MOSCOW – In Soviet Russia, everybody knew that they were being watched. Any deviation from officially sanctioned behavior would be treated with suspicion and most likely punished. The Soviet state saw itself as being at war with almost everything – foreign spies, class enemies, people wearing jeans or playing jazz. The regime’s dominant ideology was not Marxism-Leninism, but suspicion and animosity.
Not since the early 1980s, before the first rays of glasnost in Russia, have those dark times felt as close as they do now. Protecting society from enemies, foreign and domestic, is once again the order of the day. Indeed, an ethos of perpetual vigilance is central to sustaining President Vladimir Putin’s high popular-approval ratings. And no one plays a more important role in creating the necessary public atmosphere than Vladislav Surkov.
Once Putin’s chief of staff, Surkov served as Deputy Prime Minister from 2011 to 2013. He now formally advises Putin on foreign affairs, but is really the regime’s chief propagandist. He has been credited with the introduction of the concept of “managed democracy” in Russia, and he played a leading role in nurturing the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. More recently, he was a guiding hand behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, inspiring the feverish media campaigns that have delivered near-universal public support for these moves.
Surkov is the man most responsible for nurturing pro-Putin sentiment, which increasingly resembles a Stalin-like cult of personality. Surkov is Chechen by descent, infused – like Stalin – with the saber-rattling mindset of the Caucasus. Under his watch, the central focus of the Kremlin’s communication strategy has been to sustain the perception that the West wants to destroy Russia. Thus, the conflict in Ukraine has been framed as a renewed struggle against fascism – and in defense of Russia’s true, anti-Western identity. The supposed threat to Russia today was underscored for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, with billboards springing up across Moscow to remind Russians of the sacrifices that victory required.