“I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system,” Vladislav Surkov told us by way of introduction. On this spring day in 2013, he was wearing a white shirt and a leather jacket that was part Joy Division and part 1930s commissar. “My portfolio at the Kremlin and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernization, innovation, foreign relations, and …”—here he pauses and smiles—“modern art.” He offers to not make a speech, instead welcoming the Ph.D. students, professors, journalists, and politicians gathered in an auditorium at the London School of Economics to pose questions and have an open discussion. After the first question, he talks for almost 45 minutes, leaving hardly any time for questions after all.
It’s his political system in miniature: democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent. As the former deputy head of the presidential administration, later deputy prime minister and then assistant to the president on foreign affairs, Surkov has directed Russian society like one great reality show. He claps once and a new political party appears. He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth, who are trained for street battles with potential pro-democracy supporters and burn books by unpatriotic writers on Red Square. As deputy head of the administration he would meet once a week with the heads of the television channels in his Kremlin office, instructing them on whom to attack and whom to defend, who is allowed on TV and who is banned, how the president is to be presented, and the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in. Russia’s Ostankino TV presenters, instructed by Surkov, pluck a theme (oligarchs, America, the Middle East) and speak for 20 minutes, hinting, nudging, winking, insinuating, though rarely ever saying anything directly, repeating words like “them” and “the enemy” endlessly until they are imprinted on the mind.
When I worked in Russian television, I encountered forms of this attitude every day. The producers who worked at the Ostankino channels might all be liberals in their private lives, holiday in Tuscany, and be completely European in their tastes. When I asked how they married their professional and personal lives, they looked at me as if I were a fool and answered: “Over the last 20 years we’ve lived through a communism we never believed in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we’ve realized they are illusions, that everything is PR.”
“Everything is PR” has become the favorite phrase of the new Russia; my Moscow peers were filled with a sense that they were both cynical and enlightened. When I asked them about Soviet-era dissidents, like my parents, who fought against communism, they dismissed them as naive dreamers and my own Western attachment to such vague notions as “human rights” and “freedom” as a blunder. “Can’t you see your own governments are just as bad as ours?” they asked me. I tried to protest—but they just smiled and pitied me. To believe in something and stand by it in this world is derided, the ability to be a shape-shifter celebrated.