Gontmakher, director of the Center for Social Policy at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, published an article in "Vedomosti" back in March comparing Surkov to Leonid Brezhnev's chief ideologist, Mikhail Suslov.
One would think that Surkov would consider this a compliment. After all, as Kremlin first deputy chief of staff, Surkov has styled himself as the regime's semi-official ideologist, responsible for terms like "sovereign democracy" and the "power vertical."
But apparently he wasn't amused. In an article published last week in "Vedomisti," Gontmakher described the reaction (you can read the whole article in the original Russian here, or in the English-language version published by "The Moscow Times" here):
This wasn't Gontmakher's first run in with the Kremlin.
Back in November, he published a provocative article -- again in "Vedomisti" -- warning that anti-government riots similar to those that took place in Novocherkassk back in 1962 were possible as workers in single-factory towns reeled from the economic crisis. This was when the Kremlin was twisting itself into knots trying to argue that the crisis was an American problem and wouldn't effect Russia.
Hoping to silence Gontmakher and his ilk, the authorities gave "Vedomosti" a prompt warning that the article could be considered an incitement to extremism. Instead, it led to more people reading the article, and probably encouraged more public intellectuals to come forward with criticisms of the regime.
In his article last week, Gontmakher wrote that he has learned four key lessons from his ongoing battle with Surkov:
2. The informational and ideological lockdown is not quite as impervious as it might appear. In order to stir things up a bit, one has only to introduce some fresh and thought-provoking material into the media now and then.
3. The most important item on today's reform agenda should be a commitment to uphold the constitutional ban on state ideology. Otherwise, nothing will be achieved in the economic or social spheres, much less in politics.
4. The country has to break the habit of praising those who both brainwash the populace and defame those who oppose it. The elite controlling the propaganda machine should understand that their present positions of authority are temporary at best, and that the day will come with they will face political ostracism.
I've been giving these ongoing verbal sparring matches a disproportionate amount of space on this blog because I think something very important is happening in Russia right now.
Brave public intellectuals like Gontmakher and Igor Yurgens are risking their careers by chipping away at the philosophical justification for Russia's authoritarian regime. This may all come to nothing. But it could potentially change Russia's internal political narrative into something closer resembling the truth.
-- Brian Whitmore