The experience motivated Lebedev to write his first novel, “Oblivion,” which explored the legacy of the Soviet prison camp system in a way that, according to Bouis, who has translated all but one of his novels, no Russian writer had done since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
“Sergei has that same kind of moral compass,” she said. “‘Untraceable’ is really a moral and philosophical study of what kind of people make poison. Why do they do that? And what are the ramifications for you as a human being if you fall into that line of work?”
In the book, Vladimir Putin’s name is never mentioned, nor are Russia’s Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., or its predecessor, the K.G.B. “They are necessary for this story, but it’s not directly about them,” Lebedev said. “It’s about knowledge and power and the dark romance between totalitarianism and science during the 20th century.”
Kaletin, the scientist at the heart of “Untraceable,” is based on a charismatic family friend who served as a military medic but in reality, Lebedev said, worked in biological warfare. “This fact was revealed only in the 1990s when a lot of secrets lost their cover and a lot of people started to speak,” he added.
Those stories of lies and deception figure into all of his work, which include his earlier novel “The Year of the Comet,” written from the perspective of a boy seduced by the fabled exploits of his elders. They are woven into “Untraceable,” too, along with his lingering ambivalence about Russia and the fall of the Soviet Union. “I was a very double-minded person, as all Soviets were,” Lebedev said.
“I always felt that there was something hidden. Secrets were everywhere,” he added. “You feel like you exist in two contradictory universes — so writing novels is a way of curing myself.”