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The Intellectual And The Propagandist

Yevgeny Gontmakher
Yevgeny Gontmakher
Yevgeny Gontmakher's war of words with Vladislav Surkov just won't let up.

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):

I became the target of a massive attack on the Internet. First, a group of bloggers and the web sites of United Russia's Young Guard attacked me, mocking my non-Russian surname, but none actually responded to the arguments I posited in my article. A few Kremlin-friendly newspapers even published long articles written by prominent political analysts, the content of which boiled down to the following: 'Gontmakher, keep your dirty paws off Surkov.'

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:

1. The modern Russian propaganda machine permeates nearly every major media outlet and even extends to the blogosphere. But the machine breaks down under certain external factors. For example, the informational blockade of the situation in Pikalyovo was broken when state-controlled television stations were compelled to show Putin's visit there.

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

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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