Surkov Part II

Last year I read about Vladislav Surkov, author and “Grey Cardinal” of the Kremlin. Since then I have followed him with interest, and so was not surprised to see him being maneuvered back into power by Medvedev:

Vladislav Surkov may be about to get a second act. And Aleksei Kudrin is standing offstage, biding his time and waiting to make his move.

Surkov and Kudrin are about as different as Russian officials can be. One thing they have in common, however, is that each played a key role in maintaining the authoritarian political system President Vladimir Putin established more than a decade ago.

The flamboyant Surkov’s stock-in-trade has long been the murky world of political subterfuge. As the architect and overseer of Russia’s simulated democracy, he deftly utilized diversion and intrigue to create enough of an illusion of pluralism to give the country’s ruling cabal the space to govern undisturbed.

The cerebral Kudrin, in contrast, specialized in sound economic management. As finance minister he led the green-eyeshade set of bean-counting economists who kept the country’s books balanced (albeit with an assist from high oil prices), even amid mind-bending corruption.

Another thing Surkov and Kudrin have in common is that they both came to the realization that Russia’s political system needed to evolve and reform — or risk stagnation and decay. And this caused each of them, to varying degrees and for different reasons, to either defect or be banished from the ruling circle.

Surkov realized that the simulated pluralism he painstakingly constructed needed to be expanded to give more of society — especially the emerging creative class — more of a voice. This meant bringing more parties into the State Duma, a proposition that put him in direct conflict with the ruling United Russia.

He also understood, correctly it turns out, that Putin returning to the presidency would be a risky move that would inflame the emerging middle class and divide the elite. Surkov reportedly favored Dmitry Medvedev remaining in the Kremlin, albeit with Putin remaining informally — yet firmly — in charge as “national leader.” This set him against the siloviki clan of security-service veterans surrounding Putin — and ultimately with Putin himself.

In the wake of the disputed State Duma elections in December, Surkov was unceremoniously tossed out of his job as the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff and the regime’s chief ideologist. To add insult to injury he was replaced by his archrival, Vyacheslav Volodin, a staunch Putin loyalist.

Surkov, however, appears on the verge of a comeback of sorts. The daily “Kommersant” reported this week, citing unidentified officials, that he may be named chief of staff of Prime Minister Medvedev’s incoming government, where he will also hold the rank of deputy prime minister.

Russia 1917: Wanton Nihilism

Writing a review of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book Apricot Jam for the TLS, G.S. Smith summarizes Solzhenitsyn’s view of revolutionary Russia:

In October 1917, Russia was hijacked by a fanatical alien sect whose wanton nihilism masqueraded as cleansing atheism and liberating populism, and who venerated ends with no scruple about means. The result was the perverse squandering of the material and spiritual capital that centuries of self-sacrificing peasant labour had accumulated; suffering and loss of life on an unprecedented scale; and catastrophic moral, ethical and physical degeneration, visited most cruelly on the rural, ethnically Russian population. Victory in a world war was more of a disaster for the ordinary people than a triumph. The original zealots – those who survived the Party’s self-purgings – had, by the post-Stalin 1950s, given way to mediocre power-motivated cynics. Decent people had connived with tyranny in the naive hope of an ultimately beneficial outcome, or had been compelled to connive, and either way had been corrupted.

A ‘fanatical alien sect’ is perhaps the best way to look at Nazism and Communism.

Failed apocalyptic sects who achieved temporary spectacular success and will be remembered like Thomas Muntzer’s followers as a disappeared, violent creed.

Vladislav Surkov

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.’