Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Very Different Personages: Vladislav Surkov - Putin's Puppet-Master.

 
The Kremlin Demiurge: "[Vladislav] 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.” - Peter Pomerantsev
 
ADAM CURTIS is a documentary-maker whose work has a way of making the world look and feel completely different. The secret to the success of series as varied as Century of the Self (2002), The Power of Nightmares (2004), and his most recent work, BitterLake (2015), is Curtis’s ability to bring what’s been hidden in History’s shadows into the light.
 
The nineteenth century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, remarked that: “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” Curtis not only takes us behind the scenes, he introduces us to the personages.
 
The latest personage to whom Curtis’s viewers have been introduced is Vladislav Surkov – Vladimir Putin’s political impresario. In the words of Peter Pomerantsev, writing in The London Review of Books: “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.”
 
Surkov’s great insight into the character of the post-Soviet era was that it would be an epoch devoid of ideological conviction. A society in which all of the grand narratives of the 20th Century (from Absolutism to Socialism to Capitalism) have been tried and found wanting. A place where cynicism and irony will ride shotgun for an amoral authoritarianism whose twinned priorities of self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement recognise no limits.
 
It is a world that fosters in its hapless citizens feeling of vertiginous disorientation. According to Pomerantsev’s chilling description:
 
“[T]he stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”
 
If all this is beginning to sound unsettlingly familiar, Pomerantsev has more. Surkov, he says, has perfected what he calls “sovereign democracy”, a new form of governance “in which democratic institutions are maintained without any democratic freedoms”. Surkov was also “the man who [turned] television into a kitsch Putin-worshipping propaganda machine”.
 
If you think that’s coming uncomfortably close to a description of New Zealand television (substituting “Key” for “Putin”) then you’re not alone.
 
Obviously, New Zealanders are not ruled over by a political beast as big or as dangerous as Putin, but Pomerantsev’s depiction of a political environment subject to continuous and disorienting shifts of perspective; of leaders performing on a revolving stage whose sets and props are constantly changing; rings more than a few Kiwi bells.
 
Certainly it is Curtis’s view that the curiously “post-modern” style of politics that has distinguished the UK under David Cameron and George Osborne owes a great deal to the political ideas and methods of Vladislav Surkov. (Curtis illustrates his point by advancing video images of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then rolling them backward – providing a potent visual representation of Osborne’s black is white, 2 + 2 = 5 political style.)
 
Our own Prime Minister and Finance Minister display a similar, loose, relationship with reality. John Key, in particular, seems able to shift his shape almost at will. From the saccharine family man ordering in Saturday night pizza; to the jokey-blokey sports-lover trading wisecracks with commercial radio shock-jocks; to the dead-eyed critic of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations daring the Press Gallery to contradict him; our own post-modern performance artist makes it easy to see from whence his fine-arts student daughter draws her inspiration.
 
Pomerantsev offers us a frightening glimpse of the sort of world to which Surkovian politics is leading us:
 
“In Soviet Russia you would have been forced to give up any notion of artistic freedom if you wanted a slice of the pie. In today’s Russia, if you’re talented and clever, you can have both. This makes for a unique fusion of primitive feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony. A property ad displayed all over central Moscow earlier this year [2011] captured the mood perfectly. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it showed two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan ‘Life Is Getting Better’. It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules). A few months ago there was a huge ‘Putin party’ at Moscow’s most glamorous club. Strippers writhed around poles chanting: ‘I want you, prime minister.’ It’s the same logic. The sucking-up to the master is completely genuine, but as we’re all liberated 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we’ll do our sucking up with an ironic grin while acknowledging that if we were ever to cross you we would quite quickly be dead.”
 
To which, as Adam Curtis rightly observes, we can only say: “Oh Dear.”
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Tuesday, 24 March 2015.

17 comments:

Victor said...

I think you mean David Cameron.

James Cameron is a movie director and another of the same ilk was a distinguished British journalist and friend of Ho Chi Mihn.

Brewerstroupe said...

Tom Englehardt is speculating along similar lines:

"Is a New Political System Emerging in This Country?
The New American Order
1% Elections, The Privatization of the State, a Fourth Branch of Government, and the Demobilization of "We the People""

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks, Victor.

Duly corrected.

Where have you been - we've missed you?

Nick J said...

I think you should continue with and expand on this theme Chris.

I read the blogs and people pose comments that have an underlying assumption that we are a democracy. They complain and moan within a set of assumed parameters and wonder that the result is never favourable. Meanwhile our political class as you observe with Key have moved on. So long as the machinery of state operates for them the rules and conventions no longer matter. Right, wrong, morality forget it!

