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.