This piece differs from others in that it was written by someone who was then a high state official working closely with Putin. When it first appeared in 2019, it attracted hostile reception, at least in academia, the media and among democracy watchers. Years after and at the beginning of a full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, does it tell us much about what moves global politics?
By Vladislav Surkov
“It only seems that we have a choice.” These words are amazing in their depth of meaning and audacity. They were uttered a decade and a half ago, and today they have been forgotten and are not quoted. But according to the laws of psychology that which is forgotten affects us much more than what we remember. And these words, taken far outside the context in which they were first uttered, have as a result become the first axiom of the new Russian statehood upon which have been built all theories and practices of contemporary politics.
The illusion of choice is the most important of all illusions, the main trick of the Western way of life in general and Western democracy in particular, which has for a long time now adhered more closely to the ideas of P.T. Barnum than to those of Cleisthenes. The rejection of this illusion in favor of the realism of predestination has led our society first to reflect upon its own special, sovereign version of democratic development, and then to completely lose interest in any discussions on the subject of what democracy should be like and whether it should exist even in principle.
This opened up paths toward the free development of the state, directed not by imported chimeras but by the logic of historical processes, by that very “art of the possible.” The impossible, unnatural and counter-historical disintegration of Russia was, albeit belatedly, definitively arrested. Having collapsed from the level of the USSR to the level of the Russian Federation, Russia stopped collapsing, started to recover and returned to its natural and its only possible condition: that of a great and growing community of nations that gathers lands. It is not a humble role that world history has assigned to our country, and it does not allow us to exit the world stage or to remain silent among the community of nations; it does not promise us rest and it predetermines the difficult character of our governance.
And so the Russian state continues, now as a new type of state that has never existed here before. It took form mostly in the middle of the 2000s, and so far it has been little studied, but its uniqueness and its viability are now apparent. The stress tests which it has passed and is now passing have shown that this specific, organically arrived at model of political functioning provides an effective means of survival and ascension of the Russian nation not just for the coming years, but for decades and, most likely, for the entire next century.
In this way, Russian history has by now known four main models of governance, which can provisionally be named after their creators: the government of Ivan the Third (the Great Principality/the Kindom of Moscow and of All Rus, XV-XVII century); the government of Peter the Great (Russian Empire, XVIII-XIX century); the government of Lenin (USSR, XX century); and the government of Putin (Russian Federation, XXI century). Created by people who were, to use Lev Gumilev’s term, possessed of “long-term willpower,” one after another these large-scale political machines repaired themselves, adapted to circumstances along the way and provided for the relentless ascent of the Russian World.
Putin’s large-scale political machine is only now revving up and getting ready for long, difficult and interesting work. Its engagement at full power is still far ahead, and many years from now Russia will still be the government of Putin, just as contemporary France still calls itself the Fifth Republic of de Gaulle, Turkey (although now ruled by anti-Kemalists) still relies on the ideology of Atatürk’s “Six Arrows,” and the United States still appeals to the images and values of its half-legendary “founding fathers.”
What is needed is a comprehension and a description of Putin’s system of governance and the entire complex of ideas and dimensions of Putinism as the ideology of the future—specifically of the future, because present-day Putin can hardly be considered a Putinist, just as, for example, Karl Marx was not a Marxist and we can’t be sure that he would have agreed to be one had he found out what that’s like. But we need this explanation for the sake of everyone who isn’t Putin but would like to be like him—and to have the possibility of applying his methods and approaches in the coming times.
This description must not be in the form of dueling propagandas—ours vs. theirs—but in a language that would be perceived as moderately heretical by both Russian and anti-Russian officialdoms. Such language can be made acceptable to a sufficiently large audience, which is exactly what is needed, because the political system that has been made in Russia is fit to serve not just future domestic needs but obviously has significant export potential. Demand for it and for certain specific components of it already exists, its experience is being studied and partially adopted, and it is being imitated by both ruling and opposition groups in many countries.
Foreign politicians accuse Russia of interfering in elections and referenda throughout the planet. But in reality the situation is even more serious: Russia interferes with their brains, and they don’t know what to do with their own transformed consciousness. After the disastrous 1990s, once Russia turned away from all borrowed ideologies, it started generating its own ideas and began to counterattack the West. Since then European and American experts have been erring in their predictions more and more frequently. They are surprised and vexed by the paranormal preferences of the electorates. In confusion, they have sounded the alarm about an outbreak of populism. They can call it that, if they happen to be at a loss for words.
