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From shadows to darkness

After being sidelined since December 2011, the Kremlin's once-mighty propagandist Vladislav Surkov was today ousted from government. Mikhail Loginov looks back at the career of the former 'grey cardinal', and defines the man who has replaced him, Vyacheslav Volodin.

The Presidential Administration is an unusual Russian government body in that the most important person is not the head of the organisation but his first deputy. Until 2011 this deputy was the now departed Vladislav Surkov; since 2011 Vyacheslav Volodin has been in charge.  Change of deputy, change of policy, or so it would seem. Under Surkov, say the experts, Putin would never have flown with the cranes, nor signed controversial laws like the Dima Yakovlev bill

The 'grey cardinal'

Vladislav Surkov only became first deputy to the head of the Presidential Administration in 2008; before that, from 1999, he was but a lowly Duma deputy.  In fact, his influence on government policy was immeasurably greater than merited by his official post. Surkov was regularly described as the regime's ‘grey cardinal’, or power behind the throne of Russian politics. However, he was never a grey cardinal to his own boss but to Putin – assistant to the king directly, rather than the cardinal. 

Surkov’s CV is reasonably typical for a Moscow politician, although he is not a Muscovite by birth. There has, incidentally, been some ideological wrangling over where exactly he was born. Surkov's opponents maintain that his father was Chechen and that he was born in the aul [village] of Dubai-Yurt; his supporters, or rather information team, that he was born in the Lipetsk region and any other assertions are false.

His birthplace may not be clear, but it was in Moscow that he made his career. In 1987 Surkov became head of the advertising department of the Research and Development Centre at the District Committee of the Komsomol, whose head was Mikhail Khodorkovsky. These bodies were set up during the first years of perestroika: their official purpose was to support youth initiatives, but they were actually a school for capitalist networks.

Vyacheslav Volodin (left) shares few of the crafty instincts of his predecessor Vladislav Surkov (right)  Photo (c) Ria Novosti / Vladimir Rodionov

In the 90s Surkov occupied various high-ranking posts in Khodorkovsky’s commercial organisations. Then he moved to TV and Russia’s Channel One; subsequently, in 1999, he became assistant to the head of the Presidential Administration. 

Surkov was one of the ideologues and organisers of the ‘United Russia’ party. The debate as to who proposed one of the most successful political projects in today’s Russia is still running, with some people considering that the part played by Boris Berezovsky was just as important.  But no one questions that it was Surkov who came up with the term ‘sovereign democracy.’

Surkov was also responsible for many other political projects and ideas. He thought up several spoiler parties to take votes away from the opposition – first and foremost  the‘Just Russia’ party.  He created the youth organisation Nashi, coordinated provocations against the opposition and is considered to have been behind the falling-out between various opposition politicians, including the attack on journalist Oleg Kashin.

When Dmitry Medvedev became president for a 4-year term, he inherited Surkov and promoted him to first deputy of the Administration. During this time, Surkov moderated his attitude towards the opposition, calling the December 2011 demonstrators ‘the best part of Russian society.’  Was it that Putin was outraged by this, or that Surkov failed to predict the unimpressive ‘United Russia’ result at the parliamentary election?  For whatever reason, Putin demoted Surkov from the Kremlin to join Medvedev in the White House. The fall from grace became complete today, with Surkov’s apparently forced resignation.

The Petersburger from Saratov

In Surkov’s place as grey cardinal came Vyacheslav Volodin. Like Surkov, Volodin was born in 1964. The two first deputies may have quite similar names – Vladislav and Vyacheslav – but they have very different CVs. In the 90s Surkov was a businessman, a bit of a chancer in the Moscow business world.  Volodin, on the other hand, is a classic politician from the regions.  He is also a businessman of sorts, but for him the political was always more important than the commercial.

Volodin was born in Saratov. As a young man he joined the Communist Party, though he soon managed to forget this ‘youthful indiscretion.’  In 1990, he was elected deputy to Saratov City Council and in 6 years he had become Deputy Governor of the Saratov Oblast.  From 1999 his career unfolded in Moscow, as a deputy to the State Duma. Initially he set up a coalition with Yury Luzhkov and regional leaders ‘Fatherland – All Russia’, and in 2001 he was even head of the faction.  But he very quickly realised that Vladimir Putin and his movement ‘Unity’ were the face of the future: a year after the election his ‘Fatherland – All Russia’ had joined forces with ‘Unity’. This was the birth of ‘United Russia’ and Volodin joined the party. 

More rapid upward movement meant that by 2005 he was Secretary to the Presidium of the party’s General Council. In 2007 he was appointed Deputy Chair of the State Duma and in 2010 he joined the government. From there he was appointed to his current post as first deputy to the head of the Presidential Administration.

In every job he has taken, Volodin has demonstrated energy and political intuition.  In the 90s he supported additional privileges for the regions, but he realised in good time that the alliance with Luzhkov and the heads of the national republics e.g. Tatarstan and Bashkiria was doomed. It wasn’t just him that went over to the rival party: he managed to take his whole party with him.

Friends and enemies call him the ‘Petersburger from Saratov’, in reference to the group of close and loyal confidants that Putin has promoted from his native St Petersburg.  Volodin’s image is indeed of a collected, disciplined, well-educated politician and bureaucrat, who stands out well from the politicians of Soviet times and the Moscow political village of today.  Many of his qualities mirror those of Vladimir Putin, which is why the President appointed him the helmsman of domestic politics. 

No compromises

Volodin seems to have realised that one of the reasons why Putin sidelined Surkov was because he had spoken sympathetically of the opposition leaders. Volodin had no patrons other than Putin, and is not intending to look for any. He grasped that Putin had no intention of striking any deals with the opposition – on the contrary, he wanted to conquer and crush it.

'Volodin had no patrons other than Putin ....  He grasped that Putin had no intention of striking any deals with the opposition – on the contrary, he wanted to conquer and crush it.'

Observers noticed that Volodin’s arrival at the Presidential Administration signalled a completely new attitude in the Kremlin to the leaders of the opposition.  Ex-Finance Minister Kudrin was at the rally on Sakharov Avenue and regarded by many as a kind of bridge between the government and the protest leaders. All such bridges have now been burnt. The Presidential Administration organised a multiplicity of rallies in favour of Putin’s candidature for the presidency and manufactured acts of provocation aimed at the opposition. It was Volodin who came up with the idea of contrasting the poor, loyal provinces with the ‘well-fed’ Moscow opposition. Surkov had become such an integral part of the Moscow elite that such a simple idea wouldn’t have occurred to him.

It would be untrue to assert that Volodin alone was responsible for Putin’s militant and aggressive style during the election campaign. But equally Surkov would never have advised his patron to compare his supporters with an army defending Moscow from an external enemy, which he did at an election rally. Volodin, who had approved Putin’s speech, found this comparison acceptable.

Volodin also had a part in Putin’s decision not to permit even the slightest protest on the day of his inauguration. As a result, the centre of Moscow was deserted on 7 May: half the metro stations were closed, with columns of vehicles full of soldiers standing outside them.  The police arrested members of the opposition, even if they were only sitting in a café, rather than protesting.

Surkov would never have recommended such a marked show of force.  But by that time he was not working in the Administration any more.

Volodin’s people

Volodin purged the Administration’s Internal Politics Section of Surkov’s people fairly quickly and rigorously, replacing them with his own people. The only one of Surkov’s men left was Radii Khabirov, who was in charge of Duma deputies and parties, but he had already started working with Volodin before Surkov’s departure. 

'There are no businessmen or cultural leaders among Volodin’s inner circle.  They have one thing in common: they are all party functionaries.' 

Deputies Andrey Isayev and Olga Batalina are two fairly typical members of the Volodin team.  Batalina comes from Saratov and has been a deputy for some time; Isayev has taken a complex ideological path from anarchist to rabid conservative.  It was they who drew up the toughest laws and presented them in the Duma: more severe punishments for involvement in protest rallies, more complicated working conditions for the NGOs, and censorship in the internet. When the so-called Dima Yakovlev bill was passed in December 2012, prohibiting US citizens from adopting Russian children, Batalina publicly criticised the Minister of Education, who had expressed doubts on the need for such a law.

There are no businessmen or cultural leaders among Volodin’s inner circle, as there were in Surkov’s day.  They have one thing in common: they are all party functionaries.  According to Russian criminal folklore, the traditional oath of the gangster’s moll is ‘I swear never to hold anything heavier than a glass in my hand.’ It could be said of Volodin’s people that over the last 10 years they have never held anything heavier than a ‘United Russia’ party ticket in their hands.

The tougher, the freer

Paradoxically, Volodin’s arrival at the Presidential Administration coincided with the appearance of some opposition figures on Russian TV screens, though on almost any show they were shouted down by loyal opponents. Volodin’s task was to show the opposition in the most unfavourable light possible, proving that enemies of the Kremlin have no ideas of their own. The government may be bad, but its opponents are far worse.

Duma deputies, especially those belonging to ‘United Russia’, are now subject to much tougher controls. During Surkov’s time they were given hints, quite insistent ones, about how they should vote. These relatively liberal times are now a thing of the past: ordinary members of the biggest faction are told straight out what to do and a vote ‘against’ or an abstention would be the end of their political career. Many Duma deputies did not, for instance, approve of the punishment meted out to their colleague Gennady Gudkov - he was expelled from the Duma – mainly from an instinct for self-preservation. But the deputies had it spelt out to them: it’s the Presidential Administration which decides who is to be a deputy and who not.

Under Volodin, however, the governors (heads of the regions) are having a slightly easier time. They are still required to guarantee political stability, but no longer have the ways they are to achieve this dictated to them. Under Surkov, the Administration was always sending political instructions to the regions; now all that’s required is the expected result.

A symbol of the new Putin

Keen observers of Russian domestic policy believe that Volodin is the embodiment of Putin’s new style — a clear and straightforward style that avoids cunning and multiple combinations. If, for example, it has to be drummed into public consciousness that NGOs are foreign agents, then this is done via legislation, rather than relying on propaganda.  Any reputational damage resulting from the adoption of these laws is not part of the calculation. 

Many commentators would no doubt consider that Surkov would not have permitted some things Putin has undertaken, which are not just a mistake but frankly comic. The flight with the cranes, for example: in the autumn of 2012, Putin, disguised as a Siberian white crane, flew on a hang-glider, acting as the leader for the flock, though the cranes didn’t actually get to the place where they winter.  In just the same way, Surkov would have put a swift end to the scandalous Dima Yakovlev bill which caused a brief split in the Russian elite.

It wasn’t in fact Volodin’s idea to let Putin loose with the cranes.  His ideas are so simple as to be quite primitive, aimed at achieving instant results.  As for longer-term outcomes, these interest neither Volodin nor Putin. With today’s events, the strategic plans so beloved of Surkov have resolutely disappeared into the past, and the Kremlin has become  little more than a regime of rapid reaction.

About the author

Mikhail Loginov is a journalist and novelist based in St Petersburg. He is the author of the recently published bestselling political thriller "Battle for Kremlin".


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