Very Different Personages: Vladislav Surkov – Putin’s Post-Modern Puppet-Master



ADAM CURTIS is a documentary-maker whose work has a way of making the world look and feel completely different. The secret to the success of series as varied as Century of the Self (2002), The Power of Nightmares (2004), and his most recent work, Bitter Lake (2015), is Curtis’s ability to bring what’s been hidden in History’s shadows into the light.

The nineteenth century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, remarked that: “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” Curtis not only takes us behind the scenes, he introduces us to the personages.

The latest personage to whom Curtis’s viewers have been introduced is Vladislav Surkov – Vladimir Putin’s political impresario. In the words of Peter Pomerantsev, writing in The London Review of Books  “Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era. Understand him and you understand not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the 20th-century strains.”

Surkov’s great insight into the character of the post-Soviet era was that it would be an epoch devoid of ideological conviction. A society in which all of the grand narratives of the 20th Century (from Absolutism to Socialism to Capitalism) have been tried and found wanting. A place where cynicism and irony will ride shotgun for an amoral authoritarianism whose twinned priorities of self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement recognise no limits.

It is a world that fosters in its hapless citizens feeling of vertiginous disorientation. According to Pomerantsev’s chilling description:

“[T]he stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”

If all this is beginning to sound unsettlingly familiar, Pomerantsev has more. Surkov, he says, has perfected what he calls “sovereign democracy”, a new form of governance “in which democratic institutions are maintained without any democratic freedoms”. Surkov was also “the man who [turned] television into a kitsch Putin-worshipping propaganda machine”.

If you think that’s coming uncomfortably close to a description of New Zealand television (substituting “Key” for “Putin”) then you’re not alone.

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Obviously, New Zealanders are not ruled over by a political beast as big or as dangerous as Putin, but Pomerantsev’s depiction of a political environment subject to continuous and disorienting shifts of perspective; of leaders performing on a revolving stage whose sets and props are constantly changing; rings more than a few Kiwi bells.

Certainly it is Curtis’s view that the curiously “post-modern” style of politics that has distinguished the UK under James Cameron and George Osborne owes a great deal to the political ideas and methods of Vladislav Surkov. (Curtis illustrates his point by advancing video images of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then rolling them backward – providing a potent visual representation of Osborne’s black is white, 2 + 2 = 5 political style.)

Our own Prime Minister and Finance Minister display a similar, loose, relationship with reality. John Key, in particular, seems able to shift his shape almost at will. From the saccharine family man ordering in Saturday night pizza; to the jokey-blokey sports-lover trading wisecracks with commercial radio shock-jocks; to the dead-eyed critic of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations daring the Press Gallery to contradict him; our own post-modern performance artist makes it easy to see from whence his fine-arts student daughter draws her inspiration.

Pomerantsev offers us a frightening glimpse of the sort of world to which Surkovian politics is leading us:

“In Soviet Russia you would have been forced to give up any notion of artistic freedom if you wanted a slice of the pie. In today’s Russia, if you’re talented and clever, you can have both. This makes for a unique fusion of primitive feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony. A property ad displayed all over central Moscow earlier this year [2011] captured the mood perfectly. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it showed two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan ‘Life Is Getting Better’. It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules). A few months ago there was a huge ‘Putin party’ at Moscow’s most glamorous club. Strippers writhed around poles chanting: ‘I want you, prime minister.’ It’s the same logic. The sucking-up to the master is completely genuine, but as we’re all liberated 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we’ll do our sucking up with an ironic grin while acknowledging that if we were ever to cross you we would quite quickly be dead.”

To which, as Adam Curtis rightly observes, we can only say: “Oh Dear.”


  1. I don’t know if this is strictly a “Post Modern” concept but this government runs on the notion that there is no such thing as “truth”, only “opinion”. Hence it feels comfortable to lie with impunity.

    On the subject of Russia, this very interesting documentary from the BBC which was broadcast on National Radio has more to say on the matter in the way that it is employed in contemporary military strategy.

    Wednesday 11 March 2015: Maskirovka: Deception Russian-Style
    Lucy Ash examines the Russian military strategy of deception, maskirovka, from the 14th Century to the current crisis in Ukraine.

  2. Ha haa brilliant
    Thanks Chris for this expansion of this info about Vladislav Surkov…
    This subtle form of propaganda must be understood if we are to stand any chance against it.

    I am a long time fan of Adam Curtis’s material and opinion.
    The Century of the Self was a huge awakening for me.

    this is the link to the first Adam Curtis Oh Dearism vid from News wipe

    and the second one (for those who haven’t seen it)

    All 4 parts Century of the self can be viewed here…

  3. Aaaaaaaaaarrkghhhh!!!!….

    Sounds like the plot of a futuristic movie that isn’t quite so futuristic any more….like Logans run…Matrix or that silly one that had noddy cars with Sylvester Stallone ….the one where he kept getting demerits for swearing.

