Putin’s Lasting State
by Vladislav Surkov
translator: Bill Bowler
Source: Nezavisimaya (The Independent),
website of Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Gazette), Feb 1, 2019
The author of “Putin’s Lasting State” is Vladislav Surkov, a prominent Russian government official and political theoretician. He has served as First Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration, as Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and continues to be a close personal adviser of President Vladimir Putin.
It is therefore not surprising that “Putin’s Lasting State” is, at least in part, a panegyric to Putin. At the same time, it is a current examination of Russia’s age-old dilemma: are we European or Asian? Some of his statements and ideas may seem difficult to swallow, but he is also a satirist and embraces the role of provocateur. Indeed, when this article appeared on-line in February, it provoked a lively commentary, pro and contra, in the blogosphere, Russophile and otherwise.
Surkov, interestingly enough, also writes science fiction and dystopian fantasy under the pen name Natan Dubovitsky. His “Without Sky” appears here, at Bewildering Stories.
Strikingly profound and daring words. Spoken a decade and a half ago, they are forgotten today and not quoted. But in terms of psychology, what we have forgotten influences us much more strongly than what we remember. And these words, taken far beyond the limits of the context in which they were spoken, eventually became the primary axiom of the new Russian state, the axiom upon which the entire theory and practice of our actual politics are built.
The illusion of choice is the most important of illusions, the crowning trick of the Western lifestyle in general and of Western democracy in particular, which has long since preferred the ideas of Barnum to those of Cleisthenes.
Rejection of this illusion in favor of the realism of predeterminism led our society first to reflect upon our own, special, sovereign variant of democratic development, and then to completely lose interest in discussions of what democracy should be. We have even lost interest in discussing the question of whether democracy needs, in principle, to be at all.
Paths opened up for state-building 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 decay of Russia was tardily but firmly halted.
Having collapsed from the level of the USSR to the level of the RF (Russian Federation), Russia stopped crumbling, began to recover and to return to its natural and only possible condition as a great land, combining and augmenting the commonality of its peoples. The role allotted to our country in world history is not inconsiderable. It does not allow us to exit the stage or remain silent on a mass a level, does not promise tranquility, and it defines the complex character of our statehood.
And so — the Russian state continues, and now this state is of a new type that we did not have previously. It completed its formation towards the middle of the 2000s, but still remains little studied, though its originality and viability are plain to see. The stress tests it has undergone and undergoes show that precisely this organically formed model of political structure is an effective means for the Russian nation to survive and thrive not only in the coming years, but in the coming decades, and most likely in the coming century.
Russian history knows four basic models of statehood which could conditionally be called by the names of their establishers:
- the state of Ivan III (a Grand Principality, the Kingdom of Moscow and all Rus’, 15th-18th centuries);
- the state of Peter the Great (the Russian Empire, 18th-19th centuries);
- the state of Lenin (the Soviet Union, 20th century);
- and the state of Putin (the Russian Federation, 21st century).
Created and established by persons, in Gumilev’s phrase [Lev Gumilev, a Soviet historian -- tr. note], of “steadfast will,” these enormous political machines, one after the other, maintained and adapted on the fly, century after century, provided the Russian world with a stubborn upward movement.
As of now, Putin’s great political machine is gaining momentum and providing the set up for lengthy, difficult and interesting work. It has not reached full power. That point is still far ahead. But many years from now, Russia will still be Putin’s state, the way contemporary France still calls itself the Fifth Republic of de Gaulle, the way Turkey (even though those now in power are anti-Kemalists) still operates on Attaturk’s ideology of “Six Arrows,” and the way the U.S. to this day turns to the images and values of the half-legendary “founding fathers.”
What is needed is an understanding and description of Putin’s system of governing and of the whole complex of ideas and measures of Putinism as an ideology for the future. I say for the future, since Putin himself is hardly a Putinist in the same way, for example, that Marx was not a Marxist, and it is doubtful that he would agree to be one if he knew what it meant. An understanding of Putin’s system of governing is necessary to anyone who might seek to emulate him and perhaps adapt his methods and approaches for future times.
The description of Putinism must not be done as propaganda from two camps, ours and theirs, but in a language that Russian officialdom and anti-Russian officialdom would both perceive as moderately heretical. The language should be applicable to a wide audience, insofar as the political system made in Russia is fitting not only for our own domestic future but clearly has significant export potential. There already is demand for it or for its separate components. Its experience is instructive and has been partially adopted. In many countries, it is imitated by those in power or by opposition groups,
Foreign politicians ascribe to Russia interference in elections and referendums throughout the entire planet. In reality, it’s much more serious. Russia does interfere, but it’s with these politicians’ brains, and they don’t know what to do with their own changed consciousness.
