Who is Vladislav Surkov?

The many faces and farces of Putin’s most notorious political operative.

Whitney Milam
Jul 14, 2018 · 15 min read

His tentacles, the web into which he has woven today’s cultural and political world in Russia, affect everyone in one way or another. Few people have such an active, powerful, and strange influence on the present-day context.
— from Vladislav Surkov: Spin Doctor of All Russia

Vladislav Surkov, in the words of one leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, “wears many masks” — and over the course of his nineteen years at the heart of the Russian government, he has worn many titles as well. The man once known as the ‘grey cardinal’ of the Kremlin is also the self-described ‘author’ of Putin’s political system, the creator of the concept of ‘sovereign’ (or ‘managed’) democracy, and the original overseer of Putinism’s dizzying media blitzkrieg of political repression and postmodern propaganda, at one time said to be the second-most influential man in Russia.

His origins are murky and full of contradictions, his background mysterious by design — but to begin with, his name was not always his name. Vladislav Surkov was born Aslambek Dudayev, in a poor village in Chechnya that Vladimir Putin would later raze to the ground. When his Chechen father abandoned his Russian mother, Zoya Surkova, Aslambek Dudayev was reborn as Vladislav Surkov: a dark-haired, dark-eyed, quick-witted boy who grew up in southern Russia, listed Solntsevo as his birthplace in his official biography, and did not acknowledge the truth of his rumored parentage until Newsweek Russia published photos of his father’s family in 2005 (the magazine was subsequently shut down).

Surkov’s path to the Kremlin was long and winding, full of additional reinventions and reincarnations: a university dropout turned military conscript; an aspiring artist training to be a theater director, expelled from art school after a fistfight; a bodyguard to post-Soviet Russia’s richest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who soon found better use for his hired muscle’s brains and promoted him to head his advertising and PR department. And then, in 1999 — after lucrative jobs in business and banking, after building the empire and shaping the image of Russia’s richest man — Surkov was brought onto Boris Yeltsin’s presidential staff, where he helped launch his chosen successor into the presidency. Vladimir Putin, the virtually unknown former KGB officer who would eventually become the world’s richest man, was about to find himself in need of a political technologist.

Surkov — labeled ‘the father of Russian PR’ — on the cover of Career magazine in 2000.

“The ‘political technologists’ who became the viziers of the post-Soviet system,” writes Peter Pomerantsev, perhaps the definitive expert on Surkov, “helped create a new type of authoritarianism that blended traditions of Kremlin subterfuge with the latest in PR and media manipulation.” Surkov’s background in advertising and theater lent itself well to the art of political technology — shaping and reshaping public opinion, spinning narratives like spider webs, painting a gilded veneer of liberalism over illiberal intent.

Surkov and his fellow political technologists organized an influence campaign they called ‘Operation Successor’ for Yeltsin, culminating in a staged crisis of apartment bombings (blamed on Chechen terrorists) that gave Putin an opportunity to exact highly public vengeance in the Second Chechen War. Operation Successor was a success. “When we understood everyone was thinking the way we wanted them to,” remembered one of the other original political technologists, Gleb Pavlovsky, “psychologically we began to drink champagne.” And when Putin — now in possession of 53% of the vote, a significant portion of Chechnya, and a sky-high public approval rating — celebrated his presidential victory in the offices of his campaign staff in March 2000, Surkov was the first to raise a toast.

It was Putin’s first, and last, legitimate election — once firmly in power, Russia’s new president wasted no time ensuring that authority was centralized, media was controlled, and democracy was managed. And in those early years of managed democracy, a media-savvy outsider with a knack for reshaping reality was the ideal manager.

Surkov’s stage was set.

You exist somewhere between your selves, in the contradictions invisible on a major scale — no wonder you are in politics.
— from “Close to Zero” by Vladislav Surkov

“There is a puppet master in this country who long ago privatized the political system, puts pressure on the media, and tries to manipulate citizens’ opinions,” Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov declared in 2011. “This puppet master is named Vladislav Surkov. As long as people like him control the process, politics is impossible.”

Publicly quitting his pro-business political party — long viewed as ‘pocket opposition’ under the control of the Kremlin — Prokhorov called Russian politics a “farce” that he was unwilling to further participate in. Though his statement was made to an auditorium full of reporters, it never aired on Russian TV news: the puppet master, it seemed, had made sure of it.

