Book review -The Senility of Vladimir P

In Michael Honig’s scathing satire Vladimir P, former Russian president, is 82 and senile. He resides in one of his luxury dachas just outside Moscow and is looked after by Nikolai Sheremetev, his live-in nurse, and an entourage of domestic staff and bodyguards.

Sheremetev has cared for Vladimir for six years and it has taken him this long to discover that everyone, from the gardeners to the bodyguards, is on the make.

Vladimir’s two armoured cars are regularly hired out by his drivers. The cook, currently in a stand-off with the new housekeeper, is hoping to cream off enough money from his inflated invoices to open a restaurant.

By contrast, Sheremetev is one of those rarities in Honig’s Russia: an honest man who has never paid a bribe (not even to save his ailing wife from kidney disease), nor has he ever submitted fraudulent bills or exploited his position.

In fact, he is admonished by the cook for being “unRussian” when he refuses to charge Vladimir’s friends and family a visiting fee. Only when Sheremetev’s beloved nephew, Pasha, is thrown into prison for writing a critical blog about the former president and his legacy is he forced to reset his moral compass.  The prosecutor wants $300,000 to release Pasha without charge.

Honig’s novel is a clear attack on the corruption and greed of Putin’s Russia and serves as a sharp reminder of how authoritarian rule can infect a generation. Honig chooses to recount real events and there is little attempt to conceal identities.

In the novel, Vladimir’s crimes range from extortion and embezzlement to ordering the murder of numerous journalists during a period when “to kill a journalist was like a sport”.

The pace is a little slow as Honig sets up Sheremetev’s daily routine and gives us a flavour of Vladimir’s delusions – he enjoys sparring with former political rivals, disgraced government ministers and corrupt oligarchs, but is tormented by the image of a disembodied head of a Chechen who, he is convinced, is out to exact a bloody revenge.

The tension rises when Sheremetev leaves the confines of the dacha in an attempt to find the money for Pasha’s release.

Honig, formerly a doctor, dissects Vladimir’s decline with consummate accuracy – the confusion, interspersed with rages, the memory loss, and merging of past experiences with the present.

His senility prevents him from feeling remorse but, Honig suggests, he never had a conscience. As Vladimir’s specialist observes: “The deepest part of a person’s character is the one that goes last.” In Vladimir’s case, it is vanity.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday