A response to Peter Pomerantsev’s exploration of the Kremlin’s weaknesses

June 26, 2013
The Kremlin ( Siegfried Layda, Getty / October 20, 2012 )

A recent article by Peter Pomerantsev offers complex and essential insights for anyone who seeks to understand how support for the Putin regime was orchestrated. Pomerantsev, who worked as a producer at television network TNT, describes how the Putin regime is undergirded by political technologists who manipulate all forms of public discourse— from television to religious organizations to skinhead groups to opposition figures. However, Pomerantsev doesn’t fully account for the continuing societal impact of these virtual politics.

In particular, these technologists skillfully manipulated television—still by far the dominant news source in Russia—to create the semblance of political contestation. Often in the Western press, one reads of “Kremlin propaganda” and “state-run TV,” and so might have the simplistic impression that mass media simply followed in the footsteps of the Soviet Union. In fact, as Pomerantsev shows, television is carefully orchestrated and highly nuanced. Its programming draws on the expertise of psychologists and political scientists as well as producers and journalists, many of whom have also worked at liberal or foreign news outlets and for whom a good business opportunity has always trumped political allegiance.

The master behind the scenes was Vladislav Surkov, who got his start as one or Russia’s first marketing men, working for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Menatep Bank in the 1990s. Once known as the “Gray Cardinal,” Surkov spent the majority of the Putin era using PR, political capital and impressive ingenuity to infiltrate or replicate almost every possible social or political movement. Religious organizations, nationalist groups, youth movements, NGOs—all forms of civil society were co-opted and undermined. Rather than stifling these organizations, Surkov encouraged them— so long as they understood that the Kremlin was in control. The apparent diversity of organizations creates the impression of a real public politics. Pomerantsev points out that even liberal organizations, like the hip news service SNOB (once helmed by Masha Gessen, a well-known critic of Putin), exist under the auspices of the Kremlin.

This begs the question of authenticity: how can you know what is real and what is fake? Can you trust liberal news outlets when you can’t trust TV, if the same people might be working for both? Is the opposition real, or is it just another orchestration? Why believe in anything or anyone, if it’s all just grandstanding rhetoric, sponsored by the same patron?

Pomerantsev suggests that there are cracks in the Kremlin’s façade. He claims that younger generations are disenchanted with virtual politics and long for something real. The protests that began in 2011, the increasing popularity of Alexey Navalny, urbanism and environmentalism have chipped away at the dominant official discourse, while Surkov’s departure from Putin’s inner circle, uncertainty about United Russia and wavering support for Putin have left Duma members directionless and frantic. This, Pomerantsev concludes, marks the end of the political technologists, and the beginning of something much more uncertain and chaotic for Russian politics, where politics is a “hallucination” with “no reference point back to reality.”

While describing that decline with technologists in mind, Pomerantsev offers little speculation about what this might mean for Russian society and the future of participatory political life—in other words, real democracy. The outlook is grim. The hollowing out of public organizations is likely to have a long-lasting corrosive effect on Russian politics. When people do not trust organizations to pursue their stated aims and do not trust each other to act upon their stated beliefs, public political life becomes challenging, if not impossible. Why join a political movement—or any association—if you have no reason to think that anyone really believes what they’re saying, and you can’t be sure they’re not working for the Kremlin anyway?

This lack of trust in associational life and fellow Russians is a huge obstacle to the formation of political and social organizations that might advocate and safeguard citizens’ interests, which are an essential component of democracy. It is particularly problematic in the formation of political parties, which are based on shared interests and beliefs—probably more so than the oft-cited legal obstructions to party formation. The current opposition movement is often criticized for infighting and for struggling to attract followers, but in fact, it suffers from this same problem of trust.

This problem will outlive the regime and political technologists that so carefully nurtured it. Social trust can be weakened much more easily than it can be strengthened, and its absence is likely to frustrate Russian politics—virtual and real—for years to come.