Or, “speaking of wrecks…”
Vladik. Don’t hate him because he’s beautiful…
Surkov showed up on my radar several years ago when he told a group of journalists at a press conference they should read Dostoyevsky if they wanted to learn about Russia. He was in a mood that day and also said people shouldn’t be lecturing Russia about democracy when what they’re really interested in is hydrocarbons. Apparently he studied at the Institute of Public Relations imeni Putina. Love their policies or hate them, these fellows tell you how they really feel. Medvedev plays it a bit safer, I think. It is clear to me he wants to be liked by the world. Putin doesn’t want to be liked so much as respected. Surkov’s job is to keep Dima well-liked and Putin well-respected, but one gets the impression he could give a flying f what any of us think of him. Which has the paradoxical effect of making me think quite highly of him indeed. Unfortunately, this means he doesn’t often engage in public self-promotion. I think the last time I saw him mentioned in the news was something about the U.S.- Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission and the meeting between him and McFaul (oh, what I would give to be in that room!) and was primarily about McFaul’s latest ideological u-turn. So it was a joyful surprise to find Surkov interviewed in Monday’s issue of Russia’s Itogi magazine. Far less enjoyable and, regretfully, less surprising, was how I found out about it…
I. The Scoop.
If the past 9 years in America have taught me anything, it is how to read a newspaper, a skill which has also been quite valuable to me when trying to understand what the hell is happening in Russia (and is applicable to any subject which may capture your interest.) Step 1: read the headline. I know, it sounds obvious, but apparently people have never been taught this. What is it saying? This one says the Kremlin views democracy as a wrecking ball. Step 2: read the article. Does anything in the article actually support the claim made in the headline? If you answered “No,” well, get used to it kids… If you answered “Yes,” proceed to Step 3: re-read the article. Is the claim supported by verifiable facts or logic, or by hearsay, opinion or interpretation? If you answered “Facts or logic,” send that journalist a dozen roses to show your appreciation and ease the pain. Because they’re about to be axed for writing informative unsexy articles. Let’s continue with our example. The bullet points below the headline are:
* Warns of collapse if political stability threatened.
* Says Russia does not need a new Mao.
Well, neither of these bullet points support the headline, or even really qualify as “news” to anyone who has not recently undergone a lobotomy. But they use the words “threatened” and “Mao,” and now you have images of red flags and horrible commies dancing about in your head, just in case you’d begun reading this article under the misguided impression that it had anything to do with reality circa 2009. Be afraid! Be very afraid!
I think the following must have been the inspiration for the headline:
…in answer to calls from opponents for democratic reforms to liberalise the political system built under former President Vladimir Putin, Surkov warned that the resulting instability could rip Russia apart.
“Even now when power is rather consolidated and ordered, many projects are very slow and difficult,” Surkov was quoted as saying by the Itogi weekly magazine.
“If we add any sort of political instability to that then our development would simply be paralysed. There would be a lot of demagoguery, a lot of empty talk, a lot of lobbying and ripping Russia to pieces, but no development.”
Political instability does in fact tend to make things worse. But, as Surkov EXPLICITLY states in the interview in question, “it is important not to confuse a liberal, democratic society with chaos and disorder.” [Link.] Perhaps the matter of “wrecking Russia with democracy” has been inferred from the remark about ordered, consolidated power. This would assume a belief that any move toward more order and consolidation of power is a move away from democracy. It’s an argument, and I’d like to hear it, but this article doesn’t make it. Finally, maybe it is because Surkov’s warnings of instability are “in answer to calls from opponents for democratic reforms to liberalise the political system.” I could accept that logic. If the interview had gone something like, “Q: What do you say to your opponents who are calling for democratic reforms?” “A: Democratic reforms create instability, and that instability would wreck Russia. Look what happened last time we tried democratic reforms. Yikes, right? If those democratic reformer types get their way, you’ll be standing in breadlines again! Poniatno?!”
Except… That’s not at all what happened.
Of course, you’d have to be bothered to actually read the original interview to know this. After my futile search of the Reuters article for the part where Surkov warns of “wrecking Russia with democracy,” I decided it must have been in the original interview and was just accidentally left it out of the Reuters article. So I read the interview. Which appears to be more than we can surmise of Guy Faulconbridge, the author of the Reuters article about the damn interview. Man, I am sick of doing journalists’ work for them. Where’s my paycheck? There I was, nervous that perhaps my “how to read a newspaper” instructions were a bit condescending, as if my readers were monkeys instead of well-educated, intelligent, adult humans. But Faulconbridge didn’t even make it as far as Step 2. And he’s a professional. See – I knew publishing them would be public service. I’m going to write a book on the de-monkeyfication of information consumption. But before that, let’s find out what our mysterious nogoodnik in the Kremlin has to say about democracy. And Cezanne…
2. The Source.
The title of the interview might be translated as “Update, Gentlemen!” One assumes it is meant to underpin Medvedev’s big, “Forward, Russia!” speech. Or not. I don’t know. Too bad the Reuters article wasn’t, “Kremlin warns against wrecking Russia with democracy!” It would have at least captured the aesthetic. Anyway, it turns out interview is largely about modernization, technological innovations, diversifying the economy, raising the standard of living, blah blah blah and the responsibility of the individual as well as the State in this undertaking. All Obama-like. Or was it Kennedy? Anyway. The actual discussion of democracy was not “in answer to calls from opponents for democratic reforms to liberalise the political system” but in response to the following question:
Владимир Путин на форуме “Россия зовет!” заявил, что наша экономика и впредь будет строиться на либеральных принципах. Аналогичные сигналы подает и президент. Но история модернизаций говорит о том, что они могут проводиться в том числе и силовым путем. Как по-вашему, Россия способна к либеральной модернизации?
[Trans. c/o Google: Vladimir Putin at the forum "Russia is calling!" said that our economy will continue to be based on liberal principles. Similar signals are fed and the president. But history says upgrades that they may be including by force. How do you think Russia is capable of a liberal modernization?]
Note, this is a question about the economy, not political opposition, and about liberal modernization, not nec. democratic reforms as you and I might understand them. From Surkov’s response:
В вашем вопросе, возможно, речь идет о неавторитарной модернизации, которая опирается на демократический строй. Конечно, на мой взгляд, осуществление такой модернизации вполне возможно.
[Trans: In your question, perhaps, it is about nonauthoritarian modernization, which is based on the democratic system. Of course, in my view, the implementation of such an upgrade is possible.]
Modernization based on the democratic system is possible. Huh. Where’s the wrecking? I’m not scared yet. In fact, it turns out Surkov says it is not only possible, but Russia’s “task.” Get to work kids, nonauthoritarian modernization calls!
Наша задача доказать самим себе простую мысль, что мы можем модернизироваться, опираясь на демократические институты. Но здесь важно не перепутать либеральное, демократическое общество с хаосом и беспорядком.
[Trans: Our task is to prove to ourselves the simple idea that we can modernize, relying on democratic institutions. But it is important not to confuse a liberal, democratic society with chaos and disorder.]
Here Surkov differentiates between a liberal, democratic society and chaos and disorder, a distinction which, if you lived in Russia circa 1995, as did perhaps many Itogi readers, you’d appreciate. And while the wrecking powers of chaos are well documented, I’m still waiting for the part where liberal, democratic society wrecks Russia. So far this interview is pretty boring compared to all the hype…
Хотя Мао Цзэдун и говорил, что большой хаос создает большой порядок, он скорее имел ввиду, что из разрухи рождается жесткий, а то и тоталитарный режим. Нам это не нужно. Нам не нужен Пиночет. Но мы должны знать, что неконсолидированная и несбалансированная власть, слабые демократические институты не способны обеспечить экономический подъем. Даже сейчас, когда власть достаточно консолидирована и упорядочена, многие проекты идут очень медленно и трудно. Если добавится какая-то политическая неустойчивость, то наше развитие будет просто парализовано. Будет много демагогии, много болтовни, много лоббирования и растаскивания России по кусочкам, но не будет развития.
[Trans: Although Mao Zedong and said that a big chaos creates a large order, he probably meant that out of chaos comes hard, if not a totalitarian regime. We do not need. We do not need a Pinochet. But we must know that unconsolidated and unbalanced power, weak democratic institutions are not able to ensure economic recovery. Even now, when power is sufficiently consolidated and streamlined, many projects are going very slow and difficult. If you add some sort of political instability, our development will be just paralyzed. There will be a lot of demagoguery, a lot of chatter, a lot of lobbying and stripping Russia in pieces, but there is no development.]
Aha! It’s not democracy but “unconsolidated and unbalanced power, weak democratic institutions” which threaten to wreck Russia. Well… uhm… Obviously. That’s been a frequently observed fact illustrated throughout Russia’s history. I’ve wasted all my time on this? Excuse me while I call Guy Faulconbridge and ask for 45 minutes of my life back.
Ok, I am back. I didn’t call. I decided that just because a person can alter people’s perceptions of reality using nefarious journalistic powers, it doesn’t mean a person can actually alter reality, spacetime continuum-wise. Anyway, since we are here, and since Surkov is bound to have said something controversial and brilliant in the interview because that’s how he rolls, let’s have a look. Here’s our propagandist at work:
Надо осознать, что, если мы не преобразуемся, мы обречены если не на распад и гибель, то на поражение в мировой конкурентной борьбе и довольно унылое существование. Нам абсолютно необходима новейшая экономика, основанная на творчестве, на азарте изобретательства, на создании не имеющих аналогов продуктов, полезных людям.
[Trans: We must realize that if we do not transform, we are doomed if not for the decay and death, then to defeat in the global competition and a rather sad existence. We absolutely need the newest economy based on creativity, the excitement of invention, on the creation of unparalleled products useful to people.]
