"There are two options," says Vladislav Surkov as we settle into our seats. "The first is Anglo-Saxon. I give you the menu, you can choose what you want. The second option is Russian. There is no choice. The chef chooses for you, because he knows better what you want." Surkov smiles. "I suggest the Russian option."
And so begins a meal heavily seasoned with allegory and metaphor, orchestrated by a man who helped to strangle Russia's infant democracy and replace it with an enfeebled parody of heavily scripted political reality TV that has kept Vladimir Putin in power for 21 years and counting – despite the rising tide of dissatisfaction and unrest at its dwindling economic benefits.
Surkov is a founding father of Putinism, and one of its key enablers. He is the architect of Russia’s “sovereign democracy”, an ostensibly open system with a closed outcome: elections are called, candidates campaign, votes are cast, ballot boxes are opened, and the same man wins, every single time.
Its core idea is that the stability of the state supersedes the freedom of the individual, and entails fake opposition parties, rigid control of the media and impossible barriers to entry for political figures not approved by the regime, offset by the illusion of the traditional trappings of a true democracy.
Grey cardinal, éminence grise, a modern Rasputin, a Russian Richelieu – Surkov exhausts the cliches as the consummate Kremlin backroom operator. Never elected, he was Putin's chief ideologist and by most accounts his closest political confidant for more than a dozen years, who went on to stage-manage the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia's involvement in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.
Surkov is either 56 or 58, depending on which biography you believe; in Russian political terms, he is only just reaching his prime. But he is no longer inside the towering red brick walls of the Kremlin, having parted ways with Putin last spring. From scripting Russia’s democracy, he is now simply controlling my diet.
In jeans and a pullover, in a secluded corner of an ostentatious restaurant perched on the roof of a luxury Moscow department store, Surkov says that his departure is irreversible, and that a year away from Putin’s side has taught him “the true meaning of serenity”. He has stayed out of the limelight since departing, publishing some poetry and – he tells me – exchanging political management for political philosophy.
We order champagne (Surkov says he only drinks sparkling) and as the first of five preordained courses arrives – a mess of barely discernible shredded vegetables drowning in truffle oil – I ask the obvious question: how does one dismantle democracy while enhancing its facade?
"In the Soviet Union, there was a lot of homogeneity. And that homogeneity ruined the Soviet Union, because people need diversity. But in the 1990s, we had diversity. And that diversity was ruining Russia even faster," he begins.
“For a while I was a student at the institute of culture. I studied the Commedia dell’arte. There is a limited cast: Pantalone, the merchant. There is a judge, Tartaglia. There is Harlequin, a stupid servant. Brighella, a smart servant. Colombina, the young servant, and so on. There is a limited group of players, but they represent all strata of society.”
I am initially bemused by this detour into Italian theatrical nomenclature but it soon becomes clear.
“People need to see themselves on stage,” he continues. “In this masked comedy, there is a director, there is a plot. And this is when I understood what needed to be done.
With Putin, I realised everything that I wanted to do could be done now
“We had to give diversity to people. But that diversity had to be under control. And then everyone would be satisfied. And at the same time, the unity of the society would be preserved . . . It works, this model works. It is a good compromise between chaos and order.”
Later in our conversation, which took place three weeks before Wednesday’s summit in Geneva, Surkov will spell out his central doctrine with even less nuance: “An overdose of freedom is lethal to a state,” he says. “Anything that is medicine can be poison. It is all about the dosage.”
Raised by his mother in a city 300km from Moscow, his Chechen father having left the family when Surkov was still young, he took an unorthodox route to Putin’s side.
He served in the Soviet army, worked as a turner in a factory, and spent years "smoking and talking with hippies and some other queer people" before entering the chaotic world of Russia's nascent capitalism as first a bodyguard and then a PR man for banking and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky was later stripped of his assets, jailed and exiled during Surkov's time in the Kremlin.
After a stint at Russia's state TV channel he was made an assistant to Alexander Voloshin, President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, in 1999. When Putin inherited the Kremlin at the turn of the millennium, Surkov was made deputy chief of staff.