Meanwhile, the interest of foreigners in the Russian political algorithm is easy to understand: there are no prophets in their lands, but everything that is happening to them today has been prophesied from Russia a long time ago.
When everyone was still in love with globalization and made noise about a flat world without borders, Moscow pointedly reminded them that sovereignty and national interests are important. Back then many people accused us of “naïve” attachment to these old things, which had supposedly fallen out of fashion long ago. They taught us that it’s futile to hold on to XIX-century values, but that we should bravely step into the XXI century, where there supposedly won’t be any sovereign nations or nation-states. However, the XXI century is turning out the way we said it would. British Brexit, American #GreatAgain, anti-immigrant enclosure of Europe—these are but the first few items in a long list of commonplace manifestations of deglobalization, re-sovereignization and nationalism.
When on every corner someone lauded the Internet as an inviolable space of unlimited freedom, where everyone is allowed to be anyone and all are equal, it was specifically from Russia that came a sobering question for Internet-addled humanity: “Who we are on the World Wide Web, spiders or flies?” And now everyone, including the most freedom-loving of bureaucracies, is busy trying to untangle the Web and accusing Facebook of accommodating foreign interlopers. The once free virtual space, which had been advertised as a prototype of the coming heaven on Earth, has been seized and cordoned off by cyber-police and cyber-criminals, cyber-armies and cyber-spies, cyber-terrorists and cyber-moralists.
When the hegemony of the “hegemon” was not contested by anyone, the great American dream of world domination was close to being fulfilled, and many people hallucinated the end of history with the final comment of “the people are silent,” in that silence there came Putin’s Munich speech. At the time it sounded as dissenting, but today everything in it seems self-evident: nobody is happy with America, including the Americans themselves.
The previously little-known Turkish political term derin devlet has been popularized by American media. Translated into English as “deep state” it was then picked up by the Russian media. The term indicates a harsh, absolutely nondemocratic networked organization of real authoritarian structures hidden behind showy democratic institutions. This mechanism, which in practice exerts its authority through acts of violence, bribery and manipulation, and remains hidden deep beneath the surface of a hypocritical and simple-minded civil society which it manipulates while bribing or repressing all who accuse it.
Having discovered in their midst an unpleasant “deep state,” Americans were not particularly surprised, since they have long suspected that it exists. If there is a “deep net” and a “dark net,” then why not a “deep state” or even a “dark state”? From the depths and darkness of this un-exhibited and unadvertised power there float up shining mirages of democracy special-made for mass consumption that feature the illusion of choice, the feeling of freedom, delusions of superiority and so on.
Mistrust and envy, which democracy uses as prioritized sources of social energy, inevitably lead to a sharpening of criticism and an increased level of anxiety. Haters, trolls and the angry bots that have joined them have formed a screechy majority that has forced out the once dominant, respectable middle class which once upon a time set quite a different tone.
Nobody believes any more in the good intentions of public politicians. They are envied and are therefore considered corrupt, shrewd, or simply scoundrels. Popular political serials, such as “The Boss” and “The House of Cards,” paint correspondingly murky scenes of the establishment’s day-to-day.
A scoundrel must not be allowed to go too far for the simple reason that he is a scoundrel. But when all around you (we surmise) there are only scoundrels, one is forced to use scoundrels to restrain other scoundrels. As one pounds out a wedge using another wedge, one dislodges a scoundrel using another scoundrel… There is a wide choice of scoundrels and obfuscated rules designed to make their battles result in something like a tie. This is how a beneficial system of checks and balances comes about—a dynamic equilibrium of villainy, a balance of avarice, a harmony of swindles. But if someone forgets that this is just a game and starts to behave disharmoniously, the ever-vigilant deep state hurries to the rescue and an invisible hand drags the apostate down into the murky depths.
There is nothing particularly frightening in this proposed image of Western democracy. All you have to do is change your perspective a little, and it would no longer seem scary. But it leaves a sour feeling, and a Western citizen starts to spin his head around in search of other models and other ways of being. And… sees Russia.
Our system, as in general everything else that’s ours, is no more graceful, but it is more honest. And although the phrase “more honest” is not a synonym of “better” for everyone, honesty does have its charms.
Our state is not split up into deep and external; it is built as a whole, with all of its parts and its manifestations facing out. The most brutal constructions of its authoritarian frame are displayed as part of the façade, undisguised by any architectural embellishments. The bureaucracy, even when it tries to do something on the sly, doesn’t try too hard to cover its tracks, as if assuming that “everyone understands everything anyway.”
