Deep people

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is said to be a fan of Deep Purple. Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov is instead promoting what he calls the ‘Deep People’. In an essay  today in Nezavisimaia Gazeta, Surkov has penned a prolonged paean to autocracy as the true democracy, in which the autocrat and the ‘deep people’ work together in glorious harmony. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the so-called ‘Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin.’ It’s also, I think, rather deluded.

A literal translation of the article’s title would be ‘Putin’s long state’, but a better version might be something along the lines of ‘Putin’s state will last a long time.’ Surkov writes that,

Putin’s large political machine is only just gaining momentum and intends to carry out a long, difficult and interesting job. … for many years Russia will still be Putin’s state. … We need to recognize, understand and describe the Putin system of government and the entire complex of ideas and measures of Putinism as the ideology of the future.

More than anything else, it is this statement which has caught commentators’ attention. In essence, I don’t disagree with it. I tend to view the Russian state system as fairly stable and I don’t see it changing significantly once Putin is gone. But the idea that Putinism is here to stay is only one small part of Surkov’s piece, and not even the most important. Far more significant, and more controversial, are what Surkov has to say about the external appeal of Putinism and its essence.

Surkov begins with a denunciation of Western-style democracy, and Western models in general, and with an appeal for Russia to be governed by institutions in keeping with Russia’s nature, He writes:

The illusion of choice is the most important illusion, the supreme trick of the Western way of life in general and of Western democracy in particular. … The rejection of this illusion in favour of the realism of predestination led our society first to think about its own, particular, sovereign variant of democratic development and then to finally lose interest in discussions of the type of democracy and even of if it’s needed at all.

Back in 2006, readers may recall, Surkov invented the phrase ‘sovereign democracy’ to describe Russia’s political system. Now, it seems, he’s repudiating it. The sovereign part remains, but nobody’s very interested in the democracy, he’s saying. In its place, Russia has developed a system which, Surkov says, has demonstrated ‘its originality and viability’. He continues:

The stress tests which have happened and still happen show that this organically created political model is an effective means for the Russian people to survive and elevate itself not just in the near future but for decades, and possibly even for ever.

But it’s even better than that, says Surkov, for ‘the political system made in Russia is not only suitable for the domestic future, but also has significant export potential.’ Having begun with the foundational conservative doctrine of organic development, he now moves onto another theme much loved of Russian conservatives – the decay of the West. Westerners are losing faith in globalization, he says, and Russia provides an example of state willing to stand up for national interests. Americans have woken up to the fact that they are governed by the ‘deep state’. ‘Everybody’s unhappy with the Americans, even the Americans’, writes Surkov, adding that ‘Nobody nowadays believes in politicians’ good intentions.’ In this situation, he continues:

The inhabitant of the West is beginning to look around for other models, and he sees Russia. Our system, like everything of ours in general, is seen as less elegant but also as more honest. And although not everybody considers the words ‘more honest’ synonymous with ‘better’, they’re not unattractive.

At this point, I have to say that I think that Surkov is in cloud-cuckoo land. For sure, a lot of people in the Western world are unhappy with their political systems, but that doesn’t mean that they’re looking at Russia and thinking that it’s something altogether more honest. Quite the contrary. The general view of Russia and its political system is one of absolute contempt – a brutal, corrupt, aggressive authoritarian state. One can argue about how justified this description is, but that’s the way Russia is generally portrayed and, as far as I can tell, generally viewed. I don’t know of anybody saying ‘Yes, we should have a government more like they have in Russia. They’re so much more honest there.’ Sorry, Vladislav, it just ain’t happening.

What’s so great about the Russian system, anyway? Surkov provides an answer:

There’s no deep state in Russia, everything’s out in the open, but there is a deep people (glubinnyi narod). … With its gigantic supermass the deep people creates an insuperable force of cultural gravitation, which unites the nation and brings the elite down to earth. … Narodnost’, however defined, precedes statehood, predetermines its form, limits the fantasies of theoreticians, and forces practitioners to take certain steps. … An ability to hear and understand the people, to see through it to its depths, and to act accordingly, is the unique and primary quality of the Putin state.

In short, Russia might not have Western-style democracy, but it does have something the West doesn’t – a state which is truly in touch with its people, a state in which says Surkov, ‘all the institutions are subordinated to a fundamental task – trusting communication and mutual interaction between the supreme ruler and citizens.’ What makes this work is that ‘The various branches of government merge in the person of the leader.’ In other words, it is precisely the fact that Russia is autocratic (in the literal sense of government by one person) that renders it democratic (in the sense of a state governed by the people).