    Or more ominously….Terminator.

    Now…one of the reasons I hate neo liberalism is that it encompasses a total acceptance of any current trend or fashion , adsorbs it…and turns it back on the people to render it benign and fashionable….

    Inasmuch as any current source of concern…be it environmental , legal , war ,….has a way of taking those issues on-board , ‘sanitizing ‘ it, popularizing it ….and then incorporating it.

    An example is in the environmental issues…LONG AFTER the radicals have pioneered the movement and paid the price of imprisonment , harassment , surveillance ,….the issues become mainstream , the middle class move in and suddenly it becomes ‘respectable’…

    These political ideologues do not care unless it threatens either their power base or their financial standing…and if it does they go to work….in a shallow , lip service way. And so it becomes absorbed , rearranged for public consumption.

    Anything to neutralize and shut the people up and kill the issue.

    Key does the same : the whole contrived facade of his ‘one of the blokes’ act …the common touch cuz he’s not really a Prime Minister’…’ just one of us’

    And then uses the GSCB to ensure he gets the low down on any competition for the WTO top position.

    In light of his wanting to sign quickly the TTPA….displays a ruthless contempt towards the country of his births sovereignty as well as displays the whole ‘ one of the blokes’ for what it is ……

    A construct to quell the masses with.

    Yet underneath is a focused viciousness that is becoming to any totalitarian leader.

    It is obvious he wouldn’t have been able to ingratiate himself into the NZ public’s psyche by the use of bullets and bombs…his creators and minders knew that….

    So they created a profile whereby he could easily move among the naive and sucker Kiwi’s ….a profile that could just as easily change gears and shapeshift when necessary…

    One day having selfies taken with All Blacks,….the next ,…changing laws for the spy agencies in order to facilitate the NSA’s XKEYscore programs to spy on New Zealanders, our Pacific neighbors ……our large trading partners ie: China..

    And then having the colossal gall to FOB US ALL OFF with non committal, bland and elusive answers such as ‘ No comment ‘ ‘its all out of date’ , ‘ they’re all screaming left wing conspiracy theorists’ regarding those spy agencies…

    Even in Northland the dictator comes to the fore…’ if you don’t vote for Nationals Osbourne we wont deliver on the bridges’…

    Indeed ….he is as much a shapeshifter as he is a construct for USA and Global interests … the same vein as Tony Blair was.

    In other words they have no core values , morals or virtues but that those intangible elements are exchangeable and interchangeable as current conditions demand.

    And if those same intangible qualities were to get in the way of achieving their agenda’s ….the answer for them is quite simple. Disregard them as impediments to their objectives.

    It is THIS capacity that creates the shape-shifting element that many can see and many others just have vague feelings of it being some sort of ‘ hard – to – pin – down -just – what – it – is -about – them ‘ charade.

    Essentially ……its called being a liar.

  4. Hahahah ! Has anyone else noticed ? He looks like Mr Bean !

    ( Should I have said that ? I bet I shouldn’t have said that . )

  5. Ah here we go again with the Russia bashing. You really need to look at what our 5 eyes friends are doing to get an idea of why and how Key behaves. And why use propagandist puppet BBC, who have long lost their facade of respectability, especially when reporting on the situation n the Ukraine?
    But you rely so much on the honesty of the mainstream media. Hear what John Pilger has to say about them.

    and Assist Sect Advisor to Regan, ex editor Wall Street Journal, economist

    A slightly different view of Russia vs USA

    Professor Stephen Cohen professor emeritus Russian History, New York University etc.

    So while you may tut tut against the evil doings of Russia and Putin, just remember there is also a dangerous game played out and we as a member of the 5 eyes are right in the firing line. John Key behaves like they do. But obviously you don’t know what lies the world is being told by the other 4 eyes members, because your source of news is the corporate, government/BBC controlled, news media.

    • Is this Russia bashing?
      I think it is using Russia as an example of non Linear warfare and destablisation of perception. This example is used to draw a parallel between what is happening in Russia and now being copied or replicated in the west.
      The power hungry are all the same no matter the geographic location or political methodology!
      Watch the vid and I an sure you will agree with my conclusion that Russia is being used here as an example and expanded on to include Britain.
      I see the same tricks here being used by the Nats.

      • I think five eyes is more the model Key/National follows. Yes it’s Russia bashing. Because of the Washington spin and BBC puppetry, Trotter thinks the article is true. It’s not.

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