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Anyone who has any interest in Russian politics and society needs to head over to the London Review of Books right now and read Peter Pomerantsev’s article on Vladislav Surkov, the enigmatic figure who holds so much sway in Putin’s Russia.Here’s one of the key paragraphs near the beginning of the article:
There is something cherubic in Surkov’s soft, smooth face, something demonic in his stare. He trained as a theatre director then became a PR man; now his official role is ‘vice-head of the presidential administration’, but his influence over Russian politics is unsurpassed. He is the man behind the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’, in which democratic institutions are maintained without any democratic freedoms, the man who has turned television into a kitsch Putin-worshiping propaganda machine and launched pro-Kremlin youth groups happy to compare themselves to the Hitler Youth, to beat up foreigners and opposition journalists, and burn ‘unpatriotic’ books on Red Square. But this is only half the story.
Pomerantsev goes on to describe the very contradictions at the heart of Surkov. A former theatre kid who “wore velvet trousers, had long hair like Pink Floyd, wrote poetry, was a hit with the girls,” he eventually stumbles into a PR job with now-imprisoned billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who evidently doesn’t trust him) and goes on to work at the Kremlin. Pomerantsev notes with glee at the beginning of the article that on Surkov’s desk there sits “a picture of Tupac on his desk, next to the picture of Putin.”
Surkov has even written a book (or, apparently written a book — it was released under a pseudonym) that appears to mirror his own life. A PR-hack who writes avant-garde poetry in his spare time and now sells fiction manuscripts to rich bureaucrats and gangsters. Surkov, or whoever wrote the book, can’t help but constantly compare the situation to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In many ways Pomerantsev’s article has the same aim as Maurizio Viroli’s critique of Silvio Berlusconi’s “veiled tyranny” that appeared in Foreign Affairs earlier this month, and like that article it is a fascinating attempt to understand two very different governments kept in balance not so much through brute force but more by a democratic culture completely contaminated by apathy, cynicism and cash.
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