Surkov adds that the democratic institutions borrowed from the West are largely ‘ritual’, a form of ‘external clothing’ to make it look as if Russia is like other countries, when underneath everybody knows that that’s not the case. In Russia,

Society trusts only the number one person. … What’s new is that now we don’t ignore this fact, but take it into account and base our undertakings on it. … The contemporary model of the Russian state starts with trust and is held together by trust. This is its fundamental difference from the Western model, which cultivates distrust and criticism.

It’s a fascinating thesis. The reason why Russia doesn’t have a deep state is because the structures which make up the deep state elsewhere are all out in the open in Russia – it’s an autocracy, but we admit it!! This makes the Russian state genuine in the way that Western democracy isn’t.

Again, I feel that Surkov is kidding himself. To be fair, Putin and his government have been very successful in identifying public opinion and allying themselves with it. But it’s a stretch to say that Russia is founded on trust. Indeed, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey which measures how much people trust their institutions, places Russia dead last among the 26 countries studied. This isn’t because democracy is better at building trust than other systems, as the country with the most trusted institutions is China. But to say, as Surkov does that ‘the Russian state starts with trust and is held together by trust’ is clearly false.

Surkov’s thesis reminds me rather of the mystical bond between Tsar and people which supposedly existed in pre-Imperial Russia. It’s all handy dandy as long as the person in charge is strong and successful, like Putin, but if he’s a Nicholas II or Mikhail Gorbachev, the whole structure comes tumbling down. Surkov imagines that the supposed bond between the leader and the ‘deep people’ guarantees the system’s long-term stability. In reality, if that all the system rests on, it’s in trouble. Fortunately for Russia, however, I think that Surkov has got it wrong. The Putin system is likely to last a long time, but not for the reason that the grey cardinal says.

28 thoughts on “Deep people”

  1. Well… You wrote: “The general view of Russia and its political system is one of absolute contempt – a brutal, corrupt, aggressive authoritarian state. One can argue about how justified this description is, but that’s the way Russia is generally portrayed and, as far as I can tell, generally viewed.” By who? I do not have the feeling that the common people, nowadays, views it as such. They might still have this idea when talking and thinking about the Soviet Union…but not about Russia today or let say less and less. So, returning to this generalisation I would be pleased to know from you by who Russia is viewed as the state you described.
    You wrote: “But it’s a stretch to say that Russia is founded on trust. … This isn’t because democracy is better at building trust than other systems, as the country with the most trusted institutions is China. But to say, as Surkov does that ‘the Russian state starts with trust and is held together by trust’ is clearly false.”
    I partly agree. Russia, as we know, faced a fraudulent, perverse and corrupt oligarchy for many decades or even more. Corruption is indeed the worse enemy of a country development at all levels (economical, political and cultural…) and of “good” governance. It is therefore understandable that the Russian people are suspicious and not very confident or is on “alert”.
    It seems to me, however, that the situation has improved in recent past years, that the Government has worked diligently, even if not systematically and radically but however in a careful manner, and I can agree that much remains to be done to obtain “absolute” confidence.
    It might seems to slow… Indeed…but as Conficius told us: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
    However, is an absolute trust an advantage, a must to reach for a development of a society?
    The role of a citizen, of the people of a nation, isn’t to question, critic, verify, control and assert that the best has been done for the the national common good, as well as the world one?
    You wrote:
    “To be fair, Putin and his government have been very successful in identifying public opinion and allying themselves with it.”
    It is the duty of the “leader”, President or else and the government of any country to identify, ally, listen and respond adequately and wisely to the needs and the necessity , the wish and the will of its people.
    I am confident that the Russian nation will develop in the most democratic way and form.
    I always have a great pleasure to read your blog and share your views. I have not yet read Surkov essay or thesis but be sure that i will do it and might return in this platform to comment. Ah!Ah!Ah!

    Thank you indeed for your work and thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel that empirical evidence demonstrates that Chinese political system is the most suitable for the current conditions.

    The RF is okay, but not as good. And the western ‘liberal democracy’ model clearly has run its course; dying. The guy has got a point, and perhaps, according to your own (excellent) suggestion in the podcast, it could be discussed, rather than ridiculed. The west has become awfully dogmatic, pluralism is nowhere to be found, and that’s a real tragedy. Imo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mr Robinson,

    Your Russophobia reallly shows in your description of this opinion piece by Mr Surkov.