‘Puppet master’ was perhaps too simplistic a summary of Surkov’s job description during Putin’s first two terms (or three, if counting the Medvedev regency, when the true power behind the throne was never in doubt). As the Kremlin’s principal domestic policy-maker and primary ideologist, Surkov effectively functioned as the high priest of Putin’s personality cult, directing performative photoshoots to shape a new public image of Putin as the paragon of Russian masculinity and staging elaborate televised rituals to promote him as the God-sent savior of Russia.

Every week, the producers and editors of Russia’s leading news outlets met with Surkov in the Kremlin for ‘guidance’ on reporting that week’s news — until they knew exactly what they could and could not say, and ‘guidance’ was no longer needed. Surkov simultaneously acted as the de facto leader of the United Russia party, which was (and remains) in control of the Russian parliament, existing primarily to rubber-stamp Putin’s preferred policies. Those who voted against the party line were summoned to the Kremlin and scolded by Surkov: “You will do as I say. You will vote as is written. Your job is to press the correct button.”

In his enforcement of Putin’s will — or his own interpretation of it — Surkov carefully constructed and presided over a system in which Russians could play-act an intricate imitation of democracy. Every persuasion on the political spectrum was given a Kremlin-backed voice within the system as Surkov ensured that the Kremlin organized and funded a wide range of political groups and movements, from liberal to Communist to conservative, sowing confusion and cynicism in the public while at the same time co-opting any genuine opposition. The messengers differed, but the message was the same — the Kremlin was always in control. Under Surkov’s simulation of politics, dissent wasn’t crushed: it was managed.

As one analyst puts it:

Surkov’s philosophy is that there is no real freedom in the world, and that all democracies are managed democracies, so the key to success is to influence people, to give them the illusion that they are free, whereas in fact they are managed. In his view, the only freedom is ‘artistic freedom’.

The regime’s chief propagandist saw himself as an artist — and ideologies were his designs. The entire country, in the words of Pomerantsev, was “living by the former wannabe theater director’s script.”

Surkov pointedly allowed a journalist to photograph his office in 2011.

When Kremlin-sponsored youth activists began ritually destroying the books of controversial Russian author Vladimir Sorokin, no one had any doubt which Kremlin official was the type to have them target a postmodern novelist. Open enjoyment of American poetry (his favorite poet is Allen Ginsberg, whose poems he has recorded himself reciting in English) and rap music (a framed portrait of Tupac infamously sat on display in his Kremlin office next to a photo of Barack Obama) alongside an appreciation for avant-garde theater and Western philosophers allowed Surkov to cultivate the public image of an intellectual savant — and in the words of Václav Havel, there’s always something suspicious about an intellectual on the winning side.

Alone in a colorless sea of bureaucrats who viewed him, according to those leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, as “a man between camps, whom people feared to remove and did not fully trust,” Surkov found creative outlets outside Kremlin walls: openly socializing with Moscow’s intelligentsia, publishing art gallery reviews, and writing lyrics for the Russian rock band Agatha Christie. Within the Kremlin, however, Surkov’s idea of himself as a frustrated artist constrained by systemic weaknesses and lesser men — unable to fully realize his vision for the canvas that was Russia — led him to lash out, at one point reportedly ranting, “The intellectual life in the [United Russia] party is close to zero.”

Close to Zero (sometimes translated as Almost Zero), a darkly comedic novel about a cynical PR man who manipulates a corrupt governor into greater and greater power, was published in 2008 by an unknown author named Natan Dubovitsky. It was immediately pointed out that Surkov’s wife was named Natalya Dubovitskaya — and an anonymous newspaper tip from the novel’s publisher confirmed that ‘Natan Dubovitsky’ was a pseudonym for none other than the stage manager of the system that Close to Zero was so savagely satirizing. Surkov wrote a typically ironic review, denying his authorship and saying “the author of this novel is an unoriginal, Hamlet-obsessed hack” before noting that it was nonetheless “the best book I have ever read.” The novel was adapted into a play at Moscow’s most elite avant-garde theater, and soon became a bestseller.

“His shadows, his puppets, his imagination,” Close to Zero says of its amoral protagonist, “were all controlled by the audience, not his own self.” And as Medvedev’s ‘presidency’ came to a close with Putin declaring his intention to return for a third official term against prevailing public sentiment, Surkov’s shadow games began to spiral out of his control. The mood among Russia’s creative and intellectual circles was shifting into something new and dangerous: by early 2012, hundreds of thousands of opposition puppets had cut their strings and turned into real, authentic protesters. Suddenly, political technology was not enough — a sizable portion of Russian society was demanding real political action.

