Boris Akunin’s Historical Lessons

By Beau Samples

OXORD, OH – On Wednesday, February 25, 2015 Elena Baraban, from the University of Manitoba, spoke on “The Death of Achilles as Nostalgia for a Hero” at Miami University’s Spring Havighurst Colloquium Series. She focused on the works of Boris Akunin (a pen name), who was born Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili in 1956, and a translator of Japanese and English. Following the collapse of the USSR and the temporary eradication of censorship, detective fiction, as a literary genre, exploded. Boris Akunin has written numerous detective fiction works, many becoming best sellers. Akunin’s works are described as “detective fiction for intellectuals.” Baraban made the argument in her lecture that Akunin writes historical fiction, where the characters of his story are made up, but the lives that they live replicate those of historical figures. Russian literature has long served as a source readers to gain “truth” and Akunin’s fiction captures this tendency.  Some of his stories are historically accurate, but his characters have been embellished or the narrative has been slightly altered in order to connect the past to the present for his readers.

Akunin’s works are primarily composed into series. Three different book series are focused on different times and people; including one featuring the tsarist secret policeman Erast Fandorin, set before 1917; a second series focuses on a nun, Sister Pelagia; and a third is set in the present day. He has also has written a history of the Russian State series as well as many works that are not included in any series. Further, Akunin publishes his own blogs. All of his writings have proven to be immensely popular. His detective fiction has found much success because of the 1989 abolishment of censorship laws. The diversity of his work draws all types of readers to his work. Interestingly, Baraban reported that in the 1990s only 1.5 million academic books were printed and sold in Russia, but over 100 million books in the detective fiction genre were sold during the same time frame. This speaks to Russian citizens’ desire to break away from only reading state sponsored materials, as that was all that was allowed during the majority of the time that the USSR existed, and to now read creative and interpretive works that were not merely propaganda works.

Throughout much of Russian history, the 19th century has been portrayed as a time of prosperity and referred to as the “Golden Age.” Akunin, however, in his Fandorin series  does not entertain this notion. According to Baraban, Akunin portrays this era as a time of misery, corruption, social inequality and barbarism. One such way this is seen is in Death of Achilles. The book is a hired-assassin mystery thriller that is set in 1882 during the reign of Alexander III. Alexander III was called “The Peacemaker” because no major wars occurred during his reign. This work brings in Russian history at a time where religion, language and nationality were large focuses of the crown to unite the people of the empire. Death of Achilles references ancient figures and stories such as Homer’s Iliad. The novel also centers on the real-life death of General Mikhail Skobelev, a hero of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 who died in 1882 at the age of 38 under mysterious circumstances. Akunin’s story involves a general named Sobolev who is murdered in 1882 in Moscow as part of a larger government conspiracy, helping to make the plot both an examination of the past and a dissection of present-day political machinations.

Elena Baraban’s lecture focused on the work of a single author, but her scholarly research extends beyond. She studies cultural theory and Russian language. This combination allowed her to effectively engage her audiences, both students and professors, in the works of authors who write fictional stories for the Russian readership, but are relatable to the public, so much so that readers can envision real life historical figures in the words and pages of Akunin’s works.  Available in English, the works in the Fandorin series, including Death of Achilles, allow American readers a chance to sample Akunin’s historical lessons too.

Beau Samples is a senior at Miami majoring in Political Science and Russian Studies.

This entry was posted in Lecture Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.