    He has put some ideas and thoughts out there for discussion- that is all – it’s not policy – it is his view.

    If you come to the UK and ask people about our government in the light of the Brexit fiasco – you will find nothing but contempt for the system and the politicians involved.

    I don’t encounter everyday people who have real knowledge of , or real opinions of the Russian system of government to have views as strong as “contempt” – but maybe you are talking about the neo-liberal elites?

    Last week you discussed the racist New York Times article by The putin I know – with more nuance.

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  4. Russian word of the week – “наброс [говна на вентилятор]”

    Good trolling by Surkov. A proverbial ton of fertilizer thrown generously at the industrial grade fan. I expect the so-called Russia experts rushing in front of this fan, kicking and screaming each other, all dictated by the desire to be first to taste *it* and pass their very valuable judgment. Of course, they won’t be discussing the article and its contents, as using it as a pretext to voice their own biases and preconceptions. What else can you expect from the critters with the inflated egos enumerated by certain political interests?

    The article is the equivalent of the “shirtless Putin on a horseback” pic – it might gain a cult following from the usual suspects in the West, while be totally forgotten by most in Russia in about… now.

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    1. Of course, they won’t be discussing the article and its contents, as using it as a pretext to voice their own biases and preconceptions.

      I seem to unable to open the link to the article. No matter if I use my own local IP shift to a Canadian or to Russian one or change the browser. Do I have to register? Mind you, I would have to use machine translation anyway. 😉

      What’s your response to Leonid Bershidsky’s approach to something like a preliminary attempt at defining or circling a possible definition of “deep people”?

      https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-12/russia-has-its-own-deep-state-it-s-called-deep-people

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  5. Российская нация – wtf is that?

    Citing Lenin’s state as an organic part of Russian history, instead of the terrorist takeover it was.

    Doesn’t even mention the third part of Uvarov’s triad (Orthodoxy). Wouldn’t want to upset Kadyrov, I guess.

    Surkov is a sordid twotimer who would have been put out to pasture in any self-respecting nationalist state years ago.

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  6. I think Surkov wants Russia to be more like Japan in terms of government, but he doesn’t know this. Japan is democratic in name only and has been governed by the same party since the end of WW2, except for a small break for a few years when they really made everyone angry, but then their bureaucrats worked to make the opposition government unable to function (plus they probably screwed up).

    Now Japan is back to the one party again, and there is good evidence that this party was put in power with CIA money back in the day. In general, while some opposition members might win governorships (like in Okinawa), they can’t do anything against the party and if they try money to their province gets cut. There is free speech, but ultimately the society is conservative and gay marriage will never be approved unless pushed to do it by other Western countries.

    Another interesting thing, is that in Japan you can be held in jail without charge for three weeks while they feed you three bowls of rice a day and do sleep deprivation things to get you to confess. It’s actually a good weight loss regime… My Russian (liberal) wife said that in Russia they can also hold you without charge for a long time. Mostly people don’t complain except through movies or anime critical of the society and/or government, but most people just want to live traditional lives and it seems free speech and allowing for most types of behavior is enough for them to accept this arrangement.

    So ideally, if Russia is not going to be a free ‘Western democracy’, I would want to see Russia’s political system aligning with Japan’s and not China’s. This does create problems though. The one party now has a dynasty where children and bureaucrats get roles and the minister for Okinawa and the Northern Territories (Kurils) seems to be a drunk who can’t speak any foreign language, but he’s accompanied by handlers everywhere.

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    1. “My Russian (liberal) wife said that in Russia they can also hold you without charge for a long time.”

      Can she support this claim with examples, or cite the relevant law? Or mere asking of such questions puts you into the “Kremlebot” category, as no one can question “What Everyone Knows About Russia Anyway” dogma?

      “I would want to see Russia’s political system aligning with Japan’s and not China’s. “

      That’s not for you to decide or cheerlead.

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      1. Ah, but I was asking blatnoi and his wife. Surely, the form of the answer might have gave to us all some bonus information.

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      2. I think I might make a good science minister of Russia actually. There is the whole matter of not having citizenship and not having lived there, but these are small things. You can’t really stop me from cheerleading. There is the whole free speech thing and I’m not in Russia so I don’t have to register myself as a foreign agent even. I can advocate to change the Russian government, but you don’t have to worry that it will have any effect at all.

        If it makes you feel any better though, it’s also probably not for you to decide how Russia’s political system evolves as well. These things are not decided by regular people, even in a ‘Western democracy’ who have day jobs, although I might have a bigger effect since I sometimes meet with bigwigs responsible for science policy at conferences. I prefer not talking to them though. Probably Prof. Robinson would have a greater effect on how Russia’s system evolves than either one of us by virtue of him appearing on TV there, etc…

        Of course, I don’t know what you do really. You could have a direct line to Surkov and then you’ll be in the running against Prof. Robinson for influence on Russia.

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  7. “I think I might make a good science minister of Russia actually.”

    Why not start with something more realistic – like the Emperor of the Moon?

    “You can’t really stop me from cheerleading. There is the whole free speech thing and I’m not in Russia so I don’t have to register myself as a foreign agent even. I can advocate to change the Russian government, but you don’t have to worry that it will have any effect at all.”

    *I* can’t prevent you from doing this. Common human decency, modesty and desire not to conform to the worst “Ugly American” stereotypes usually can though. It’s like, what – not washing your hands after a visit to the restroom are also signs of “freedoom” and “rebellion” now?

    “If it makes you feel any better though, it’s also probably not for you to decide how Russia’s political system evolves as well.”

    I never expressed any such insane views in the first place, so, no, it won’t make me feel any better.

    “Probably Prof. Robinson would have a greater effect on how Russia’s system evolves than either one of us by virtue of him appearing on TV there

    If that’s your legit criterion, then no – Olga Buzova is only one to lead us!

    “Of course, I don’t know what you do really.”

    Of course you don’t. Now, how about answering my question?

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    1. Actually, your question was answered by someone else, three days without charge, which is shorter than in Japan. It well illustrates my point which I will re-iterate in the next paragraph. Personally I don’t feel like answering it since it pulls in my spouse and leaves a bad taste that I can’t quite put a finger on. Good thing she doesn’t read any of these Russia related blogs.

      Besides, you missed the main point of my post, which was to comment on the fact that the kind of system that Surkov seems to aspire to is going to be condemned if it’s an enemy of the USA, but will be accepted as democratic if it is an ally, like Japan. An even better example is Singapore which is even more authoritarian but is held up as an example of governance and business in the Western world.

      I do like to engage with people, and this helps the host’s blog, but I feel like we’re going off on an irrelevant tangent here. Not washing your hands after the restroom is a horrible crime, but making comments and suggestions on evolution of governments in foreign countries is blog talk to take the edge off after work hours.

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      1. ”Good thing she doesn’t read any of these Russia related blogs.”

        >Brought his “Russian (liberal) wife” © in the conversation as if she was an authority figure
        >Now feels “bad taste”

        Okay.

        “Besides, you missed the main point of my post, which was to comment on the fact that the kind of system that Surkov seems to aspire to is going to be condemned if it’s an enemy of the USA, but will be accepted as democratic if it is an ally, like Japan”

        Oh, wow. Condemnation by the USA! Well, that changes everything /s

        “Not washing your hands after the restroom is a horrible crime”

        Nah, it’s not 😉 No criminal code will jail you for doing this. Maybe you should be more accurate with the words you use so carelessly? It all began, I remind you, with your vague “in Russia they can also hold you without charge for a long time” (c). You see – most of world does not care about sacrosanct Murikan “habeas corpus”. Now, Net search if you don’t believe me, but in the Kingdom of Sweden you can be detained under some veeeery broad circumstances for up to 14 days. Correct me if I’m wrong but that’s, oh – 14 times longer than it is possible in the US of A? Universal condemnation, sanctions, humanitarian intervention when? Oh, and Russia? The correct answer is not 3 days, but 48 hours.

        “but making comments and suggestions on evolution of governments in foreign countries is blog talk to take the edge off after work hours.”

        Ahhh! That’s how you call it.

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  8. On the topic of Surkov’s thinking that there’s a substantial amount of admiration for the Russian system in the West, I agree that he’s dreaming. I don’t think, however, that he’s just making it up. Instead, he’s suffering from severe confirmation bias. There certainly is some admiration for the Russian system in the West. One example is a subset of American social conservatives (a good example is over at TAC at https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/taking-the-expatriate-option-hal-freeman-russia/) I think it’s also fair to say that there’s some genuine admiration for the Russian system to be found in some of Eastern Europe (especially in Hungary). What Surkov has done is to look at these scattered and relatively small pockets of admiration and blown them way out of proportion to justify fairly sweeping generalizations. In Surkov’s defense, the intellectual failing in play is at least a very common one, and he’s not just making stuff up out of complete whole cloth.

