Vladislav Surkov: Portrait of the Kremlin Demiurge

vladislav-surkov-2

In his Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, Peter Pomerantsev describes Vladislav Surkov in a singular portrait:

Though we are expecting Vladislav Surkov, the man known as the “Kremlin demiurge,” who has “privatized the Russian political system,” to enter from the front of the university auditorium, he surprises us all by striding in from the back. He’s got his famous Cheshire Cat smile on. He’s wearing a white shirt and a leather jacket that is part Joy Division and part 1930s commissar. He walks straight to the stage in front of an audience of PhD students, professors, journalists, and politicians.

“I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system,” he tells us by way of introduction. “My portfolio at the Kremlin and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernization, innovation, foreign relations, and . . . ” here he pauses and smiles, “modern art.” He offers to not make a speech, instead welcoming the audience to pose questions and have an open discussion. After the first question he talks for almost forty-five minutes, leaving hardly any time for questions after all. It’s his political system in miniature: democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent.

As former deputy head of the presidential administration, later deputy prime minister and then assistant to the President on foreign affairs, Surkov has directed Russian society like one great reality show. He claps once and a new political party appears. He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth, who are trained for street battles with potential prodemocracy supporters and burn books by unpatriotic writers on Red Square. As deputy head of the administration he would meet once a week with the heads of the television channels in his Kremlin office, instructing them on whom to attack and whom to defend, who is allowed on TV and who is banned, how the President is to be presented, and the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in. The Ostankino TV presenters, instructed by Surkov, pluck a theme (oligarchs, America, the Middle East) and speak for twenty minutes, hinting, nudging, winking, insinuating though rarely ever saying anything directly, repeating words like “them” and “the enemy” endlessly until they are imprinted on the mind. They repeat the great mantras of the era: the President is the President of “stability,” the antithesis to the era of “confusion and twilight” in the 1990s. “Stability”—the word is repeated again and again in a myriad seemingly irrelevant contexts until it echoes and tolls like a great bell and seems to mean everything good; anyone who opposes the President is an enemy of the great God of “stability.” “Effective manager,” a term quarried from Western corporate speak, is transmuted into a term to venerate the President as the most “effective manager” of all. “Effective” becomes the raison d’être for everything: Stalin was an “effective manager” who had to make sacrifices for the sake of being “effective.” The words trickle into the streets: “Our relationship is not effective” lovers tell each other when they break up. “Effective,” “stability”: no one can quite define what they actually mean, and as the city transforms and surges, everyone senses things are the very opposite of stable, and certainly nothing is “effective,” but the way Surkov and his puppets use them the words have taken on a life of their own and act like falling axes over anyone who is in any way disloyal.

One of Surkov’s many nicknames is the “political technologist of all of Rus.” Political technologists are the new Russian name for a very old profession: viziers, gray cardinals, wizards of Oz. They first emerged in the mid-1990s, knocking on the gates of power like pied pipers, bowing low and offering their services to explain the world and whispering that they could reinvent it. They inherited a very Soviet tradition of top-down governance and tsarist practices of co-opting antistate actors (anarchists in the nineteenth century, neo-Nazis and religious fanatics now), all fused with the latest thinking in television, advertising, and black PR. Their first clients were actually Russian modernizers: in 1996 the political technologists, coordinated by Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch nicknamed the “Godfather of the Kremlin” and the man who first understood the power of television in Russia, managed to win then President Boris Yeltsin a seemingly lost election by persuading the nation he was the only man who could save it from a return to revanchist Communism and new fascism. They produced TV scare-stories of looming pogroms and conjured fake Far Right parties, insinuating that the other candidate was a Stalinist (he was actually more a socialist democrat), to help create the mirage of a looming “red-brown” menace.

Living in the world of Surkov and the political technologists, I find myself increasingly confused. Recently my salary almost doubled. On top of directing shows for TNT, I have been doing some work for a new media house called SNOB, which encompasses TV channels and magazines and a gated online community for the country’s most brilliant minds. It is meant to foster a new type of “global Russian,” a new class who will fight for all things Western and liberal in the country. It is financed by one of Russia’s richest men, the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets. I have been hired as a “consultant” for one of SNOB’s TV channels. I write interminable notes and strategies and flowcharts, though nothing ever seems to happen. But I get paid. And the offices, where I drop in several times a week to talk about “unique selling points” and “high production values,” are like some sort of hipster fantasy: set in a converted factory, the open brickwork left untouched, the huge arches of the giant windows preserved, with edit suites and open plan offices built in delicately. The employees are the children of Soviet intelligentsia, with perfect English and vocal in their criticism of the regime. The deputy editor is a well-known American Russian activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and her articles in glossy Western magazines attack the President vociferously. But for all the opposition posturing of SNOB, it’s also clear there is no way a project so high profile could have been created without the Kremlin’s blessing. Is this not just the sort of “managed” opposition the Kremlin is very comfortable with? On the one hand allowing liberals to feel they have a free voice and a home (and a paycheck), on the other helping the Kremlin define the “opposition” as hipster Muscovites, out of touch with “ordinary” Russians, obsessed with “marginal” issues such as gay rights (in a homophobic country). The very name of the project, “SNOB,” though meant ironically, already defines us as a potential object of hate. And for all the anti-Kremlin rants on SNOB, we never actually do any real investigative journalism, find out any hard facts about money stolen from the state budget: in twenty-first-century Russia you are allowed to say anything you want as long as you don’t follow the corruption trail. After work I sit with my colleagues, drinking and talking: Are we the opposition? Are we helping Russia become a freer place? Or are we actually a Kremlin project strengthening the President? Actually doing damage to the cause of liberty? Or are we both? A card to be played?1


  1. Peter Pomerantsev. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (Kindle Locations 1024-1042). Perseus Books, LLC. Kindle Edition.

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