For some observers of Russia, the Ukraine crisis and the widely circulating rumours about who killed the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov highlight the continuing influence of Vladislav Surkov at the highest levels of the country’s government. A chameleonic figure, with as much attention being paid to whose photographs he has on his desk as to his marked influence on how politics is done in Russia under Putin, his ‘strategy’—if such a term can be used—needs to be taken seriously, even if the photographs on his desk are of President Putin and the rapper Tupac Shakur side by side.
He has been described variously as a man who embodies post-Soviet Russian politics, an artist directing an elaborate work, a master of the post-political, a ‘grey cardinal’, ‘Putin’s Rasputin’, and the ‘author of Putinism’.[i] Even in his current position as a special advisor, he is still made out to be some sort of Machiavellian media-savvy figure for our times. His ideas, however, do not come from a copy of The Prince and are certainly more disconcerting for those trying to understand, let alone counteract, his strategy.
His views and methods are alleged to have come from sources as varied as modern art, theatre, public relations, and a post-modern understanding of reality that questions the existence of truths. Having tried to become a theatre director before moving into PR and then government work, it has been argued that Surkov has been stage managing Russian domestic politics over the years. With all the aforementioned themes seeming to shine through, it is unsurprising many have compared him to the performance artists with whom he has socialised in the past.
When The Economist reported on Surkov’s resignation from the post of Deputy Prime Minister in 2013, they suggested that this was because he had failed to prevent anti-Putin protests. Furthermore, his replacement Vyacheslav Volodin was regarded as signalling a turn towards the exploitation of nationalist forces within Russia to cement Putin’s hold on power. The title of that particular report, ‘An Ideologues Exit’[ii] now seems premature given Surkov’s return to the upper echelons of government as an advisor, with the United States naming him among those issued travel bans over Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Journalists and cultural critics, along with TV and film producers, seem as fascinated with the man himself as much as they are with the peculiar model of politics he has aided and abetted. Perhaps the degree of interest among those in the West who write about him is motivated by a search for deeper meanings in what Surkov does for a living by looking at the mixture of influences. Alternatively, this focus may just reflect the interest of these authors in a man who epitomises the political dynamics of post-Soviet Russia. In any case, their collective gaze scans over his control of NGOs and ‘opposition parties’ as well as his admiration of Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, and Tupac Shakur.[iii]
One particularly astute observer is Peter Pomerantsev, a London-based TV producer and author of the book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible about his broadcasting work in Russia during the 2000s. He has made a point of portraying Surkov as both an aesthete and the chief designer of Putinism as early as 2011(as we have come to understand the confusing array of ideas and ideologies seemingly all at play at once). Not only in Pomerantsev’s book, but in numerous magazine and newspaper articles penned by the author, the figure of Vladisalv Surkov is ever present. Surkov’s skill, he argues, comes from an ability to combine despotism and postmodernism to create a state of confusion “in which no truth is certain”[iv] (hinted at in the title of his book) where opposition will be kept in check because those involved will never be quite sure what they are up against.
Another producer who has picked up on this line of argument is Adam Curtis, who has also painted a picture that emphasises the authoritarianism and aesthetics model at play, and has tried to outline his understanding of what Surkov is doing to the practice of politics in a brief documentary segment of the BBC satirical comedy show Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe. He buys in to many of Pomerantsev’s arguments, claiming that Vladislav Surkov is making politics a form of “postmodern absurdist theatre”[v].
It may be wrong to suggest that one man wields so much influence, but for the majority of those who bring up the individual himself, Surkov is symbolic. Whether a ‘Surkovian ideology’ truly exists as a fusion of art and politics or is an invention of commentators in the West as shorthand for doublespeak and propaganda is not really that important. What is important for the United States, the EU, and NATO, however, is that Surkov’s methods are not only at work in domestic politics trying to keep the opposition in check. There is arguably an attempt to create a similar climate in foreign politics. It is disturbing that elements of Putin’s Ukraine strategy seem to have Surkov’s hands all over them. Less ‘art of war’ and more modern art in war, this influence changes information warfare and propaganda. As Pomerantsev has posed the question: how do you fight an information war when the opponent is not trying to monopolise ‘truth’, but make it increasingly difficult to establish something that can be considered true?[vi]
Questions about truth and the representation of reality are usually of interest to philosophers, art historians, and those who study the ‘aesthetic turn’ in politics. Nevertheless, if Surkov is drawing upon the aforementioned influences, those involved in the current information war should accept that they may never be able to debunk every myth or fiction that springs up around contentious subjects. Take the downing of flight MH17 for example. Even if it was shot down by separatists using Russian-supplied weaponry, many theories exist that contest this version of events (and are given airtime on channels like Russia Today). Everything is possible precisely because Russia’s voicing of alternative narratives of the event promotes the idea that nothing about the tragic loss of life can be considered to be ‘true’.
Our best weapons may still be drawn from use of the available evidence, fact gathering, and rigorous investigative journalism. Alternative theories of events will inevitably remain, particularly outright conspiracy theories, but they are no longer as innocuous as they seem in the hands of Surkov. If a few lawmakers somewhere in Europe buy in to the version of events that suggests Ukrainian fighters shot down MH17, it could impact on how much aid they feel willing to deliver to Ukraine. If the postmodern theatre goes on without an increasing number of critics on hand to consistently give it bad reviews both within and outside of the Russian Federation, Vladislav Surkov’s methods constitute an art form that is more subversive and dangerous than any poem, painting, or avant-garde piece of cinema.