West European and American experts began more and more frequently to err in their prognoses since that time following the 90s, when our country refused to take ideology on loan, began to produce its own idea structures, and crossed over to informational counterattack. Western experts are amazed and enraged by the paranormal preference of our electorate. These experts have totally lost it and perceive an invasion of populism. You could call it that, if you have no other words for it.
At the same time, foreign interest in the Russian political algorithm is understandable. They have no prophet in their homelands, and Russia long ago prophesied everything that is happening to them now.
When everyone was still wild about globalization and making noise about a flat world with no boundaries, Moscow pointedly reminded them that sovereignty and national interests have significance. We were accused of “naive” adherence to these old ideas, purportedly long since having gone out of fashion. We were instructed not to cling to the values of the 19th century. We were told we must courageously stride into the 21st century where, supposedly, there would be no sovereign nations or national states.
The 21st century, however, turned out our way. English Brexit, American #greatagain, the anti-immigration closure of Europe — these are the first points of a long list of worldwide instances of deglobalization, resovereignization, and nationalism.
When, on every corner they praised the Internet as an untouchable expanse of unlimited freedom where everyone supposedly could be equal, it was Russia that posed the sobering question to an intoxicated mankind: “But who are we in the world wide web: spiders or flies?”
And today everyone, including the most freedom-loving bureaucrats, is rushing to unravel the Net and to accuse Facebook of abetting foreign interference. The once free, virtual expanse, touted as the prototype of heaven to come, has been taken over and cordoned off by cyber police and cyber criminals, cyber armies and cyber spies, cyber terrorists and cyber moralists.
At a time when no one disputed the hegemony of the “hegemon” and the great American dream of world rule had already almost come to pass, a time when many believed they saw the end of history and heard the final line, “the people say nothing,” a time when tranquility seemed about to descend, the Munich speech suddenly and piercingly rang out. At that time, it seemed dissident. Today everything in it seems self-evident. Everyone is dissatisfied with America, including the Americans themselves.
The term “derin devlet” from the Turkish political vocabulary, a term little known not long ago, has been translated into English as the “deep state,” been broadcast by the American media, and from there began to be dispersed by our own mass media. In Russian it’s expressed as glubokoe or glubinnoe state.
The term signifies an absolutely undemocratic network of organizations of real power structures that remain hidden from the external democratic institutions that are put on for show. It is a mechanism hidden deep beneath the surface of civil society, which, in practice, acts by means of violence, bribery and manipulation while, in word, hypocritically and simplistically condemning the same.
Americans, by the way, discovered this unpleasant “deep state” inside and amidst their government but were not especially surprised, since they had long guessed its presence. If there are a Deep Net and a Dark Net, then why couldn’t there be a deep state and even a dark state? From the depths and darkness, this unpublicized and unadvertised power pours forth shining mirages of democracy prepared for the broad masses: the illusion of choice, the sense of freedom, the feeling of superiority, and such.
Distrust and envy, used by democracies as priority sources of social energy, necessarily lead to the polarization of criticism and raise the level of alarm. Haters, trolls and their evil bots formed into a shrieking majority and crowded the esteemed middle class, which conducts itself in a completely different tone, out of the dominant position.
No one believes any longer now in the good intentions of public politicians. They are envied and therefore considered vicious, crafty, and even outright bastards. Famous political serials from Boss to House of Cards portray naturalistic scenes of the murky everyday lives of the establishment.
You can’t let a bastard go too far for the simple reason that he’s a bastard. But when there is no one but — presumably — bastards around, one has to use bastards to restrain the other bastards. Fight fire with fire. One bastard takes out the other...
We have a wide selection of scoundrels, and tangled rules for the purpose of bringing them into conflict with each other to more or less a standoff. Thus arises the beneficent system of checks and balances, the dynamic equilibrium of mean-heartedness, the balance of greed, the harmony of petty corruption. If one side nonetheless comes out on top and behaves unharmoniously, the watchful deep state hastens to the rescue and with an invisible hand drags the apostate to the bottom.
There is, in fact, nothing frightening in this proposed depiction of Western democracy. It’s sufficient to change the perspective just a little, and it is no longer frightening. But some sediment remains, and the Western citizen’s head begins to spin when he searches for other ways and means of existence. And he sees Russia.
Of course, our system, like everything of ours, looks less elegant, but more honest. And though not everyone considers the words “more honest” to mean “better,” these words are not bereft of attractiveness.
