Lessons from Surkov’s Russia: The Split Personality (Dis)Order of Modern Geopolitics

What we fail to understand about Russia is not greed. What we fail to understand is not the power-hungry Mr. Putin, nor the corruption that stems from his example. If there is one thing we should be able to grasp, it is the power-hungry and the corrupt. Rather, what we fail to understand about Russia seems to be much broader: its entire political scene. This is emphatically not an argument for the irreducible difference between national communities – the Cold War mantra of a shady, alien group known as ‘the Communists’. Instead, the Russian political scene, though it emerges out of history, is a relatively recent and ongoing project.

As a number of you may have been made aware, thanks to his short film in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe on the BBC, Adam Curtis has produced a wonderfully terrifying portrait of Russian politics, at the centre of which sits Putin’s former First Deputy, Vladislav Surkov. Surkov is a man with a passion, not –as we might expect of one loyal to Putin – for traditional militancy and State censorship, but for Western art and literature. Now a somewhat over-used quote, Surkov responded to Obama’s sanctions upon him with the defiant proclamation that:

“The U.S. I am interested in is Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollack. I don’t need a visa to access their work. So I lose nothing”[1]

It is out of our prejudices that this selection of figures appears so shocking. We believe that Russia desires our trade, involvement in our neoliberal flows. This, of course, is a material requirement for power, thus fitting into the aforementioned framework. But what perturbs us is that a Russian political figure would desire – not primarily for material necessity but for interest, enjoyment etc. – to share in some of the West’s most radically liberal cultural icons.

The difference, perhaps, between what we consider our interest, and Surkov’s interest, in such figures, is not that he does not understand their ideas enough – that, being an outsider to their origins, he has misinterpreted them – but that he understands them too deeply. Surkov, as opposed to so many of our politicians and policymakers, has been impassioned enough about these radical notions to actually apply them; to shift them from the realm of ideas to the realm of action. A caveat, however: what Surkov has applied of these artists is not their whole person, for of course Allen Ginsberg would approve neither of Russia’s militarism, nor its deep homophobia. Rather, what is applied is their style; their ideas stripped of ideological or personal context. This, we might say, is an abuse of theory – to take the kernel without its shell, so to speak – but, in another sense, it is theory; it is how theory, at its heart, functions. That is, theory means little without being mobilised by a certain group with a certain set of interests (Kauppi, 2014).

Andrew Wilson (2014) has been very perceptive in saying that, in opposition to the obsession with Putin as a personality in the global media – “what is Putin thinking?”; “what will Putin do next?”; is Putin mad?”, and so on – what is most significant about Russia is its political culture and its corresponding ‘political technologies’. Political science has determined Russia to be a form of ‘guided’ or ‘managed’ democracy, but what is more difficult to conceive is how such a system is made possible and, furthermore, sustainable. According to Curtis (2014), Surkov’s particular technology is crucial here. Inspired by modern art, his policies intend to mould the political culture into a fluid and unpredictable world; a world in which even the most solid of ground shifts constantly beneath one’s feet.

Yet, far from being an alien concept, does this not remind us of something very close to our own philosophical tradition? The disorientating experience, the ‘drunkenness’ of modern life, as described by Rousseau’s (1761) young protagonist Saint Preux:

“With such a multitude of objects passing before my eyes, I’m getting dizzy. Of all the things that strike me, there is none that holds my heart, yet all of them together disturb my feelings, so that I forget what I am and who I belong to”[2]

What prevents us from understanding an idea so familiar to us is, then, the extent to which the condition of disorientation has been made real in Russia; the totality of spaces into which the sensation of dizziness has flowed. When we think of the modern condition of flux and instability in the context of our own society, it is certain sectors which come to mind, such as the economy and social media, but in Russia it is the all-encompassing lifeworld of politics, both formal and informal; national and international, that is characterised by this (dis)order.


Questionable Identities: Literature, Contemporary Warfare, and the Pilotless Condition

“War in general is not declared. It simply begins…”

(Georgii Isserson, 1936[3])

In the mid-19th century, when Russia’s population were repressed under the (first) ‘white terror’ of Tsar Alexander II, literature came to be highly respected as a form of social commentary, capable of moving under the censor’s nose and inspiring dissent (Pistolero, 2012). It is a sobering indication of the current political (dis)order then that, in 2013, a short story named ‘Without Sky’, apparently authored by Natan Dubovitsky (2014) – which talked of ‘non-linear warfare’ and offered a seeming critique of the 21st century’s ‘pilotless’ weaponry – was revealed to be the pseudonymous writing of none other than Vladislav Surkov himself.

This piece of literature, along with another – a more straightforward analysis by the current Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov[4] – have been analysed with hindsight as a statement of intent for the operations conducted in Crimea and Ukraine, and more generally as a template for future military engagements. Not only do they vanquish the image of Russia as a backwards state in terms of its expressions of power; they may also reveal something of the political culture, and the way in which this culture is built upon a modern political technology of flux.

Even before the content of Surkov’s story is addressed, it is worth noting the likelihood that he suspected, or perhaps even planned, the unveiling of his author’s true identity. The purpose of the pseudonym in this case was not to hide identity – to disseminate the state’s discourse from the apparently legitimate, neutral voice of the author named Dubovitsky – but to demonstrate that identity could be hidden, and thus to bring into question the relevance of identity itself. If Surkov is Dubovitsky, who else – of our authors, our academics and our journalists – might he also be?

Whether it was leaked by the office of Surkov himself, or discovered independently, the information ‘Dubovitsky = Surkov’ appears to have come from an outside source. It is an object external to Surkov, the verity of which he can therefore afford to flirt with – feeling neither the need to deny, nor confirm, the rumour outright – whilst the influence of both himself and his alter-ego are expanded by its uncertain buzz. No matter how certain we are that Dubovitsky is Surkov, the concept of two people being one person remains preposterous, a thing of gothic horror (Jekyll and Hyde; Frankenstein and his Monster) or clinical insanity. To the accusations that “Dubovitsky is Surkov”, Surkov needs not even posit an audible repost; his presence alone responds on his behalf: “No, I am Surkov”. This ‘I am’ is the one thing that we, the subject, can prove in and of ourselves, and it is not the right of anyone else to deny it.

In other words, what Surkov maintains is a self-imposed ‘plausible deniability’, that phrase coined by the CIA in the 1960s to describe the pragmatic ignorance of its own agents concerning the organisation’s operations.  This strategy is the first shadow cast before the Ukraine conflict by this work of fiction, for, just as Surkov is able, in spite of all reasonable evidence, to suspend indefinitely the inevitable confession that he is Dubovitsky, Putin managed, until April 2014, to suspend the inevitable confession that the insignia-less ‘little green men’ seen aiding pro-Russian separatists were, in fact, Russia’s own troops.

What we fail to comprehend is honesty concerning the very act of deceit. The Russian political elite holds both its own population and the global community in thrall with its truth; its truth about its lies. They construct themselves, and the Western world too, as a singular boy who cried wolf. They have lied so many times, and then admitted to it – Surkov, for instance, has happily divulged his sponsorship of various groups, from the pro-Putin Nashi youth, to neo-Nazis, to human rights NGOs (Curtis, 2014; Pomerantsev, 2014) – that there is complete distrust, not just of certain governments or leaders, but of everyone: both Putin’s regime and their opposition; both civil society and the global media. Everything, the Russian population has been taught, is potentially a lie.

The net effect is as profound as to destabilise the boundaries of truth and morality. This is hinted at by Surkov’s fiction, which refers to a generation who, as a result of the advent of non-linear war, have lost the ability to perceive the third dimension in both a physical – depth, height (thus the title) – and cognitive/conceptual sense. The ‘two-dimensionals’ may know truths and lies when they are displayed in black and white, but, faced with those who know the art of deceit; “third words” and grey areas, they are blind.

For Russia, the boundaries – the borders and codes – of geopolitics are similarly two dimensional, blind to the third dimension – the skies, but also the cyber- and robotized realms – in which contemporary conflicts are played out. Thus, the code of sovereignty is not merely disdained; its very reality is questioned. There is the specific belief, as Wilson (2014) notes, that ‘Ukraine is not a real country’, but there is also a more general conceptual outlook, from which all those borders we currently consider to mark sovereign states are potentially, instantaneously, non-existent. As Gerasimov observes:

“…a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war”

If contemporary war “just begins”, then the legal protections of sovereignty are irrelevant, for, as soon as the conflict has started – the first moment at which, without a declaration or even a rattling of sabres, the law has the opportunity to act – the sovereignty of the state in question has already dissolved.

