A prince should have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its organisation and discipline, for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands – Niccolò Machiavelli
The worldview of Russia since the turn of the millennium has been characterised by the vice-like grip Vladimir Putin has maintained on its politics. Despite his occasional baton exchanges with current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, it is Putin’s name, face and ideas that have come to define the global perception of modern Russia.
The idea behind his and Medvedev’s game of musical chairs was to preserve Putin’s control. After finishing his second term as president in 2008, rather than alter the constitution in order to allow himself a third, Putin became prime minister for a term, while Medvedev kept his seat warm. It is generally agreed that the transition of presidential power from him to Medvedev was subject to a number of informal agreements, maintaining for himself control over a number of institutions that constitutionally did not belong in the prime minister’s purview. After one term away from the presidency Putin was elected straight back in for a third, non-consecutive term. Classic Vova!
So, how has Putin been able to monopolise political control in Russia? As is often the case with Russia, the answer is complex, multi-stranded and, even after considerable research, unclear. One reason could be his more and more frequent use of anti-Western rhetoric. Despite the recent decline of the rouble and the international sanctions imposed upon Russia following the Ukraine conflict, Putin’s popularity in his country remains as firm as ever. Why? Because he has cunningly framed these things as the result of Western meddling. As such, the more isolated Russia becomes from the West, the more popular Putin becomes in the polls. Another reason could be his systematic intimidation and purging (either through jail, exile or suspected assassination) of any influential figure to publicly pose a threat to him.
Until May 2013, however, the driving force behind Putin’s Russia and self-professed “author of the new Russian system” was Vladislav Surkov. It’s a name that is not familiar to many and with good reason. While Putin himself cavorts around shirtless, straddling a horse and swinging about a hunting rifle, his cronies tend to lurk in the shadows, offstage behind the curtain. But Surkov, the man known in Western press as the éminence grise, takes this conceit to another level entirely. In 2011, the New York Times described him as Russia’s “third most powerful political figure” behind Messrs Medvedev and Putin. Yet, ask yourself, how much do you know of the man?
Officially, he was Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff from 1999 onwards, but to try to distill his tasks and responsibilities into a job title is quite pointless. He is a spin doctor with a deeply sinister ability to destabilise political opposition through the most unconventional and, at times, scarcely believable means. He does this through a strategy the man himself has dubbed “sovereign democracy“.
Sovereign democracy involves creating the illusion of a democratic system, all the while limiting any challenge to Putin’s authority. For example, in 2006 a centre-left party called A Just Russia was established, in theory able to compete with Putin’s centre-right United Russia. Because political competition is a good thing, right? Voters are free to choose from a number of parties up and down the political spectrum? Democracy, et cetera and so forth? One snag: A Just Russia is widely reported to be Surkov’s brainchild. The idea behind its creation was that it would draw votes away from other left-leaning parties. Indeed the party’s leader is a friend of Vladimir Putin, Sergey Mironov, a man who threatened expulsion to rogue members of A Just Russia that partook in the “Snow Revolution” demonstrations. United Russia, in the 2011 elections that were the subject of these anti-Kremlin protests, won 49.32% of the vote, attaining 238 Duma seats, which was 15% down from the 2007 elections. However, thanks to Surkov’s puppet party, Putin now had control over a further 64 out of the 450 seats after A Just Russia received 13.24% of the vote.
Sovereign democracy involves creating the illusion of a democratic system, all the while limiting any challenge to Putin’s authority.
So far, so menacing. But really, this is one of Vladislav Surkov’s milder ploys. To truly understand his ways you must first survey his background. Born Aslanbek Andarbekovich Dudayev in Chechnya, he came into politics via a stint in the military, the briefest of careers in theatre direction, a period as a bodyguard for a now-exiled oligarch, before finally falling into PR. He has enjoyed a diverse, multidisciplinary professional upbringing and this is reflected in his political career. In a recent short film featured on Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe, the celebrated director of political documentaries, Adam Curtis, asserted that Surkov has “imported ideas from conceptual art into the very heart politics”, following his theatre past. I’m not really sure what, if anything, this means. The statement becomes more accurate if we substitute “conceptual art” for “reality TV”. He will use an arsenal of smoke and mirrors to ensure the ratings stay up, no matter how goofy or extreme.
