Author Talk: July 25, 2008
July 25, 2008
Daniel Silva's latest novel, MOSCOW RULES, brings Israeli intelligence agent and art restorer Gabriel Allon to Russia's capital city, on the heels of a former KGB colonel turned arms dealer on the verge of selling the country's most advanced weapons to al-Qaeda terrorist groups. In this interview, Silva discusses the meaning behind the book's title and explains how contemporary events in Eastern Europe inspired its plot. He also shares some of his own experiences visiting Russia in the name of research, sheds light on the country's current political landscape, and speculates on the growing appeal of his unique and intriguing protagonist.
Question: What are the Moscow Rules and are they real?
Daniel Silva: They are real, and every spy and intelligence officer knows them. During the Cold War, Moscow was by far the toughest, most dangerous city in the world to work. So the CIA created a set of operating principles. They applied not only to Moscow but other rough stations and bases as well. When I started researching the book, I tried to find an official list of the rules, but I discovered from friends at the CIA that the agency never really bothered to write them down. I suppose they did that on purpose. Some of the rules are quite chilling: “Assume everyone you meet is under opposition control.” “Assume every telephone is tapped and every room is bugged.” Some are hysterical: “Murphy was right.” “Technology will always let you down.” My personal favorite is: “Don’t look back. You are never completely alone.” That rule serves not only as the epigraph of the novel but its spine as well.
Q: Why did you pick MOSCOW RULES for the title?
DS: Without giving too much away, the villain of the book is one of those New Russian oligarchs we’ve all been reading about in the newspapers. His name is Ivan Kharkov. Before the fall of communism, he was a KGB officer. Now he’s a fabulously successful investor and businessman. He has mansions in Moscow, London, and the South of France, and he flies between them on his private jet. He has close friends in high places in Moscow, including the Russian president himself.
But there’s a part of Ivan’s business empire he keeps carefully hidden from outside eyes. Ivan is the world’s biggest arms dealer, and he’s planning to sell some very dangerous weapons to some very dangerous people. Someone close to Ivan --- someone who is surrounded day and night by bodyguards, someone who’s every e-mail and conversation is monitored --- has risked everything in an attempt to stop the deal. The hero of my series, Gabriel Allon, needs to talk to this person. To do so, he has to operate under the Moscow Rules.
What I was trying to do with the title and tone of the book was to take the iconography of the Cold War and apply it to a very human, present-day story. I wanted to create a sense in the reader’s mind that maybe things haven’t changed that much in Russia. Maybe a new tsar, a new Stalin, is running the place. The action at the end of the novel flows up and down a boulevard called the Leninsky Prospekt. I did that for a specific reason. Lenin is the man who inflicted communism on the Russian people, yet one of the most important avenues in Moscow still bears his name.
Q: This is your eleventh novel and the eighth in your series featuring spy and art restorer Gabriel Allon. Your thrillers take place all over the world, but this is the first time you’ve chosen to set a book in Russia. Why now?
DS: I suppose Russia has been calling me for a long time. I grew up reading the classic novels of Cold War espionage. I studied Russian history and Soviet foreign policy in college. I even wanted to work in Moscow as a foreign correspondent. But by the time I started writing novels full-time, the Cold War was over. I thought several times about writing a historical novel of the Cold War, but it didn’t feel right. I’d always enjoyed the challenge of trying to catch history in the act. I knew enough about Russian history to bide my time. I told myself to be patient. Eventually, Russia would find a new tsar and challenge us again. The new tsar turned out to be Vladimir Putin, and his critics were soon dying under mysterious and violent circumstances. When Aleksandr Litvinenko was murdered in London in 2006 with a lethal dose of polonium-210, I knew it was time for Gabriel Allon to go to Russia.
Q: Before Gabriel Allon could go to Moscow, you had to go. You spent last summer there. What did you find?
DS: I absolutely fell in love with Moscow. Strange, because it’s not an easy place to visit. Just getting around the city can be a challenge because of the nightmarish traffic. But it’s one of those places where you can’t help but trip over history at every turn. And now, because of Russia’s newfound wealth, it’s a city of enormous contradictions. Within a few yards of Lenin’s Tomb is some of the most expensive shopping in the world. The city is filled with luxury cars, exclusive boutiques, and trendy restaurants. It’s as if the entire country is trying to make up for sixty years of lost time with an orgy of capitalism and consumerism. Every night, we watched Russian millionaires making deals in the bar of our hotel. They dressed in the latest designer clothing, spoke fluent English, and were surrounded by bodyguards who made no effort to conceal their weapons. There’s a reason why they call Moscow “the Wild East.” Needless to say, I found it to be the perfect setting for a thriller.
Q: There’s a theme that runs through the novel, a sort of running joke between the characters about how everything in Russia is “the world’s biggest.”
