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Superconversations Day 74: Vladislav Surkov responds to Ilya Budraitskis, "The Extraordinary Adventures of Guy Fawkes"


#How We Can Stop Worrying and Love Putin

Vladimir Putin painting by George Bush (source).

In America, Europe and Asia, decision-makers can be divided into two main groups, differing in their attitude to Russia. Representatives of the first group believe in the promise of our democracy, support us, direct their efforts at the rebirth and strengthening of Russia as an important part of the global geopolitical balance, as an important market for their products, as a good neighbor and reliable ally. The second group consists of those who still live by ‘Cold War’ phobias, who look at our country as a potential enemy, who hinder the implementation of a complete financial blockade of terrorists and their political isolation. They think that they deserve the credit for the fact that Soviet Union’s collapse was almost bloodless and are trying to build on that success. Their goal is the destruction of Russia and the creation of numerous ineffective quasi-state formations on its enormous territory.

I’ll remind you that the virus of terrorism attacked the state at the point when regions, shut in their operetta-type sovereignties, and weak, disposable parties were unable to oppose the chaos which ruled in the country then. Moreover, they frequently provoked it by proceeding from their selfish interests. The period of neo-feudal fragmentation, which we lived through in the 1990s, resulted in the emergence of the bandit-like situations like Chechnya and became a prologue to terrorist intervention. That must not be repeated. I think that mobilization of the nation to fight against terrorism is the most important task. We must all understand that the enemy is at the gates. The front line runs through every town, every street, every house. We must show vigilance, solidarity, mutual assistance, unity of efforts between the citizens and the state.

Fukuyama pointed out in one of his works that post-totalitarian societies are characterized by the deficit of social capital, the habit of joint action, the trust of citizens in each other. Our society is no exception. The moral crisis born in the depths of the pseudo-collectivist communist regime continues even now. The moral majority is forming slowly…

Naturally, there are people with whom we can never form partnership. Now we have a ‘fifth column’ in the besieged country – left-wing and right-wing radicals which both grow on the same branch. False liberals and true Nazis have more and more in common as time goes by. They have common sponsors of foreign origin, common hatred towards ‘Putin-ruled Russia’, as they put it. However, in reality it’s hatred towards Russia as such, which is no wonder, as a matter of fact. Even Dostoyevsky has already written about these people. Today all such ‘Smerdyakovs’ and ‘Lyamshins’[1] sit comfortably in various committees awaiting the defeat of their own country in a war against terror.

What is ‘managed democracy’? a term that has become very popular both inside Russia and outside it. In my opinion, managed democracy is a stereotype model of inefficient – and therefore managed from outside political and economic regimes – model which is forced on all countries and people without any distinction by certain centers of global influence. I will not name now the countries which, as we think, are ‘managed democracies,’ as we define this term. You know these countries yourself. Russian system is therefore not a managed but a 'sovereign democracy:’ while building an open society we don’t forget that we are a free nation. And we want to be a free nation among other free nations and to cooperate with them proceeding from fair principles, we don’t want to be managed from abroad. That’s it. Nothing unusual about it. I’ll take the liberty of quoting Dick Cheney, who perhaps was a bit misunderstood here in Russia. I fully agree with him, with what he said. And he said the following: “Russia will join all of us on the way to prosperity and greatness. It will be a community of sovereign democracies which left their past conflicts behind; which have multiple cultural and historical links, which conduct free trade, respect each other as great nations and jointly strive to.” I fully agree with Cheney’s understanding of the term ‘sovereign democracies.’ We have absolutely the same understanding.

But when our partners understand energy security as full control over our pipeline system and our mineral resources, that’s not how we understand energy security, we understand it a bit differently, and I think we have the right to understand it this way. And I have a feeling that even if cannibals came to power in Moscow and handed over a certain something to a certain somebody, these cannibals would be immediately recognized as a very democratic government. Some of those who criticize us behave just like that. However, generally speaking, we consider Western criticism to be productive. We even need it to avoid returning to the situation in which our society was 20 years ago and which we are trying slowly and with such difficulties to leave behind.

