Putin's puppet master was just another marionette.
Vladislav Surkov knows that no one goes to see puppet shows anymore. But for more than 20 years, the self-confessed ‘author’ of the Putin system built a career on the idea that puppet-masters can still attract an audience. Swirling rumours in Russia that he has been arrested — the kind of it-might-be-true-it-might-not-be clam he long specialised in — prompt the question of whether his show is finally coming to an end.
Before he was removed from the corridors of power at the beginning of the year, Surkov was open about his role and intent in the Kremlin. In a 2021 Financial Times interview, he declared “I am proud that I was part of the reconquest. This was the first open geopolitical counter-attack by Russia [against the West] and such a decisive one. That was an honour for me.”
He considered the propaganda that made him famous to be something that “people need”, comparing his output to McDonald’s and dismissing the need for “highly intellectual discourse”. Artistic intent usually requires taking pride in one’s work, or at least in having some underling meaning. For Surkov, his avant-garde tactics are merely a means to an end.
Surkov is by no means the only public intellectual — for that is how he is perceived, even if it fails to accurately describe his intent — to have fallen out with his avant-garde training. The liberal conservative Francis Fukuyama is another.
Both Fukuyama and Surkov’s criticise what they see as postmodernism’s offspring — identity politics, for example — and warn it can weaken the West. But Fukuyama recognises something that the war in Ukraine has made clear, and which Surkov has failed to see: namely that agency does not sit with the state.
Surkov’s view that the state is the primary mover of history explains why he and Putin were so eager for war in Ukraine.
It would be generous to describe the Ukrainian state before Putin’s invasion as corrupt and fragile. Putin too appeared to believe this would make it an easy military target, apparently supported by “intelligence” from Surkov’s friends in the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Meanwhile Surkov had helped Putin build a power-vertical that would enable the regime to position any propaganda as a crusade.
But it is Ukraine that retains its agency, while Russia has lost it. Its valiant defence of Kyiv, and litany of impressive actions on the battlefield have begun to forge a new unity and idea of Ukrainian nationhood. They also prove the fallibility of Putin’s own state: while Ukraine is recruiting volunteers from neighbouring countries, and even Russia, the Kremlin is resorting to conscripts, mercenary groups and favours from fellow dictatorships to bolster its ranks.
While Putin has sought to rewrite history in his 2020 article on the legacy of World War II and his diatribe the following year on Russian-Ukrainian”‘unity”, his ideas are not taken seriously. Russian policy academics may now bend their thinking to fit them — as do the once-respected Carnegie Moscow director, Dmitry Trenin, or the director of Russia’s International Affairs Council, Andrei Kortunov — but this hardly boosts his power.
The Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Ishchenko summarised Putin’s invasion not as the culmination of some superstate as Surkov would have it, but as a “crisis of hegemony; the incapacity of the post-Soviet and specifically Russian ruling class to lead, not simply to rule over, subaltern classes and nations”.
Putin and Surkov have failed to build a Russia that serves as an alternative force in history. Instead — regardless of how much territory Moscow is able to claw away from Ukraine — they are witnessing the construction of that alternative by the Ukrainian people.
Russia’s long-cuckolded oligarchs, intellectuals and their offspring now know they can make their voices heard by shouting Glory to Ukraine. Simultaneously, Russian soldiers are being killed while fighting under meaningless and unexplained Z’s. No Russian politician has even attempted to invent a symbolism.
The BBC journalist Grigor Atanesian noted the absurdity of Russians fighting under a “symbol void of any meaning… like in a bad 1990’s post-modernist novel”. The Kremlin has not even bothered to revive the Novorossiya project — complete with faux-historical flags — that Surkov once engineered to justify further invasion of Ukraine.
Putin’s army may be fighting against something, but they are not fighting for anything.
The Ukrainians are fighting for the ability to move West, reinvigorated by Putin’s war, towards Fukuyama’s conception of history and away from Surkov’s. In doing so, Kyiv may also be re-invigorating the values postmodernism’s critics argue it had undermined, concepts such as freedom for freedom’s sake, while Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy revives the possibility that leaders will once again be seen as heroic.
Surkov’s means achieved the opposite of his ends. It turns out he was no puppet-master, just another puppet.
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Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin