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Last spring, longtime Kremlin aide and “managed democracy” architect Vladislav Surkov said Russia faces 100 years or more of geopolitical solitude -- and suggested that’s a good thing. Now he’s predicting it will be “Putin’s state” for just as long, comparing the “supreme ruler” to leaders like Ataturk, Lenin, and the U.S. Founding Fathers.
Analysts interpret the wordy court figure’s latest article, and poke big holes in some of his main premises.
A State Of Putin
Putin forever. Or actually, Putinism forever – or at least for a century or so. Vladimir Putin may go, but longtime Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov says that “Putin’s state” is here to stay. For a very long time. In fact, “not just years but decades, and probably the whole century to come.”
That’s one of the main messages in a lengthy article by Surkov – Putin’s influential deputy chief of staff from 2000-08 -- that was published in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on February 11.
Surkov, who is believed to have written at least one novel under a pseudonym, is no stranger to long reads. Last April, he penned an article telling Russians that their “half-blood” country’s “epic journey toward the West” was over – without reaching its destination – and that it now faced at least 100 years of “geopolitical solitude.” In a good way.
That was after Putin was elected to a new six-year term that will see him in power as president or prime minister for a quarter-century, but before he was inaugurated in May.
In the new article, headlined Putin’s Long State, Surkov spends a lot of time expanding on the idea that Russia is not part of the West -- and shouldn’t want to be.
The West is a place where choice itself is an illusion – “the crowning trick of the Western way of life...and Western democracy,” which Surkov says owes more to American showman-politician P.T. Barnum than to Cleisthenes, who – as I found out by looking it up -- is considered the father of Athenian democracy.
Russians, he says, have rejected such illusions “in favor of realism” and have “lost all interest in discussing what kind of democracy” they should have -- or whether they need it at all.
Does that mean that even the “managed democracy” that Surkov – a behind-the-scenes Barnum himself -- is famous for promoting during Putin’s first two terms is too democratic for Russia today? Probably, but so what, he suggests: Jettisoning finicky and misguided notions about democracy has opened the way for state-building “guided not by imported chimeras but by the logic of historical processes.”
In Surkov’s book – or at least in this article – that logic leads inexorably to Putin.
In Russian terms, Surkov puts Putin on a level with just three other leaders in the past millennium: Tsar Ivan III, Tsar Peter the Great, and Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who founded the Soviet Union. In global terms, he seems certain that Putin’s legacy is destined to be as strong and long-lasting as those of Charles de Gaulle, Ataturk, and the Founding Fathers of the United States.
“Many years from now, Russia will still be the state of Putin,” he writes.
Why stop at mortals, though? Surkov aims higher, at one point saying Russians are too smart to want the classic “good tsar,” a kind-hearted softy, favoring instead a ruler who is “like Einstein said of god: ‘subtle but not malicious.’”
Matter Of Trust
But while Putin may be godlike in Surkov’s estimation, he is no distant deity. Rather, the Kremlin aide asserts -- as Putin has sought to suggest through exercises such as an annual call-in show in which he fields questions from regular folks across the country -- the president is profoundly in tune with the people.
“The ability to hear and understand the people – to see through them and all their depth and act accordingly – is the unique and main virtue of Putin’s state,” Surkov writes.
The rapport between Putin and the people is mutual, Surkov claims. And like priests who bring god’s word to the faithful, the role of everyone in the middle – all state institutions -- is to facilitate “trusting communication and interaction between the supreme ruler and the citizens.”
“In essence, society trusts only the leader,” Surkov writes, adding: “The modern model of the Russian state begins with trust and relies on trust. This is where it differs most from the Western model, which cultivates distrust and criticism. And this is where its strength lies.”
Oh, another difference? While in the United States a shadowy and cynical “deep state” runs the show beneath a veneer of democracy, he claims, Russia has no deep state – only a “deep people.”
Largely due to the wisdom of Putin and the people, and to their alleged rapport, Russia is in a great place right now, he claims, standing at the very beginning of a promising new era.
“Our new state…will have a long and glorious history. It will not break,” he writes, ending the article with a warning that Russia – hit with Western sanctions over what U.S. officials say are an array of “malign activities” abroad – will not bend to Western pressure to “change its behavior.”
And by the way, that meddling? It's worse than you think, Surkov proudly suggests. Politicians abroad accuse Russia of interfering in elections worldwide, he writes, but “in reality it’s more serious than that – Russia is messing with their minds.”
So what’s it all about -- what is the point of this paean to Putin and complex trolling of the West?
To some, it looks like little more than a mixture of old tropes left over from the Soviet era and tsarist times: The West is corrupt, Russia – or the Soviet Union – will follow its own path to a bright future, guided by a sage, shrewd, and dynamic leader who has the interest of the people at heart.
