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Bernard Chambaz: Vladimir Vladimirovitch

The hero of this book is Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. No, not that one.Our hero/narrator is a fictitious character. However, not only does he share the same name as the Russian president, he was born the same year as him (albeit a few months earlier) and is even said to look like him, particularly the eyes. It even seems that there is some doubt about the paternity of both men.

In the book, our hero is referred to as Vladimir Vladimirovitch, while the Russian president is called simply Putin though. When he is younger, he is referred to as Volodka, a standard Russian nickname for people called Vladimir and one apparently used for the future Russian president. I shall use the same convention. However, despite the resemblance to Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovitch’s life has not been so successful. He was a university lecturer but lost that job and is now a tram driver. The year is 2014, so they are both coming up to their sixty-second birthdays.

Putin has been married and has children. He also, as Vladimir Vladimirovitch tells us, has had affairs. All we know about Vladimir Vladimirovitch’s love life is that he was with Tatiana – we do not know if they were married – but she walked out on him. He is attracted to a neighbour, Galina, and they have been out together a couple of times, though she is not keen on watching the Olympics with him. However, on the whole, he lives a very solitary life,

He is very enthusiastic about sports and fanatically follows Russian ice hockey. At the beginning of the novel, the Russian ice hockey team has just lost to Finland in the winter Olympics and Vladimir Vladimirovitch is devastated and is watching television, seeing his namesake, who is also devastated.

Vladimir Vladimirovitch has two hobbies. He is an amateur painter. Inevitably he makes a comparison with Putin, who apparently painted a picture (probably not very good) but which was sold for charity and raised millions. Vladimir Vladimirovitch has not sold anything.

His other hobby is his namesake. He keeps a series of moleskin notebooks, full of cuttings and his own comments on Putin. The first two cover Putin’s early years and the next two when he was a KGB agent and shadowy figure starting to make his name. The last two cover President Putin. These two give him most trouble, because of the contrary information about him. Russian source material, usually propaganda, is positive, foreign source material is usually negative.

He also reminisces about his past and, in particular, his Uncle Andrei, of whom he was very fond. Uncle Andrei was a keen supporter of Stalin and we learn a bit about Stalin, particularly his difficult relationship with his children.

We move on to the notebooks – they all have different colours – and we start with the red one – Putin, The Early Years. We follow Putin’s story, while alternating with Vladimir Vladimirovitch’s current situation.

Putin’s grandfather was, apparently, Stalin’s food taster, though Wikipedia says he was merely Stalin’s cook. Initially, he does not do well at school but decides he wants to join the KGB and one of the ways to do that is to have a good law degree, so he works hard to get into Leningrad State University and succeeds. Eventually, as we know he does join the KGB. Initially it is a boring job, cutting out newspaper clippings and listening to tapes but he does, eventually, get sent to Dresden, where he is when the Berlin Wall falls.

Meanwhile, we are following current (i.e. 2014-15) events – particularly the Russian annexation of Crimea, which Vladimir Vladimirovitch supports, not least because his parents are buried there. Dirty deeds, such as the Alexander Litvinenko murder and the attack on and subsequent death of journalist Mikhail Beketov for exposing corruption, abound.

Putin, meanwhile, plays a clever game and rises up the ranks and almost accidentally becomes president. We continue to follow his story in the other notebooks, which Vladimir Vladimirovitch has to abandon, as they do not make them any more, and use his computer.

Our hero, however, drifts on. He sees Galina but the relationship does not progress. They make a parachute jump together, mainly because, it seems, Putin has yet to do so. He visits his parents’ grave in Sevastopol and even goes to Paris. He thinks a lot about his namesake and when Kim-Jong-Un passes a decree encouraging other North Koreans called Kim Jong-Un to change their name, Vladimir Vladimirovitch wonders if his namesake might do the same. He does not.

While this book is certainly interesting – I learned a lot about Putin (the president) I did not know before – Vladimir Vladimirovitch is not a terribly interesting character. He has failed in his career and failed in his love life. He paints but that is barely mentioned. His main activities seem to be watching sports on television and writing his notebooks. Yes, he sort of compares himself to his namesake, imagines him visiting and even imagines him dead, but they remain two very separate characters. There have been lots of excellent books about ordinary men and women. Sadly, this does not seem to be one of them.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Flammarion
No English translation