Gleb Pavlovsky: the final act


Russian “political technologist” Gleb Pavlovsky is considered a master of political intrigue and backstage games, yet on April 27 found himself dismissed as a Kremlin advisor. His fall from grace was reportedly linked to indiscreet comments made about the 2012 presidential elections (and supposedly for making his support for Dmitry Medvedev known). A short while before his exit, Tatiana Zhurzhenko and Ivan Krastev took an interview with him, not expecting the conversation would be his last major interview as a Kremlin adviser. That context and the dialogue’s frequently candid nature make for fascinating reading. A co-publication with Eurozine and Transit

Ivan Krastev Tatiana Zhurzhenko
15 May 2011

Foreword from the editors

Gleb Pavlovsky is arguably Russia’s best-known political strategist and spin-doctor, and his recent departure from the Kremlin came as a real surprise. For over fifteen years, his Foundation for Effective Politics played a key role in Russian political life, advising presidents Yeltsin and Putin through parliamentary and presidential election campaigns. 

Born in Odessa in 1951, Pavlovsky has not always belonged to the power elite; indeed, as a young man he styled himself in quite opposite terms. As a student of history at the local university, he helped found a small, unsanctioned discussion group on Soviet Politics. He distributed samizdat works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a book that was totally forbidden in Soviet Union.  In April 1982, he found himself arrested for his role in this underground publishing. 

The dissident part of Pavlovsky’s biography is, however, forever to be overshadowed by what came later: his compromise deals with the authorities and his confessions in prison, which saved him from a long prison term. Rather than hard labour, Pavlovsky was instead exiled to the Komi republic and the relative comfort of working as a stoker and house painter. 

"Twentieth Century and the
World”: an influential
magazine Pavlovsky helped
found following his return from
exile in the Komi republic

Pavlovsky’s return to Moscow coincided with the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as secretary general of the Communist Party. The policy of perestroika and glasnost allowed Pavlovsky to close the darker part of his biography and to take active part in the reform movement. He was one of the founders, and eventually the editor-in-chief, of the influential "Twentieth Century and the World" magazine, which was one of the most interesting publications of the perestroika era. Pavlovsky also helped establish the Post-Factum news agency. 

His career developed with even greater speed following the collapse of USSR. In 1995 he founded Foundation for Effective Policy, which was considered to have played a crucial role in ensuring Yeltsin’s re-election and Vladimir Putin’s presidential election victory in 2000. The second election was characterised by the controversial use of TV media to spin “black PR” against Putin’s rivals in Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov. Pavlovsky was considered instrumental in the strategy. 

From that moment on, Pavlovsky had an official Kremlin position as advisor to the Head of the Presidential Administration. He was seen as brilliant PR expert, able to design effective scenarios for crisis situations. He was also one of the pioneers of the Russian Internet (runet) and he used it skillfully in most of his political campaigns. On the other hand, Pavlovsky is also believed to be the man responsible for the ill-conceived strategy which led to Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the presidential victory of Viktor Yushchenko over Viktor Yanukovych in 2004.

Pavlovsky has never been forgiven by his former dissident friends for his role in supporting the strict autocratic measures of Putin’s administration, which both destroyed free media and marginalised democratic opposition. In the eyes of the former dissident community, Pavlovsky’s greatest sin was to support a regime controlled by former enemy-spooks.  

Interview conducted by Tatiana Zhurzhenko and Ivan Krastev

In 1982 you were arrested and charged with anti-Soviet activities. Looking back today, how do you see the events of 30 years ago? 

The period of the late 1970s to early 1980s was quite special. There was a social breakthrough that has never been described politically because at the time we lacked a suitable political language. My generation came on the scene at a time when the degree of freedom and the number of free people grew a little with each year.  Sometimes it was initiated from above, by a Politburo decision. Mostly it came from below. Around 1969, when the impetus from above slowed down, the pressure from below intensified, so a sense of continuity was maintained. It was a progressive continuity. We'd call it liberalization today, although that's not a word we used in those days. 


One-time dissident and Kremlin-convert, Gleb
Pavlovsky cuts a controversial figure in
liberal-dissident circles

This process suddenly came to a standstill around 1979 - 1980. The pressure from above intensified while the influx of new people into the movement from below stopped.  New people no longer appeared to fill the void left by those who were arrested. Had I been asked in the first half of the 1970s what the future held, my prediction would have been optimistic. But by the early 1980s it became clear that the world situation had taken a turn for the worse and the dissidents inside the country began to edge towards direct confrontation with the regime. I was expecting a crisis, both within the country and on a global scale.  

In 1982 I was arrested and when I returned to Moscow in 1984, on leave from internal exile, I found a completely different environment. The same people were still there but they no longer formed a community, a “network”. And those who continued the struggle did so on their own, no longer relying on the help of others.

What was it that changed so dramatically in the late 1970s compared with the 1960s?

Starting from 1969 -1970 there was a new factor — the option of leaving for the West.  Until then there had been defections but legal emigration had not been possible. Within a short time it became obvious that whenever someone left, the chances of those who remained being arrested increased. And this made the dissident community less tightly knit. A tightly-knit community had made it very difficult to arrest someone, especially when figures of moral authorities such as Chukovsky and Tvardovsky were still alive. Such arrests had always been special, meticulously planned KGB operations. It was easier to arrest people in the provinces, whereas in larger cities, not only in Moscow, it was quite difficult.  The Soviet Union had quite a few cultural and social capitals of this kind, not necessarily capitals of the republics. You had Kharkov, Odessa, Lvov, Leningrad, Tbilisi, Baku, Erevan — capitals with a tradition of intelligentsia, where it was difficult to arrest someone without a Central Committee decision. But once prominent intellectuals started leaving, those who remained became small-fry and they started getting arrested. 

You seem quite ambivalent about liberal-dissident circles ... 

From the very start, the dissident movement has adopted different positions, different models of action. Until the mid 1970s you had Sakharov and later Tvardovsky who, with his journal Novy mir, represented what I would call the East European model (based on a public stance taken by prominent intellectuals willing to interfere in political affairs). I would call it Soviet republicanism. This “Polish model” collapsed in the early 1970s. Following Tvardovsky’s death, Solzhenitsyn's exile, and Sakharov's move to individual protest, the scene was reduced to a few moral loners. The dissident movement turned into a sect, into a group of individuals proclaiming a moral position. This could have been avoided if in the early 1970s the prominent “republicans” had united with the 1960s generation and offered the dissidents their support. I parted ways with my fellow liberals roughly in 1970 when many intellectuals from the Institute of Philosophy and other institutions refused to defend dissidents.  That is why I have to stress again that when we speak of the “dissident movement” we actually mean two separate projects. In the 1970s, the moralist project definitively prevailed but it turned out to be politically sterile, a dead end. We defend those who have been arrested and later, when we get arrested, others defend us, and so on, like on a conveyor belt.  Most of my samizdat writing in the 1970s was aimed precisely against this “moral purity” discourse. However, you cannot defeat a moralist discourse in moralist terms, as I tried.  That struggle of mine was doomed. 

"If you're not powerful, the way to become powerful is
to challenge someone else's power. When Putin came
along, we didn't think up the slogan “There's no
alternative to Putin” in the campaign. It came from
below, without our encouragement. But we latched on
to it fast. At that point we were still worried that
someone might challenge Putin."

And where did Pavlovsky the “political technologist” [spin doctor, strategist - ed.] come from?

The term “political technologist” entered common usage after 1996 and after Yeltsin's election. The idea was to start ‘interfering’ with events but to do it strategically. It wasn’t even called politics in those days. There were elections. The 1993 elections and Yeltsin’s referendum with the coded chanting of “Yes - yes - no - yes” made a powerful impression. Yeltsin managed to win, albeit with a small majority. But his victory wasn't due to the slogan but due to the fact that people were beginning to suspect that “the next Yeltsin” might turn out to be even more dangerous. This fear, the fear that there was no alternative to him, started emerging as early as 1993.

Actually, the whole issue of “no alternative to Yeltsin” is very interesting. We used to say there was no alternative to Gorbachev either, and once it transpired that an alternative to Gorbachev did exist, it also became clear that there was an alternative to perestroika — in a word, Yeltsin. And when Yavlinsky published an article entitled “I am prepared to be an alternative to Yeltsin” — in spring 1993 if my memory serves me — that caused an enormous scandal but it also made him famous as politician. That's when I realized that if you're not powerful, the way to become powerful is to challenge someone else's power. We had fully understood this by 1999. When Putin came along, we didn't use the slogan “There's no alternative to Putin” in the campaign -- it came from below, without our encouragement. But we latched on to it fast. At that point we were still worried that someone might challenge Putin. 