“Putin lived, Putin lives, Putin will live,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who was imprisoned for a decade and now lives abroad, wrote on Twitter, updating a saying about Lenin in what he called “a short summary of a long article.”
Opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Yekaterinburg from 2013-18, had an even shorter summary.
“Piece-of-shit article,” he tweeted.
Some speculated that Surkov, whose position and profile are substantially lower than they were during Putin’s first years in office, is seeking to get back into the game.
Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, laid out the argument of the piece eloquently: In a nutshell, it’s that “Russia isn’t a democracy. (Surprise!) Never has been, never will be. And, of course, there aren’t really any democracies at all. Choice is an illusion. Everywhere and always. Western societies work, he says, because they let people revel in that illusion.
“But the fiction has never really worked in Russia, which has tied itself into knots trying to maintain it. But – and here’s the kicker – Russia doesn’t need the fiction, because it has Putin. Putin has built a system capable of ruling Russia for 100 years. Why? Because that system understands its people. From top to bottom, right to left, inside and out.”
Greene added that “there’s no evidence for this whatsoever,” though, and that “Surkov’s playing games. It’s what he does.”
In this case, Greene suggested, the goal is to draw attention away from “the difficult policy questions facing the Kremlin (including how to justify spending on infrastructure rather than social services).”
He wrote wryly that “thanks to Surkov’s missive, instead of focusing on 2019, we can set our sights on 2024” – the year Putin’s current term – which could be his last, because the constitution bars him from serving more than two in a row -- is due to end.
That is the point, according to Mark Galeotti, an author on Russia and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Surkov, he wrote, has “turned to the topic that is as central to Moscow political class chatter as it is absent from the official media: the succession, and the potential for life after Putin.”
“Viewed in this light, Surkov would seem to be beginning to give permission for this sensitive topic to be broached more widely,” Galeotti wrote.
And like Pravda articles that were pored over in the Soviet era by bureaucrats looking for the hidden message, this one also requires reading between the lines. Because “buried within the grandiose rhetoric of his article, Surkov is trying to reassure three important constituencies that the end of the Putin era need not be the end of the world.”
Those constituencies are Putin himself, the “system insiders around him,” and the rest of the Russian people.
Putin is being told that the state will literally still be his long after he surrenders power and that Putinism is “the ideology of the future” – “encouraging stuff” for Putin as he seeks “to manage a transition…that guarantees the security of his self, his lifestyle, and his legacy,” Galeotti wrote.
To the elite surrounding Putin – those “who have much to gain but potentially all to lose from change” – the message is that “the ‘Putin system’ can and will endure” without its creator.
The “Russian masses,” meanwhile, “can be reassured that the elites are thinking about the future and preparing to ensure an orderly transition,” he wrote, and that “Russia may be run by elites, but at least they are elites who share the same interests as the people.”
But should any of the above really be reassured? Commentators have pointed to holes both big and small in Surkov’s proclamations about the present, casting doubt on his conclusions about the future.
Take, for example, Surkov’s talk about the bond between Putin and the people: Surveys show it’s not as strong as it may have been in the past, both in terms of the longtime president’s approval rating and the level of trust people place in him and his government.
And then there’s Surkov’s assertion that “Putin’s state” has a kind of magnetic attraction even beyond its borders, that the average “resident of the West is starting to turn his head in search of other models and other ways of being. And he’s seeing Russia.”
A trio of tweets from Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky seem to indicate that Surkov is exaggerating the attraction abroad.
“If Russia were a functioning democracy, it would be displacing the U.S. as the European countries' security partner now,” he tweeted, adding that the EU is sick of the United States and is looking for an alternative but that “Putin isn’t it.”
“Putin and his coterie don't get it: There's no way to compete with the U.S. as a tinpot dictatorship with a population the size of Japan's,” Bershidsky wrote. “As a democracy that size? Sure; one can get allies.”
'No Longer Essential'
Also, Surkov seems to have skipped a crucial step in the creation of Putin’s legacy, or found a convenient answer to Putin’s search for a fresh idea that could bind Russians together and help the country thrive in the coming decades. That idea, Surkov suggests, is Putin himself.
Russia-watchers sometimes talk of the present stage in Russia’s development as “late Putinism,” while Surkov asserts that the Putin era has barely even begun.
“Putin’s big political machine is just getting into gear and tuning up for long, hard, and interesting work. Its transition to full power is still far ahead,” he writes, claiming the system Putin has put in place will ensure “the survival and rise of the Russian nation” for many years to come.
Surkov may not be too concerned about the flaws in his argument, though.
“The point is not the specifics of this flamboyant rhetorical exercise,” Galeotti wrote.
"Rather, that this bellwether of the Kremlin is willing to broach transition in a context that suggests that Putin himself is no longer essential,” he wrote. “Bit by bit, he is being turned from a president to a precedent, from hetman to history.”