Vladislav Surkov's first "anonymous" book, to which he himself wrote a preface, is called Almost Zero (which can rendered as Almost a Cipher). A cipher (encrypted code) is, in its essence, a logical and mathematical problem, which, as such, also has a logical and mathematical solution.
If Vladimir Putin were a differential equation, its root might not be so much Ksenia Sobcak's father and former mayor of Petersburg, for whom Putin used to work after returning from Germany, but this very same enigmatic Surkov.
This brings me back to Vladislav Surkov's Machiavellian-Nietzschean, postmodern and thoroughly cynical Almost Zero, "based on a true story," so to speak, or rather inspired by its very author.
The most important piece and work on Surkov written in the West comes from the pen of Peter Pomerantsev. He works for the other side. By the word "work" I mean a professional relationship for which one is paid. In this respect, I admit that I am just an amateur-dilettante.
Peter Pomerantsev is deservedly a recognized leading "connoisseur of contemporary Russia" (two books, many excellent articles, etc.). His father Igor Pomerantsev was a Russian anti-communist dissident, poet and journalist who was forced to emigrate with his family from the Soviet Union in 1978. Later, he worked for the CIA-run Radio Liberty. His son, Peter Pomerantsev, wrote the best and also most important review of Surkov's Almost Zero. The review was published in October of 2011.
At the very beginning, Pomerantsev writes: "The next act of Russian history is about to begin ... It’s the apotheosis of what has become known as ‘managed democracy’, and the ultimate triumph of the show’s writer-director, Putin’s chief ideologue and grey cardinal, Vladislav Surkov, the ‘Kremlin demiurge’. Known also as the ‘puppetmaster who privatised the Russian political system’, Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era. Understand him and you understand not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics ..."
The synopsis of Surkov's novel is presented as follows:
"The novel is a satire of contemporary Russia whose hero, Egor, is a corrupt PR man happy to serve anyone ... The most interesting parts of Almost Zero come when the author moves away from social satire to the inner world of his protagonist. Egor is described as a ‘vulgar Hamlet’ who can see through the superficiality of his age, but is unable to have any real feelings for anyone or anything: ‘His self was locked in a nutshell … outside were his shadows, dolls. He saw himself as almost autistic, imitating contact with the outside world, talking to others in false voices to fish out whatever he needed from the Moscow squall: books, sex, money, food, power and other useful things.’ The novel refers to Hamlet over and over again – even though Prospero might have been more apt – while the main protagonists are compared to the Players, ‘prepared to perform pastoral, tragedy or something in between’."
Interestingly, Pomerantsev then goes on to argue that Surkov's PR art owes a lot to hypnosis-based technology of neuro-linguistic programming developed from early CIA mind control experiments: "This fusion of despotism and postmodernism, in which no truth is certain, is reflected in the craze among the Russian elite for neuro-linguistic programming and Eriksonian hypnosis: types of subliminal manipulation based largely on confusing your opponent, first developed in the US in the 1960s. There are countless NLP and Eriksonian training centres in Moscow, with every wannabe power-wielder shelling out thousands of dollars to learn how to be the next master manipulator. Newly translated postmodernist texts give philosophical weight to the Surkovian power model."
