A belief in magic depends heavily on an acceptance of certain terms of reference. The sun rises again because we chant the sacred prayers. You get pregnant because you drank my potion. If you hadn’t prayed so hard, that wouldn’t have been a winning lottery ticket. Causation is asserted and believed, not proven. Of course, any evidence that appears to support the belief system is eagerly pounced on, as we all like to believe we are right. I cannot but help wonder if this is part of the powerful and probably growing myth of Surkov, Kremlin political technologist and spinmeister.
After all, Surkov was in effect Putin’s communications director before, when his boss seemed to have an effortless mastery of the public and political narrative and most of Russia seemed happy to be harnessed to the power vertical.
But now Surkov is in semi-exile to Medvedev’s team, and the Putin administration is clumsy, uncertain, seemingly unable to grasp the changes taking place. As was hammered home in the latest Power Vertical podcast, they are being outmaneuvered by political operators like Alexei Navalny and relative newcomers like the ‘Pussy Riot Three.’ The usual post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, ‘after this and so because of this’ would seem to imply that Surkov’s replacement with Voloshin is what has made all the difference.
To be sure, the individual matters to an extent. Surkov is not just a smart, dynamic and hard-working technologist — frankly, so too is Volodin — but he has a far better understanding of both elite and mass consciousnesses, in my opinion. His preferred tactics, of co-optation and misdirection, are also much more applicable to modern Russia.
But let’s not forget the extent to which he was also beneficiary of a formidable historical opportunity. A president who was worlds apart than shambling, boozy Boris Yeltsin. Economic windfalls leading to real, visible changes in people’s lives — and also ample slush funds to buy off the elites and institutional blocs. No meaningful opposition (sorry, KPRF, but you chose comfortable frenemy status) and still a cowed, small urban middle class. Social media in Russia did not yet offer such a powerful alternative platform to the big engines of TV and print media which were susceptible to state control. And, of course, the Surkovian line was new, fresh, people had not yet had a chance to learn the tropes and tactics and tire of them. It would have taken a great deal for Putin not to have been dominant in those circumstances, even if he had been consulting with the ghost of Konstantin Chernenko for PR advice.
Surkov is no more a wizard than Central Election Committee chair Vladimir Churov, although he is not be ignored or under-estimated, either. Had he had his way, then Medvedev would have retained the presidency, something that conceivably could have eased Russia into a more gradual reform path. But he did not, and to be honest I think that was the key crossroads. After the ‘castling,’ when Russians were unceremoniously informed that Putin would return to the presidency, I find it hard to believe that Surkovian tactics would have worked anywhere near as well as they had before. A corollary of the ‘the Kremlin is losing ground because it lost Surkov’ myth is that his return would somehow, miraculously, make a difference. I think not.