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  9. On the subject of this article, I think Paul Robinson has it all right.

    (1) I would just add that I cannot believe that Putin – if he has read this article (Peskov denies it but I suspect he has) – is at all happy about it. Putin is continuously criticised for being a dictator. Stripped of all the mystical fascistic/tsarist nonsense about the “bond” between the “leader” and the “deep people” (?!) that is exactly what Surkov – the Kremlin’s own “Grey Cardinal” – says he is. I expect soon to be reading all sorts of gleeful articles in The Economist, The WaPo etc pointing this out.

    (2) It is bizarre that Surkov of all people should talk about the people’s “trust” in the system when it is Surkov’s earlier application of “political technology” and backstairs manipulation of Russia’s electoral politics by the invention of bogus parties etc which played such a big part in undermining it.

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  10. “The general view of Russia and its political system is one of absolute contempt – a brutal, corrupt, aggressive authoritarian state”

    Empty talkings not backed up by real data. The writings of a person living in a bubble. The most recent Pew Survey shows that the world sees the US as the biggest threat to the world (among those threats coming from a country), and a bigger threat than Russia or China. This opinion is shared even by lots of western countries The US certainly killed far more people around the world compared to Russia, that’s for sure. So much for aggressiveness.

    http://www.pewglobal.org/2019/02/10/climate-change-still-seen-as-the-top-global-threat-but-cyberattacks-a-rising-concern/

    You failed to understand that “westerners” represent only a small part of humanity, you will never be the Center of the World again. 500 years of western domination over the world are coming to an end.

    Do you have any idea that the people of China and India, the countries where soon 3 billion humans will live, far more than in your declining country, the countries who are projected to be world’s first and second economies, have positive view of Russia?

    You are simply living in alternate reality, an unconcious rasict bubble which posits that the “West” is the center of the World.

    There will be a rude awakening for you as the West declines and loses its power, and it is forced to accept the opinions of the billions and billions of humans who are not part of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Curious that one theme pursued by Surkov was not mentioned in the article above: that the Russian elite has no choice between Russia and the West. That Russia is the only choice for the elite.

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  12. Professor sez: “For sure, a lot of people in the Western world are unhappy with their political systems, but that doesn’t mean that they’re looking at Russia and thinking that it’s something altogether more honest. Quite the contrary. The general view of Russia and its political system is one of absolute contempt – a brutal, corrupt, aggressive authoritarian state. One can argue about how justified this description is, but that’s the way Russia is generally portrayed and, as far as I can tell, generally viewed. I don’t know of anybody saying ‘Yes, we should have a government more like they have in Russia. They’re so much more honest there.’ Sorry, Vladislav, it just ain’t happening.”

    🙂

    “I was inspired by an article published by Vladislav Surkov, who currently holds the position of aid to the president of Russia. He is considered the “think tank” behind Putin’s successive victories in presidential elections, drawing unto himself a barrage of criticism because of the so-called “managed democracy”. He is in the “Top 100 global thinkers of our time” according to the American magazine Foreign Policy. Surkov’s article “Putin’s Long State” was published in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta and caused mixed reactions from the Russian public. The material is really impressive with its political assessments, both at the local and global levels. Today’s world is closely intertwined and interdependent, so that each state faces similar problems, but they can be solved privately. Therefore, it is useful for Iraqi politicians to turn to the experience of Putin and his team on restoring Russia’s viability, revitalizing its economy and turning it into an effective federal entity, ensuring its national security, resistance to Western sanctions in the light of continuing threats. And also they should pay attention to the fact that the successful policy of Putin to some extent prevented the complete destruction and separation of the Syrian state.

    According to Surkov, under Putin’s regime, Russia ceased to collapse, began to recover, and returned to its natural and only possible position of the growing and gathering lands and peoples great power. He pointed out that the role assigned to Russia in world history does not allow it to leave the stage or keep silent in the crowd, does not promise peace and predetermines the uneasy character of the local statehood.”
    – Al-Mada: Putin’s Long State and Iraq in crisis.

    Taqabbalallâhu minnâ wa minkum! 😉

    Oh, and btw. You broke it – you own it. This makes Iraq “Western.”

    Like

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