Toward the end Pomerantsev serves the reader a description of the utterly snobbish and brutally insincere and fake atmosphere at a play, which was an adaptation of Surkov's novel (it also serves as a stairway toward the disclosure of the plot itself):
"I found myself in one of them late one night, having finally, after a month of phone calls, begging, blackmailing and pleading, managed to get a ticket to see the theatre version of Almost Zero, the most exclusive play this deeply theatrical city has ever seen. Official tickets started at $500. Black market tickets were going for four figures. The final price? Two bottles of champagne and the opportunity for one of the theatre’s leading actresses to use my parents’ London home rent-free. It turned out that the fee wasn’t even worth a proper seat. The ushers let me in after the lights were dimmed. They gave me a cushion and told me to sit on the floor by the front row. My head spent the night knocking against the perfumed thigh of an impossibly perfect model, her brutal-looking husband seeming none too pleased. The audience was full of these types: the hard, clever men who rule the country and their stunning female satellites. You don’t usually find them at the theatre but they were there because it was the thing to do: if they ever bumped into Surkov they could tell him how much they liked his fascinating piece. The other half of the audience were the city’s artistic leaders: impresarios, directors, actors. They had a similar reason to be present: Surkov is famous for giving grants to theatres and festivals. It wouldn’t do not to have seen the play. ....The bohemians in the audience laughed uncomfortably. The hard men and their satellites stared ahead unblinking, as if these provocations had nothing to do with them. Many left at the interval. Thus the great director pulled off a feat entirely worthy of the Age of Surkov: he pleased his political masters – Surkov sponsors an arts festival that Serebrennikov runs – while preserving his liberal integrity. One foot in Surkov’s camp, the other in Khodorkovsky’s. A fine performance."
Pomerantsev then at last drops the ball, the punch line (which I was myself advertising from the very beginning)--the best, where he discloses the plot at the very end of his article. Surkov himself might not be the ultimate director of this long post-Soviet play, but he has always been few steps ahead of the other players since he knew and understood the direction and the purpose of the play. Interestingly, in divulging the plot, Pomerantsev seems to plagiarizing a device used by great Plato himself: a story is told based on what someone told someone else (see, for example, Symposium or Phaedo). In this case, Pomerantsev evokes his unnamed "companion" who, in turn, refers to "a literature professor turned rock producer (a very Moscow trajectory)," which looks much like a weakly veiled reference to Surkov himself. The divulged plot might thus come through Pomerantsev, this well certified British expert on contemporary Russia, from Surkov himself:
‘Who’s the central figure in Hamlet?’ she asked. ‘Who’s the demiurge manipulating the whole situation?’
I said I didn’t know.
‘It’s Fortinbras, the crown prince of Norway, who takes over Denmark at the end. Horatio and the visiting players are in his employ: their mission is to tip Hamlet over the edge and foment conflict in Elsinore. Look at the play again. Hamlet’s father killed Fortinbras’s father, he has every motive for revenge. We know Hamlet’s father was a bad king, we’re told both Horatio and the players have been away for years: essentially they left to get away from Hamlet the father. Could they have been with Fortinbras in Norway? At the end of the play Horatio talks to Fortinbras like a spy delivering his end-of-mission report. Knowing young Hamlet’s unstable nature they hired the players to provoke him into a series of actions that will bring down Elsinore’s rulers. This is why everyone can see the ghost at the start. Then when only Hamlet sees him later he is hallucinating. To Muscovites it’s obvious. We’re so much closer to Shakespeare’s world here.’ On the map of civilisation, Moscow – with its cloak and dagger politics (designer cloak, diamond-studded dagger), its poisoned spies, baron-bureaucrats and exiled oligarchs who plan revolutions from abroad, its Cecil-Surkovs whispering into the ears of power, its Raleigh-Khodorkovskys imprisoned in the Tower – is somewhere near Elsinore."
Surkov's Almost Zero, together with his other book, was conceived as a Machiavellian/Nietschean/postmodern/Havelian mirror of Russia. But it is also a mirror of the author himself. This Russian Wizard of Oz is no Che Guevara or Gandhi or even Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. He perfectly reflects and embodies one of the possible as well as real Russias. An oligarchic Russia where some of the advisers kept sneaking into Putin's speeches praises of Ivan Ilyin, the right-wing Russian anti-communist admirer of the anti-Bolshevik greatness of German fascism.
Evidently, Surkov has been deemed by far the mos qualified (politically, morally, and intellectually) for the job (however, the one has been defined) and hence also for handling some of the most critical political issues, which Russia has been facing from the late 1990s till today.