956
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Boris Akunin is the penname of Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, one of the best-selling suspense writers in Russia, famous for his detective stories set in tsarist Russia. 

The rising sun of Akunin’s life

Chkhartishvili comes from a military family. His father was an artillerist, who at the time of Grigory’s birth worked in Georgia and his mother was a teacher of Russian language and literature. Grigory was born in Georgia, but two years later his family moved to Moscow, where he has lived ever since. Despite his father being Georgian, Grigory considers himself Russian, since he lived most of his life in Moscow, and neither speaks Georgian nor knows the traditions of the country.

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After high school Grigory entered the History and Philology Department of the Institute of Asian and African Studies of Moscow State University. He was fascinated with Japan, so chose it as the country of his study.

Japanese culture, history and values shaped Grigory’s personality and his outlook on life. Later he met a Japanese exchange student, who was fascinated with Russia as much as Grigory was with Japan. The two became close friends and ended up getting married. He had to keep his marriage a secret because in the Soviet Union all foreigners were more or less under suspicion of being spies. However, the happiness was short-lived. Grigory doesn’t like to share much about his personal life, so it’s unclear why the marriage fell apart.

After obtaining his degree, Grigory did literary translations from Japanese and English - Ukio Misima, Malcolm Bradbury, Kobo Abe, Peter Ustinov and others. He also published his essays in the Foreign Literature Journal and went on to become its deputy editor-in-chief.

One of his major projects at that time was the translation and publication of the 20-volume “Anthology of Japanese Literature” in Russian. He also oversaw a major project under the Soros Fund – the Pushkin Library. He was the chairman of the board and also helped compile a 100-volume edition of the best works of Russian Literature of all time.

Recipe for a Russian Sherlock Holmes – shaken, not stirred

Working so closely with books and writers, Grigory gained a good understanding of the publishing business and the book market, which during the Soviet era was censored and controlled by the government. Books that did not fall in line with common propaganda were banned and the only way they circulated was by amateur publishing and clandestine distribution. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s book market became a free arena, flooded with every possible choice of literature.

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However, modern Russian literature had very little to offer. In essence there were three categories of reading available: the classics, in low demand because of their relative availability during Soviet times; dissident literature, which exposed the Soviet regime and was in wide demand until people filled their thirst for truth; and finally pulp fiction and romance stories – mostly foreign and most times of very poor quality and content. For someone who was looking for light reading there was practically nothing to be found.

Grigory, who had married for the second time by then, knew the problem all too well, if not from his work, then from his wife. “I really picked up writing to entertain my wife. She loves detective stories, bought lots of them, and complained that they were too stupid. I decided to think up of a story that could interest her. I thought of it as a sort of a game,” Grigory says.

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He tried offering his cooperation to different writers, but his offers weren’t appreciated, so he decided to go it alone. He focused on detective stories and since he loved and knew history he decided to set his stories in the tsarist Russia of the 19th century. The only thing he was missing was an outstanding character, so he invented the Russian version Sherlock Holmes – Erast Fandorin. Since he was a synthetic character Grigory’s imagination went wild, he decided it would be someone with the looks of a young Hugh Grant and a concentration of his favorite qualities, “The recipe for creating Fandorin is rather simple – you take your best loved characters from literature, and select the qualities you like the most about them, then you add a few of your own qualities, or think up of a few ideal traits that you think would suit him. You put them all together - then you shake them, but don’t stir. And you wait until your homunculus comes alive.”

The first detective story featuring Fandorin was called “Azazel” (“Winter Queen”) and was published in 1998. Grigory decided to take the pen name Boris Akunin – deriving his last name from the Japanese word meaning villain or evil man.

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Fandorin wasn’t an instant success, but eventually he came alive – so much so that the detective stories about him began selling like hot cakes, turning their author into a millionaire in just a few years. In September of 2000, Akunin was named Russian Writer of the Year and won the "Antibooker" prize in 2000 for his Erast Fandorin novel “Coronation, or the Last of the Romanovs.” So far there are more than a dozen books featuring the adventures of Erast Fandorin.

Film directors also became interested in putting the Russian Sherlock Holmes on the screen, contributing even more to the author’s success. Out came Azazel (2001), “The Turkish Gambit” (2004) and “The Civil Counselor” (2005). In 2002, Akunin received the Russian TEFI TV award for the best screenplay (“Azazel”).

Another masterpiece of Akunin’s creativity is Sister Pelagia, an Orthodox nun, investigating murder mysteries in provincial Russia. She turned out to be a cross between Miss Marple and Father Brown. There are three books in the Pelagia series. One of them, “Pelagia and the White Bulldog,” was turned into a film in 2009.

The genius of Boris Akunin – 0 percent inspiration vs. 0 percent perspiration

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Akunin openly admits he never aspired to become part of the next generation of Russian classics and says he writes for popularity and commercial benefits. “My success as a writer depends on my readers. I don’t aim to load them with my philosophy about life in some sort of a monologue. Quite the contrary – I try to make my books fun and they are a dialogue I have with my readers. There are writers who try to teach their audience. I’m rather a student, and while writing each book I try to learn something from my characters. I can’t afford to be boring - if people stop reading my books, I will stop writing.”

Grigory relies heavily on his wife, who has become a vital part of his literary career. “She’s my first reader. When I have doubts about anything, I test it out on her. Besides that she is a professional editor and edits all my books – quite well too. She also spares me the dealings with agents, publishers and the press.”

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Another interesting thing about Akunin is that his writing is based purely on plan and logic, and according to him, he never waits for inspiration or creative flashes. “I have a plan, and a list of characters – each with his own story. Then I write in the text. My stories always have a very strong structure, which makes my work faster and more logical on one hand. On the other hand, it sort of “dries” it up, which is not so good. But if I get distracted from my main structure and try to add the extras, it works against me, shaking up the whole story and my original intent for the book.”

Another confession of Akunin’s is that he is lazy – 2-3 hours of work a day are the limit of his “brain battery.” He spends the rest of his day with friends or playing computer games, for which he has a particular fondness. Akunin has even turned some of his books into computer games.

For someone who is never inspired and often lazy, Akunin has done exceptionally well, selling some 15 million of books in Russia. They have also been translated into more than 30 languages and sold more than 1 million copies abroad. Akunin has far surpassed his perhaps harder working colleagues in popularity and is the most commercially successful writer of modern day Russia.

Khodorkovsky interview

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In 2008, Akunin made headlines for his interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil giant CEO imprisoned for tax evasion. Akunin corresponded with Khodorkovsky through his lawyers for three months before publishing the letters in the October issue of the Russian Esquire – the interview took 12 pages of the magazine.

The interview excerpts were then republished in dozens of newspapers and magazines and rekindled the ongoing debate about Khodorkovsky’s case. Akunin says that amidst all the talk about the state of democracy in Russia, he was very happy for the interview opportunity, something that would have been impossible in Soviet times. “If this had been 1938, I would have been sentenced to death. In 1978 I would have been sent to a psychiatric ward. But times have changed, and it’s different now. I am really interested in how one man stands up against the whole government machine. And with that in mind, I have a feeling that the machine is afraid of him, while he is not afraid of it.”

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After the interview was published newspapers announced that Khodorskovsky had been incarcerated for 12 days. The news enraged Akunin, but he said this wasn’t the last of the interviews as there were a few other prominent writers who wanted to correspond with Khodorkovsky. 

In January 2011, Akunin called for a mass internet campaign for the release of Khodorkovsky and his colleague Platon Lebedev. This entry into his blog was made following another prison sentence for Khodorkovsky, which was ruled in late 2010, and which would extended his service until 2017.

Political activist

In January 2012, ahead of Presidential elections in the country, Boris Akunin together with 15 other Russian activists, celebrities and high-profile journalists founded the League of Voters – an organization aimed to prevent election-rigging and generally promote public participation in politics. All members of the league have earlier participated in mass rallies that took place in Moscow in late December to protest against alleged violations committed by the authorities overseeing the December 4 parliamentary poll.

The importance of being earnest

Although Grigory Chkhartishvili can’t compete with Boris Akunin’s success he too has much to be proud of. In 2009 Chkhartishvili was awarded the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun - the second most prestigious Japanese decoration - for his contribution to the development of Russian - Japanese cultural ties. In the last 50 years only 30 Russians have been given that honor – among them the musicians Mstislav Rostropovich and Valery Gergiev.

Grigory says he didn’t expect to receive the award and was flattered beyond measure. “Usually it is given to people who are much older than me. I was extremely pleased about the news, especially because I’ve been writing detective fiction, I thought I had ceased to be a serious man. And this award helps me remember that I used to be a serious man at one point, when I translated Japanese literature.”

Written by Olga Prodan, RT

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