But the Russian political culture aims to ferment and exploit that disease of two-dimensionality in populations as well. The time of non-linear war involves not only ‘pilotless’ machines – i.e. drones – but also ‘pilotless’ governments, “organised as the result of democratic revolutions”. The hybridity of this war – the cooperation of armies with special operations units, police forces, the media, and the population itself – is not only the key to its success, but also its self-legitimisation. This war, because it is hybrid, can disguise itself as something other than war: it is a ‘covert intelligence mission’ or a ‘global policing operation’. By the time Putin confessed of his ‘little green men’, their presence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine was no-longer one of war; invasion; nation-destroying, but of humanitarian nation-building, a required measure for ‘pilotless’ states.

This has been the sinister underbelly of humanitarianism and development ever since colonialism in its traditional sense was brought to an end, but what is novel about Russia is how they have taken a strategy conceived in foreign affairs and transposed it onto the domestic. The induced dizziness of Russian political culture is, in this sense, a strategy with the ambition of creating the condition of pilotless-ness in its own population.

To the outside world, Russia has carried post-democracy through to its ultimate end, managing to create a simulated democracy without ever moving through a period of democracy that might be considered genuine. But, to those inside Russia, the state might be close to nihilism: the materialist belief in nothing apart from that which can be directly perceived. Except of course, because nothing at all can be directly perceived any-longer, the present psychology is more akin to the disparaging meaning of nihilism, or a post-nihilism, whereby all that is left is a passive and apolitical state of disbelief and non-engagement. Afflicted by pilotless-ness, a kind of psychosis, the population begin to see themselves as victim-objects, existent only through and for the charitable aid of their government.

A dystopian postmodern vision this may be, but it is vital to realise that it is possible, and in no way confined to Russia. Surkov is, in many ways, the modern political subject par excellence: happily blind to morality and happily void of ideological consistency; an expert in split personalities and marketing hypocrisies.  This is the same complaint increasingly made of British, American, and other western politicians, as well as of their media and their publics. It is a global trend rooted in a lack of thought and critique concerning thought itself; concerning the contradictory state of our social and political existence. This ‘pop nihilism’, as Berman (2010: 32) calls it, denoted by the tendency to react to the obtuse with the apathetic, is a dangerous stance to take in the increasingly contradictory, unstable nature of today’s political culture.


[1]Quoted in Kassel, W. (2014).

[2] Quoted in Berman, M. (2010 [1982]): 18.

[3] Quoted in Gerasimov, ‘The Value of Science in Prediction’. Available in Galeotti (2014).

[4] ‘The Value of Science in Prediction’. Original in: Military-Industrial Kurier, Feb 27th 2013. Available in Galeotti (2014).


Berman, M. (2010 [1982]). All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London & New York: Verso.

Curtis, A. (2014). Untitled. In Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe. BBC. Film and transcript available at: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2014/12/31/bbcs_adam_curtis_on_the_contradictory_vaudeville_of_post-modern_politics.html

Dubovitsky, N. (2014). ‘Without Sky’. Russian Pioneer. 46(1). Translation (B. Bowler) available at: http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue582/without_sky.html.

Galeotti, M. (2014). ‘The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War’. In Moscow’s Shadows. 06.07.2014. http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/the-gerasimov-doctrine-and-russian-non-linear-war/.

Isserson, G. (1936). The Evolution of Operational Art.

Kassel, W. (2014). ‘Tupac in the Kremlin’. Foreign Policy. 20.03.2014. http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/03/20/tupac-in-the-kremlin/

Kauppi, N. (2014).  ‘Knowledge Warfare: Social Scientists as Operators of Global Governance’. International Political Sociology. 8(3), 330-332.

Pistolero. (2012). ‘A History of Russian Nihilism’. Pistols Drawn. 07.01.2012. http://pistolsdrawn.org/a-history-of-russian-nihilism/.

Pomerantsev, P. (2014). ‘The Hidden Author of Putinism: how Vladislav Surkov invented the new Russia’. The Atlantic. 07.11. 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/11/hidden-author-putinism-russia-vladislav-surkov/382489/.

Rousseau, J. (1761). Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse.

Wilson, A. (2014). ‘The Modus Operandi of Putin’s Russia’. European Council on Foreign Relations. 08.12.2014.