Since the emergence of Medvedev as President one can no longer say: there is no alternative to Putin. Or: there is no alternative to Medvedev.

Yes, the tandem has destroyed the charismatic notion of “alternativelessness”.  But because the idea that there was no alternative to Yeltsin's power proved effective in elections, I personally started wondering about the way power is organized in Russia. I was aware that [historian] Mikhail Gefter had similar ideas but his ideas related to history, to the past. At that point I didn’t think it applied also to the present, that it was the same power.  But the minute I realized it was the same power it started dawning on me that this idea had political potential. 

So political strategists became experts in “alternativelessness”? 

That's exactly right. “Effective politics” means politics of non-political power.  Take the 1991 “Yeltsin — Gaidar” leadership, for example.  This is when the idea of non-political power emerges and is proclaimed for the first time. It was Gaidar who explained that reforms belonged to the realm of “economics”, whereas the President was in charge of “politics”. Gaidar himself wouldn't get involved in politics; he would deal with the economy and "save the country from hunger". To ensure the welfare of the population Yeltsin had to be given the opportunity to be in charge of politics. The word “power” was already being used then. Gaidar said that we should capitalize on Yeltsin's popularity: once we have this capital of power we will spend it; we will try to make it last as a gold reserve. To which Yeltsin himself added: yes, one day all the confidence you have in me will be spent, but by then “everything will have been achieved”. 

Were the Communists really perceived as a serious threat in 1996?

If we recall that in January 1996 [Communist Gennady] Zyuganov's ratings were 40 per cent while Yeltsin's were only 5 per cent, it is hard to deny that it was conceivable. But of course, a “communist comeback” was to a large extent a myth on which we based the 1996 election campaign — the myth of the terrible Bolshevik with a knife in his teeth who will come to take away your property, your apartment and so on. Especially since we were aware of sociological data. From 1995 onwards, I realised that attitudes to freedom do not in fact split the political field. In reality, there was a consensus between the democrats and Zyuganov's Communists. The basic liberal package involved the following: freedom to travel abroad, free trade, freedom of economic activity, rallies, demonstrations and elections. None of that was under threat.


The success of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004,
which Pavlovsky worked against, told the ruling
Russian elite that there were no longer any failsafe

The Western idea of Russia is that in Yeltsin's era there was democracy, maybe bad and imperfect but democracy nevertheless, that there was political competition. But once Putin came to power he established an authoritarian regime, a completely different model. As an insider, how do you see the difference between Yeltsin's and Putin's regime?

Even though people talk about a “new regime”, in reality the early years of Putin were governed more by the logic of the 2000 election campaign. The main impact was within the institutional framework; Yeltsin's system of governance didn't change. The new system of presidential envoys and federal districts was a purely virtual affair. It was meant to demonstrate the willingness to transform Russia to any degree. The real issue was bringing together whatever was left of power. So whatever was left of controllability and subjugation was suddenly mobilized. All this happened as a result of Putin's landslide victory, which was transformed into a permanent referendum: are you for Putin or against him? 

In terms of technology and organisation it was Yeltsin's old system, relying on the same actors. Any significant changes were in fact just the completion of tasks that Yeltsin had left unfinished. For example, Yeltsin didn't know what to do about the army. I think he never got free of a Soviet personality split: on the one hand, the idea of a superpower that needed a powerful army, but on the other hand Soviet pacifism also survived, and in a radical form at that. So he just dithered and didn't do anything. Meanwhile disaster was brewing, as the army was starved of funds and existed more or less outside the state system. Basically, the army was outside of the constitutional framework, and something resembling a parody of a Latin American scenario was in the offing. Generals were thieving, doing business and embezzling state funds. And what effect can an army like this have on a country?  These were dangerous symptoms. 

Putin brought the army and the FSB back into the power system and got rid of everyone who disapproved. But of course, once the siloviki came to power they brought along everything they had been involved in, including their new criminal links and commercial motives.

In those days, of course, Putin was an authentic figure, a political leader to whom there really  seemed to be no alternative. Had he decided to run in free elections in 2004 he would have won. So why was that election manipulated? 