The West is a democratically organized system. And there are different people there. Some of them want to see a weakened Russia and find arguments for themselves to see a weakened Russia. Others - and we hope that they are a majority – are normal people and they see a world where Russia is a partner, which is strong and good and has deep relations with the rest of the world. We’ll rely on the opinion of the majority, again, in accordance with democratic ideas about the world. We don’t think that anyone can seriously fear Russia today. It’s more like there are people who, in my opinion, have caught cold during the Cold War and are still coughing today. A lot of people in the West look at the events of early 1990s, the collapse of the USSR and the crisis in Russia as a victory in the cold war. We come across such assessments in the Western press very frequently. We don’t think that we were defeated in the Cold War. We think that we defeated the totalitarian regime. No one defeated us – hence the difference in assessments. For a start we scored a victory over ourselves.

And if some people prefer to think that they defeated us; How do you treat a defeated opponent? Even given all possible respect for him. Either with contempt, or with pity. We want neither of these two attitudes. We don’t consider ourselves to be a defeated nation. We believe that we decided everything ourselves.

And we know that Moscow did much more for the democratization of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia than either Washington or London did. I name these cities just as an example, I don’t want to offend anyone. It was Moscow who furthered democracy to this giant area, which is developing now in a new way. We shouldn’t forget this. If more people in the West assessed the events this way, I think that we could enjoy greater respect.

I have been lucky to find the spiritual precursor of today’s discussion about soverign democracy. Surprising as it may seem, it turned out to be from Ernesto Che Guevara. In 1960 he delivered a speech, entitled, ‘Political sovereignty and economic independence:’

“There are republics which have all formal features of sovereign states. However, they depend entirely on the all-embracing will of Standard Oil or some other oil company or the tin kings or coffee traders. The internal political system of any country which, to this or that extent, allows, or doesn’t allow at all, to realize its sovereignty should be an issue for this and only this specific country. National sovereignty means, first of all, the right of a country to have the government and the way of life which suits it best of all and the right not to have anyone else interfere in its life. However, all these fragments of political sovereignty, national sovereignty are a fiction if they are not accompanied by economic independence. We must gain sovereignty and take it away from those who are called ‘monopolies.’”

I think a portrait of Che Guevara could very well adorn this hall. I wish that this forum will become an event where we could seriously discuss questions of sovereignty, issues of the economic model that would allow the people of Russia to be an independent subject of history, rather than some kind of Ijo tribe from Nigeria, for whom Shell determines how much money to give them for damage it has done to their land. I’d like to wish all of us openness and competitiveness. I believe that this is freedom, this is independence, this is sovereignty. Marginal unions of former civil servants, Nazi followers and fugitive oligarchs encouraged by visiting diplomats and by the simple belief that help will come from abroad can try to ruin the society, but will never be able to subdue a society for which sovereignty has become a civic value . . . Democracy has found a home here, but it remains to be seen whether she is the lady of the house or just a poor relative.

I’d say that the Soviet Union could boast two major achievements: on the one hand - powerful ideological work, which was undertaken on a planetary scale - and the Soviet Union also used the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice.’ Although we didn’t benefit a whole lot from all this work, the entire world was strongly influenced by this powerful support - military, material and moral. And we forgot about this influence. Today we tend to forget that the Soviet Union was popular among the most democratic of Western intellectuals. The Soviet Union, due to its powerful ideological efforts, stimulated the liberalization of former colonies, accelerated the harmonization of social relations in Western countries and by so doing it exerted wholesome influence on the course of world history and on the other hand – industrialization. We won’t forget that we’re living off the legacy of the Soviet Union, that we’ve done very little ourselves so far. Our railroads, our pipelines and our housing sector, our factories and our nuclear forces - all this is the legacy of the Soviet Union.

