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13.6.18

Without Sky

by Natan Dubovitsky

Vladislav Surkov was born Aslambek Andarbekovich Dudayev in the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic and later changed his name to Vladimir Surkov. He is a Russian businessman, former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and current close advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Under the pen name Dubovitsky, Surkov has published a number of works of science fiction, including the “gangsta fiction” novel Okolonolya (“Near Zero”). Surkov initially denied that he was the author of Okolonolya and wrote a preface to the novel stating, “The author of this novel is an unoriginal, Hamlet-obsessed hack.” Surkov was subsequently discovered to be, in fact, the author.
He is one of the Russian government officials recently sanctioned by President Obama. The Guardian quoted his reaction: “The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”
“Without Sky” is a science fiction short story, first published as an annex to the magazine Russian Pioneer, No 46 (May 2014).

There was no sky over our village. That’s why we went to the city to watch the moon and birds, on the other side of the river. The people in the city were not thrilled to have us, but they did not try to stop us. On one of the hills, where the brick church stood, they even built an observation platform. Since for some reason they considered us drinkers, in addition to benches and a pay telescope, they built a small tavern by the observation deck, and a police post.
I could understand the city people. They had suffered greatly from the rage and envy of newcomers. And though it was insulting that they considered us - their closest neighbors, almost city people ourselves - intruders, still, we could understand them. And after all, they understood us. They didn’t drive us away. No matter what they wrote on their websites, they didn’t drive us away.
Everyone understood, if they were honest, that it was not our fault we were left with no sky. On the contrary, it was a great honor for us, in a way. The marshals of the four coalitions chose our sky for their decisive battle because the sky over our village was the best in the world: calm and cloudless. The sun flowed through our sky like a wide, peaceful river. I remember them well, the sun and the sky. The marshals found this place ideal for the final battle. It’s not surprising. This was when all armies were airborne, and here there were no clouds, no turbulence. It was perfect.
This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.
And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state - took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.
The goals of those in conflict were quite varied. Each had his own, so to speak: the seizing of disputed pieces of territory; the forced establishment of a new religion; higher ratings or rates; the testing of new military rays and airships; the final ban on separating people into male and female, since sexual differentiation undermines the unity of the nation; and so forth.
The simple-hearted commanders of the past strove for victory. Now they did not act so stupidly. That is, some, of course, still clung to the old habits and tried to exhume from the archives old slogans of the type: victory will be ours. It worked in some places, but basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.
Some peoples joined the war specifically to be defeated. They were inspired by the flowering of Germany and France after being routed in the second World War. It turned out that to achieve such a defeat was no simpler than achieving victory. Determination, sacrifice, and the extraordinary exertion of all forces were required, and, in addition, flexibility, cold-bloodedness, and the ability to profitably administer one’s own cowardice and dullness.
But all of this was realized and analyzed later by historians and economists. Then, it was just war, World War V, and rather horrifying. I was six. We were all six or younger, all who today enter the Society, who are thirty years old now. We remember how, from the four corners of our sky, the four great armadas swooped down. These were not roaring, screeching and howling airborne apparatus of the old kind, as we had become used to seeing in the video-archives. For the first time, the newest, absolutely silent technology was employed, with some kind of invisible systems of complete noise reduction.
Hundreds of thousands of airplanes, helicopters, and rockets destroyed each other throughout a day in the silence of the tomb. Even falling, they were silent. Sometimes dying pilots screamed out, but rarely, because almost all of the machines were pilotless.
At that time, automatic machinery was being hurriedly brought into general use, and not only in the field of transportation. They introduced hotels without staff, stores without sales people, homes without masters, financial and industrial firms without directors. Even a couple of “pilotless” governments were organized as a result of democratic revolutions, so airplanes were nothing to speak of.
As a result, there was no one to scream while crashing onto roofs, bridges and monuments. The only sound was the cracking and crackling of our homes as they were destroyed beneath the rain of falling debris. And it wasn’t loud. The systems of sound reduction were effective across almost the complete depth of the battlefield.
Our parents tried to shelter us in the city. Above the city, the sky was clear, but the city people closed the city. Our parents cried for help from our side of the river. They begged them to at least take the children, at least those younger than ten, or seven, or three. Or younger than one year old. Or only the girls. And so forth. The city people did not open the city, and we children could understand them. We understood our parents, too, of course, including my own.
My father said: they won’t let us in. We have to dig down. We burrowed into the riverbank sand, in a minute’s time, it seemed. Everyone did, even the fattest and oldest of us. People don’t know themselves well. It might seem strange, but we are, in fact, much more nimble and intelligent than worms. One detail: it was winter. Freezing. The sand was hard.
Mama and Papa burrowed in together with me. They were warm and soft. Papa, a brave and clever man, brought some of my favorite candy from the house with him, a full pocket. And Mama bought my handheld game player. With it, I was happy and not bored in our burrow, so my time passed splendidly. The tail of an airplane fell on us, towards evening.
The fighter aircraft of the Northern Coalition were super-light, made of almost weightless materials. Even if an entire one of these fighters fell on us, the whole airplane, it would not have caused us serious harm. And Papa had dug us in pretty deep.
The place where we were hidden attracted the tail of another airplane. Unfortunately, it was an attack aircraft of the Southeastern League, an older plane, relatively silent, but heavy. Our burrow was deep, but not as deep as the tail of the attack fighter was heavy. The sand above us was frozen solid, but all the same, it was sand, not concrete, not steel, not the shawl of Our Lady: sand. And sand is not steel. I learned this well then, once and for all. And to this day, wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me: Is sand steel or not? I will answer: No! On the run, not pausing for a minute to think, not doubting. No.
I lay between Mama and Papa and didn’t hear the blow. It’s possible that Papa made some funny quacking sound when the excessive weight crushed him, or he swore coarsely. One time he had yelled out something of the sort in front of me and frightened me.
It’s possible that my mother also let out some kind of sound, but not necessarily. I’m not sure she even had time for a guilty smile, like the one she always had when something unpleasant happened to Papa or me. I hope it wasn’t painful.
They were killed. I wasn’t. Death wound round their bodies but didn’t reach mine. My brain was just touched by its black and stifling presence. Something boiled out of my brain and evaporated: the third dimension, height.
When they dug me out in the morning, chilled to the bone because my parents had quickly grown cold and become like the sand, I saw a two-dimensional world, endless in length and width, but without height. Without sky. Where is it, I asked? It’s right there, they answered. I don’t see it, don’t see it! I became frightened.
They gave me treatment, but didn’t cure me. This kind of contusion, severe, can’t be cured. The tail of the attack fighter crushed my consciousness into a pancake. It became flat and simple. What do I see in place of the sky above our village? Nothing. What does it look like? What does it resemble? It looks like nothing, resembles nothing. It’s not that this is incommunicable, inexpressible. There’s nothing of that. There’s just nothing.
After the war there were about fifty other cripples like me. All of us, the two-dimensionals, turned out to be the same age. Why? No one knew. The city scientists dug around in our consciousness for a while. They wrote a few treatises. They dragged us around to symposiums and talk-shows. Several foundations were organized on our behalf. Laughing at us was forbidden by a special law. They built an observation platform for us and a charitable institution. Then we went out of fashion and they forgot all about us.
If it was only that we didn’t see the sky above our village, that would be nothing, but our very thoughts lost the concept of height. We became two-dimensional. We understood only “yes” and “no,” only “black” and “white.” There was no ambiguity, no half-tones, no saving graces. We did not know how to lie.
We understood everything literally, and that meant we were absolutely unsuited for life, helpless. We required constant care, but they abandoned us. They wouldn’t let us work. They wouldn’t pay us a disability pension. Many of us deteriorated, fell and perished. The rest of us organized ourselves to stay afloat, to save ourselves together or perish together.
We founded the Society and prepared a revolt of the simple, two-dimensionals against the complex and sly, against those who do not answer “yes” or “no,” who do not say “white” or “black,” who know some third word, many, many third words, empty, deceptive, confusing the way, obscuring the truth. In these shadows and spider webs, in these false complexities, hide and multiply all the villainies of the world. They are the House of Satan. That’s where they make bombs and money, saying: “Here’s money for the good of the honest; here are bombs for the defense of love.”
We will come tomorrow. We will conquer or perish. There is no third way.

Translation copyright © 2014 by Bill Bowler
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Image result for "Without Sky"

Natan Dubovitsky’s “Without Sky”

by Bill Bowler


“Without Sky” describes a dystopian future. World War V is in progress. Vague and shifting factions are in armed conflict for murky reasons. The warring parties employ ultra-light, silent hi-tech aerial weaponry. The village is not attacked, but lies beneath the battlefield and is destroyed with the villagers as collateral damage.
The young protagonist’s parents are killed; he is wounded and emerges from the war with a damaged consciousness. As a result of his injury, he has become a “two-dimensional” and can only perceive in two dimensions: length/width, good/bad, black/white, lie/truth.
The narrative is fairly simple and straightforward but tells the story on two levels: the personal and the general.
On the personal level, the level of drama and pathos, the story depicts the suffering of a child during war and the changes wrought upon his psyche by physical violence. This level of the story is intimate, dramatic, and small-scale. There is only one developed character, the protagonist-narrator, and two secondary characters, his parents.
On the generalized level, the level of society, of philosophy and ideology, the story takes a broader view and depicts events affecting a host of tertiary characters who are represented as types or groups: “villagers,” “city dwellers,” “scientists,” “historians,” “economists.”
Peopled with these “types,” the story acquires a fairytale, allegorical quality. This quality is reinforced insofar as events on the personal level are depicted in the same fairytale plane: the protagonist wants to see the moon, but the sky is blocked. When threatened, he hides in the sand. When wounded, his “damaged” mind can see only truth or lies, nothing in between.
Woven into this fairy tale is a prominent thread of “Realistic” contemporary political ideology and military theory:
This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.
And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state - took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.
This description of “non-linear war” parallels the current situation in Ukraine as seen from a Russian point of view, with individual regions like Crimea, and cities within regions, like Donetsk and Lugansk, splitting into opposing factions.
In fact, the non-linear war model seems applicable generally to civil wars, such as the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq, for example. Even the contemporary issue of Gay Rights, for which Russia has recently come under criticism, is raised obliquely, with reference to individual sexes from the same state taking different sides in the conflict.
“Without Sky” also develops a theory of war:
Some peoples joined the war specifically to be defeated. They were inspired by the flowering of Germany and France after being routed in the second World War. It turned out that to achieve such a defeat was no simpler than achieving victory. Determination, sacrifice, and the extraordinary exertion of all forces were required, and, in addition, flexibility, cold-bloodedness, and the ability to profitably administer one’s own cowardice and dullness.
War was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.
The author here employs irony and satire: fighting a war to achieve defeat. Moreover, war is no longer waged to achieve victory or defeat but is part of a process. And what is the most important part of the process, if not winning? The reader is left to draw his own conclusions, but the passage seems an ironic commentary on modern war, endless and profitable, where unlimited continuation of the conflict brings advantage to some parties, and victory can be had by simple declaration.
The rubbery nature of war and victory described by Dubovitsky brings to mind General Westmoreland’s famous exchange with General Giap. To Westmoreland’s plaintive claim that during the Tet Offensive, the Americans had won every battle, Giap replied yes, but it didn’t matter because public perceptions were changed. American soldiers drove back the enemy, but American public opinion ceased supporting the war and increasingly felt it was not worth the cost.
American and Vietnamese public opinions were locked, as it were, in a virtual conflict that ran parallel to the battlefield engagements. The stream of official propaganda issued by the American government failed to achieve the desired effect, undercut perhaps by the daily video coverage of bloody and gruesome combat that ran each night on the TV news.
Dubovitsky’s suggestion that war may not be the most important part of the process references the idea, originated by Von Clausewitz in the 19th century, that every military conflict is accompanied by an equally important propaganda war. “Without Sky” unmasks the potentially secondary nature of the shooting war but at the same time, the story itself can be construed as a work of propaganda accompanying the current shooting in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The ending of “Without Sky” hammers home the political content. “Without Sky” becomes a story not of drama and pathos, not of personal loss, but of the political awakening of the young protagonist, a theme exemplified in Soviet mainstream literature by Gorky’s “Mother” and N. Ostrovsky’s classic, “How the Steel was Tempered.”
We founded the Society and prepared a revolt of the simple, two-dimensionals against the complex and sly, against those who do not answer “yes” or “no”, who do not say “white” or “black”, who know some third word, many, many third words, empty, deceptive, confusing the way, obscuring the truth. In these shadows and spider webs, in these false complexities, hide and multiply all the villainies of the world. They are the House of Satan. That’s where they make bombs and money, saying: “Here’s money for the good of the honest; here are bombs for the defense of love.”
We will come tomorrow. We will conquer, or perish. There is no third way.
What, in the end, is one to make of all this?
Russian and Soviet literature enjoy a long tradition of political science fiction, a tradition that can be traced to Zamyatin’s revolutionary We; that encompasses Ivan Efremov’s Communist Utopian Andromeda Nebula; that runs through the works of the Strugatsky Brothers — early Communist idealists (The Land of Purple Clouds) and later, doubting skeptics (Inhabited IslandRoadside Picnic); a tradition that continues into the contemporary period in the works of Russian science fiction authors such as Oleg Divov with his post-Soviet dystopian vision Vybrakovka (The Culling). “Without Sky” continues this tradition and represents a rather interesting current specimen of the genre.
As the work of Natan Dubovitsky, i.e., Vladislav Surkov, former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and a close advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Without Sky” takes on added significance. The story portrays, in fictional form, Surkov’s view of Russia’s current place in the world, and the nature, causes and goals of the shifting and amorphous conflicts facing Russia today. As such, the story provides insight into the current geo-political thinking, i.e., the point of view, of at least one high level and influential Russian government official.
Although the thematics of “Without Sky” provide some propagandistic value — the story, after all, was published in Russian Pioneer, a patriotic Boy Scout-like organization of young adults — the author’s use of satire, irony, humor and especially ambiguity bring added dimensions to the narrative, and lift it into the richer and more entertaining realm of art.


Another Commentary on "Without Sky"

by Brian L. Steed


I first read “Without Sky” nearly a year and a half ago. I was directed to the short story through several different articles dealing with the Russian conceptualization of modern warfare. I found the story online. The first reading was confusing: What is this “without sky” concept and how can it actually work? On a second reading, I began to see tremendous insight into Russian thought on conflict.
For me, the story’s value was well beyond the science fiction. Part of the value is in the commentary on the nature of war. The connection of the author, Natan Dubovitsky (real name: Vladislav Surkov) and Russian President Vladimir Putin was important as well; Surkov is reportedly a close advisor.
For the last two class years, I have asked my U.S. Army Command and General Staff College students to read “Without Sky,” and we have discussed possible meanings and interpretations. The discussion has proven to be illuminating. What follows is an adaptation of that discussion. I am including the text of the story with my commentary interspersed.
There was no sky over our village. That’s why we went to the city to watch the moon and birds, on the other side of the river. The people in the city were not thrilled to have us, but they did not try to stop us. On one of the hills, where the brick church stood, they even built an observation platform. Since for some reason they considered us drinkers, in addition to benches and a pay telescope, they built a small tavern by the observation deck, and a police post.
The early paragraphs set the stage for the main character. He is the voice of a broader community of people who are left without sky. Later on, the author explains that these victims can see only in two dimensions. Something about the nature of the fighting and the weapons used have created this transformation in perspective in those who lived beneath the sky in which the massive battle took place.
The two-dimensional perspective is also expressed in terms of yes and no, a sort of conceptual black or white appreciation of the world rather than simply a spatial limitation. I believe that the author is making a statement about the Russians’ being “without sky” — the simple people who are being kept out, and the West being the city — the civilization to which those without sky are being denied entry.
I could understand the city people. They had suffered greatly from the rage and envy of newcomers. And though it was insulting that they considered us — their closest neighbors, almost city people ourselves — intruders, still, we could understand them. And after all, they understood us. They didn’t drive us away. No matter what they wrote on their websites, they didn't drive us away.
Everyone understood, if they were honest, that it was not our fault we were left with no sky. On the contrary, it was a great honor for us, in a way. The marshals of the four coalitions chose our sky for their decisive battle because the sky over our village was the best in the world: calm and cloudless. The sun flowed through our sky like a wide, peaceful river. I remember them well, the sun and the sky. The marshals found this place ideal for the final battle. It’s not surprising. This was when all armies were airborne, and here there were no clouds, no turbulence. It was perfect.
In this science fiction oddity, it is easy to miss the comment on current and future evolving conflict: it is all aerial. This comment is reminiscent of theories developed and promulgated by thinkers like Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell during the 1920s and 1930s. They proposed that the development of aircraft capability would make armies and navies irrelevant. In a world where all combat is in the air, then the air quality matters as the author notes.
The final point of note in these opening paragraphs is that the war was between four coalitions:
This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.
The coalitions are morphing before and during the conflict. There is no linearity to combatants, objectives, or actions. When the author states that this is the first non-linear war, he is not referring to the geography or geometry alone. He is also referring to the personal relationships, organizational associations, and political/military objectives.
The commentary on contemporary war begins as he describes the primitive wars of the reader’s current era, when war was fought between two sides or two “temporary alliances.” In “Without Sky” the war was all against all.
And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state — took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.
The greatest complexity was the nature of combatants. They didn’t enter the war as a singular intact state. Rather, the states were divided in the conflict, since provinces, cities, generations, sexes, and professional societies could each take a side and even switch sides during the fighting into “any camp you like.” Here the author pokes fun at the West and its seemingly confusing gender issues. He will do this again in his following paragraph.
The author places emphasis on the role of corporations as well as pointing out the important role of non-state actors. I think that “professional societies” alludes to the critical role of business and business-like groups in promoting and sustaining conflict. The reference to generations gives insight into the emphasis of the Russian information apparatus to weaken trust in institutions across the West such that there are significant differences in generational perspectives of sources and definitions of truth.
The goals of those in conflict were quite varied. Each had his own, so to speak: the seizing of disputed pieces of territory; the forced establishment of a new religion; higher ratings or rates; the testing of new military rays and airships; the final ban on separating people into male and female, since sexual differentiation undermines the unity of the nation; and so forth.
If the ever-changing coalitions were confusing, then so were the goals. Here the author pokes the West again for its constantly changing expectations from war: was the war over weapons, or security, or resources? It is unclear. One could see in this story the confusion over U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, although involvement in Syria was rather new in 2014, when the story was first written.
The author lists several goals. One can see the reference to the perceived importance of Western media and business in the nod toward ratings and rates. The author places further emphasis on the role of industry in promoting war as he alludes to the use of the conflict as a testing ground for new military hardware. He gives another reference to gender issues by expressing it in an extreme position. It is worth noting that poking the West over gender-related issues is also done by ISIS in their video “And No Respite.”
The simple-hearted commanders of the past strove for victory. Now they did not act so stupidly. That is, some, of course, still clung to the old habits and tried to exhume from the archives old slogans of the type: victory will be ours. It worked in some places, but basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.
The author expresses that in contemporary conflict there is no victory. Only a simpleton would seek such a thing today. No surrender documents. No parades and ceremonies. One might argue that there is only the promotion of interests and influence. U.S. military doctrine uses a five-phase approach to understanding conflict, with actual combat coming in phase three. In essence, U.S. doctrine and “Without Sky” agree that the acute phase of war is only a particular part of the process of contemporary war.
Some peoples joined the war specifically to be defeated. They were inspired by the flowering of Germany and France after being routed in the second World War. It turned out that to achieve such a defeat was no simpler than achieving victory. Determination, sacrifice, and the extraordinary exertion of all forces were required, and, in addition, flexibility, cold-bloodedness, and the ability to profitably administer one’s own cowardice and dullness.
The 1959 movie The Mouse that Roared was a comedy with Peter Sellers about a very small country that sought to fight a war with the United States in order to be defeated and then rebuilt along the lines of the Marshall Plan. What the author of “Without Sky” suggests is that such behavior may be done in all seriousness. He also suggests that winning and losing are difficult in the kinds of “forever wars” that will exist in “Without Sky.” To win wars or even to lose them requires a Machiavellian cunning and willingness to commit and sacrifice in favor of the effort.
But all of this was realized and analyzed later by historians and economists. Then, it was just war, World War V, and rather horrifying. I was six. We were all six or younger, all who today enter the Society, who are thirty years old now. We remember how, from the four corners of our sky, the four great armadas swooped down. These were not roaring, screeching and howling airborne apparatus of the old kind, as we had become used to seeing in the video-archives. For the first time, the newest, absolutely silent technology was employed, with some kind of invisible systems of complete noise reduction.
Hundreds of thousands of airplanes, helicopters, and rockets destroyed each other throughout a day in the silence of the tomb. Even falling, they were silent. Sometimes dying pilots screamed out, but rarely, because almost all of the machines were pilotless.
At that time, automatic machinery was being hurriedly brought into general use, and not only in the field of transportation. They introduced hotels without staff, stores without sales people, homes without masters, financial and industrial firms without directors. Even a couple of “pilotless” governments were organized as a result of democratic revolutions, so airplanes were nothing to speak of.
As a result, there was no one to scream while crashing onto roofs, bridges and monuments. The only sound was the cracking and crackling of our homes as they were destroyed beneath the rain of falling debris. And it wasn’t loud. The systems of sound reduction were effective across almost the complete depth of the battlefield.
What were World War III and IV? One might consider the Global War on Terrorism to be World War III, but this suggests another sort of war between our time and the time of the short story.
I suggest that one needs to divorce oneself from the author’s reference to aircraft when considering the silence of present and future wars. Russia was able to invade Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 in near silence. Almost none of the daily events of the fighting against ISIS gets coverage in the media. War is effectively silent today except for those unfortunate enough to be crushed by the weight of the action.
The final form of silent warfare is cyberwar. Robots are silent. I know that many Air Force officers will argue that drones are not robots but, as far as the conflict area goes, they are effectively the same.
The increased use of self-driving cars and other autonomous systems for life and lifestyle are important to the societal commentary — what is life when no person does the activities of living? Is it life at all? Is it war if no one is doing the fighting and dying except for those poor victims who might be characterized as nothing more than collateral damage?
Our parents tried to shelter us in the city. Above the city, the sky was clear, but the city people closed the city. Our parents cried for help from our side of the river. They begged them to at least take the children, at least those younger than ten, or seven, or three. Or younger than one year old. Or only the girls. And so forth. The city people did not open the city, and we children could understand them. We understood our parents, too, of course, including my own.
My father said: they won’t let us in. We have to dig down. We burrowed into the riverbank sand, in a minute’s time, it seemed. Everyone did, even the fattest and oldest of us. People don’t know themselves well. It might seem strange, but we are, in fact, much more nimble and intelligent than worms. One detail: it was winter. Freezing. The sand was hard.
It is difficult when reading this paragraph not to think about the people in Syria, Eastern Ukraine, Mosul, and the Sahel region of Africa, who are effectively shut out of the cities of the West and the homes and personal devices of all the “civilized” people of the world. Those poor people are left to dig out their own shelter and protection within the challenges of the conflict zone. This connects back to the “silent” nature of modern warfare.
George Berkeley (1685-1753), the Bishop of Cloyne and a well-known Irish philosopher, posited the question that has morphed into: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Here, “Without Sky” asks a version of that question by suggesting that if one does not perceive the suffering, then it does not actually exist.
Mama and Papa burrowed in together with me. They were warm and soft. Papa, a brave and clever man, brought some of my favorite candy from the house with him, a full pocket. And Mama bought my handheld game player. With it, I was happy and not bored in our burrow, so my time passed splendidly. The tail of an airplane fell on us, towards evening.
The fighter aircraft of the Northern Coalition were super-light, made of almost weightless materials. Even if an entire one of these fighters fell on us, the whole airplane, it would not have caused us serious harm. And Papa had dug us in pretty deep.
The place where we were hidden attracted the tail of another airplane. Unfortunately, it was an attack aircraft of the Southeastern League, an older plane, relatively silent, but heavy. Our burrow was deep, but not as deep as the tail of the attack fighter was heavy. The sand above us was frozen solid, but all the same, it was sand, not concrete, not steel, not the shawl of Our Lady: sand. And sand is not steel. I learned this well then, once and for all. And to this day, wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me: Is sand steel or not? I will answer: No! On the run, not pausing for a minute to think, not doubting. No.
I lay between Mama and Papa and didn’t hear the blow. It’s possible that Papa made some funny quacking sound when the excessive weight crushed him, or he swore coarsely. One time he had yelled out something of the sort in front of me and frightened me.
It’s possible that my mother also let out some kind of sound, but not necessarily. I’m not sure she even had time for a guilty smile, like the one she always had when something unpleasant happened to Papa or me. I hope it wasn’t painful.
They were killed. I wasn’t. Death wound round their bodies but didn’t reach mine. My brain was just touched by its black and stifling presence. Something boiled out of my brain and evaporated: the third dimension, height.
What is happening to the children in present conflict zones? Are they suffering the boiling of their third dimension? As one reads further, that dimension is more than a spatial conception. It is also the ability to appreciate the details of life — the treasures of the Enlightenment or the scientific revolution or the benefits of a liberal arts education. The poetry of this story can help one consider the tragedies and opportunities of present conflict. The children living in the refugee camps in whatever country where they reside present the possibility to engage with the future country. They are a time machine: the ability to change something that hasn’t happened yet. The unfortunate reality is that we view these children as the present. In ten years, these same people will either be friends or enemies of the West.
When they dug me out in the morning, chilled to the bone because my parents had quickly grown cold and become like the sand, I saw a two-dimensional world, endless in length and width, but without height. Without sky. Where is it, I asked? It’s right there, they answered. I don’t see it, don’t see it! I became frightened.
They gave me treatment, but didn’t cure me. This kind of contusion, severe, can’t be cured. The tail of the attack fighter crushed my consciousness into a pancake. It became flat and simple. What do I see in place of the sky above our village? Nothing. What does it look like? What does it resemble? It looks like nothing, resembles nothing. It’s not that this is incommunicable, inexpressible. There’s nothing of that. There’s just nothing.
After the war there were about fifty other cripples like me. All of us, the two-dimensionals, turned out to be the same age. Why? No one knew. The city scientists dug around in our consciousness for a while. They wrote a few treatises. They dragged us around to symposiums and talk-shows. Several foundations were organized on our behalf. Laughing at us was forbidden by a special law. They built an observation platform for us and a charitable institution. Then we went out of fashion and they forgot all about us.
The West was horrified by the image of a dead Syrian child on a Turkish beach in September 2015. For several months refugee policies, the attitudes of national leaders, and the emotions of populations changed. Just as with the two-dimensionals, so it was with the refugees: the interest in what made them different from those of us “in the city” or, more accurately, in the West, faded as the refugees “went out of fashion.”
If it was only that we didn’t see the sky above our village, that would be nothing, but our very thoughts lost the concept of height. We became two-dimensional. We understood only “yes” and “no,” only “black” and “white.” There was no ambiguity, no half-tones, no saving graces. We did not know how to lie.
We understood everything literally, and that meant we were absolutely unsuited for life, helpless. We required constant care, but they abandoned us. They wouldn’t let us work. They wouldn’t pay us a disability pension. Many of us deteriorated, fell and perished. The rest of us organized ourselves to stay afloat, to save ourselves together or perish together.
We founded the Society and prepared a revolt of the simple, two-dimensionals against the complex and sly, against those who do not answer “yes” or “no,” who do not say “white” or “black,” who know some third word, many, many third words, empty, deceptive, confusing the way, obscuring the truth. In these shadows and spider webs, in these false complexities, hide and multiply all the villainies of the world. They are the House of Satan. That’s where they make bombs and money, saying: “Here’s money for the good of the honest; here are bombs for the defense of love.”
We will come tomorrow. We will conquer or perish. There is no third way.
The final portion of this story is the most frightening if this is, in fact, how the author views the West. We are the three-dimensional people. We use words without hard meaning. We believe in ways of conflict that aren’t conflict — lawfare or media operations or information operations.
Much has been said and written of the Gerasimov Doctrine. Supposedly, the senior Russian military officer expressed a conception of a new way of warfare that is dominated by information and deception. The important point is that the Russians believe that the West started this non-war warfare.
If one reads The Management of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji, then one will see a reference to a media halo. The idea that there is a false conception of reality created by the media environment. Abu Bakr Naji states that destroying this media halo is essential to defeating the West. Essentially, the author of “Without Sky” is making a similar argument. This falseness of conflict needs to be returned to the simplicity of power versus weakness: the Melian Dialogue where might is right.
I am uncertain how much this short story reflects the thinking and intentions of Russian leadership. It may simply be fiction. However, the references to actions and means of behavior that are observable in the present give one pause for consideration. I strongly encourage everyone to read and consider the meaning and possible ramifications for the present and future of conflict.



Can the Kremlin's Bizarre Sci-Fi Stories Tell Us What Russia Really Wants?

Yuliya Komska




View of the Kremlin from the Moscow River. (Photo: Минеева Ю. (Julmin)/Wikimedia Commons)
View of the Kremlin from the Moscow River. (Photo: Минеева Ю. (Julmin)/Wikimedia Commons)
You might recognize Vladislav Surkov—Mikhail Khodorkovsky's one-time PR manager, Vladimir Putin's presidential aide, and mentor to the Commonwealth of Independent States’ young diplomatic corps—as a proud recipient of "a political Oscar award from U.S. for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role." This is how he described the recent American sanctions against him and other top Russian officials. But mind you, Surkov could be lining up for further accolades soon—how about the Russian Booker Prize or maybe even the Nobel Prize for Literature? For lack of serious competition, he is the hottest writer in the Kremlin's closest circles. And not only on Twitter, where he shares some steamy thoughts on "laughter and sex—the most beautiful things in our lives."



Alas, his actual oeuvre—since 2009, Surkov has published two novels and a story under the alias Natan Dubovitsky (his wife's last name)—does not have a ring of a Milan Kundera title. Dubovitsky's fiction is as terse as his interviews: He shies away from clauses as if they had claws. Instead, we get tweet-length sentences that would have made Leo Tolstoy break out in hives. The pithy "And so forth" or "And in general" round off his paragraphs. It looks like Dubovitsky's Twitter feed (@VSurkov), silent since April 2011, has morphed into longer works.



Despite this telegram style (or, perhaps, because of it), it is tempting to read Surkov’s words as a cipher for what Russia reallywants and how it is going to get it. Alas, looking into Putin's soul has become infinitely more difficult since George W. Bush's days. In the last month, political and historical speculations have not gotten us very far. Commentators have recently resorted to the "novel approach"—literature. If it fails, voodoo and spiritualist séances are all we have left.

"A fool, looking in a mirror, might imagine himself a wise man, but that will be ... an 'optical illusion'.... Literature is a skewed mirror, always a little distorted."

Sadly, a look through the prism of literary classics (Nikolai Gogol is Nina Khrushcheva's recommendation) often renders Russia arrested in time. An entire country shrivels down to iron-fist rulers and axe-carrying madmen—fast. So, could a contemporary like Dubovitsky help us date the century that Putin currently inhabits with greater precision? Is Dubovitsky, as Peter Pomerantsev suggests, indeed "quietly massaging in the underlying mindset that makes the Kremlin's war effort possible"—or is he just fooling around with words? Is he a prophet in his own land—or merely a politician one step ahead of the newspaper headlines? Certainly, his writing takes us beyond the stereotypes. But to attribute Brobdingnagian insights to Dubovitsky's Lilliputian sentences would be unwise.



His latest short story, "Without a Sky," seemingly begs for the "novel approach." Three pages of this science fiction potpourri deliver the whole package: The indefinitely remote future, technology, robotization, warfare, underworlds, mutants, and even a piece of sky smashed like a window—in one place only and with no detriment to the planet.



On the eve of the Crimean referendum (on March 12, to be precise), the story appeared, like Dubovitsky's other works, in the online magazine Russky Pioner (Russian Pioneer). We hear an interrupted reminiscence of a 36-year-old "two-dimensional" citizen of a rural dystopia—the Society—that is about to revolt against the shapely urbanites around it. Thirty years earlier, the Society's current residents—about 100—ended up as casualties of the "non-linear" World War V, a conflict of "everyone against everyone" fought in the air predominantly by drones. After the destruction of their bucolic village, chosen as the four warring coalitions' battlefield for its once-immaculate sky, these people grew up to be a disaffected minority, gaping nothingness above them.
Their two-dimensional thinking and vision, we learn, is the traumatic legacy of World War V. Flattened by the shot-down drone debris, the would-be members of the Society survived in frozen sand burrows to see the world as a set of simple binaries: "We understood only 'yes' and 'no'. Only 'black' and 'white'. No ambiguities. No half-tones. No equivocations. We could not lie." Unemployed and marginalized by the city folk, they get ready to rise for death or victory.
This last set of goals contrasts with the emphatic lack thereof in World War V—a standoff in which conventional war wisdom mattered little. In contrast to their counterparts from bygone eras, the Marshals of the battling coalitions were unconcerned with winning. Some, inspired by "the boom years of Germany and France" after World War II, craved defeat. Besides, the conflicting parties' ambitions had no intersections whatsoever, ranging from control over shale gas to ban against gender and sex division to improved popularity ratings. War as a process outweighed the outcome. A few impressions of this process are worth quoting:






We remember how four great Armadas flocked to our skies from four sides. These were not the roaring, whistling, and fighting aircraft of olden days… For the first time, the newest, perfectly noiseless technology was used. With some unprecedented soundproofing systems. Hundreds of thousands of planes, helicopters, and missiles annihilated each other all day long. In deathly silence. They were silent even while falling. Sometimes the pilots cried out. But rarely. Because almost all machines were automated. Generally, at the time all things automated became fashionable fast. And not only transportation means. Hotels without managers sprung up, stores without salespeople, homes without owners.
So, what can we glean from all this? Pomerantsev believes that Dubovitsky walks on the cutting edge of politics and technology—a sure sign that "it's naive to assume the Kremlin is simply stuck in a Cold War (or 19th-century) mindset." The unheard-of non-linear war is then the most telling proof of Russia's steely focus on the future. The same goes for Dubovitsky's propagation of "perpetual mobilization" and relentless scapegoating of dissenters: the Kremlin's "new political model." To an extent, Pomerantsev is right. On April 12, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced Russia’s preparations for “no-contact” warfare. Its revamped military should wield “smart,” “high-precision, long-range weapons” by 2020.



But Dubovitsky’s World War V and the oppositional camps that it breeds are not as modern as that. His future borrows a lot from the past. Coalitions built by provinces rather than countries? So Thirty Years' War. Commanders choosing a battlefield? So War and Peace. Drones? By the time World War V breaks out, they will be retired. War in the black heavens? A Cold War trope for winning the "battle for the minds" on radio frequencies (and a title of a book about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for which Pomerantsev's father has worked). Unjust war? So of-the-moment: Polls show that Russians are increasingly skeptical about just wars. Everyone fighting against everyone? A frequent sci-fi stand-in for the fear of not knowing the enemy. The story's sci-fi elements could also use an update—by the genre's standards, they are light years behind. Here we should recall that Dubovitsky is Surkov, whose Twitter name, Сурковъ, comes with a pre-Revolutionary touch: the Bolsheviks dropped the final mute "ъ" ("yer") in 1918. Novel? Not particularly.



But above all, taking sides in the story is more difficult than should be allowed. The opposition is not marked as clearly as we would expect in a fictional mirror of real-life Russia. In an interview, Surkov once declared: "They say that the opposition is useful. But what use are stupidity and lies?" Confusingly, the story's two-dimensional dissenters are incapable of lying. And anyway, should our sympathies lie with the nuanced but cold-hearted urbanites or with the undifferentiated but long-suffering members of the Society? Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? Is the revolt laudable or deplorable? Honestly, Surkov would be an even worse writer were he to spell out the answers.



Is literature an accurate mirror of life, a glimpse into Putin's soul? Not even the founder of socialist realism, Maxim Gorky, thought so. Way back in 1935, he warned that "a fool, looking in a mirror, might imagine himself a wise man, but that will be ... an 'optical illusion'.... Literature is a skewed mirror, always a little distorted." Let us keep that in mind whenever the "novel approach" tempts us and follow the news instead.


Non-Linear War

 

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.’

Comments

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n23/perry-anderson/a-ripple-of-the-polonaise It would be better, of course, if they read the whole book.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.


The Hidden Author of Putinism

Peter Pomerantsev

How Vladislav Surkov invented the new Russia
Shutterstock/Reuters/The Atlantic
“I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system,” Vladislav Surkov told us by way of introduction. On this spring day in 2013, he was wearing a white shirt and a leather jacket that was part Joy Division and part 1930s commissar. “My portfolio at the Kremlin and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernization, innovation, foreign relations, and ...”—here he pauses and smiles—“modern art.” He offers to not make a speech, instead welcoming the Ph.D. students, professors, journalists, and politicians gathered in an auditorium at the London School of Economics to pose questions and have an open discussion. After the first question, he talks for almost 45 minutes, leaving hardly any time for questions after all.
It’s his political system in miniature: democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent.
As the former deputy head of the presidential administration, later deputy prime minister and then assistant to the president on foreign affairs, Surkov has directed Russian society like one great reality show. He claps once and a new political party appears. He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth, who are trained for street battles with potential pro-democracy supporters and burn books by unpatriotic writers on Red Square. As deputy head of the administration he would meet once a week with the heads of the television channels in his Kremlin office, instructing them on whom to attack and whom to defend, who is allowed on TV and who is banned, how the president is to be presented, and the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in. Russia’s Ostankino TV presenters, instructed by Surkov, pluck a theme (oligarchs, America, the Middle East) and speak for 20 minutes, hinting, nudging, winking, insinuating, though rarely ever saying anything directly, repeating words like “them” and “the enemy” endlessly until they are imprinted on the mind.
They repeat the great mantras of the era: The president is the president of “stability,” the antithesis to the era of “confusion and twilight” in the 1990s. “Stability”—the word is repeated again and again in a myriad seemingly irrelevant contexts until it echoes and tolls like a great bell and seems to mean everything good; anyone who opposes the president is an enemy of the great God of “stability.” “Effective manager,” a term quarried from Western corporate speak, is transmuted into a term to venerate the president as the most “effective manager” of all. “Effective” becomes the raison d’être for everything: Stalin was an “effective manager” who had to make sacrifices for the sake of being “effective.” The words trickle into the streets: “Our relationship is not effective” lovers tell each other when they break up. “Effective,” “stability”: No one can quite define what they actually mean, and as the city transforms and surges, everyone senses things are the very opposite of stable, and certainly nothing is “effective,” but the way Surkov and his puppets use them the words have taken on a life of their own and act like falling axes over anyone who is in any way disloyal.
One of Surkov’s many nicknames is the “political technologist of all of Rus.” Political technologists are the new Russian name for a very old profession: viziers, gray cardinals, wizards of Oz. They first emerged in the mid-1990s, knocking on the gates of power like pied pipers, bowing low and offering their services to explain the world and whispering that they could reinvent it. They inherited a very Soviet tradition of top-down governance and tsarist practices of co-opting anti-state actors (anarchists in the 19th century, neo-Nazis and religious fanatics now), all fused with the latest thinking in television, advertising, and black PR. Their first clients were actually Russian modernizers: In 1996 the political technologists, coordinated by Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch nicknamed the “Godfather of the Kremlin” and the man who first understood the power of television in Russia, managed to win then-President Boris Yeltsin a seemingly lost election by persuading the nation that he was the only man who could save it from a return to revanchist Communism and new fascism. They produced TV scare-stories of looming pogroms and conjured fake Far Right parties, insinuating that the other candidate was a Stalinist (he was actually more a socialist democrat), to help create the mirage of a looming “red-brown” menace.
In the 21st century, the techniques of the political technologists have become centralized and systematized, coordinated out of the office of the presidential administration, where Surkov would sit behind a desk with phones bearing the names of all the “independent” party leaders, calling and directing them at any moment, day or night. The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.
* * *
Surkov is more than just a political operator. He is an aesthete who pens essays on modern art, an aficionado of gangsta rap who keeps a photo of Tupac on his desk next to that of the president.
And he is also the alleged author of a novel, Almost Zero, published in 2008 and informed by his own experiences. “Alleged” because the novel was published under the pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky; Surkov’s wife is named Natalya Dubovitskaya. Officially Surkov is the author of the preface, in which he denies being the author of the novel, then makes a point of contradicting himself: “The author of this novel is an unoriginal Hamlet-obsessed hack”; “this is the best book I have ever read.” In interviews he can come close to admitting to being the author while always pulling back from a complete confession. Whether or not he actually wrote every word of it, he has gone out of his way to associate himself with it. And it is a bestseller: the key confession of the era, the closest we might ever come to seeing inside the mind of the system.
The novel is a satire of contemporary Russia whose hero, Egor, is a corrupt PR man happy to serve anyone who’ll pay the rent. A former publisher of avant-garde poetry, he now buys texts from impoverished underground writers, then sells the rights to rich bureaucrats and gangsters with artistic ambitions, who publish them under their own names. Everyone is for sale in this world; even the most “liberal” journalists have their price. The world of PR and publishing as portrayed in the novel is dangerous. Publishing houses have their own gangs, whose members shoot each other over the rights to Nabokov and Pushkin, and the secret services infiltrate them for their own murky ends. It’s exactly the sort of book Surkov’s youth groups burn on Red Square.
Born in provincial Russia to a single mother, Egor grows up as a bookish hipster disenchanted with the late Soviet Union’s sham ideology. In the 1980s he moves to Moscow to hang out on the fringes of the bohemian set; in the 1990s he becomes a PR guru. It’s a background that has a lot in common with what we know of Surkov’s own—he only leaks details to the press when he sees fit. He was born in 1964, the son of a Russian mother and a Chechen father who left when Surkov was still a young child. Former schoolmates remember him as someone who made fun of the teacher’s pets in the Komsomol, wore velvet trousers, had long hair like Pink Floyd, wrote poetry, and was a hit with the girls. He was a straight-A student whose essays on literature were read aloud by teachers in the staff room; it wasn’t only in his own eyes that he was too smart to believe in the social and political set around him.
“The revolutionary poet Mayakovsky claimed that life (after the communist revolution) is good and it’s good to be alive,” wrote the teenage Surkov in lines that were strikingly subversive for a Soviet pupil. “However, this did not stop Mayakovsky from shooting himself several years later.”
After he moved to Moscow, Surkov first pursued and abandoned a range of university careers from metallurgy to theater directing, then put in a spell in the army (where he might have served in military espionage), and engaged in regular violent altercations (he was expelled from drama school for fighting). His first wife was an artist famous for her collection of theater puppets (which Surkov would later build up into a museum). And as Surkov matured, Russia experimented with different models at a dizzying rate: Soviet stagnation led to perestroika, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal euphoria, economic disaster, oligarchy, and the mafia state. How can you believe in anything when everything around you is changing so fast?
He was drawn to the bohemian set in Moscow, where performance artists were starting to capture the sense of dizzying mutability. No party would be complete without Oleg Kulik (who would impersonate a rabid dog to show the brokenness of post-Soviet man), German Vinogradov (who would walk naked into the street and pour ice water over himself), or later Andrej Bartenjev (who would dress as an alien to highlight how weird this new world was). And of course Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe. Hyper-camp and always playing with a repertoire of poses, Vladik was a post-Soviet Warhol mixed with RuPaul. Russia’s first drag artist, he started out impersonating Marilyn Monroe and Hitler (“the two greatest symbols of the 20th century,” he would say) and went on to portray Russian pop stars, Rasputin, and Gorbachev as an Indian woman; he turned up at parties as Yeltsin, Tutankhamen, or Karl Lagerfeld. “When I perform, for a few seconds I become my subject,” Vladik liked to say. His impersonations were always obsessively accurate, pushing his subject to the point of extreme, where the person’s image would begin to reveal and undermine itself.
Russian performance artist Oleg Kulik pretends to be a caged dog, an allegory for post-Soviet man (Reuters)
At the same time, Russia was discovering the magic of PR and advertising, and Surkov found his métier. He was given his chance by Russia’s best-looking oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In 1992 he launched Khodorkovsky’s first ad campaign, in which the oligarch, in checked jacket, mustache, and a massive grin, was pictured holding out bundles of cash: “Join my bank if you want some easy money” was the message. “I’ve made it; so can you!” The poster was pinned up on every bus and billboard, and for a population raised on anti-capitalist values, it was a shock. It was the first time a Russian company had used the face of its own owner as the brand. It was the first time wealth had been advertised as a virtue. Previously millionaires might have existed, but they always had to hide their success. Surkov could sense the world was shifting.
Surkov next worked as head of PR at Ostankino’s Channel 1, for the then-grand vizier of the Kremlin court, Boris Berezovsky. In 1999 he joined the Kremlin, creating the president’s image just as he had created Khodorkovsky’s. When the president exiled Berezovsky and arrested and jailed Khodorkovsky, Surkov helped run the media campaign, which featured a new image of Khodorkovsky: instead of the grinning oligarch pictured handing out money, he was now always shown behind bars. The message was clear—you’re only a photo away from going from the cover of Forbes to a prison cell.
And through all these changes, Surkov switched positions, masters, and ideologies without seeming to skip a beat.
Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin in 2006 (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
Perhaps the most interesting parts of Almost Zero occur when the author moves away from social satire to describe the inner world of his protagonist. Egor is described as a “vulgar Hamlet” who can see through the superficiality of his age but is unable to have genuine feelings for anyone or anything: “His self was locked in a nutshell ... outside were his shadows, dolls. He saw himself as almost autistic, imitating contact with the outside world, talking to others in false voices to fish out whatever he needed from the Moscow squall: books, sex, money, food, power, and other useful things.”
Egor is a manipulator but not a nihilist; he has a very clear conception of the divine: “Egor could clearly see the heights of Creation, where in a blinding abyss frolic non-corporeal, un-piloted, pathless words, free beings, joining and dividing and merging to create beautiful patterns.”
The heights of creation! Egor’s god is beyond good and evil, and Egor is his privileged companion: too clever to care for anyone, too close to God to need morality. He sees the world as a space in which to project different realities. Surkov articulates the underlying philosophy of the new elite, a generation of post-Soviet supermen who are stronger, more clearheaded, faster, and more flexible than anyone who has come before.
When I worked in Russian television, I encountered forms of this attitude every day. The producers who worked at the Ostankino channels might all be liberals in their private lives, holiday in Tuscany, and be completely European in their tastes. When I asked how they married their professional and personal lives, they looked at me as if I were a fool and answered: “Over the last 20 years we’ve lived through a communism we never believed in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we’ve realized they are illusions, that everything is PR.”
“Everything is PR” has become the favorite phrase of the new Russia; my Moscow peers were filled with a sense that they were both cynical and enlightened. When I asked them about Soviet-era dissidents, like my parents, who fought against communism, they dismissed them as naive dreamers and my own Western attachment to such vague notions as “human rights” and “freedom” as a blunder. “Can’t you see your own governments are just as bad as ours?” they asked me. I tried to protest—but they just smiled and pitied me. To believe in something and stand by it in this world is derided, the ability to be a shape-shifter celebrated.
Vladimir Nabokov once described a species of butterfly that at an early stage in its development had to learn how to change colors to hide from predators. The butterfly’s predators had long died off, but still it changed its colors from the sheer pleasure of transformation. Something similar has happened to the Russian elites: During the Soviet period they learned to dissimulate in order to survive; now there is no need to constantly change their colors, but they continue to do so out of a sort of dark joy, conformism raised to the level of aesthetic act.
Surkov himself is the ultimate expression of this psychology. As I watched him give his speech to the students and journalists in London, he seemed to change and transform like mercury, from cherubic smile to demonic stare, from a woolly liberal preaching “modernization” to a finger-wagging nationalist, spitting out willfully contradictory ideas: “managed democracy,” “conservative modernization.” Then he stepped back, smiling, and said: “We need a new political party, and we should help it happen, no need to wait and make it form by itself.” And when you look closely at the party men in the political reality show Surkov directs, the spitting nationalists and beetroot-faced communists, you notice how they all seem to perform their roles with a little ironic twinkle.
Surkov likes to invoke the new postmodern texts just translated into Russian, the breakdown of grand narratives, the impossibility of truth, how everything is only “simulacrum” and “simulacra” ... and then in the next moment he says how he despises relativism and loves conservatism, before quoting Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” in English and by heart. If the West once undermined and helped to ultimately defeat the U.S.S.R. by uniting free-market economics, cool culture, and democratic politics into one package (parliaments, investment banks, and abstract expressionism fused to defeat the Politburo, planned economics, and social realism), Surkov’s genius has been to tear those associations apart, to marry authoritarianism and modern art, to use the language of rights and representation to validate tyranny, to recut and paste democratic capitalism until it means the reverse of its original purpose.
* * *
“It was the first non-linear war,” writes Surkov in a new short story, “Without Sky,” published under his pseudonym and set in a dystopian future after the “fifth world 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.
There is no mention of holy wars in Surkov’s vision, none of the cabaret used to provoke and tease the West. But there is a darkling vision of globalization, in which instead of everyone rising together, interconnection means multiple contests between movements and corporations and city-states—where the old alliances, the EUs and NATOs and “the West,” have all worn out, and where the Kremlin can play the new, fluctuating lines of loyalty and interest, the flows of oil and money, splitting Europe from America, pitting one Western company against another and against both their governments so no one knows whose interests are what and where they’re headed.




“A few provinces would join one side,” Surkov continues. “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. Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part.”
The Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-wing nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the Far Left is co-opted with tales of fighting U.S. hegemony; U.S. religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support, all broadcast on RT.
The view from a plane window of Moscow at night, with the Kremlin at the center (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)
“Without Sky” was published on March 12, 2014. A few days later, Russia annexed Crimea. Surkov helped to organize the annexation, with his whole theater of Night Wolves, Cossacks, staged referendums, scripted puppet politicians, and men with guns. The Kremlin’s new useful allies, Right, Left, and Religious, all backed the president. There were no sanctions from the West that might have threatened economic ties with Russia. Only a few senior officials, including Surkov, were banned from traveling to or investing in the United States and European Union.
“Won’t this ban affect you?” a reporter asked Surkov as he passed through the Kremlin Palace. “Your tastes point to you being a very Western person.” Surkov smiled and pointed to his head: “I can fit Europe in here.” Later he announced: “I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It’s a big honor for me. I don’t have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”

This article has been adapted from Peter Pomerantsev’s forthcoming book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible and draws on his work for the London Review of Books.
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