Our state is not divided into deep and surface. It is built as a whole with all its parts and manifestations in view. The most brutal constructs of its power are displayed on the facade and not covered by any architectural embellishments. Our bureaucrats, even when up to no good, are not overly painstaking about hiding it, as if the idea were: “it doesn’t matter, everyone gets it.”
The tremendous internal stress of holding enormous heterogeneous expanses, and the continuous state of being in the thick of geopolitical struggle, make the military and police functions of state the most important and decisive. In Russia, these functions are traditionally not hidden but, on the contrary, demonstrate to what extent the country has almost never been governed by merchants. The exceptions: a few months in 1917 and a few years in the 1990s. We have almost never been governed by merchants who consider military affairs less important than commerce, or by the liberals who accompany the merchants and whose teaching is built on the negation of everything even slightly related to the police.
There was no one to mask truth with illusions, to modestly lower the priority and further hide the immanent characteristic of any state: to be an instrument of defense and attack.
There is no deep state in Russia. It’s all on view. But what we do have is a “deep people.”
Century after century, the elite sparkles on the shiny surface, actively (we must give them their due) involving the people in certain of their undertakings: party gatherings, wars, elections, economic experiments. The people participate in these undertakings but in a somewhat detached manner, not showing themselves on the surface but living a completely different life in their own depths. These two national lives, superficial and deep, sometimes play out in different directions, sometimes in matching directions, but they never merge into one.
The deep people has a mind of its own, inaccessible to sociological polls, agitation, threats, and other means of direct study and influence. Comprehension of who the people are, what they think and want, often comes abruptly and too late, and not to those who could do something about it.
It’s a rare sociologist who attempts precisely to define whether the deep people is equivalent to the population as a whole or only part of it and, if a part, then what part exactly? Some have “searched” for the people, “gone back” to the people, called them godly and the opposite. At times it was decided that the people is imaginary and does not exist in reality. At times, galloping reforms have been instituted without a glance at the people. But these reforms quickly smashed their forehead against the people, leading to the conclusion that there is something there after all. The people have more than once backed away under pressure from internal or foreign raiders, but the people have always returned.
With its gigantic super-mass, the deep people are the source of an invincibly powerful cultural gravity that unifies the nation and pulls (or presses) the elite to the (home) land when this elite, from time to time, attempts to soar into the transnational.
The consciousness of being a people, no matter what that means, precedes statehood, predefines its form, limits the fantasies of its theoreticians, and forces its practitioners into defined steps. The awareness of being a people is a powerful attractor, to which all political trajectories inevitably lead without exception. In Russia, you can start with whatever you like, with conservatism, with socialism, with liberalism, and you’ll end up with more or less the same thing, i.e., with what actually is.
The ability to hear and understand the people, to see the people through to its depths, and to act accordingly, is the unique and most important merit of the Putin government. The people find it adequate. They’re on the same path and, therefore, not subject to destructive overloads from currents of history when they are encountered. Consequently, the Putin government is effective and lasting.
Under this new system, all government institutions are subordinated to a basic goal: trustworthy communication and interaction between the leader and the citizens. The various branches of power converge in the person of the leader. The branches are not considered of value in themselves, but only to the degree that they maintain contact with the leader.
Aside from official lines of communication, there are informal channels that work quite well and bypass formal structures and elite groups. When stupidity, backwardness or corruption disrupt communication with the people, energetic measures are taken to restore the lines.
We have, at times, borrowed multi-leveled political institutions from the West, but we consider them partly ritualistic. They help us appear to be more “like everyone else,” so that the different nature of our political culture is not so conspicuous, and does not aggravate or frighten the West. These borrowed institutions are like formal clothes that you put on when visiting others. At home, we dress casually. Each person knows for himself what to wear.
In its essence, society trusts only the first person. Is it from pride that a people who have never been conquered would desire to straighten the path of truth in a different way? It’s difficult to say, but the people’s desire is a fact and not a new one. What’s new is that the state does not ignore this fact, but studies it and proceeds anew from it.
It would be overly simplistic to reduce this topic to the notorious “faith in the benevolent Tsar.” The deep people is by no means naive and scarcely considers benevolence a good thing in a Tsar. Better for the people to consider a good leader one who is, as Einstein said of God: “Sophisticated but not malicious.”
The contemporary model of the Russian state begins with trust and supports itself on trust. This trust is its strength and its root distinction from the Western model, which cultivates distrust and criticism.
Our new state in this new century will have a long and glorious history. It will not break. It will act in its own way. It will be a medal winner in the major league of geopolitical struggle. Sooner or later, everyone who demands that Russia “change its behavior” is going to have to reconcile themselves to this behavior. For indeed, it only seems to us that we have a choice.
Translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler