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‘In Russia, the new evil is rooted in the old evil’: novelist Sergei Lebedev on Putin, poison and state terror

The Russian novelist Sergei Lebedev is currently based in Berlin. But it is the popular uprising in Moscow that hangs darkly over our conversation. Hours before we speak, protesters calling for the release of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny take to the streets in towns and cities right across Russia. The Kremlin’s response is a familiar one: thuggish violence. The TV images make a Mordor-like tableau. Faceless riot police clash their shields together in a rhythmic display of power; demonstrators raise their arms in a plucky counter-clap. There are arrests, many thousands of them. Young men are savagely beaten and dragged through grey slush into waiting police vans. One sets himself alight in an apparent act of rebellion.
After 20 years of repressive rule by Vladimir Putin, and his fellow KGB alumni, discontent is boiling over in Russia. But to what end? Lebedev is optimistic about political change, of a civic thaw after a long winter. “Putin is no Gorby. We are not in perestroika,” he admits. “But our grandparents and parents lived with the idea they would die in the USSR. Then all of a sudden, in two or three years, you are in an absolutely different reality. I think that could happen again.” It is Russia’s dialectical past – shot through with collaborators and resisters, martyrs and monsters – that inspired Lebedev’s new novel Untraceable. That, and the dramatic events in Salisbury. In 2018 Lebedev was watching news reports of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Two assassins from Moscow smeared the nerve agent novichok on the front door handle of Skripal’s home.
Lebedev spotted an overlooked detail. Scientists invented novichok in the closed town of Shikhany, 600 miles south of Moscow, on the banks of the Volga. It was there, in the 1920s, that Soviet and Weimar republic German scientists secretly tested chemical weapons. The cooperation lasted until 1932. “I was fascinated by the dark romance between people of knowledge and people of power,” Lebedev explains. In Untraceable Lebedev transforms Shikhany into “the Island”, a forbidden history-haunted place that is “everywhere and nowhere”. The novel’s main character, Professor Kalitin, is a talented Soviet youth. He invents “neophyte” – a neurotoxin that cannot be traced – in a special laboratory built within a former Orthodox church. An angel, half scrubbed out, watches him from above. When the USSR falls, Kalitin defects to the west, taking with him a vial of his own unique poison.

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