Moving forward in this road couldn’t be easy after the fall of the Soviet Union, first of all because the country in its entirety wasn’t ready and couldn’t be ready for life in the modern democratic conditions . . . Crisis was inevitable, because the Russian power elite had virtually vanished. Naturally the remnants of the old ‘nomenklatura’ in new market conditions struck up immediate friendship with enterprising amateur commercial collectives. State authorities retreated everywhere, it was a flight from responsibility without any systematic approach. It was even proclaimed that the state was evil. Now we simply forget this, but there were quite serious declarations that the smaller the state, the better. And if you reduce the state to nothing, everything would be just perfect. Naturally, this vacuum was filled in. Naturally, these ambitious amateur commercial managers took over the role of the authorities in a number of cases.Thus, instead of moving towards democracy we got what is rightly called oligarchy.

As regards to Putin’s first steps as the president, we remember that he proclaimed the dictatorship of law and the policy of stabilization. I’d call all this instead a policy of democratization. I’d like to emphasize this, because the idea that he is dismantling up democracy is an absolute distortion and substitution of terms. Call what we had in the 1990s what you want, but not democracy. Putin is returning the real meaning of the word democracy to all democratic institutions.

What are the threats to our democratic sovereignty as an integral part of our existing and future political model? International terrorism; the threat of direct military confrontation; the lack of competitiveness of our economy; but more importantly soft takeover of Russia via modern “orange technologies”, precisely when national immunity to outside influence is lowered. Everybody knows about Weimar scatter-brains who allowed Hitler to come to power via “democratic procedures’. I suggest that we shouldn’t be either gaping fools, or scatter-brains. We shouldn’t allow supporters of oligarchy to destroy democracy with the help of democratic procedures. The same applies to the supporters of national-dictatorship. To all adversaries of the people’s sovereignty.


[1] Smerdyakov & Lyamshin are respective characters from ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and ‘The Posessed’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov is a Russian businessman and politician of Chechen descent. He was First Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration from 1999 to 2011 and a special advisor to Vladimir Putin the President of the Russian Federation ever since.




Detail from Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes

Ilya Budraitskis’s article, “The Extraordinary Adventures of Guy Fawkes,” begins with a lovely description of a distinction he draws between counter-revolution and anti-revolution. The former, says Budraitskis, restores the pre-revolutionary order; the latter “tries to prevent an imaginary revolution whose terrible specter constantly pursues the ruling powers and heralds their demise.” While Budraitskis is writing specifically about Russia today, his description of the fear felt by a ruling power puts me in mind of the tsarist Russian nobility’s recurring deep fears that their destitute serfs might rise up some dark night to burn down the manor house and all the people in it.

Budraitskis portrays anti-revolution as Putin’s “definitive motif of propaganda” during the last decade, with a concomitant creation of a whole new law enforcement infrastructure, constantly updated body of repressive laws, and expanding range of preemptory tools. Yet, Budraitskis says, paradoxically now, “when the public sphere is more reliably controlled, when the population is even more firmly gripped by conservatism and fear of change, the leadership only grows more convinced that the revolution is just about to reach their doorstep.”

Many elements of Budraitskis’s description of Russia today have striking parallels to Stalinism and earlier Russian history - as well as, interestingly, some parallels to the US popular reaction to 9/11. These include

  • the proclaimed need for an “endless, large-scale investigation … to establish the source of the threat”
  • continual talk of a conspiracy bent on destroying society
  • the infantilization of the population in relation to a father figure who will protect them but must in return be obeyed

Catherine the Great for Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes

Drumming up popular fear of an outside threat is an extremely useful tool for anyone in power, because it tends to unite the population more or less docilely under the government’s “protection.” “People afraid of outsiders are easily manipulated,” wrote Ronald Wright. “In times of war or crisis, power is easily stolen from the many by the few on a promise of security.” This was seen in the US after 9-11, when terrified Americans frantically offered to give up civil liberties if only the government would take every possible action to keep them safe. Bush, Cheney, et al, were only too happy to take advantage of this ripe opportunity to accrue more power for themselves, resulting among other things in their catastrophic invasion of Iraq.