Surkov, it was rumored, sympathized with the protest movement — or at the very least, understood it as a natural consequence of his own deceptions and illusions; the inevitable shattering of Russia’s democratic façade. His public comments only furthered speculation: “The best part of our society demands to be treated with respect,” he said with uncharacteristic frankness at the time — going on to ask a series of rhetorical questions: “Can we discuss how we build power? How we give it to the ‘best’ people? And after that? Then what should we do?”

If it was an attempt to challenge the true master of the the Kremlin, it was a failed one. For once, Surkov had gravely miscalculated: Putin prevailed over the protesters, and Surkov was fired. Russia’s political system was separated at last from its creator.

Surkov’s replacement had a harsher, blunter style, reflected in the hardliner methods of silencing dissent and ideological turn toward anti-Western conservatism that arrived with Putin’s return to the presidency. State repression, now, would be implemented out in the open, no longer through subtle manipulation from the shadows. Surkov’s ‘managed democracy’ experiment had failed — from now on, it was to be autocracy with little pretense.

Political exile, however, did not last long: within a year of Surkov’s forced resignation, Russia’s once and future president found new use for his former gray cardinal’s talents. By 2014, he was resurrected as Putin’s personal advisor on the Russian-occupied territories of Georgia — and Ukraine.

He had taken a bow from domestic politics, but Surkov would soon be directing life-and-death performances on a new international stage.

In these shadows and spider webs, in these false complexities, hide and multiply all the villainies of the world.
— from “Without Sky” by Vladislav Surkov

Days before Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 — as unmarked Russian soldiers were entering Ukraine — Natan Dubovitsky published a new short story. “Without Sky” took place in the future, and was narrated by a child whose parents were killed in “the first non-linear war”. This war, the narrator explains, was different from all the wars that came before:

In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.

In Surkov’s vision of ‘non-linear’ war — attacks both on and off the battlefield, involving both state and non-state actors, from terrorists and insurgents to hackers and propagandists — the goal was not to win, but to use the “process” of war itself to destabilize public perception: “confusing the way, obscuring the truth.”

Surviving non-linear war leaves the young narrator of “Without Sky” with a damaged consciousness, only able to see the world in two dimensions: black or white, good or bad, true or false. The story ends with him preparing to revolt with his fellow “simple two-dimensionals” against “the complex and sly, against those who do not answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ who know some third word, many, many third words, empty, deceptive… They are the house of Satan.” Surkov — master of the complex and sly; postmodern deconstructor of binaries like ‘war’ or ‘peace’; spinner of the Kremlin’s dark web of deceptions — was as self-aware as ever.

“A war where Surkov commands,” historian Timothy Snyder writes in The Road to Unfreedom, “is fought in unreality.” From the staged referendum that provided a pretext to take Crimea, to the puppet politicians and disinformation campaigns that followed, Putin’s stealthy invasion of Ukraine was organized and aided by Surkov’s guiding hand. Though the Kremlin maintains its uninvolvement in the bloody military conflict still raging in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, a high-profile hack of Surkov’s prm_surkova@gov.ru email inbox revealed him as the de facto commander of Ukraine’s pro-Russia separatists—funding, and ultimately calling the shots for, eastern Ukraine’s supposedly local and independent government. As one separatist leader put it, a “call from Moscow was viewed as a call from the office of Lord God himself.” By ‘Moscow’, of course, he meant Surkov.

A leaked photo of Surkov at the center of a group of Donbas militants in 2016.

The return of Russia’s most notorious political operative to the heart of power did not go unnoticed — or unchallenged. “I don’t know why he is so precious to Putin, our most talented scoundrel and swindler of contemporary Russian politics, that Putin cannot part with him despite all the obvious failures,” complained Russian nationalist (and former separatist leader) Igor Girkin. “Maybe Surkov simply bewitched our president?”

Truthfully, though he was often at his sovereign’s side — and frequently photographed at Putin’s right hand — Surkov had always been kept at arm’s length. His business background and past ties to Yeltsin-era oligarchs (to say nothing of his Chechen origins) set him apart from Putin’s inner circle of childhood friends from St. Petersburg and fellow former intelligence officers. Putin — not a trusting person to begin with — presumably had no illusions about his most talented intriguer’s ability to play both sides, and had not forgotten the way his loyalties shifted in the months leading up to the mass anti-Putin protests of 2012. Nevertheless, Surkov at arm’s length was safer than Surkov at large. According to one Russian political scientist, “Putin realizes that Surkov is capable of a great deal, and therefore he always puts someone above him who is less creative but more loyal… so that there is no temptation to begin an independent game.”

