The latest issue of the London Review of Books has a fascinating article on someone I had never heard of, but who is a power behind the throne in Russia, his name is Vladislav Surkov. Apparently he wrote a novel called Almost Zero under the pen name of Natan Dubovitsky. The LRB says:
The novel is a satire of contemporary Russia whose hero, Egor, is a corrupt PR man happy to serve anyone who’ll pay the rent. A former publisher of avant-garde poetry, he now buys texts from impoverished underground writers, then sells the rights to rich bureaucrats and gangsters with artistic ambitions who publish them under their own names. The world of PR and publishing as portrayed in the novel is extremely dangerous. Publishing houses have their own gangs, whose members shoot each other over the rights to Nabokov and Pushkin, and the secret services infiltrate them for their own murky ends. It’s exactly the sort of book Surkov’s youth groups burn on Red Square.
The article outlines his early life:
In the 1980s and early 1990s Russia was experimenting with different modes at a dizzying rate: Soviet stagnation led to perestroika, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal euphoria, then economic disaster. How to believe in anything when everything around you is changing so fast? Surkov abandoned a range of university careers from metallurgy to theatre directing, put in a spell in the army, went to bohemian parties, had regular violent altercations (he was expelled from drama school for fighting). Surkov, it said (or allegedly said) in one of the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, had always thought of himself as an unrecognised genius, but it took him a while to find his metier.
He trained at a martial arts club with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then one of Russia’s emerging young business stars. Khodorkovsky took him on as a bodyguard, saw he had more use for his brains than his muscles and promoted him to PR manager. He became known for his ability not only to think up ingenious PR campaigns but to manipulate others into getting them distributed in the major media with a mixture of charm, aggression and bribery. ‘Surkov acts like a Chekist of the 1920s and 1930s,’ Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst, said. ‘He can always sniff out your weak spot.’ Top jobs followed at banks and TV channels. In 1999 he was invited to join Yeltsin’s presidential administration. Looking more like a designer than a bureaucrat, he stood out from the rest. He was one of the key spin doctors behind the promotion of Putin for president in 2000. Since then, while many of his colleagues have fallen from grace, Surkov has managed to stay in the game by remaking himself to suit his masters’ needs. ‘Slava is a vessel,’ according to Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition politician: ‘Under Yeltsin he was a democrat, under Putin he’s an autocrat.’