A country’s own citizens can easily be portrayed as agents of foreign entities, providing an excuse for on-going internal investigations. This was seen in its most extreme form under Stalin, with his constant arrests of supposed “capitalist saboteurs” “at work” in every factory and mine, every collective farm and lumber operation. As Budraitskis describes, it’s seen (in a less catastrophic form) in Russia today. In the US we see massive collection of citizens’ data by government security agencies.

Ruling powers seize on true dangers and hype them out of proportion in order to terrify people into loyalty and patriotism. Ratcheting up popular fear has always been a lot easier in Russia than it is in the US because Russia in truth has always been far more vulnerable to attack than has the US. Russia has the longest wide open border on earth, unprotected by natural barriers like mountains or oceans. Some of the world’s greatest powers have bordered Russia’s endless flat steppes, from the Ottoman Empire to Germany in World War II.

Detail from The Most Exposed Terrain On Earth

Early modern Europe and the Ottoman Empire needed slaves for everything from rowing galleys to building Istanbul into the largest city in Europe of the time. Russians right next door on the wide open plain provided a rich reservoir of potential abductees. Before what are now the Ukraine and the Crimea were finally brought under tsarist control after centuries of battling, Slavs were the most enslaved population on earth until the black African slave trade began. Annual summer raids abducted thousands of Russians who were marched in chains across the steppes and sold in Crimean and other slave markets. In fact the word “slave” derives from “Slav.” From that time through the battle of Stalingrad in WW II, Russia’s steppes have created invasion routes along which death and devastation have easily entered. In World War II, Soviet military and civilian deaths numbered well over 20 million. American deaths were under half a million.

The United States, in contrast to Russia, has vast protective ocean barriers on its east and west, and comparatively weak neighbors to its north and south. The last attempt to invade the US mainland occurred two centuries ago, during the War of 1812. Even 9-11 wasn’t a land invasion, but a lightening attack perhaps engendering the same kind of terror Russians repeatedly experienced over centuries of slave raids. I believe if we had continued to have repeated 9-11-level attacks over the past 15 years, many more American citizens would be scrambling to ditch their personal freedoms in exchange for protection. Just the other evening at a dinner party here in New York, a guest of generally liberal views said to me, “I believe it’s a dangerous world out there, so I’m more than happy to have my government read all my emails and listen to my phone conversations.” She exhibits some of the same willingness to exchange liberties for safety that Budraitskis observes for Russians under Putin today.

I wonder whether the anti-revolution that Budraitskis describes is not fear of a clearly-conceived “revolution” in the sense of a new and different social order being established. I suspect the timing of the “anti-revolution’s” intensification has to do with Putin’s fear of losing personal power as his country declines economically and has lost much of the vast steppe territory that Russia for centuries considered necessary for its defense. Blaming outsiders for Russian (or Soviet) economic problems serves the purpose of deflecting discontent away from the government itself. Portraying the West as decadent, associating Western wealth with “dissolute” behavior (today’s anti-gay campaigns), all support that effort.

Detail of Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes

Budraitskis describes the Russia’s February revolution, in which the workers’ uprising was joined by army soldiers sent to suppress it. As my own research in Russia has shown, the uprising was begun by both married and unmarried women workers who were forced to finally abandon their jobs to search for food for their starving families. Soldiers initially joined them because the soldiers too were hungry, living in under-supplied garrisons. Since they were armed, soldiers were able to enforce searches and confiscations of the storerooms and houses of wealthy hoarders of food. The revolution had begun. But ultimately, none of these groups - male or female workers or soldiers - were able to form grass-roots organizations powerful enough to withstand the onslaughts of the international invasions and Civil War which immediately followed, and the terrible intensification of autocratic power over the next decades.

Anne Bobroff-Hajal is an artist with a Ph. D. in Russian History. Her series of large icon-like polyptychs is about how Russian and American geographies have shaped their social structures and histories. Her scholarly book is Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars: Political Activism and Daily Life; she lived for a year in the USSR doing archival research.