Post-Crimea, Surkov was made well aware that the stakes of this new geopolitical game were very high — his role as the architect of Putin’s plan to seize Crimea was rewarded with sanctions, asset seizures, and visa bans by the United States and the European Union. Surkov’s public response was unfazed and unrepentant: “I consider this a kind of political Oscar from America for Best Supporting Role,” he told a Russian newspaper. “The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”

Lately, the instigator and overseer of the ongoing war in Ukraine has been playacting as its peacebroker. Surkov met repeatedly with a top U.S. State Department official throughout 2016, ostensibly attempting to find a resolution to the Donbas conflict. Their discussions went nowhere — and over the past year, Surkov’s renewed negotiations with the newly-appointed U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, have proven similarly futile so far. Volker, though well aware of who he is dealing with — he has openly called Surkov “the architect of Donbas”—nonetheless sees his interlocutor, a man responsible for over 10,000 deaths and counting, as the only chance for peace: “If we’re going to get something done,” he says, “it’s going to be coming from Surkov and his relationship with President Putin.”

These days, however, that relationship seems fraught once more: Surkov has been repeatedly rumored to be close to quitting, or to being fired, a second time. Is Putin again disillusioned with Surkov’s illusions? Or is Surkov, perhaps, disillusioned with Putin?

I am convinced that the Russian people are capable of democracy and able to live in a democracy, to create it. We are simply afraid.
Vladislav Surkov (2005)

Last year, on the same day that another round of mass protests broke out across Russia, a new book appeared online — ostensibly the first novel of Natan Dubovitsky, written in 2005 but unpublished until now. Ultranormality takes place in 2024: the final year of the reign of a Russian president who came to power in 2000, the Year of the Dragon. Ultranormality’s Russia is an impoverished hellscape full of violent youth gangs created by the Kremlin and the opposition to do battle with each other, and the Dragon (“a man of short stature and unexceptional appearance”) admits to his closest advisor, “I do not have the resources to wage war, nor the strength to control everything.” One character asks, “We overthrow the Dragon — and then what? Another dragon will take his place.”

This we know: Putin’s fourth official term as Russia’s president is set to end in 2024. What happens then is less certain. If Putin is still alive and in power, will he finally change the Russian constitution, to allow another term? Will he try the Medvedev-style castling trick a second time? Will he oversee a second Operation Successor, to find a trusted heir of his own? Will he create a new, off-stage role by which to rule? Will Russia, by then, be able to slay its figurative dragons?

Surkov’s current idea of Russia’s relationship to itself and to the outside world is outlined in his newest essay, published under his own name and titled “The Solitude of a Half-Blood”. Torn as it is between East and West, Russia’s “cultural and geopolitical identity is reminiscent of the wandering identity of a man born in a mixed marriage,” Surkov writes. “An outcast among his own people, he understands everyone and is understood by no one. A half-blood, a half-breed.” From the half-Chechen, half-Russian outsider who transformed himself into the ultimate political insider, it is a revealing portrait.

It is now up to the Russian people, Surkov concludes, whether Russia stays “a loner in a backwater” or transforms itself into something stronger, something uniquely powerful: abandoning its attempted imitations of other nations; discarding its deceptions and delusions once and for all. It will be a long, tough journey “through the thorns to the stars,” he finishes, but “it will be interesting — and there will be stars.”

Years ago, in an interview following his dismissal by Putin, Surkov was asked what freedom meant to him, and answered with a quote from Sartre: “Man is doomed to be free.” His original philosophy of ‘sovereign democracy’ was constructed around the idea of freedom as something dark and dangerous:

In order to train people to get used to freedom, you need to give them just as much freedom as they are capable of accepting and making use of, without hurting themselves or their state. Boundless and overwhelming freedom always was and always will be pure political poison.

In truth, Surkov himself has spent decades poisoning the political waters, personally and purposefully ensuring that Russia’s journey to real freedom will be a long, tough journey indeed. But despite having always been willing to play the villainous roles required of him, Surkov seems to see himself as a kind of misunderstood hero figure, perhaps even the ‘savior of Russia’ that he cynically painted Putin as, so long ago. “Surkov consciously makes himself a hero of the age,” says Pomerantsev. “He is playing on that. It’s a performance.” Who better than Russia’s most prolific political theater director to help stage the Putinist system’s final act?

Fittingly, though he occasionally writes tweet-poems as Natan Dubovitsky, Surkov’s only plausible personal social media posts appear to be locked within a private Instagram profile. Its bio? “The theater director.”

He is, Pomerantsev reminds us, only as good as his last show.

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