Watching a very much in control GCSB colluding with a minister for private advantage confirms that
the machinery in NZ is as we would expect in Russia. When the organs of state are so easily co-opted by an individual you have to ask when they will declare themselves independent fiefdoms?

Lee said...

Joe Heath's "Enlightenment 2.0" is a much less apocalyptic look at this phenomenon. It's an easy read, too.

Wayne Mapp said...

Hmm,

It really is a bit cynical to make the same conclusions about New Zealand, albeit that it is accepted to be a milder form of Putin's Russia. People here don't get shot or imprisoned, but are presumably ostracized.

Two observations, or perhaps alternatives:

Either I am essentially oblivious of this Putunisation process, an unwitting dupe if you will.

Or I am an unwitting beneficiary of the regime, but don't realise that I am.

Neil Miller said...

Shapeshifter or just a day trader, same thing really?

Nick J said...

So Wayne how do you respond to Hagars revelations, the clearly orchestrated msm counter attack and the Police raid on his house? How do you reconcile that to the oblivious response by our political class to the charges laid? Partisanship trumps democracy. The organs of state mop up and we can all pretend it's fine. Sounds very Russian or for that matter American.

Brewerstroupe said...

I'd like to throw this into the mix. It is an address given by Putin to the Valdai Club. Rarely have I heard such a straight and principled speech from a World leader. Some of it is startlingly frank and open.

I think it also worthwhile to consider the situation in Ukraine from all points of view. Here is Professor Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University.

Brewerstroupe said...

I have recommended "Power of Nightmares" to folk who have difficulty understanding the West's Middle East atrocities countless times. It is a key to understanding despite the fact that Curtis doesn't go near the Israel question.
Downloaded and watched "Bitter Lake" last night which fills in a few more gaps. Harrowing to watch as it skewers the lack of understanding, the compounding of errors that have lead to an entire region in flames and chaos.
I suspect that, given the current governance of the BBC, Curtis has had to tread a fine line for the effect of Israel as a nuclear-armed, expansionist and disruptive entity in the region is almost entirely left out of his narrative. This is a notable omission given the existence of policy documents indicating Israel's desire to Balkanise the Muslim states that surround it.
His backgrounder on Syria is a worthwhile read.
Here is the link to his blog.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Curtis is probably more concerned with the sacking of that arse Jeremy Clarkson than the Middle East just at the moment anyway :-).

Charles E said...

The Putin way is not all bad. I'm sure the trains run more on time now in Russia.
Whereas here and in the UK they don't so your premise must plainly be wrong.

Victor said...

Hi Chris

I'm cultivating my own garden @ present.

But, like both McArthur and dry rot, I will doubtless return.

BTW appreciated your comments on Willy and Ali today.

Anonymous said...


Russians count themselves lucky if the trains run at all. So much is looted and stolen htat the rail and road systems are in serious decline which leaves more and more Russians who live outside of the cities in a subsistence horse and cart existence outside of the modern world. Russia is systemically corrupt.

Putin and Key aren't much alike. But just as Putin says there are "no Russian soldiers in Ukraine", Key says there is "no housing crisis". Both are plainly wrong to almost anyone. The same layers of disingenuous and dissonance are used as political management: the true believers and ignorant believe it while the supporters put a mental cordon sanitaire around the concept to maintain their faith in the leader.

Charles E said...

'There are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine' cf 'Crisis? What crisis'.
One is a direct and deathly lie to a population that mostly hears only a gagged, cowered or dead media, and the other is opinion or spin which anyone can say anything about, and do, daily..
One is totalitarian, fascist and disgusting. The other is normal politics in a democracy.
We who support and voted for the current lot, predominately backed them as the lesser of two evils. They were and still are.
The fact that you people don't accept that sound democratic choice is what is truly chilling.

Brewerstroupe said...

"Russians count themselves lucky if the trains run at all"
Where do you get your information? I am told that Russia not only has one of the biggest rail services in the World, it operates efficiently though the toilets in cattle class are sometimes a bit smelly.

Charles. Here is the link to Professor Stephen Cohen, Princeton Russia expert.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWzHhW_qNiM
I'd be interested in hearing your opinion as to why it differs so markedly from his, after you hear what he has to say.

Anonymous said...

"One is totalitarian, fascist and disgusting. The other is normal politics in a democracy."

Democracy is decaying in most of the developed world. Russia is an extreme of a corrupt system pretending to be a democracy but it is at the end of a spectrum other countries are slowly inching towards year by year. That we can note the same disingenuous tactics being used is symptomatic of that. Democracy relies on good human behaviour which is something on the decline. Corruption is now a serious and growing problem in New Zealand.