2003 was a key turning point; it had to do with [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky's arrest. That's when the political atmosphere changed and the whole idea of a second term changed with it. Parliamentary elections in Russia are the beginning of the presidential campaign, the first merges into the second. During the 2003 parliamentary election Yukos wasn’t the only one grooming its candidates for a “post-Putin era”. Yukos first decided to unite Yabloko with the Union of Right Forces but then they suddenly changed course and decided to make the liberals charge in two columns. This was making Putin quite agitated.  But regardless of this, he decided to promote United Russia in this election. If the party hadn't participated in the 2003 election it would have ended up as just another electoral project of the party of power. It was necessary to create at least one permanent party. And course, this is still true today — it was the transformation to a one-and-a-half party system. Our main target in that election were the communists. Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces were expected to get into parliament but in fact they didn't make it. That is why the approach changed and since then the liberals have not been really taken into account in political projects..


Putin and Medvedev after the Pavlovsky-directed 2000
election victory. “Neither Medvedev nor Putin think that
the present situation can continue for another term.
And Putin cannot simply return to his old post. He's
looking for a new idea for his comeback”

The basic idea behind the 2004 presidential election was to turn it into a referendum — a “confirmation referendum”. The revolution of 1999 - 2000 was to be the last. All our past elections were linked to revolutions. Voters knew that following an election a revolution was to be expected. Putin's task this time was to make sure that that idea shouldn't even occur to them. Hence the emphasis on stability and triumphalism of the highest degree. If the task had been to “imitate pluralism” it would have been very easy to pull off.

Although the demonstration of stability succeeded, apart from Khodorkovsky's arrest, 2003-2004 also saw Beslan and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

These were milestone events. They demonstrated to Putin that no real reliable defence mechanisms exist, either in terms of foreign or domestic politics. Russia is responsive to nihilism and everything can change at any moment. By that point you had a new kind of politics, including the involvement of youth organizations, had reached the post-Soviet space. The Bush factor played an important role even before this. I think Putin was sensitive to Bush's image; he regarded him as a model of presidential behaviour.  At the same time Putin began to realize that this fellow Bush had quite a few opportunities and that technically it was possible that after Iraq and Afghanistan he might focus on Russia. Suddenly the old Russian pattern was resurrected: to hell with it, we've been best friends with America and they’re going to do a 22 June [1941, when Hitler’s army attacked the USSR, in breach of the Soviet-German treaty] on us.  Of course, it was after Ukraine that the Kremlin started feeling this way. And Bush's new programme -- to spread democracy around the world -- helped to intensify it. 

How stable is Putin's regime? How important is stability to him?

Stability is a propaganda thesis. There is real stability, one that can be verified in relative terms, and there is stability as political priority. Political priorities were proclaimed before there was any mention of stability, at the beginning of the last decade, that is to say, when almost everything was unstable. There wasn't even a stable team; Putin wasn't in control of his own team. His team was more like raisins in a biscuit, people who were embedded inside someone else's team, Yeltsin's team, which was closely-knit, held together by their links to the past and their attitude to Yeltsin, by property and views.  

Putin didn't want to be a transitional president. He saw that many regarded him as just a transitional figure, whose job was to give them time to prepare for the next election. And as far as I know, many in Yeltsin's team really thought this way and saw him in this way. But he didn't want to be temporary and he didn't like being controlled or having his ideology controlled. Sometimes he managed to impose something of his own, for example Russia's national anthem: that was his idea, which he managed to pull off. But in his early days as President most decisions weren't his to make. This was the problem Putin was trying to resolve in 2003. That is why he entered into open conflict with [head of the presidential administration] Alexander Voloshin.  He used Khodorkovsky's case as an excuse, but in reality I don't think Yukos was a key issue for him at the time. The key issue for him were the relations within the Kremlin team. It was a way of getting rid of “the Family”. This was important to him, but  it was also important for him to avoid getting into an open conflict with Yeltsin. He didn't touch people with close links to Yeltsin, for example [Oleg] Deripaska. But Khodorkovsky was never close to Yeltsin.  

Voloshin and his team couldn't give in and the conflict started to escalate. Putin didn't go for compromise, even though at first this seemed possible. And that’s when new power started to emerge around him and he started concentrating it. That is why the 2004 election was both an expression of triumphalism and the claiming of a new type of power, a stable power that could ensure stability. It wasn’t about stability of the political regime — I don't think Putin thinks in these categories. It was about stability as a social construct, as a way of organizing society.

Did Putin want to reach an agreement with Khodorkovsky?

