Non-Linear War

Peter Pomerantsev

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.’


  • 28 March 2014 at 4:27pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Interesting piece, and it would be good to know just how important Surkov is to Putin and his gang, that is, how they see him fitting in with their temporary schemes (they don’t really have a long-range plan that is credible, beyond “rebuilding great Mother Russia” as a fearsome cock of the walk) and what they expect from him. Is he perceived by his paymasters as someone with “literary credibility” who can get the attention of those educated folks who scoff at Putin’s archaic, crude style of propaganda? On the latter point, maybe the old ways are the best ways, and, as the talented Slovakian novelist, Pavel Vilikovsky put it in his dissection of Party interrogators and security cops in “Ever Green Is . . .”, you can forget about sophisticated psychological approaches, these guys really know how to beat the shit out of people – and enjoy doing it – and that tried and true method is the most effective). As to literary credibility, that too seems a bit of a joke if the samples from Surkov’s latest short story are indicative of his talent (maybe it reads better in Russian, though it’s hard to imagine more transparent polemics masquerading as fiction, throw in a soupcon of magic-realism for literary thrills). Surkov seems like that tired old thing, the career opportunist who can blow with any wind and perhaps even anticipate the next breeze (I get the impression that the a similar stylistic opportunism infects his writing too). Whatever comes after Putin (if that happens in our lifetimes), I’m sure he’ll be around to sing its praises and reclaim a place in the new spotlight. He really is a hack.

    • 28 March 2014 at 4:29pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Sorry for the typos, I typed in too much haste.

  • 29 March 2014 at 4:40am
    farthington says:
    "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."

    Putin and 'many among the urban middles classes' are right. Shadowy forces were behind the [counter-]revolution in Ukraine.

    Putin's actions are defensive, not offensive. Since 1990, Russia has faced the betrayal by the US and its satraps in the guise of the endless expansion of NATO. Georgia and Ukraine were the last key dominoes to fall. Georgia and Ukraine as merely entrées for the dismantling of Russia itself. Yugoslavia as Exhibit A.

    Then no resistance will be met in the dismantling of Syria, then of Lebanon and on to Iran. And the winners are?

    That Putin is crushing potential vibrancy and freedoms in Russia is obvious, and tragic. But that's what happened during the Cold War I, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Indeed, some cynics (Chomsky?) earlier suggested that this domestic repression might have been the dominant thrust of Cold War I. And it's happening again in Cold War II (or as far as the NeoCons are concerned, Cold War I reheated), again on both sides of the divide. But Putin is not the lead actor in this resurrection of the show.

    Is everybody in anglo land now suckling on the Telegraph's milk?

  • 29 March 2014 at 9:21pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    While I, on the other side of the water, am blissfully ignorant of (but able to guess at) what “Telegraph’s milk” is, I wonder what “paranoid conspiracy Kool-Aid” farthington drinks with his daily breakfast. It’s a nice rhetorical move to cite “shadowy forces” without naming any of them or explaining how exactly they contribute to the developing protest movement (the anti-Yanukovych one, that is) in Ukraine. Please, farthington, enlighten us other souls wandering in the darkness about this.

    Then there are the misleading analogies. Yugoslavia? More or less dismantled by its own rival nationalities and clever ex-communists, who suddenly allied themselves with old-fashioned chauvinists (and a few “fascists”) -- after all, the Party bosses and the apparatchiks were the only folks with actual political experience. The fact that many of these politicians (especially in Serbia and Croatia) drove separatist events in order to aggrandize their careers and gain control of what might happen next is irrelevant to the fact that the nationalities themselves wanted the dissolution of the Yugoslavian state for the same reason they wanted it 90 years ago. That’s right, within five years of joining the “Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes” (soon to be renamed Yugoslavia) in 1918-19, the Croats and Slovenes were already regretting their decision, and interwar politics in that country was driven by these rivalries. Read a little real history, farthington, and stop fretting over the sinister, shadowy, unnamed powers behind the scenes. For a variety of reasons only Tito (a man whose vices matched his virtues) was able to hold this fragile and artificial entity together, and its dissolution started the day after his death. The specter that always loomed in the minds of its Slovene, Croat, Macedonian, Bosnian-Muslim, and Albanian Kosovar citizens was not communism (a fait accompli after 1945) but that of “Greater Serbianism”.

    How about I rewrite the choice portions of farthington’s stupefying third paragraph: “Since 1990 Russia has faced the entirely internal consequences of a legacy of 70 years of misrule and the cultivation of a class of thugs and kleptocrats who were once validated by “communism” and are now validated by “capitalism”. It was, in other words, a thoroughly corrupt and incompetent society led by men who specialized in theft and other pernicious behaviors. It had, of course, to come to terms with nationalities it formerly repressed who were naturally attracted to NATO membership in order to defend their independence from a likely revival of Russian imperialism, but it refused to shoulder this burden in any sensible or rational way. It preferred the path of paranoia.” Well, it’s tendentious, no doubt about that, but a little closer to the truth than farthington’s version of reality, which seems heavily ideologically blinkered.

    And then there is this eyebrow- aiser: “Then no resistance will be met in the dismantling of Syria, then of Lebanon and on to Iran. And the winners are?” Which leaves the obvious question not only unanswered but not even posed: If the Syrian pre-rebellion status quo is restored, who will be the winners? The Syrian people? Don’t make me laugh.

    And, finally, the encroachments by their own governments on American and other western-nation civil liberties during the Cold War (it did happen) are not even in the same ballpark as Russian official attitudes and practices when it comes to the responding to the behavior (and thought-crimes) of its citizens. It’s a pea versus a bowling ball. Please, farthington, get real, as they say on the streets.

  • 30 March 2014 at 2:29am
    Alejandro_Reza says:
    Please, LRB, why do not you ask Perry Anderson, a truly knowledgeable scholar on foreign affairs, to write about the present Ukrainian crisis?
    In the meantime, Mr.Pomerantsev and Mr. Timothy Rogers could learn something about why Putin feels the way he feels concerning the Ukraine just by reading Anderson's brief summary of Mr Brzezinsky's book, The Grand Chessboard, which appeared in these pages not so long ago: It would be better, of course, if they read the whole book.

  • 30 March 2014 at 5:28pm
    Miss Lonelyhearts says:
    Perhaps Putin fancies himself one of those 'great men' who, we are often told, appear from time to time as history runs its course. We should all hope otherwise—they tend to be very bloody.

  • 30 March 2014 at 6:23pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    In replying to A_R, I followed his link and read Anderson’s essay, the main subject of which is a detailed critique of the writing (and oblique political-advisory role) of T. G. Ash about and in Central Europe (and later about the Balkan states, primarily the disintegrating Yugoslavia). Brzezinsky’s book, “The Grand Chessboard”, figures into Anderson’s arguments as somehow fulfilling a USA-driven political program implied but not stated in Ash’s books and essays on the region(s). While Anderson’s essay is well-written and well-argued, and while it is thought-provoking, I’m not sure how it is germane to the present discussion about Ukraine, as long as there is no drive from within or without to have Ukraine join NATO (which would be a mistake). More interesting is the injunction that those who are following present events in Ukraine should be aware of Mr. Putin’s strong “feelings” about that land. Now, this is funny, since Mr. Putin’s strong feelings about many things (not to be confused with intelligent thinking about them) have been made plain as day during the years since the late 1990s. He has a standard, chauvinistic Russian view about the role of Ukraine in Russia’s history, but it expresses only one side of things – shouldn’t we also all be aware of the negative “feelings” of a large number of people in Ukraine about Putin and Russia? One implication of this is that somehow the strong feelings of political actors who play the emotionally rewarding card of historically-justified nationalism (or, in Putin’s case, a restoration of Russia’s status as a Great Power) must be accommodated, and thus we jump willy-nilly from personal obsessions to re-making reality in a way that conforms to those obsessions (think Hitler here, a very obvious case of politics as wish-fulfillment), a silly suggestion fraught with peril for all. While foreign leaders naturally have to cope with Putin’s grudges and intentions, they don’t have to exactly respect them or make their responses or plans honor them. He has to be dealt with rationally, and worries over his easily bruised sensibilities (built around the fiction that he has become an almost charismatic “great man”) can and should be ignored. Doing a little simple arithmetic, I believe that the strong negative feelings about Putin and Russia of the citizens of the Baltic States and the half-dozen or so USSR satellite states of central and eastern Europe can balance Mr. Putin’s tender ego in any scale of consideration.

  • 30 March 2014 at 9:53pm
    simonpawley says:
    Timothy Rogers: I'm not sure Perry Anderson's essay is the best guide to understanding the present situation either, but to suppose that future Nato membership for Ukraine is not an issue is almost certainly a mistake.
    For example, on 17 March, Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a 'Statement on a Support Group for Ukraine', which the Financial Times described as:
    Russia's 'first offer of a negotiated solution'.
    The FT story continues:
    'The document appeared to make clear that Russia’s main “red line” was future Nato membership for Ukraine, after the toppling of president Viktor Yanukovich last month and the arrival of a pro-western government in Kiev.
    'Mr [Dmitri] Trenin[, head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre,] said it was unlikely that Kiev or the West would agree to that. “Which means that, for the foreseeable future, Ukraine will be a geopolitical battleground,” he added.'
    -- Kathrin Hille & Neil Buckley, 'Russia's First Offer for Talks Dismissed', FT, 18 March 2014, p. 7.

    Russia is not innocent here: its use of force will make the idea of Nato membership more appealing to Ukrainians who see the need for some form of protection (until now, most were opposed to joining). Still, this is an important dimension of the present tensions, and one overlooked by most Western media reports.

  • 31 March 2014 at 4:41am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    One other aspect of Anderson’s essay that needs comment is his attempt to deflate Ash’s notion of Central Europe and restrict it to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, while eliminating the idea (or realism) of placing any and all of Yugoslavia under this rubric. Historically, while it may be right in some details (a great deal of pre-partition Poland was “Eastern” – Lithuania, Belarus, parts of Ukraine), it is also wrong in many others, since the real “Central Europe” of political discourse in the 19th and 20 centuries was twofold. It was originally applied to post-1870 Germany as the key territory that might engorge itself by the famous “Drang nach Osten”, an idea that appealed to the imagination of professors and politicians who started dabbling in “geopolitical” theory at the time. In expanding to the east and also acquiring “Germanic” peoples such as the Dutch and the Belgians, this big Greater Germany would also be absorbing some more Slavs, in addition to the Poles it controlled as a result of the Partitions; the concept was anathema to Bismarck, but congenial to Wilhelm and many other influential Germans in all walks of life, including business, the military, the universities, and politics. Hitler made the last German attempt to achieve this goal; it failed spectacularly and even backfired in terms of territorial losses. But, realistically speaking, the real Central Europe (both geographically and politically) was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its dozen nationalities and the constant prospect of disintegration due to the nationalities question as that became more intense and heated with the passage of time (the inability of Austria-Hungary to resolve these problems smoothly – due to wavering commitments to autonomy of the nationalities and to Hungarian intransigency on the issue, holding Vienna hostage to desperate situations, was certainly one of the major causes of WWI). And if that is the case, which I believe it to be, then the Slovenes and Croats who lived in the Dual Monarchy were every bit as “Central European” as the Galician Poles and the Czechs and Slovaks (the latter two peoples, though linguistic cousins, had very different political and cultural histories before 1918); one has to add here that Austro-Germans who supported the Habsburg dynasty without reservation (and there were many who did not) were equally “Central Europeans”, and it is interesting, for instance, that Ash and others seldom discuss the Austrians in this context (perhaps due to their enthusiasm for the Third Reich, which was as Slavophobic as it was anti-Semitic). The Serbs who dwelled within the Empire (in today’s Croatian Slavonia and the Voivodina portion of Hungary that went over to Serbia in 1918) were also part of this Central European picture, so it is fair to say that about 30-40% of the inhabitants of interwar Yugoslavia had been at one time (and for a long time) “Central Europeans” of vastly different political and religious experience from the Serbs of Serbia proper as it broke away from Turkey. The only portion of the Ukrainians who fit into this picture as “Central Europeans” were the Ruthenians (Western Ukrainians) of Austrian eastern Galicia (and then Poland and eastern interwar Czechoslovakia) and of parts of Bukovina and other backward rural areas that fell under Hungarian rule within the A-H condominium. These folks were not only part of the A-H political system, but many were members of the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church, with its eastern Orthodox rituals and liturgy, but pledged to papal authority, so they had a second set of ties to the west. While all of this had to be an affront to Russian sensibilities, they had no serious legal or even historical basis for meddling in A-H policies with respect to their national minorities. These are all historical facts, each with its own emotional valence for the people involved, that Anderson does not take into account as he makes his stark divisions between the South Slavs and Czechs, Slovaks and Poles. The true “South Slav” block that stood in a distinct relationship to Slavs farther north and west and that was linked together by political fate (Turkish domination) and religious ties would include old Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia (only part of A-H for forty years), Bulgaria, and Macedonia, the latter a divisive bone of contention among Bulgars, Serbs, Turks and Greeks. These peoples can all sensibly be called Balkan South Slavs, and they may, in fact, as Anderson argues, have been treated dismissively or ignored by those who wrote and thought about “Central Europe”. (And there are the two odd-men out, ethnically and linguistically, Albania and Romania, whose politics have been intertwined with the Balkan Slavs.)

