Surkov and the three pillars of Putinism

Surkov’s vision of Russia after 2024 has nothing new in it. Surkov replaces the illusion ofdemocracy with the myth of a great leader and the brutal logic of power, because ‘everyoneunderstands everything anyway’.

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 2/2019. The magic year of 2024. Will it mark the end of Putin’s reign of power or just a transfer of power to the assigned successor? What if the regime loses its grip and, consequently, Russia’s political system as we currently know it ceases to exist? In such a case, would the new regime, by any chance, relax the tensions with Western governments? In the midst of speculation, Vladislav Surkov offers a vision of Russia’s future in which confrontation remains the only choice.

Vladislav Surkov is the Kremlin insider, an ideologist of sovereign democracy in the 2000s. In the 2010s, he was side-lined from frontline politics and is now seeking a comeback. To achieve that, Surkov published a template – and article, titled ‘Putin’s lasting state’ – where he outlines the three pillars of the new state.

The first pillar of the new state is the age-old Russian authoritarianism. Surkov argues that the democratic governance model is based on the illusion of individual choice. Russia does not need a façade of democracy to hide the logic of brute force, since ‘everyone understands everything anyway’. In Russia, ‘the most brutal constructions of its authoritarian framework are displayed as part of the façade, undisguised by any architectural embellishments’, Surkov argues.

The second pillar is traditional, too. Russia’s role in the world is ‘that of a great and growing community of nations that gathers lands’. However, Russia is not a mere regional great power. In fact, Russia has already become a role model to be followed; a frontrunner of a new world of deglobalisation, re-sovereignisation and nationalism. In the Soviet era, Russia’s global expansion was legitimatised by the communist ideology. Surkov does not offer a complicated ideological world explanation, but a ‘Russian world’ based on the brute, limitless power of its leader.

The first two pillars, the rejection of foreign models of development and the elevation of an age-old messianic fervour at the centre of Russian politics, are not particularly original. With this rhetoric, Russian leaders before Putin have legitimatised repression at home and aggressiveness abroad.

It is the third pillar that completes Surkov’s model.The greatest virtue of the Russian leader, Surkov declares, is an ‘ability to hear and to understand the nation, to see all the way through it, through its entire depth’. The relation between the ‘deep nation’ and the leader is unidirectional. The people have no role in the political realm, other than the constant performance of trust in the leader. In this way, the third pillar empties politics of meaning and reduces it to the performance of allegiance towards the all-mighty national leader. This logic can be traced to the Soviet ethical system that was based on a declaration of good rather than a prohibition of evil. As shown by the Russian émigré philosopher Vladimir Lefebvre in his 1982 book Algebra of Conscience, Soviet ideology placed an emphasis on individual good deeds, but did not establish restrictions on how to treat enemies. The axiom of Soviet politics was confrontation against external and internal enemies, instead of compromise. Surkov ends his article by declaring that Russia ‘will act on its own’ to acquire ‘prize-winning spots in the high-est league of geopolitical struggle’. There is no other choice than to accept Russia’s terms of action. In this vision, there is no space for compromise. With this, Surkov is paving the way for the continuation of the course chosen by Putin. Unless the text was intended as a warning.

Katri Pynnöniemi is assistant professor of Russian security policy at the Facultyof Arts (Aleksanteri Institute) and National Defence University.