Magic, Myth and Vladislav Surkov

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.

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  1. With the greatest respect, I would not have said Russians were “unceremoniously informed that Putin would return to the presidency”. I realize that’s a popular manner of framing it for western consumption, but it is itself a trope, a tactic. In fact, United Russia unanimously voted to nominate Vladimir Putin as its candidate. He still had to win an election, in which the people had a chance to repudiate the party’s choice if that was their will, and even the most bilious critics have had to concede grudgingly that the highest level of accused fraud would have prevented Putin from winning. Obviously, his victory was the will of the voters. Equally obviously, the arrangement between President and Prime Minister is unorthodox and appears undemocratic, although it is a long way from Gleb Pavlovsky’s spluttering “post of head of state of a nuclear power pass[ing] from one hand to another based on a private agreement”. Such an arrangement implies there was not an election in which the people had an opportunity – of which they were endlessly reminded – to say they would not stand for it. And in fairness, such arrangements are little more eyebrow-raising than the common western practice of “parachuting” candidates into electoral districts of which they are not even residents, based on the perceived opportunity to wrest control of the district from another party or to set up a cabinet appointment.

    Similarly, the suggestion the Kremlin is being “outmaneuvered by savvy political operators like Navalny and Pussy Riot” is in my view a story that has far more legs in the english-speaking media than in Russia. Neither Navalny or Pussy Riot has any effect on the daily running or business of the country, and even as strictly internal matters are relatively low in the public interest. Like many other issues which are hyped in the western press, they are disproportionately noisy.

    I am delighted you have modified your blog to address the comment format, as this blog remains the go-to for matters of security and law, and look forward to future exchanges. Also, thanks for your kind support.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  August 16, 2012

      Thanks for your comments. On the question of Russians being presented with a fait accomplice, of course there was an election and, as I’ve written, despite its flaws I think there can be no doubt Putin did win a majority share of the vote. Although my reference to Russians being “unceremoniously informed” was rhetorical flourish more than anything else, I think it does capture the feeling of many with whom I’ve spoken (even ones who support and voted for Putin). But given the level of state control of the media, the toothlessness of the formal opposition and the ability to tweak the count through various means, there was never any doubt as to the outcome. I find it impossible to believe that Medvedev and Putin did not believe they were sealing the deal as to who was going to be the next president, even if there was still an election to win.

      Likewise, I’m not convinced that Navalny and co have no real traction inside Russia. Of course they do not, cannot affect the daily governance of the country, but that’s hardly the only index of effect and if it did then almost no protest movement anywhere short of an insurgency would be considered meaningful. Put it this way, had the Kremlin just tut-tutted sternly when Pussy Riot did their thing, perhaps fined them for breach of the peace, and allowed some of these witnesses claiming to be traumatized by the experience to sue them in a civil court, it would have been a seven-day wonder. As is, it has made them international icons and increased their visibility no end. Sure, a babushka in Borovichi may be uninterested or downright hostile, but there is a younger and more liberally-inclined constituency who now knows about them and the trial.

      Does this mean imminent regime change? Of course not. Does it mean Navalny, Pussy Riot, etc are good guys compared with the Kremlin? Not necessarily. I have no real idea what Navalny is really about, and I do this as a day job. But it does mean that the government, even though it has a massive hand of cards, is currently playing them badly. That need not mean it will lose (consider Georgia: man for man, even Russian soldiers have had to concede the Georgians outfought them, but they still lost because the Russians had enough firepower and didn’t fight _that_ badly), but it is worth noting.

  2. “In fact, United Russia unanimously voted to nominate Vladimir Putin as its candidate.” They did that, yes – but not before Putin unceremoniously informed them of his willingness to run. The relief in the auditorium when he did was palpable – just a day before, United Russia people were telling me off the record that they were waiting, anxiously, for a decision. And that they would do his bidding – i.e., support whatever decision he made.


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