Putin did the same with democracy. He did not abolish it. He married it with the monarchical archetype of Russian governance. This archetype is working.
“When the change happened, it was absolutely clear to me that the personality of the new leader provided an opportunity,” Surkov recollects. “With Putin, I realised everything that I wanted to do could be done now.”
Surkov entered the Kremlin when Russia’s democracy was just eight years old. In that short time, Yeltsin had survived an attempted coup, almost lost the presidency to a communist, and had in effect mortgaged the Kremlin to a small coterie of businessmen who were now calling the shots.
The industrious young political strategist got straight to work, building a party for Putin – today’s United Russia, which has won every election it has entered – while also helping to set up other parties such as the nationalist Rodina (Motherland), nominally independent but Kremlin-directed, designed to appeal to disgruntled citizens who might otherwise have voted for real opponents of Putin, such as staunch leftists.
He tells me that Putin, with his help, created "a new type of state". He describes his former boss as a modern-day Octavian, the Roman ruler who succeeded Julius Caesar.
“Octavian came to power when the nation, the people, were wary of fighting. He created a different type of state. It was not a republic any more . . . he preserved the formal institutions of the republic – there was a senate, there was a tribune. But everyone reported to one person and obeyed him. Thus he married the wishes of the republicans who killed Caesar, and those of the common people who wanted a direct dictatorship,” he says.
“Putin did the same with democracy. He did not abolish it. He married it with the monarchical archetype of Russian governance. This archetype is working. It is not going anywhere . . . It has enough freedom and enough order.”
This is easy for him to say. Less so for those who oppose Putin's stealth autocracy, such as Alexei Navalny, the leader of Russia's grassroots opposition, who has mobilised hundreds of thousands of protesters against the regime over the past decade despite constant attacks. Last year, he was poisoned with a weapons-grade nerve agent in an assassination attempt he says was ordered by the Kremlin and, after he recovered, was arrested and jailed.
In response, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets this winter, only to be violently beaten by riot police and detained. Is that part of Surkov’s scripted democracy?
“When I started my work in 2000, I suggested a very simple system to bring law and order. We split the opposition into systemic and non-systemic. And what is systemic opposition? That is one that obeys the rules, laws and customs,” he says, referring to Kremlin-directed opposition parties.
I call him out on this obvious paradox. An opposition that is loyal to those who set the rules is no opposition at all. He presses on.
“The second requirement is that they do not work for foreign governments. If they do that, they cannot represent Russians . . . it breaches our sovereignty,” he says. “How to exclude it is a matter of taste, and depends on the temper of certain people.”
Navalny’s organisation has been designated as a “foreign agent”, and its members will be banned from participating in elections. It denies receiving foreign support.
I ask him if he is shocked by the new level of violence being used by police against protesters this spring. He smiles, and says he has no idea. I recommend he goes to a protest. “Me? Why should I?” he responds with mock affront.
“The state protects itself, everywhere,” he retorts. “Sorry, I’m saying simple things like a Kremlin propagandist, but this is obvious. In all countries, illegal rallies are crushed by force. Why should we be different?
"That man is not acceptable. Navalny is not acceptable," he says. "He should not be part of Russian politics. Germans love him, let him be elected to the Bundestag. They can give him a German passport."
This sharp nationalist edge lies just below the surface of this suave intellectual, who blends Bible quotes with financial market theory and kept a photo of the late US rapper Tupac Shakur in his government office.
Waiters bustle around. Delicious tuna carpaccio is an improvement on the sorry salad, and next comes slices of excellent rare beef under shredded parmesan. Surkov barely touches his food and takes tiny sips of his champagne.
Ukrainians are very well aware that for the time being, their country does not really exist. I have said that it could exist in the future
In 2011, Surkov moved from the Kremlin to become deputy prime minister, and in May 2013 was dismissed from government. His rivals toasted the end of his regency. But four months later he returned, this time as a formal aide to Putin, with oversight over Ukraine policy. It would be an assignment with similarly seismic impacts as his first.
