MOSCOW—Historians of Vladimir Putin’s reign used to write volumes about the man who stood behind him, directing and manipulating, like the éminence grise of old. Kremlinologists described Vladislav Surkov as a shadowy crafter of Russian domestic policies, and somebody who destroyed his opponents without mercy.
He also became Russia’s ruthless hand in rebellious eastern Ukraine through the last six years of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv.
But when the current of history changes, even the Kremlin’s stars fall. Earlier this month President Putin sacked his 55-year-old aide in a terse two-sentence decree. There was no official elaboration, but Surkov let it be known the reason was a divergence of views on Ukraine as Putin charts a new course there.
Independent political observers were intrigued. It was as if Donald Trump fired his advisor Stephen Miller, the generator of many cruel and controversial policies, and a lightning rod for criticism.
Surkov is blamed for poisoning Russia’s democracy, helping to destroy freedom of the press, inspiring far-right movements, and for shaping failed policies in Ukraine. During the first decade of Putin’s Russia, Surkov tightened the reins of authoritarian rule, leading to Putin’s second decade in power, and now perhaps a third—but this time without Surkov.
Even at the height of Surkov’s influence there were constraints. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a well-known Kremlinologist who used to work with Surkov analyzing polls, tells The Daily Beast, “He built the system from within but his power was limited. He once told me he was not walking in an open field but rather along a corridor with walls on both sides.”
Surkov mocked the west, democracy, elections and freedom of speech in an opinion piece published by the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta last year. “Putin’s big political machine is just gaining momentum,” Surkov wrote, calling on readers to evaluate “Putinism as the ideology of the future.”
But not many people noticed the article then. The author of Russia’s “sovereign democracy,” a euphemism for Putin’s autocracy, already had ceased to interest most Russians. His fantasies and occasional self-satire are fading fast from the public’s memory, at least for now.
Ukrainians may find him harder to forget, as he continued to insult them even after his dismissal.
“There is no Ukraine, there is just Ukrainian-ness. It is a specific kind of mental illness,” Surkov said on Wednesday. Asked if he could imagine eastern Ukraine, known as Donbas, returning to Kyiv’s control, he said, “I don’t have a strong enough imagination to envision that. Donbas doesn’t deserve such humiliation. Ukraine doesn’t deserve such an honor.”
On Friday, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that Surkov looked like a phony strategist filled with self-importance, and noted that Ukraine lives in spite of whatever “the fired chauvinist” Surkov says about it.
As a young man, Surkov served in the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU, infamous for its covert operations, including assassinations, and recently notorious for its role hacking and influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
As Putin’s deputy chief of staff from 2000 to 2011, Surkov created an aura around himself as the puppet master pulling strings from behind the scenes. But his profile was high enough to interest journalists, and his responses to critical articles were furious.
In 2005 Russian Newsweek discovered that Surkov was hiding his Chechen roots from his public biography. The magazine published Surkov father’s name, Andarbek Dudayev, and photographs of little Surkov. It turned out that Putin’s aid had spent a few years of his childhood in Chechnya. It was not the kind of thing the ultranationalist Surkov liked to have bruited about.
“Surkov was angry when we published that story from Chechnya along with photographs of his family members,” Leonid Parfenov, the former editor-in-chief of Russian Newsweek, told his colleagues when the magazine was folding in 2010. “I had to explain to him that it would be impossible for him to keep his Chechen origins in secret.”
Long before Trump tried to convince us that we live in post-truth reality, Surkov was weaponizing disinformation. Last year Foreign Policy magazine mentioned only one Russian on its list of 100 “global thinkers”: “Vladislav Surkov has perfected the art of propaganda,” the item explained. “Surkov has not only fortified the Kremlin’s power by rearranging Russia’s landscape of opposition parties and civil society groups but has also exploited media fragmentation to increase the reach of Russian disinformation—at home and abroad. His approach is said to have inspired various imitators around the world, including anonymous social media trolls and the Trump administration’s press operation.”
Surkov is proud of his role as a creator of the system that is now leading the “information counterattack on the West.”
“Foreign politicians blame Russia for interfering in elections and referendums all over the planet,” Surkov said in his recent Nezavisimaya Gazeta op-ed. “In reality, things are even more serious—Russia interferes with their mind and they don't know what to do about their own changed consciousness.”
One of Surkov’s creations, the pro-Putin Nashi youth movement, was full of propagandists. Active from 2005 to 2012, at its peak it counted up to 150,000 members. Nashi activists enjoyed the Kremlin’s support as they worked to humiliate and otherwise attack Russian opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists. Anybody who did not sympathize with the Kremlin’s policies was included by Nashi in its enemies lists.
Surkov also developed relations with far-right groups involved in the so-called Russky March demonstrations by neo-Nazi activists. “He used the old KGB method of infiltrating skinhead groups with his people and leading them,” Kryshtanovskaya told The Daily Beast.
Those who know Surkov well, say he has never been an ordinary bureaucrat, but rather a bohemian aesthete, a self-styled philosopher. When Washington put him on a sanctions list in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its actions in eastern Ukraine, freezing his assets and barring him from the United States, Surkov responded with his typical cynical irony. "The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock,” he said. “I don’t need a visa to access their work.”
Until recently Surkov was in charge of the Kremlin’s peace talks in Donbas, as well as Moscow’s policies in the Georgian separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Earlier this year, when the situation in Abkhazia seemed to be out control with a conflict between the leadership and the opposition, Surkov had to fly to Sukhumi and lead negotiations between the two sides.
But it appears that, despite his many responsibilities, and despite his closeness to Putin in the early years, Surkov’s access and influence waned considerably over the last decade.
“His sunset began in 2011,” Moscow-based political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told The Daily Beast, “and only thanks to his influential friend Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was Surkov able to hang on. Seven years ago Putin trusted him with one more dirty and dangerous project, the conflict in Ukraine, but the times have changed, the Kremlin is in peace talks with Kyiv, Surkov is not needed.”
“Surkov’s dream,” said Belkovsky, “was to become the brain for the Kremlin but he failed.”