    So, what does the preceding have to do with actual events on the ground in the region sometimes called Central Europe? The answer is unknown (or at least, I don’t know). Is it all just ancient history that becomes more irrelevant with each passing year? Perhaps, perhaps not. The disintegration of Yugoslavia seemed to revive many of the specific animosities and the language of national self-definition that characterized events in the region during the late Habsburg years and their immediate aftermath during the interwar years, as if the “return of the repressed” could be applied to whole societies as well as individuals. In distinction to this revival of old competing claims, as communism imploded, then vanished, The Poles gave up their claims to lands east of the 1945 boundary set by the USSR, in return for which they expected Germany to give up its claims on the parts of Germany that were now in Poland (not just East Prussia, most of which is now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad [Koenigsberg] but also the long strip of Silesia that had been heavily Germanized during the previous 200 years). This was a linked process in their minds that would be necessary for Poland’s integration into a Europe that would respect its current boundaries. And, so far, this yielding by both nations has proved successful.

    As Ash pointed out, during the post-WWII era “Central Europe” as an organizing concept had been banned from public discussion for two very different reasons. First, it had bad connotations due to the way Hitler grabbed onto the notion of a totally German-dominated Mitteleuropa. Second, it was taboo in the USSR and enforced as such in its satellite states, where history had to be rewritten to be friendly and appreciative of Russia’s role in the region, though few of the locals actually believed the official version of reality. And, as he also noted, it was not clear if Central Europe as an idea meant much at all to many or most of the citizens of the nations that formed it – it was a term used by political and cultural intellectuals in order to abate Russian influence and turn to the west. It meant a lot to Kundera and some of his counterparts in Poland and Hungary.

    A good place to see what a “Central European sensibility” is meant to look and sound like is Pavel Vilikovsky’s short story, “Everything I Know about Central Europeanism (With a Little Friendly Help from Olomouc and Camus” (translated from Slovak into English by C. D. Sabatos). The narrator of this story, on his way to that Moravian city to act as a judge in a "Miss People's Democracy" beauty contest, meets the French philosopher at the Brno train station. They travel together and exchange views on Central Europe, about which the narrator has mixed feelings and resentments over being pigeonholed by outside observers. Of course the writer-narrator of this story may be caught in a trap that he sets himself – or perhaps just a verbal double-bind with an ironical design – by his gloomy meditations on the misuse by others of "Central Europe" as a place evoking gloomy meditations. In response to this Vilikovský’s fictional Camus would say, "how very Central European!", indicating that he too is snared in the same conceptual loop. As is fitting in a dialogue with the renowned author of ““The Myth of Sisyphus, the narrator points out that in his part of the world (Central Europe) the ancients and Camus got it slightly wrong – not only does man constantly return the boulder to the top of the mountain, he carries it back down too. The authorities – who are god-like in this respect – would never let it roll down the hill when they can extract some more pointless work from their subjects; extracting pointless work is a both a sign and a perquisite of divinity, especially in its incarnation in the Party’s leadership. This is all very funny in a bleak, farcical way, and perhaps Central Europe will wind up as a conceit used only by writers – but don’t bet on it yet, because the idea might still prove to have some political utility and even be attractive to those Ukrainians whose ancestors participated in its life over the centuries.

Read more