A Frustrated Spin Doctor Blows the Whistle

Gleb Pavlovsky, Genialnaja włast’. Słowar’ abstrakcij Kremlja, Izdatelstwo “Jewropa”, Moskwa 2012

Until recently, Vladislav Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky had one thing in common: they both worked for the Kremlin. Surkov, the former deputy in the president’s administration continues his political career, now as Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, whereas Pavlovsky landed on the scrap heap last year. Previously, he even tried to join the dog fight under the carpet. At one point, part of the Kremlin circle craved empowerment and tried to set Dmitri Medvedev against Vladimir Putin. Pavlovsky, from the very outset, supported the idea that the then president should fight for re-election.

Yet, Medvedev did not declare war to Putin and Pavlovsky was suddenly no longer welcome at the Kremlin. The person behind this decision was Surkov himself. The marginalized political technologist decided to share his ideas from the period when he acted as a sort of counselor to the prince—these Machiavellian invocations are most appropriate here. He made it in a a book entitled Genialnaja włast’. Słowar’ abstrakcij Kremlja (Brilliant Power! The Dictionary of Kremlin Abstractions).

The publication contains not only a discreet polemic with Surkov, whom Pavlovsky refers to as the “power designer”, but also a brutal unmasking of the mechanisms underlying the Kremlin politics of spectacle. The author performs a deconstruction of Surkov’s key project, the idea of sovereign democracy, which otherwise became the object of Medvedev’s criticism in 2008. The concept can be summed up in this way: the Russian demos expresses its sovereignty through their majority support, lasting more than ten years already, for Putin and the politicians anointed by him, and at the same time showing resistance against any anti-Putin campaigns.

Pavlovsky has claimed that Surkov sneers at those who try to undermine Russian modernization describing it as authoritarian. In his opinion the train of thought of the Kremlin elite can be described as such: “Society does not impress us; it does not supply us with necessary hormones. Since we are not stimulated by anyone, we get excited with our own projects. Social reactions maintain their character as indicators; on their basis we can guess what hideous actions against the state can be committed by those who eat out of its hand.”

Pavlovsky does not refrain from more and more brutal metaphors: “Those in power believe they are just so wise; infinitely wiser than their counselors. (…) Essentially, those in power have no partner, no credible discussant (…). They do once in a while visit a Social Chamber (a body composed of representatives of professional and social organizations, approved by the state’s president– author’s note), treating it as a home for people with Down Syndrome; poor wretches, how unfortunate things turned out for them! Are you being at least well treated in here? After all, we will not ask idiots for advice!”

And what about the idea of sovereign democracy itself? According to Pavlovsky the Russian elite in power treats it as a synonym for national sovereignty. The very word “democracy” has not moved Russia any closer to Europe. In this respect Europeans keep committing a typical mistake in that they reduce the Kremlin’s strategy to antidemocratic and monopolistic activities.

When in fact, Pavlovsky explains, the logic behind the Kremlin’s power is underpinned by paradoxes. The Russian system seeks defense resources against both the frenzies of the majority, which they are perfectly aware of, and the apparatchik idiots in power. The Kremlin team does not trust their own apparatus, which constitutes a crucial motive behind their interest in democratic practices. Anger of the demos is occasionally used by the elites as an argument against the apparatchiks. And we have witnessed Putin himself directing spiteful remarks at his own regime. This however entails a problem for the elite because it is dependent on the majority supporting the regime.

Thus, sovereign democracy has turned out to be yet another project in which Western ideas are squeezed into the paradigm of Russian political culture. The roots of this culture date back to 16th century and the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. This tyrant can be regarded as a forerunner for future generations of Russian modernizers. He took up a fight against the boyars, who can be compared to today’s oligarchs. To this end, he established the oprichnina, secret police forces known for their cruelty, whose members were recruited, so to speak, democratically, from among minor nobility or foreign mercenaries. Thereby, he did go with the times, after all, he constructed a modern absolute monarchy.

This is the background against which Vladimir Putin has followed the steps of his predecessor from almost 500 years ago. Insofar as he, for instance, directs the anger of the demos towards politically and financially independent oligarchs. With the difference being that today it’s not European absolute monarchy that constitutes a point of reference for Russia, but European post-politics.

Big and lofty narratives have become a thing of the past. The same applies probably to something which at one point used to be bombastically called the essence of Russia. Nowadays, the strategy of managing Kremlin corporation interests, through the corporation playing the role of an elite in power, is replacing the idea of state construction and development, even if it is an authoritarian state. Instead, we are getting a Russian version of post-politics. Or, in other words, a void hidden behind the facade of slick gimmicks.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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