In addition to his creation of opposition political parties, Surkov founded and held regular meetings with Nashi, a youth movement that peaked at 120,000 members and purported to be democratic, anti-fascist and anti-oligarchic. This description of themselves contrasts wildly with the claims of Russian journalist Oleg Kashin in part of a Channel 4 series called Unreported World that Nashi members attacked him, putting him in a coma for several days and leaving him with two broken legs. They also stormed the Estonian Embassy in 2007 which led to one death and dozens of injuries after a dispute between the two countries over the relocation of a war memorial. During this dispute, Nashi tried to claim they were responsible for a number of cyber attacks on high-profile Estonian websites, including those of banks and the Estonian parliament, but the extent of their involvement is debateable. Nashi were done away with when Putin made way for Medvedev to become president, which tells you all you need to know about their brief, but aggressive existence. They were merely Surkov’s tool used to forcibly silence opposition in the press and youth organisations and they could thrive in the same way under a more liberal president.
The profundity of his actions stands in bizarre and darkly comic contrast to what we know of his extra-curricular activity. He is, according to many sources, not least the Wikileaks cables, an avid fan of Tupac Shakur and reportedly kept a photo of the deceased American rapper next to one of Putin on his desk. When his name appeared on a list of Russian officials subject to frozen assets and travel bans in the US by the White House, following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Surkov responded thus: “This is a big honour for me… The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”
His interest in such figures is semi-reflected in his own creative output. Yes, you have read that correctly. One of the quirks of Surkov’s career is that, despite the understated menace with which he performed his role under Putin, he has found the time to write lyrics for Russian rock band Agata Kristi and publish novels. The content of this work is far from a humorous novelty, however, as it implicitly deals with themes of the regime he has helped create. The lyrics of We’ll Be Like Everyone Else read “Our Master is Lucifer, we recognise his style. / For Christmas instead of snow he sends us dust. / We wind ourselves in the rear of his endless horde. / I’ll be like you. You’ll be like him. / We’ll be like everyone.”
“This is a big honour for me… The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”
On 1 May 2013, Surkov gave a talk at the London School of Economics in which he addressed a room full of young, international students entirely in Russian. The audience only made up two-thirds of the lecture hall capacity, with so many students at one of the world’s leading political science universities apparently unaware of what a big draw he was. LSE would provide the unlikely setting for his downfall. In the talk, he heavily criticised the Russian authorities’ handling of a fraud investigation into Skolkovo, a tech company with links to Medvedev complaining that the investigation would be damaging to Skolkovo’s reputation.
Less than a week later, Surkov’s “resignation” was accepted by Putin. It is thought that Surkov’s comments in London were what made his position untenable, with oligarch and owner of the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers, Alexander Lebedev, telling the Financial Times that “it is not very politically correct for a deputy prime minister to go around criticising law enforcement agencies, especially from abroad.”
And that was the end of that.
Except it wasn’t. Just six months after his supposed resignation, Putin brought back Surkov as an aide. The position he currently occupies is much lower than that he held before and it is thought he returned to oversee relations with Ukraine. About a year ago, amidst the escalation of the Ukraine crisis and the war in Donbass, Surkov anonymously published (leaving behind enough clues for us to recognise him; heaven forbid his genius should go unnoticed) a story in a Russian magazine. The story is entitled Without Sky and takes place after the Fifth World War. The purpose of entry into this war differs for each side, as some join it with the expressed intention of being defeated in order to rebuild a society from the ground up. In the story, Surkov chillingly makes reference to something called “non-linear war”; a pattern of war where several sides fight against each other, making alliances and enemies on an ad-hoc basis, rather than the “primitive” First and Second World Wars where two recognisable groups of allied countries fought against one another. He continues to define modern war as “part of a process… but not the most important phase” of whatever this process is.
The notion of war being created as part of a larger process sits in curious counterpoint with Surkov’s role in the Ukraine crisis. Last month, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko accused him of organising “foreign sniper groups” to kill 77 protestors and 18 police officers on the Maidan, Kyiv’s main square, last year. If this is true – and it is highly probable given that it was Surkov whom Putin tasked with managing the Ukraine crisis from the Russian side – it qualifies as Surkov’s most extreme move. For with this action he effectively directed an act of war without taking responsibility, despite his apparently diminished influence.
Poroshenko’s accusation is the last report of Surkov in mainstream news. Could he really be responsible for the Maidan killings and thus have returned to the fore of the Russian political underbelly? His wife’s Instagram account shows that recently the Surkovs were in Hong Kong enjoying an apparently normal family holiday. One photo shows Vladislav innocuously posing in jeans and trainers, smiling for the camera with his son.
In the shadows, offstage behind the curtain.