That’s all ya got? Seriously? No lashings? No manifestos? No literary name-dropping? Just talking points from “How to talk like a politician for dummies?” No, you are not a dummy. You are Surkov. You are fabulous. Say something fabulous.
В свое время известный французский импрессионист Поль Сезанн был очень недоволен электрическим освещением на улицах Парижа. Он считал, что этот свет неправильный, хотя для того времени внедрение этих технологий было большим шагом вперед…
[Trans:At one time the famous French impressionist Paul Cezanne was very displeased with electric lighting in the streets of Paris. He believed that this light is wrong, although at that time the introduction of these technologies was a big step forward....]
Well, he threw me a small bone. A bone is a bone, however. I don’t see Rahm Emanuel waxing philosophical about Cezanne.
Have we learned our lesson today, kids? I mean, in addition to the one about reading a newspaper? I think we have. And it is not that the Western media is lazy and biased and make up disparaging crap about Russia because they hate Russia and their way of life. No. It is that when people from the Kremlin say very sensible, obvious, innocuous, rational and boring things, the Western media, rather than being lazy, are forced to make up stuff. Because no one wants to read very sensible, obvious, innocuous, rational and boring things. If that’s all that were in the papers, the public would eventually come to the conclusion that they don’t need the press to tell them what is going on, only an Internet connection their critical thinking skills. And then they’d stop reading newspapers. And then, and then, why, the world would abruptly come screeching to a fiery end because you can’t have democracy without the press, and you can’t have peace and prosperity without democracy! Right? Right? So it is the duty of journalists to write anything they think will keep them in business, for democracy. Even when the things they write … er … undermine the principles of democracy. Like the truth. And our intelligence.
III. The Context.
I suspect the desire to interpret anything Surkov says or does at the moment as “in answer to calls from opponents for democratic reforms to liberalise the political system” is a reaction to the recent walk-out of so-called opposition party officials in protest after their poor showing in this month’s municipal elections. The walkout was purported to be a condemnation of Surkov, who not only reportedly invented some of these parties, but is considered by many to be the brains behind Russia’s system of electoral politics, a.k.a., “managed democracy.” It’s clear the Western media would like to see a genuine confrontation between the Kremlin and its opponents for a variety of reasons. What is less clear is how genuine an opposition parties like “Just Russia” actually represent, who is to blame for their losses, and how the Russian citizenry would benefit from a collapse of the current regime. The drama seems to have largely fizzled out before escalating into anything critical. RFE/RL has a pretty fascinating interpretation of the walk-out: The Revolution Will Be Stage-Managed. I don’t know if any of it is true, but the headline is witty. And that’s what counts, right?
Was Surkov’s warning about weak democracy and chaos an allusion to recent events, or just a reasonable comment anyone could make in the context of the past 20 years? Does the Kremlin really think democracy could wreck Russia -give and inch and they take a mile- and that recent events are a foreshadowing of this? Who exactly are we referring to when we say, “the Kremlin?” Are democracy and well-ordered and consolidated power incompatible? Is one more desirable than the other? Can democracy actually “wreck” a country? These are all interesting (well, to me) lines of questioning. It would have rocked if Guy Faulconbridge, who so far as I can gather was the only mainstream Western journalist to cover the Itogi interview, had written an article raising such questions, rather than copying and pasting a handful of quotes and slapping a contentious headline on it. Wouldn’t journalism be more of a service if it forced people to think for themselves rather than told them what to think? Right now there are people out there with less free time than I walking around under the impression that Russia sees democracy as a threat. Period. As if it were 1952 or something. How is that helpful?
Let’s end on a light note. Just in case you fear, as I did, that our Presidential advisor/goth band lyricist/youth cult leader has succumbed to mediocrity, it seems Surkov’s trademark wry humour and observations were on display during an address to the country’s Public Chamber last Tuesday. According to the website, Putinania, he opened with the following remarks:
“I did not come from Mars. I am a guy. I began work as usual. I worked at a business. At a big business. I was born in the state. I am not trying to pretend. I am one of you.”
Not a martian! Good to know. We could mate…
And according toRussia Today, he made the following observation in the same address:
“I am not against [the criticism], you are welcome. The Kremlin is alright to attack – that’s what it is for. But, we have many of those who are in the opposition to power and no one who opposes a problem,” Surkov concluded.
Ouch! Yes, he’s still on. Whew.
Maybe they are lying to me as well! Great. Now I have trust issues. Like I needed something else to blame mainstream media for. What, illegal and immoral war wasn’t enough? Now I have to go through life paranoid, singing “I am a rock, I am an island?” I should change this headline to “Poemless warns against wrecking your soul with terrible journalism.”
Be afraid! Be very afraid!
[Update: More Surkov in Stratfor's Special Series: The Kremlin Wars in comments.]