Vladislav Surkov: The Puppetmaster of Moscow

Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov is one of those fascinating characters in politics, whose real impact is rarely realised. He is often described as ‘the grey cardinal’ for the behind-the-scenes power and influence he wields, and for the fear that follows him through the corridors of power of the Kremlin. Surkov worked for business in the resource-grabbing 90’s, and played a part in creating the powerful oligarchs that exist in Russia today. He then moved into politics and was soon a top adviser and chief of staff to Putin and Medvedev – this is a man who has been at the very top of Russian power for decades. Surkov’s ideas and methods have been at the very centre of Putin’s politics, and as a result of this he has gone a long way in shaping Modern Russia. His brand of modern, subtle, authoritarianism has so far kept Putin and his inner circle in total control of Russia for all of the 21st century.


The rise of Surkov is rapid. Surkov trained at the same martial arts club as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an emerging star of Russian business. Khodorkovsky took on Surkov as his bodyguard, but soon realised that his talents could be better used and made him his PR manager. From 1992 to 1997 Surkov was on Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s board of directors at Bank Menatep. In this period Bank Menatep bought a controlling stake in Yukos Oil, and through Surkov’s advertising campaigns Khodorkovsky became a celebrity in Russia. The pair, however, are alleged to have had a major falling-out, and Surkov moved on from Menatep. Interestingly, it is alleged that Surkov was at least partially responsible for the subsequent imprisonment of his former boss.

In 1999 he was recruited by Alexander Voloshin, Chief of Staff in the Kremlin, and before the year was out he was promoted to Voloshin’s deputy. When Putin came to power on the turn of the century Surkov was put in charge of managing the Government’s relationship with public sphere. This is where he began to shape Russian Politics.

Surkov is much more than just a politician, in his spare time he is a novelist, essayist, and music critic, he even writes lyrics for anti-establishment rock groups. His work is often satirical and aimed at the very government he is part of, but this all ties in with his overarching political philosophy: Surkov thinks there is no real freedom in the world, except through the arts. He thinks there are no free democracies and all democracies are actually ‘managed’ in order to give the illusion of freedom. His methods are based on this idea.

Surkov took this philosophy and brought it into practice in these early years in power. He is the source of the description of Russia as a ‘Sovereign Democracy’ and has used the concept to justify the centralisation of power in Russia. ‘Sovereign Democracy’ immediately strikes as an oxymoronic term, and it is! The idea is a long way from we in the west think of as democracy; in Russia, Surkov thinks the Government’s role is to guide the country down the path of its own national interest, not follow public opinion. Under this system they have found a way to perpetuate the legitimacy of their power by labelling it as a different form of democracy.

However, to maintain this illusion of democracy you cannot act like a repressive state. Instead of repressing the opposition groups, Surkov encouraged and even funded a large number of different groups, from neo-Nazis to Liberal human-rights groups. When combined with the old-fashioned repressive methods, the Government can make sure that this multitude of small groups expresses a huge range of different views without getting individually powerful enough to be able to compete with the United Russia party, and so give the illusion of a vibrant democracy. In reality it is Putin’s team who call the shots and the opposition have no chance of gaining any political power. However, this wasn’t as simple as a deception, as Surkov made it public that this was his strategy. Instead of trying to trick people into thinking that they had choice, he was really trying to bewilder them with a confusing and chaotic system, the response to which is to support the stability of Putin’s regime.

Surkov combined his love of the arts and of artistic freedom into this state of confusion. He funded a vast array of artistic projects and shows, many of which were anti-Putin, but the concept of Sovereign Democracy stood firm. As long as you accepted the stable Government then you are free to express yourself artistically. This is a fair description of a majority of the artistic community in Russia, which was working in a way similar to Surkov himself: by day working with the Government, by night writing satirical plays and exercising freedom.


In December 2011 Surkov’s illusion seemed in tatters. A wave of protests against the election-rigging shocked the political establishment, and it seemed that Putin and Surkov disagreed very publicly about the protests. Putin labelled the protesters as ‘leaderless’ ‘chattering monkeys’ – Surkov said they were among the best people in Russian society. Shortly afterwards Surkov was demoted from Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration to a far more lowly economic committee.

Without Surkov, Putin led a phase of much more repression, seemingly disregarding the strategies that Surkov preferred in favour of the more hard-line opinions of his other advisors. However, Surkov very suddenly reappeared on the scene, and it seems he had a new project: The Ukraine. In 2013 he resigned from his position on the economic committee and became a personal advisor to Putin on The Ukraine, South Ossetia and Abkhasia (the latter two are disputed territories of Russia/Georgia).


In February 2014, Ukraine’s descent into chaos began with the shooting of more than 100 protesters on Kiev’s Maiden Square by several groups of snipers, positioned on rooftops around the city. There has been much debate and speculation about who was responsible for the shootings which pushed the country into further chaos, but some of the evidence points to Surkov.

Medical examinations of the dead protesters and police suggest that many of the casualties on both sides were from these mysterious snipers, and if this is true it would imply that the snipers were only trying to escalate the violence, not stop the protests. The investigations have also come to a ‘stronger understanding’ that President Yanukovych was not behind the shootings, the remaining possibilities are some kind of opposition group (as the Russians claim) or that the Russians were themselves behind it.

Added to this are the claims of Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, Head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), that the shootings were carried out by members of the Ukraine’s SBU trained in Russia and operating on instructions from Russian security services. Most crucially, he said he could trace it all back to Surkov.

In the next few months, as Russia annexed Crimea and continued to provoke chaos and confusion in eastern Ukraine, Surkov published a short story called ‘Without Sky’. It talked about ‘Non-Linear War’, a kind of warfare where no one knows who is on which side, or who the enemy is. This is a war not fought to achieve ‘Victory’ it was instead ‘part of a process.’ The parallels to the Ukraine conflict are abundantly clear. Surkov uses the conflict to create a state of chaos, and through this Russia can achieve its aims.


Surkov is one of the strangest characters in politics I have ever encountered, and I have been astounded by how often themes of confusion and contradiction emerged in my research. To judge him personally is very difficult, because to a certain extent he lives his contradictions. He works for the Government and yet supports his opposition. He is quite possibly responsible for the Ukraine conflict, yet he writes a short story which gives deep insight into what he is doing, and alludes to his own side being ‘The House of Satan’. Surkov is one of the most powerful men in Russia, and is at the top of a regime that is brutal and violent. I get the impression he sees it all as a game.



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