DS: It really came to be a refrain wherever we went. World’s biggest hotel. World’s biggest bell. World’s biggest swimming pool. World’s biggest supermarket. One evening when I was returning to my hotel from a meeting, my driver looked at one of the old Stalinist towers that still dominate the Moscow skyline. “Europe’s biggest apartment building,” he said. Then he sighed heavily and added, “Everything in this country has to be the biggest, the tallest, the fastest, and the best. We cannot live as normal people.” The line really stuck with me, and I used it as the spine of the novel. Russians cannot live as normal people. Russia is not a normal country.
Q: The action in MOSCOW RULES moves from one exotic locale to the next: Moscow, Italy, Israel, the Alps, the French Riviera, London. Did you spend a lot of time in those places?
DS: Thankfully, yes. That’s the best part of my job. For example, at the start of the story, Gabriel is staying at an isolated cattle farm in the hills of Umbria. My family and I were lucky enough to stay on a farm just like it as I was finishing THE MESSENGER. I also spent a great deal of time chasing rich Russians around Western Europe, trying to get a glimpse of the way they’re spending their money. And I can report that they’re spending an enormous amount of it. Even a novelist can’t make this up. In Saint-Tropez, there’s a restaurant frequented by Russians where a caviar appetizer costs three thousand euros, about five thousand dollars. In Courchevel, I visited a restaurant where the manager told me about a group of Russians who had just spent three hundred thousand euros for lunch. That’s about a half million dollars. For lunch! My dedication to accuracy went only so far. I didn’t eat at these restaurants, but my characters had a fabulous time there. Our guides in Russia also told us several jokes that Russians like to tell on themselves about the extravagant spending of the New Russian millionaires. Our favorite was this one: A Russian millionaire buys a luxury Mercedes. The next week, he goes back to the dealer and says he wants to trade the car in for a new model. The mystified dealer asks, “What’s wrong with this one?” The Russian millionaire answers, “The ashtrays are full.”
Q: You managed to get inside Lubyanka, the infamous former home of the KGB and current headquarters of its successor agency, the FSB. How did you get in, and what was it like?
DS: The truth is, I am still not sure how we got in, but it was the experience of a lifetime. We put in a request and waited. Finally, near the end of our stay, the call came. We were ordered to present ourselves at a side door of FSB headquarters, on Bolshaya Lubyanka Street, early on a Sunday morning. We were told not to be late. Waiting inside was a fit-looking colonel in his late fifties. He had a pleasant smile, and eyes that actually seemed to twinkle. He spoke only Russian, so our guide had to provide simultaneous translation. We followed him through darkened corridors and up darkened staircases. We didn’t get to visit the part of the building where poor Gabriel ends up in the story --- the notorious holding cells of Lubyanka --- but it was still fascinating.
Q: Is it true the KGB really has a private museum?
DS: Absolutely true. It’s near the offices that were once used by some of the KGB’s most notorious chiefs. No other intelligence service in the world has a history quite like the KGB’s, and for someone like me, a student of Russian history and espionage, the museum was Valhalla. It’s a surprisingly candid place, but it contains almost no evidence that the KGB had ever tried to spy on the United States. When I asked to see the exhibits dealing with the traitors Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, our guide only laughed. My favorite moment occurred when we stopped before a large album containing the official portraits of every KGB and FSB chief, beginning with Felix Dzerzhinsky. “He was shot,” the colonel said of one early chief. He turned the page. “He was shot… He was shot… He was shot.” At the next portrait, he paused for a moment. “Ah, this one was different.” He paused dramatically. “He was poisoned.” What more could I ask for.
Q: Were there any other moments that stood out during your Moscow trip?
DS: I loved riding in gypsy cabs. You can walk to the curb of virtually any street in Moscow, stick out your arm, and twenty cars will pull over. You don’t know who the driver is, but you hop in and away you go. I got into one of these “cabs” one night and there was a kid behind the wheel who looked like he might have been twelve years old. He had dark-tinted film on the inside of the car’s windows and was wearing sunglasses. At night, mind you! We drove along the Kremlin walls, listening to American music on the car’s stereo. The juxtaposition was quite jarring. But I have to thank him for inspiring a scene in the book.
Q: Do your children always accompany you on these research trips?
DS: Whenever possible, yes. They love to joke that when they get back to school every fall and have to write the usual essay, “What I did on my summer vacation,” they get to say they helped their father pick out places to kill people! But sometimes it really is true. For example, my son, Nicholas, helped me to choreograph the kidnapping of Elizabeth Halton in THE SECRET SERVANT. And the murder in the opening chapter of that novel was inspired by an incident involving my daughter, Lily, and a housepainter in Amsterdam. I’m sure they would have rather spent their summer on a beach somewhere, but they really did learn a great deal about Russian history and culture. And it’s already paid dividends. This year, when my son’s English class read ANIMAL FARM, he understood everything in a deeply personal way because he’d been to the real Animal Farm.
