When we read about Russia in the media, we almost never hear about conceptions of Russia’s vision of the world. We hear a lot about what Russia does to the West, rather than what it thinks and envisions. In truth, Putin’s Russia has never proposed any ideology that is anything but an opportunistic counter-positioning to the West. We don’t know if Russia is on the right or left wing, as it finances both far-right parties in Europe and Maduro’s far-left regime in Venezuela. We don’t know if Russia is pro- or anti-Israel, as it supports Hamas and is friendly with Jerusalem. To paraphrase an old Soviet joke, Russia “has never diverged from the Party line [but] always diverges along with it.”
This week provided a new excuse to finally find Russia’s ideology. Intellectuals in and outside of Russia seized on the new opus of a man who has serious claims to be an ideological author of the Putin regime. Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, a long-serving but still young apparatchik best known for coining the term “sovereign democracy,” has published a quasi-philosophical essay called “Putin’s Long-Lasting State.” And it has set heads spinning—in both Russia and the United States.
Enough prominent American pundits have taken Surkov’s essay seriously—calling it a glimpse into Putin’s thinking, “a rare and alarming moment of candor” from the Kremlin—as to suggest this is the real deal. Russians, to their credit, took it less credulously.
In truth, Surkov’s meandering essay—which feels about as long as Putin’s reign—is hardly worth serious consideration on the merits. But it does give us a glimpse of the sorry state of intellectualism in Russia today, and offers a few useful lessons for Western observers about what Russia is, is not, and cannot be.
But first, the context. Vladislav Surkov, currently Russia’s Special Envoy for Ukraine, was present at the origins of Putinism. When Putin was chosen as Boris Yeltsin’s successor, Surkov held the position of Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration. He can be seen celebrating Putin’s victory at campaign headquarters in 2000 in Vitaly Mansky’s documentary Putin’s Witnesses. Surkov bore witness to Putin for another eight years in the same position, then switched to Vice Prime Minister, until he finally landed as an aide to President Putin in 2013. Surkov, himself half-Chechen, has also worked behind the scenes for Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.
All these are well-known biographical facts. What is less known is that Vladislav Surkov is both a skillful political operator and one who has been bored for quite some time. A year ago he appeared in a photo taken by Kommersant newspaper looking gaunt and emaciated, with thinning hair and a sickly face. Rumors immediately spread that Surkov had an incurable disease, perhaps cancer. All of Moscow seemed to be discussing the photo until later pictures, these ones candid and unstaged, revealed that Surkov was absolutely healthy. The man was probably just on a diet. A few months ago Surkov seemed to repeat the ruse, appearing in a carefully composed photo-op leaning on a cane. What a “surprise” to see him days later walking totally normally.
When not playing PR games, Surkov has found other ways to stave off boredom: writing two novels under the pen-name Nathan Dubovitsky; ghost writing a play by the progressive director Kirill Serebrenikov (who was later imprisoned); throwing lavish dinners with creative types at the White Rabbit restaurant in Moscow. Surkov’s dalliances with the liberal intelligentsia might seem out of character for a Kremlin ideologue, but the chemistry works both ways: the liberals are charmed by proximity to power, Surkov is hypnotized by his self-proclaimed Svengali status.
In short, Vladislav Surkov has always seen himself as much more than a simple bureaucrat, and he has a major penchant for self-promotion. In 2006 he famously came up with the concept of “sovereign democracy” to explain what Russia is and should be. It was widely mocked by (real) Russian intellectuals as an oxymoron and never became Russia’s official ideology. Apparently “democracy,” even the “sovereign” kind, was too liberal a concept for Putin to stomach.
Thirteen years later there is still no new ideology on Russia’s horizon, so Surkov has come up with a new idea, this one as simple as can be. To hell with democracy, sovereignty, and other foreign concepts: “Putinism” is what Surkov proposes to us. In his new essay Surkov rejects the “illusion of choice” offered by Western-style democracies, dismissing such notions as “imported chimeras.” He propounds instead “a new type of state,” describing the need to “apprehend, think through and describe Putin’s system of governance and the entire complex of ideas and dimensions of Putinism as the ideology of the future.” He speaks of an “informational counter attack by Russia in the West,” to contest “the hegemony of the hegemon” (read: the United States), and finally speaks of a “deep state” conspiracy in America, which Surkov seems to take as seriously as do QAnon truthers.
Surkov has a few words to say about Russian rogue behavior overseas, too. Moscow doesn’t simply meddle in elections in other countries, claims the essay. “The situation is even more serious: Russia interferes with their brains.”
Surkov even brings up two American TV series about power, Boss and House of Cards. He thinks that they “paint correspondingly murky scenes of the establishment’s day-to-day.” Blasting Western democracies as “scoundrels,” who “can only be beaten by scoundrels,” Surkov concludes that in Russia the people trust the leader alone: “The contemporary model of the Russian state starts with trust and relies on trust.” In the end, Surkov foresees something truly great coming: “Our new state will have a long and glorious history in this new century,” he writes. “Putin’s large-scale political machine is only now revving up and getting ready for long, difficult and interesting work. . . many years from now Russia will still be the government of Putin.”
Lest our readers think that we have unforgivably simplified the great work of a Russian intellectual, consider the purple prose of a passage like this one: “With its gigantic mass the deep nation creates an insurmountable force of cultural gravitation which unites the nation and drags and pins down to earth (to the native land) the elite when it periodically attempts to soar above it in a cosmopolitan fashion.”
Surkov’s essay was predictably mocked on both sides of Russian political aisle. Echo of Moscow editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov said the essay reminded him of the argument by German leaders in the 1930s, when they tried to explain why the Third Reich would last for a millenium. Only “a Thousand-Year Reich with such an ideology did not last long. What are hinting at, Mr. Surkov?” asked Venediktov.
Sergey Dorenko, the chief editor of the Kremlin-friendly Moscow Speaks radio station, called Surkov’s essay an “amazing loyalty oath.” “I won’t comment on the passages dedicated to a direct and poetical love for Putin—I just read them on my knees, in tears of ecstasy,” said Dorenko, adding that he anticipates a serious career promotion for Surkov.
Indeed, the entire essay, searching for some ad hoc ideology to explain what Russia is doing, might be nothing but a servile plea addressed to exactly one reader: Vladimir Putin. This skill is what Vladislav Surkov was known for long ago, when he started his career as a top manager at Menatep Bank, owned by Yukos’ Mikhail Khodorkovsky. As Surkov’s then-boss Leonid Nevzlin told me in an interview last year, Surkov didn’t know how to work with people. He could do it “either from the bottom, or from the top. . .he could either give orders to people, or look at them from the bottom and bootlick.” Surkov left Menatep in 1996 to join Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Bank and, subsequently, the Family, which he has been part of ever since.
Maybe Surkov never learned his lessons from Leonid Nevzlin, and his essay simply reflects his longstanding talents as a fawner. From praising Putinism and the longevity of Putin to the House of Cards reference (a show Putin watches, according to Mikhail Zygar’s book All The Kremlin’s Men), Surkov is saying only what Vladimir Putin wants to hear.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov implicitly confirmed the theory that the essay was written exclusively for Putin. But unfortunately, Peskov said, Russia’s President was too busy preparing for his address to the Duma to have time to read the essay. The humiliating tone of the comment might actually mean that Surkov was fighting not for promotion, but for keeping his current position.
Kremlinology aside, the larger lesson is that Surkov embodies the poverty of Russian intellectual discourse around Putin. And Western observers who lend him credibility—like Foreign Policy magazine, which recently placed him on their list of top global thinkers—are committing a serious misreading of Putin. As Mark Galeotti brilliantly put it in an interview with The Guardian, published before the Surkov essay, Putin has become like a “Rorschach ink blot in which everyone can invest their own fears and suspicions and come up with their own personal Putin.” Talking about Russia’s meddling in the U.S. elections, Galeotti suggests, and fairly, “the more we talk up their impact, the more power we give Putin. Arguably, we ought to be laughing at the Russians a lot more.”
An essay like Surkov’s shows where the past eight years of moral and intellectual degradation have led Russia. Like Sharikov, the protagonist of Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel The Heart of a Dog—a dog converted into a human being who mouths hollow Soviet platitudes—all of Russia is now speaking the same empty language of Putinism. To treat Surkov’s essay, with its compendium of clichés and pretentious re-iterations of Putin’s talking points, as an authentic intellectual contribution is to give the Kremlin far more credit than it deserves.