British TV producer and filmmaker Peter Pomerantsev on Vladislav Surkov, the ‘Kremlin demiurge’. A haunting description of New Russia’s brave new world; cynical, indulgent, sybaritic, brutal, and with a surprising inclination for the occasional postmodernist quote to justify pleasure and pain.
The next act of Russian history is about to begin: Putin and Medvedev will pop off-stage into the Moscow green room, switch costumes, and re-emerge to play each other’s roles. Putin as president, again, Medvedev as PM. It’s the apotheosis of what has become known as ‘managed democracy’, and the ultimate triumph of the show’s writer-director, Putin’s chief ideologue and grey cardinal, Vladislav Surkov, the ‘Kremlin demiurge’. Known also as the ‘puppetmaster who privatised the Russian political system’, Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era. Understand him and you understand not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the 20th-century strains.
There is something cherubic in Surkov’s soft, smooth face, something demonic in his stare. He trained as a theatre director then became a PR man; now his official role is ‘vice-head of the presidential administration’, but his influence over Russian politics is unsurpassed. He is the man behind the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’, in which democratic institutions are maintained without any democratic freedoms, the man who has turned television into a kitsch Putin-worshipping propaganda machine and launched pro-Kremlin youth groups happy to compare themselves to the Hitler Youth, to beat up foreigners and opposition journalists, and burn ‘unpatriotic’ books on Red Square. But this is only half the story.
In his spare time Surkov writes essays on conceptual art and lyrics for rock groups. He’s an aficionado of gangsta rap: there’s a picture of Tupac on his desk, next to the picture of Putin. And he is the alleged author of a bestselling novel, Almost Zero. ‘Alleged’ because the novel was published (in 2009) under the pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky – Surkov’s wife is called Natalya Dubovitskaya. Officially Surkov is the author of the preface, where he denies being the author of the novel, then makes a point of contradicting himself: ‘The author of this novel is an unoriginal Hamlet-obsessed hack’; later, ‘this is the best book I have ever read.’ In interviews he has come close to admitting to being the author while always pulling back from a complete confession. Whether or not he actually wrote every word of it he has gone out of his way to associate himself with it.
Read it here.
- image: London Review of Books, resized, cropped