I think that between the beginning of the war with Yukos in the summer of 2003 and Khodorkovsky's arrest in October there was a time when they tried to reach an agreement. But as far as I know by that point Mikhail was no longer interested in an agreement. He wanted something different, and who knows what exactly? And that is why all sorts of terrible ideas started floating around: some people saw this demonic Rothschild figure, there were all sorts of rumours about Russian Federation's nuclear reserves. It wasn't obvious what he was driving at. Khodorkovsky was rushing around talking non-stop, making strong statements but he wasn't actually doing anything. 

"Putin cannot follow a candidate he had himself had proposed. That would make him the lame duck. And he would have to spend the entire next term in office explaining why he made this mistake."
Gleb Pavlovsky

He made all the wrong moves. At this time he should have reached an agreement, or left the country, or taken a clear position but he didn't actually take any position. It was only later that he developed a political position but by then it seemed that he wanted to become Putin's equal and that he started recruiting armies that nobody could see. He really let down those who worked for him. There were people who had worked for Yukos and they were really in trouble.

The fact remains that an agreement with Yukos was never reached. Whether Putin wanted it or not, we will never know; these things are unfathomable in politics. He might not even remember now whether he wanted an agreement or not. I don't think he expected it would come to a tragic end. He's quite a careful person, after all, and he wouldn't have stated that Yukos would be all right, that the company would be preserved, he wouldn’t have said all the other things that turned out to be nonsense six months later. Nevertheless, everyone reached an agreement eventually, except for one person who was left out of all the agreements. Voloshin now has an office in the same building as Putin.

We've talked about the lack of alternatives to Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. On the eve of the 2012 elections, are we facing an end of the politics of “alternativelessness”? Or is it possible to arrest time and maintain the existing status quo? 

I believe that neither Medvedev nor Putin think that the present situation can continue for another term. Their assessment of the situation is different but neither of them thinks that the tandem can continue. Although some people around them would probably like that. They would like the tandem to stay, since the rules of the game are quite clear. It's not very convenient, that's true, you need two telephone lines, but you can get used to it. But Putin cannot simply return to his old post. He's looking for a new idea for his comeback.  

But why can't he just come back?  

To follow whom?  To follow a candidate he himself had proposed? That would make him the lame duck. And he would have to spend the entire next term in office explaining why he made this mistake. That's not who he is, this is not his way of thinking. He needs some powerful, unexpected move of his own, some sort of a new ploy, through an unexpected entrance. And at the same time, Medvedev is livid that none of the things Putin created works. There are buttons on his desk, he can push this one or that one, but the cables underneath are missing. On the other hand, he understands that he cannot end his presidency with this election. Unlike Putin, he has his own vision of the state. He has to realize this vision. But he can’t afford a conflict with Putin. This is very difficult. After all, it's about the ethics of friendship. Friends can’t betray each other. This wouldn't have been an obstacle for Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin], of course.  His path was strewn with former old friends, there was hardly a friend left whom he hadn't let down really badly. 

So the tandem is a non-starter. Medvedev doesn't want to go on like this for another four years. Putin doesn't want it either. But it would be even stranger if he became President and Medvedev Prime Minister. That would be just surreal. And Putin also understands there is a global mainstream that he has to follow. You can't be too eccentric. What is needed is something that would resemble the stability of the late 1990s.

What is also clear is that this is a problem that cannot be described in terms of politics of change: swapping one kind of politics for another. Perhaps it could be described in terms of regime change. In Russian discourse, regime change is described as perestroika: let's switch off all means of influencing the system and see what happens. It's scary, really scary, for everyone, actually. And after what we've seen in Manezhnaya Square, the liberals are also scared.

That is why I'd say we have never been so close to an election without having a solution. The parliamentary election campaign is formally due to start as early as in six months’ time. 2012 does sound like some kind of apocalypse. In Moscow everyone is talking about the Mayan calendar —2012 will be the end of the world. In 2012, the earth will shake, the heavens will thunder, and a gigantic stone with a new calendar will fall from heaven. And a voice will sound: thank you for using our calendar.  I mean, it will be almost like the end of the world, but the script sounds like a tautology. But the general sense that is growing independently of the propaganda is that Medvedev is most likely to stand for another term as President and that Putin is trying to decide what role to play after the election. And what he will come up with is anyone’s guess. 

A co-publication with Eurozine. The full length version will appear in Transit – Europäische Revue (all rights reserved). Supported by the Central European University, Budapest.


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