The Empty Chair

Peter Pomerantsev · Goodbye Surkov

Egor could clearly see the heights of Creation,where in a blinding abyss frolic non-corporeal, un-piloted, pathless words, free beings, joining and dividing and merging to create beautiful patterns.

Vladislav Surkov, Almost Zero

Vladislav Surkov, the grand vizier of the Putin era, the creator of ‘managed democracy’ and ‘post-modern dictatorship’, today resigned (was sacked) from the Russian government. I saw him on 1 May when he gave the speech at the LSE that may have been his undoing. There was a small protest at the entrance to the lecture hall calling for him to be included on the list of Russian officials denied visas to the US for their part in the killing of the anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In a gesture of patriotism Surkov had recently said he would be ‘honoured to be on the Magnitsky list’. Surkov avoided the protest and strode in through the back door. He was wearing a white shirt and a tightly cut leather jacket that was part Joy Division and part 1930s Chekist. He was smiling a Cheshire cat smile. He said that we were too clever an audience to be lectured at and that it would be much freer and more fun if we just threw questions at him. After one vague inquiry he talked for 45 minutes: it was his system of ‘managed democracy’ in miniature – democratic rhetoric and authoritarian practice.

‘ I am proud to be one of the architects of the Russian system,’ he said, ‘and today I am responsible for modernisation, innovation, religion’ – he paused and smiled again – ‘modern art.’ Jumping between roles, he played the woolly liberal one moment, saying Russia needs a Steve Jobs to become a creative, post-industrial society, before morphing into a finger-wagging nationalist demagogue the next: ‘The political system that we have in Russia reflects the mentality and the soul of the Russian people.’ All the time he indulged in his favourite practice of inverting reality: protests in Moscow ‘showed that the system was strong enough to stand up to extremists’ he said (the protests have led to dissidents being arrested on trumped-up charges). Surkov was a genius at using the language of rights and representation to validate tyranny, as well as trying to make tyranny hip.

His main subject at the LSE was Skolkovo, the utopian city of ‘modernisation and innovation’ he has been in charge of creating. It is meant to become the Russian Silicon Valley with a state budget of billions. In his lecture, Surkov attacked the Investigative Committee who have accused Skolkovo’s management of corruption. It’s a duel Surkov appears to have lost: in Putin’s third term the Investigative Committee has become the president’s closest ally, as his favoured tactic for dealing with opposition has switched from propaganda to imprisonment (Surkov’s sacking will have more to do with the ambitions of a new, even nastier team around Putin than any genuine anti-corruption drive).

I went to Skolkovo last month on a tour for international journalists to ‘change their stereotypes about Russia’. The tour was organised by the Public Chamber, a body created by Surkov to give civil society actors a way to lobby the Kremlin, though it is actually an empty shell for GONGOs to create a simulacra of healthy debate with no real results. One of the Chamber’s senior members is Pavel Astakhov, the ‘Commissar for the Rights of Children’ who avidly supported the ban on US parents adopting Russian orphans as a response to the Magnitsky list. When we got off the bus at the Skolkovo visitors’ centre we were shown sweeping 3D videos of the projected hi-tech mini-city with lakes and schools and adventure sports and entrepreneurs in trainers. We got into the bus again and were driven across miles of snowy wastes and bare trees. Virtually nothing has been built. ‘We will soon arrive at the Hypercube,’ our guide said. ‘The Hypercube is just coming into view.’ The Hypercube turned out to be a very modest modernist little thing looking lost in an empty field. It had exposed concrete walls and large video screens. A PR man told us that the corruption scandal at Skolkovo was already solved, everything was going to plan. Behind him, on the video screens, the words ‘innovation’ and ‘modernisation’ kept flashing up.

Meanwhile, across town, all the real media attention was on a grotty red-brick courthouse playing host to Magnitsky’s trial. Magnitsky may be dead, but the state has responded to the campaign to punish his killers by suing him for corruption (accusing anti-corruption activists of corruption is a favorite Kremlin tactic). The prosecuting lawyers read out the charges against Magnitsky, pointing to the accused’s empty chair. The empty chair was encased in a box of bars, in case the absent corpse would dare to try and escape.


  • 10 May 2013 at 3:33pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Once again Pomerantsev has struck gold, pointing out the return and revival of old historical and cultural themes (or “memes”) in today’s “modern” Russia. Think of the vastly improved possibilities for chicanery that 3-D film presentations of specious projects allow over the original Potemkin villages of the late 1700s – you needn’t hire a batch of carpenters and masons and pay for some shoddy construction materials, but only a bunch of bright kids who know how to play with their computers (in this respect the project is energy-efficient too, perhaps allowing its sponsors to don the green mantle as well). Prosecuting the shade of a dead man takes us back to medieval jurisprudence, while the touch of an empty chair in a cage shows either the complete idiocy of the prosecutors, or perhaps their mastery of symbolic politics. How much of the public laps this stuff up is a critical question here. One can imagine one of Putinello’s henchmen or cronies dying in an accident and the State mounting a prosecution against an automobile or defective elevator (along the lines of trials of demons and offending barnyard animals back in the good old Middle Ages). It’s a situation bound to birth rich satire and absurdist comedy, but one with very unfunny effects upon Russia’s non-privileged citizenry (i.e., the vast majority). Voinovich should be able to get one last good novel out of this.