Q: Were you operating under Moscow Rules when you were in Moscow?
DS: We had a family joke the entire time we were in Russia: “Mr. Putin is watching.” Oddly enough, our guide could have been a Putin double. I’m not exaggerating. He looked shockingly like Putin himself. But having been a reporter in the Middle East, I tend to operate by the Moscow Rules wherever I go.
Q: Your novel doesn’t paint a particularly flattering portrait of the new rulers of Russia. Are you nervous about what Mr. Putin will think of your book?
DS: That’s a great question. President Putin --- uh, excuse me, Prime Minister Putin --- is a very busy man who probably doesn’t have time to read many American thrillers. But who knows? He was the chief of the FSB, after all. He might like a good spy story.
Q: Your story deals with the dangers faced by Russian journalists. In fact, two reporters for a publication called Moskovsky Gazeta are murdered during the course of the story. Were you able to talk to Russian reporters for your research?
DS: I did, actually, and they were incredibly helpful. I was deeply moved by their courage and their dedication to a principle that we all too often take for granted. Not many people realize this, but Russia is an extremely dangerous place to be a journalist. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, forty-seven reporters, editors, cameramen, and photographers have been killed in Russia since 1992, making it the third-deadliest country in the world in which to practice the craft of journalism, after Iraq and Algeria. Fourteen of those deaths occurred during Putin’s presidency. Nearly all of them were contract killings, and very few have been solved or prosecuted. I met a reporter who literally broke down in tears as he described the murder of his friend. It affected me deeply, and had a profound impact on the book.
Q: At one point in the story, a Russian journalist named Olga Sukhova describes the political and cultural situation in Russia today. In doing so, she refers several times to the siloviki. Who are the siloviki?
DS: It’s a word Russians use to describe the men from the security and intelligence services who are now ruling Russia. In a way, it’s the modern-day equivalent of calling someone a chekist. The siloviki took control of Russia after the chaos of Yeltsin’s presidency and said, in effect, enough is enough. They have a plan. They’re not the least bit interested in democracy. They believe, as Putin has said many times, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest geopolitical disasters in history. They want Russia to be a great country again. An important country. And they want their empire back.
Q: As of 2008, Putin remains the most popular politician in Russia according to opinion polls. If the Putin government has no interest in democracy, why aren’t the people more up in arms about him?
DS: It might seem strange to us but the Russian people aren’t terribly interested in democracy, at least not the kind of democracy that’s practiced in the United States or Western Europe. Let’s try to look at it from their perspective. They went through a terrible time in the nineties. Their experience with multiparty democracy was, quite frankly, an unmitigated disaster. Putin righted the ship and restored order. But there’s been a price to pay. Putin has put in place a system where he and his party dominate Russian politics and the media. The Russian people are arguably freer than they’ve ever been, but there’s a line they dare not cross. Everyone in the country knows where that line is. And if they do cross it, they’re likely to run straight into the siloviki.
Q: What do you see as the challenges we’ll be facing with Russia? Are we, in fact, about to embark on a new Cold War?
DS: I think it’s too early to say. Clearly, the Russians want to be a major world power again. They liked the bipolar world of the Cold War much better than the unipolar world of today. I think that in the future they’re going to look for opportunities to challenge American power and hegemony around the world. In many respects, they still regard us as “the main adversary.” There’s an embedded anti-Americanism in Russia that we should never discount. The intellectual classes can say nice things about us, but, in the main, Russians are basically anti-American. They also think of themselves as superior to us in many respects. It sets up a strange contradiction. They don’t really like us, but, at the same time, they want to be part of us. The G8 is a perfect example of this. The Russians want to sit at the table with the rest of the world’s wealthiest nations, but, at the same time, when things don’t go their way, they threaten to target G8 cities with their nukes. And then there’s the case of Aleksandr Litvinenko. The British government has accused the Russians, in effect, of carrying out an act of nuclear murder in the heart of the British capital. It boggles the mind when you think about it in those terms.
Q: How do Russian arms sales play into this scenario?
DS: In my opinion, they are a critical component. One of the places where the Russians look to challenge America is in the Middle East and broader Muslim world. They see an opening there. And they’re using arms sales to some of the world’s must dangerous regimes as a way to raise their profile. They’ve sold highly sophisticated weapons to Syria, for example. And, of course, they’re deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear program.
Q: Your novel deals with a plot to sell very dangerous weapons to al-Qaeda. Is there any evidence to suggest that the Russians have ever sold weapons directly to terrorists?
