Vladislav Surkov is back. Back inside the ever-shrinking sanctum around Putin; on the elite list of Russian officials hit with visa bans and asset freezes in the west. The enemies who were so recently converging around Surkov, threatening charges of corruption and much more, have fallen silent. On 12 March, Surkov published a new short story, in Russky Pioneer (under his pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky). ‘Without Sky’ is set in the future, after the ‘fifth world war’. The story is told from the point of view of a child whose parents were killed in the war. He was brain damaged, and can only see and understand things in two dimensions:
There was no sky above our village. So we had to go to the city to see the moon and the birds. To the other side of the river. The city-dwellers didn’t like us. But they didn’t stop us. They even gave us one hilltop as a viewing platform, near the brick church. Because for some reason they thought us drunks, they put a beer stall there, next to the pay-per-view telescope and the police station.
I understand the city dwellers. They suffered much from the anger and jealousy of newcomers. And though we were offended that they thought us, their closest neighbours, strangers, I could understand them. And they understood us too. They didn’t force us out. Whatever their websites might say, they never forced us out...
Because everyone could understand it wasn’t our fault we lost the sky...
The Marshalls of the four coalitions chose our sky for their great battle. The sky above our village was the best in the world. Flat. Cloudless. The sun poured over it in a smooth river. I remember the sun well. And the sky.
It’s no coincidence Surkov went for a war story: perpetual mobilisation is the new political model he and the other political technologists in the Kremlin are busy creating. Russian television is full of hysteria about enemies of the state, fascists taking over Ukraine in a rerun of the Second World War, the great conflict with the godless gay West. Any potential opposition has been branded as a fifth column (there’s even a website where good citizens can identify traitors), and the Liberal Democrat leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky wants to ban the letter ы for being foreign. For the moment the strategy is working: Putin’s ratings are up. The rhetoric began as a reaction against the protests of 2011-12, long before the current crisis in Ukraine, but events there fit conveniently into the Kremlin’s narrative of perpetual war.
Though it might be a disservice to Surkov the writer (he has his moments) to see his story as merely another piece of sly propaganda, he is always quietly massaging in the underlying mindset that makes the Kremlin’s war effort possible. The whole of the opening passage above pulls at the post-Soviet sense of common grievance mixed with irony, tragedy and nostalgia that unites the former empire far more than any of the new surface pronouncements about Russia’s ‘conservative mission’. The draw is not so much about nostalgia for Soviet success, but the feeling that ‘we survived it together.’ (Russian TV broadcasts ironic, gently anti-Soviet films from the 1970s to Ukraine and Moldova, keeping the ‘near abroad’ near, and makes a cult out of the anti-Soviet singer Vyssotsky.)
But ‘Without Sky’ does more than tug at the past, and its war is no ordinary conflict:
It was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries. Two groups of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. No. All against all.
And what coalitions! Not like the ones you had before… It was rare for whole countries to enter. A few provinces would join one side, a few others a different one. One town or generation or gender would join yet another. Then they could switch sides, sometimes mid-battle.
Their aims were quite different. To take over a disputed coastal shelf. To forcefully introduce a new religion. Raise ratings. Try out new lasers. To stop humans being divided into men and women as gender differences undermine the unity of a nation.
Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part.
It’s naive to assume the Kremlin is simply stuck in a Cold War (or 19th-century) mindset. Annexing Crimea was rather a sign that Russia is so confident of its position in a globalised world that no one will dare to act against it: the US and EU cannot afford to impose meaningful sanctions (or so the Kremlin hopes). The Kremlin takes – or projects – a paranoid view of globalisation. A sense of global conspiracies, of higher, hidden powers manipulating the world, is one of the main ways it’s selling the war inside Russia: even many among the urban middle classes who are sceptical about Putin can nevertheless be convinced that shadowy forces were behind the revolution in Ukraine. The cynicism that Russians justifiably feel about Soviet and post-Soviet politics can easily be spun into a conspiracy-driven vision of everything that happens in the world. (From another angle the above passage is a good description of internal Ukrainian and internal Kremlin politics.)
As a smiling Surkov left the hall in the Kremlin after Putin’s ‘reuniting Russian soil’ speech on 18 March, he was stopped by a reporter from TV Rain, which like much independent media is being squeezed to death by the Kremlin. The reporter asked Surkov about the sanctions list he has been placed on by the West. ‘Won’t this ban affect you?’ the reporter asked. ‘Your tastes point to you being a very Western person.’
Surkov smiled and pointed to his head: ‘I can fit Europe in here.’
He later said: ‘I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It’s a big honour for me. I don’t have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.’
And yet, right at the end of the interview with TV Rain, his firmness seemed to be undermined by an odd laugh – was it rueful?
At the end of 'Without Sky', the boy sets out on a do-or-die mission:
Our very thoughts lost their height. Became two dimensional. We understand only ‘yes’ and ‘no’, ‘black and white’... So we couldn’t survive, needed permanent looking after. But we were dumped. Were left unemployed, without benefits... So we had to unite to survive. We created a society. Organised a rebellion of two-dimensional people against the complex and cunning. We are against those who never say ‘yes’ or ‘no’... who know the third word. There are many third words... confusing the ways, darkening truth… in these darknesses and cobwebs hides and multiplies all the dirt of the world. They are the house of Satan. There they make money and bombs... We begin tomorrow. We will win. Or lose. A third is not available.
It’s a deliberate tease of an ending: where does Surkov, a master of the ‘third word’ himself, fit in with all of this?
The day before Surkov’s travel ban to the EU was set to kick in on 21 March, his wife’s Instagram account showed them enjoying themselves in Stockholm, along with members of the Russian jet set.
‘I would take a close look at Surkov, his Stockholm photos,’ the hugely influential journalist Oleg Kashin wrote, speculating on who would be the first of Putin’s inner circle to break ranks. ‘He will hardly like the prospect of imaginary membership in the Ozero Co-operative [of Putin's cronies] with its real consequences... Putin has turned into the hero of a thriller, who doesn’t yet know from which dark corner he should expect threats. There is expectation of the first betrayal – the Americans have made that the chief factor in Russian politics.’