The great internal tension caused by the need to control huge, heterogeneous geographic areas, and by the constant participation in the thick of geopolitical struggle make the military and policing functions of the government the most important and decisive. In keeping with tradition, they are not hidden but, quite the opposite, demonstrated. Businessmen, who consider military pursuits to be of lesser status than commercial ones, have never ruled Russia (almost never; the exceptions were a few months in 1917 and a few years in the 1990s). Neither have liberals (fellow-travelers of businessmen) whose teachings are based on the negation of anything the least bit police-like. Thus, there was nobody in charge who would curtain off the truth with illusions, bashfully shoving into the background and obscuring as much as possible the main prerogative of any government—to be a weapon of defense and attack.
There is no deep state in Russia—all of it is on display—but there is a deep nation.
On its shiny surface sparkles the elite which, century after century (let’s give it its due) has involved the people in its various undertakings—party conferences, wars, elections, economic experiments. The deep nation takes part in these undertakings, but remains somewhat aloof, and doesn’t appear at the surface but leads it own, completely different life down in its own depths. Two lives of the nation, one on the surface and one in the depths, sometimes run in opposite directions, sometimes in the same direction, but they never merge.
The deep nation is always as cagey as can be, unreachable for sociological surveys, agitation, threats or any other form of direct influence. The understanding of what it is, what it thinks and what it wants often comes suddenly and too late, and not to those who can do anything about it.
Rare is the sociologist who would venture to define whether the deep nation is equivalent to its population or is a part of it, and if a part of it, then which one. At different times it was taken to be the peasants, the proletariat, the non-party-members, the hipsters, the government employees. People searched for it and tried to engage it. They called it the executor of God’s will, or just the opposite. Sometimes they decided that it is fictional and doesn’t exist in reality, and launched galloping reforms without looking back upon it, but quickly bashed their foreheads against it and were forced to concede that “something really does exist.” More than once it retreated under the press of domestic or foreign conquerors, but it always came back.
With its gigantic mass the deep nation creates an insurmountable force of cultural gravitation which unites the nation and drags and pins down to earth (to the native land) the elite when it periodically attempts to soar above it in a cosmopolitan fashion.
Nationhood, whatever that is taken to mean, is a precursor of the state. It predetermines its form, restricts the fantasies of theoreticians and forces practitioners to carry out certain acts. It is a powerful attractor, and all political trajectories without exception lead back to it. In Russia, one can set out from any position—conservatism, socialism, liberalism—but you will always end up with approximately the same thing. That is, with the thing that actually exists.
The ability to hear and to understand the nation, to see all the way through it, through its entire depth, and to act accordingly—that is the unique and most important virtue of Putin’s government. It is adequate for the needs of the people, it follows the same course with it, and this means that it is not subject to destructive overloads from history’s countercurrents. This makes it effective and long-lasting.
In this new system all institutions are subordinated to the main task: trust-based communication and interaction between the head of state and the citizens. The various branches of government come together at the person of the leader and are considered valuable not in and of themselves but only to the extent to which they provide a connection with him. Aside from them, and acting around formal structures and elite groups, operate informal methods of communication. When stupidity, backwardness or corruption create interference in the lines of communication with the people, energetic measures are taken to restore audibility.
The multilayered political institutions which Russia had adopted from the West are sometimes seen as partly ritualistic and established for the sake of looking “like everyone else,” so that the peculiarities of our political culture wouldn’t draw too much attention from our neighbors, didn’t irritate or frighten them. They are like a Sunday suit, put on when visiting others, while at home we dress as we do at home.
In essence, society only trusts the head of state. Whether this has something to do with the pride of an unconquered people, or the desire to directly access the truth, or anything else, is hard to say, but it is a fact, and it is not a new fact. What’s new is that the government does not ignore this fact but takes it into account and uses it as a point of departure in its undertakings.
It would be an oversimplification to reduce this theme to the oft-cited “faith in the good czar.” The deep nation is not the least bit naïve and definitely does not consider soft-heartedness as a positive trait in a czar. Closer to the truth is that it thinks of a good leader the same way as Einstein thought of God: ingenious but not malicious.
The contemporary model of the Russian state starts with trust and relies on trust. This is its main distinction from the Western model, which cultivates mistrust and criticism. And this is the source of its power.
Our new state will have a long and glorious history in this new century. It will not break. It will act on its own, winning and retaining prize-winning spots in the highest league of geopolitical struggle. Sooner or later everyone will be forced to come to terms with this—including all those who currently demand that Russia “change its behavior.” Because it only seems as if they have a choice.