First, can you introduce Untraceable to our readers: what it is about, and what was the inspiration?
While reading about the Skripal affair, I was surprised to find out some links to my fourth novel, The Goose Fritz. The place in Russia called Shihany was mentioned in the news as a probable source of the nerve agent used for the assassination attempt. But I already knew about this place: this testing facility was established in the late 1920s as a fruit of the secret co-operation agreement between USSR and Germany, the latter aiming to develop its chemical warfare [capability], bypassing the Treaty of Versailles.
Since then, I understood that this story has a long shadow from the past. And I became obsessed with an idea to write a novel about the dark romance between the science and the totalitarian power, the romance which—as in Greek mythology—resulted in the creation of the modern-day monsters.
I found it interesting you chose to make the main character Kalitin, the chemist who develops the poison, rather than perhaps one of the spies who might use it in the field. Can you tell us why you chose to pin the narrative around him?
A killer would have been an obvious choice. But I am more interested to probe the ethical responsibility of the scientists, the people of knowledge, who supply the modern tyrants with the tools of control, intimidation and extermination. Behind Russia’s assassinations, [Syrian ruler] Bashar- al-Assad’s chemical attacks, Chinese high-tech concentration camps for Uighurs, and many more current state crimes, there are always the hidden figures of those who develop the technical stuff, who invent and extend the ways to suppress humans’ nature and betray the ethics of science.
The very phenomenon of chemical warfare was created in the early phase of the First World War by German chemist Fritz Haber, who turned from developing fertilisers to developing lethal military gases. He became a dark apostle of this new weapon, while his wife Clara Immerwahr, also achemist, ferociously opposed his new commitment. Unable to prevent his departure to the frontline in Flanders, she shot herself.
The Porton Down lab near Salisbury, which provided the vital clues for the investigation of the Skripal poisoning, was actually established in 1916 as a British response to the German chemical threat initiated by Haber. Ten years later, some Haber scholars went to the USSR and helped to lay the foundations for the Soviet chemical warfare programme in Shihany. This programme, after several stages, produced a Novichok agent. So we can see how everything here is interrelated through the decades and generations, but the main issue, the ethics of science, is the same.
I guess you could say Untraceable is more of a “genre” novel than your previous ones. Did you approach the writing process differently than you have done for your other books?
No. As always, I read dozens of the books on topic, made my own archival research, went to see some places mentioned in the novel—like the place of Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Prague, or Terezin, the former Nazi concentration camp, now a memorial site. Though this book is shorter than my previous ones, it took me the same period of time to prepare for writing. I should say that for this book the archival research was of particular importance, because the recently declassified Soviet state security archives in Ukraine and Lithuania provided an invaluable insight into the routine of the KGB’s work, their training, mindset and tactics of the special operations.
It seems like John le Carré was something of an inspiration—at least tonally—for Untraceable. If that is true, what did you admire about his work?
It seems that we have a second Cold War unfolding, and Russian assassins abroad are the main sign of it. If you are reflecting this, how can you avoid the dialogue with the best narrator of the (first) Cold War? He was a great master in describing the various atmospheres, mostly the dark ones, in the Soviet-occupied countries behind the Iron Curtain, and I am also focused on these atmos- pheric effects. The Soviet atmosphere, the current Russian atmosphere, are both toxic themselves, but it is not an easy task to spot and identify a toxin spilled in the air.
Untraceable is not specifically critical of the Putin regime (at least, he is never named), but nevertheless the implications are clear. How will it be received in Russia?
We’ll see. Probably it would be ignored by the state-run media. Or, vice versa, I could be called a Western puppet.
Head of Zeus is also publishing your previous novels into the UK for the first time later this year. There are obviously a lot of different threads in your work, but a key theme throughout seems to be how the Soviet past affects contemporary Russians. What draws you to write about that?
Memory can be deceitful, unstable, melting, but still we speak about it inside the frame of normality. But for me, as a Russian born in the USSR, such a thing as memory—historical memory, family memory—doesn’t exist. We inherited not a memory, but a crime scene, where perpetrators tried to erase any trace of their deeds by rewriting history many times. And a historian, a researcher works like a detective, and takes risks like a detective. We are only on the way to the memory, and this way is an investigation. Oblivion as a natural process helps the malefactors, plays to their favour, so it’s a race against nature and human nature.
In a modern Russia, where political and social institutions are destroyed, where you are deprived of your civic rights, art—or the language—is your last retreat. To develop the language by artistic tools is a means to gain the future.
Our past affects the current state of affairs on the highest scale. But the past itself is surreal: it consists of fakes, silence, gaps, defaults, ghosts and shadows. You need a very precise and specific language to work with these elusive phenomena, language which mixes the sensitive, predictive force of poetry with a strong intellectual analysis. Language which every time confronts itself in a struggle to grasp, to fix the unrealistic reality.
And of course, there are a lot of personal things here. My family was literally exterminated by the Soviet rule. My ancestors were deprived of their ranks and property. Forced to live in Russia during the Civil War. Executed on the spot. Prohibited to serve as clergy. Our possessions were taken, churches were blown up. Later, some were deported to the north, some arrested and sent to gulags, some murdered during the Great Terror. Most of my family graves are unknown, and most of the fates are locked up in the archives. I am the last man standing, and it is my commitment to stay and speak for them, to find and reveal the truth.
I’m not sure there are many geologists turned authors... how did you move from geology to writing, and has your background in geology helped your writing?
When the USSR collapsed, geology as a science and as an industry was quickly deteriorating. At the same time, the geological spaces were opened for Jack London-style expeditions, searches of old abandoned mines and deposits.
This was my geology. We were collecting specimens and selling them to museums and private connoisseurs. There was no USSR any more, and the new states were like newborn babies. No borders, no authorities, money was calculated inmillions. It was something like the period of the Civil War that my grandmother witnessed as a young girl and described to me.
It was during this time that I first encountered the remains of the gulag: ruins of barracks and bridges, old glades and roads, cyclopic heaps of exhausted rock—like the sum of prisoners’ elimi- nated lives. It was shocking. I thought the former camps existed only in memoirs. They were in fact present on earth, but nobody had seen them.
Later I found that the language of geology was very helpful to me in dealing with the past. Geology is working with substances transformed by time and pressure, transformed not only once but three, four, five times. This is a perfect parallel with Soviet history, because the USSR was constantly rewriting its history, denying the past and declaring a new future.
In addition, the search for minerals is like an exciting hunt. You cannot only rely on professional skills. Intuition, luck, a sixth sense also matters. You are like a detective looking for what happened hundreds or thousands of millions of years ago, tracing the marks of mineral veins in the landscape, in the river sand and pebbles, reading the Book of Creation. It is a perfect school for a writer and an investigator!
I always find it fascinating how authors work with translators. Can you tell us how you work with Antonina Bouis, who has translated all your books into English?
Antonina is an offspring of Russian émigrés herself, so we share the deep interest in the field. I cannot judge for her, but I suppose that our mutual work is her deep choice of devotion to those whom we lost. And, of course, the translator is always a first reader, first responder, and Antonina’s intelligent and delicate reading is a great help for me.
Poet, journalist and novelist Sergei Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1981, and worked as a geologist in Russia and Central Asia for several years before turning to writing. Called “the best of Russia’s younger generation of writers” by the New York Review of Books, his previous novels The Goose Fritz, Oblivion and The Year of the Comet will be published for the first time in the UK by Head of Zeus in September, to tie in with Untraceable’s paperback release (Apollo, 9781800246614).
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