Surkov tells me that when he worked for Khodorkovsky in the 1990s, he wrote a memo to a senior politician arguing for the need for Russia to retake Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that became part of independent Ukraine when the USSR dissolved. But, he admits, Russia lacked both the resources and the organisation at the time.
In February 2014, five months after Surkov’s new appointment, unmarked Russian troops entered Crimea to capture strategic sites, and lend muscle to pro-Russian separatists that demanded independence from Kiev.
A month later, in a referendum declared illegal by the UN General Assembly, the territory voted to become a part of Russia. Simultaneously, pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine, supported by Moscow, began taking control of regional institutions and clashing with federal security services – clashes that erupted into a full-blown war that continues today.
Surkov is unrepentant, and portrays himself as someone seeking to help – not dissect – a country long divided between east and west. “Ukrainians are very well aware that for the time being, their country does not really exist. I have said that it could exist in the future. The national core exists. I am just asking the question as to what the borders, the frontier should be. And that should be the subject for an international discussion,” he says.
“The country can be reformed as a confederation, with a lot of freedom for the regions to decide things by themselves,” he continues. “Two bones need soft tissue between them. Ukraine is right between Russia and the West, and the geopolitical gravity of both will sever Ukraine.
“Until we reach that outcome, the fight for Ukraine will never cease. It may die down, it may flare up, but it will continue, inevitably.”
Surkov describes the Minsk agreements – a peace deal signed by Moscow, Kiev and pro-Russian rebels – as an act that "legitimised the first division of Ukraine".
I remind him that 14,000 people have been killed in fighting since 2014, including 298 civilians on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down by pro-Russian rebels, according to international investigations that Moscow rejects. Surkov says that was “a pity”.
“I am proud that I was part of the reconquest. This was the first open geopolitical counter-attack by Russia [against the West] and such a decisive one. That was an honour for me,” he says. “Could it have been done better? Of course it could . . . But we have got what we have got.”
Throughout his time at Putin’s side, Surkov was deployed as a deft propagandist, and shrewd manipulator of public mood. He helped birth Nashi, a nationalist youth group that venerated Putin and harassed perceived enemies of the state. Much of the Kremlin propaganda spewed out by state TV and social media troll armies was drafted on his desk.
“People need it,” he says in response to my comment that much of that propaganda is dangerous. “Most people need their heads to be filled with thoughts.
“You are not going to feed people with some highly intellectual discourse. Most people eat simple foods. Not the kind of food we are having tonight. Generally most people consume very simple-meaning beliefs. This is normal. There is haute cuisine, and there is McDonald’s,” he laughs. “Everyone takes advantage of such people all over the world.”
Yet at some point, his methods saw him fall from favour. He had become, in his own words, “too odious”.
“When someone fills a certain office, and people talk about him for so long that he is a puppeteer, that he is a strangler of democracy, that he is [19th-century reactionary adviser to three Russian tsars] Pobedonostsev and Rasputin – that is the essence of being odious,” he says. “The government has to remove such people now and then . . . those people have to be replaced, so that they stop irritating people.”
But he also asserts that his final departure was mutual – that the fun of dressing up a one-party state as a democracy had gone.
“In 2000, it was unbelievably exciting. It was for the first time. Everyone said: ‘Wow!’” he recalls. “And so then what else? I had built this car, but I got bored driving it. It needed people who are more patient sitting at their desks. I am not a driver.”
Yet he still evidently likes to be in charge. Without my knowledge, he has already settled the bill. I protest, citing FT rules. He waves me away, citing his own.
Surkov, who has mystified Kremlin watchers with his low profile since leaving – neither political exile nor lucrative business appointments – rebuffs my persistent questions about a possible return to the fray. But as the plates of panna cotta are cleared, and I ask about his role in the next Kremlin transition, his discipline finally cracks.
“Well, let’s wait and see. Some exciting things are ahead of us. There will be many new dramatic transformations,” he says. “Yes, I would like to understand when it will happen. If I live long enough, when it happens, then I will have a job.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021
This article was published in the Financial Times series “Lunch with the FT”