DS: The Russian government? I wouldn’t rule anything out, but the answer is probably not. But there’s strong evidence to suggest that Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer who operated under the umbrella of protection of the Russian security services, sold weapons to al-Qaeda. He also sold to the Taliban. And the Taliban, in turn, probably supplied some of those weapons to al-Qaeda. Let’s keep something else in mind: Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB worked with anti-Western and anti-American terrorists of every stripe. And some of those KGB men are now running Russia.
Q: Where is Viktor Bout now?
DS: He was arrested in Thailand earlier this year in a U.S.-led sting operation. He allegedly thought he was negotiating a major deal with the FARC rebels in Colombia. In reality, he was dealing with American agents. Apparently, he was planning to sell the Colombians the same weapons that my fictitious arms dealer, Ivan Kharkov, was prepared to sell al-Qaeda: shoulder-launch anti-aircraft missiles. Bout has been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York. It’s quite possible he could end up being brought to the United States to stand trial.
Q: You’re well connected in Washington? Did you have any inside knowledge that the operation against Bout was under way?
DS: None whatsoever. When I saw the reports of Bout’s arrest, I was shocked.
Q: Viktor Bout plied his deadly trade for years. Why is it so hard to bring people like him --- or, for that matter, the villain in your book --- to justice?
DS: In short, because it’s very difficult. Much of what arms dealers do is perfectly legal, or it has the patina of legality. They operate in a gray area of international law. Very few have ever been arrested and prosecuted. And I’m afraid I’m not terribly optimistic when it comes to shutting down the trade in weapons anytime soon. Look at what’s happening around the world now. Food shortages, global warming, competition for scarce resources such as water and energy. It doesn’t take a scholar to imagine a world where we have more and more failed states. And that means more civil wars. And more potential markets for men like Viktor Bout and his fellow travelers.
Q: Your last book, THE SECRET SERVANT, was #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, your highest ranking ever. Each one of your novels has been more successful than its predecessor. Why do you think Gabriel Allon has caught on the way he has?
DS: No one is more surprised by the success of Gabriel and the series than I am. He really seems to have struck a chord with readers --- and not just Gabriel but the entire cast of secondary characters that surround him. Everyone seems to have their favorite, but I do think Gabriel is unique. There really is no one else quite like him on the literary landscape: an Israeli assassin who also happens to be one of the world’s finest art restorers and who lives in Italy under an assumed identity. The funny thing is Gabriel was never supposed to be a continuing character. I actually had to be talked into it. I really believed that no one wanted to read about an Israeli hero. But I had an idea for a book I wanted to write --- a story involving looted art and Switzerland’s behavior during World War II --- and Gabriel was a perfect fit. It turned out to be a book called THE ENGLISH ASSASSIN, and, in many ways, it was my breakout novel. Despite the book’s success, I still wasn’t sure about him. When I made my first notes for THE CONFESSOR, Gabriel wasn’t in the story. Fortunately, I came to my senses.
Q: What sort of man is Gabriel?
DS: He’s not someone you’d actually like to spend a lot of time around. In fact, that’s one of the reasons he’s so interesting to write about. He’s not the friendliest person in the world, and there are very few people in the world who actually know who he is. He’s incredibly gifted and very smart. And as his mentor, Ari Shamron, points out at the end of the book, he suffers from melancholy and mood swings. His attitudes have hardened a bit over the last couple of books, but he’s by no means a gunslinging, kill-all-the-bad-guys kind of superhero. He knows what it means to lose loved ones. I think that if the president of the United States had asked Gabriel for advice after 9/11, Gabriel would have warned him about the price to be paid for climbing into the gutter with terrorists and murderers and fighting them at their level.
Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?
DS: I think many American readers will be surprised by the extent to which Russians have invaded Western Europe. When you go to places like the South of France, the place is teeming with Russians. And London is now home to a Russian population of more than three hundred thousand. That’s why I structured my story the way I did. It moves between Russia and Western Europe just like the rich Russians of today.
Q: You’ve talked about bringing your kids along on your research trips. Would you want either of them to follow in your footsteps and become a writer?
DS: Like every parent, I want them to do whatever will make them happy. But both of them are very good writers already. But writing a book a year is an interesting challenge to say the least, and I put a great deal of pressure on myself to make each novel better. I throw out hundreds of pages for each book, because it’s all about finding the right pages. A couple of years ago, I took a private tour of the Vatican Museums with its chief art historian. We were standing in front of one of my favorite paintings, The Deposition of Christ by Caravaggio. The historian pointed to the right hand of Christ and explained that a recent examination of the painting had revealed the existence of five other hands beneath, meaning that Caravaggio actually had to paint it six times before he was satisfied. Let me be absolutely clear: I am by no means comparing myself to Caravaggio, but it is reassuring to a mere mortal such as me to know that a genius like Caravaggio had to work very hard at his craft.