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Putin’s charming puppet masters The Kremlin's worst schemers still make for stunning political art

'It’s hard to be parted from her' (ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP via Getty Images)

'It’s hard to be parted from her' (ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP via Getty Images)


February 24, 2023   6 mins

Let’s start with Putin’s Labrador. The Tsar loves this gigantic black beast — or at least, he claims he does. The Chancellor, however, has a visceral fear of dogs that dates back to a traumatic childhood incident with a Rottweiler. So the Tsar insists that dear Konni accompany him for a crucial bilateral tĂȘte-Ă -tĂȘte. The Chancellor cringes in terror while her interlocutor innocently says: “Are you sure that the dog doesn’t bother you, Frau Merkel? I could put her outside but she’s so sweet, you see. It’s hard to be parted from her.” This, we learn, was “the moment when the Tsar took the gloves off and began to play the game as he’d learnt it in the backyards of Leningrad, where you didn’t have time to touch the ball before someone had kneed you in the bollocks”.

The episode with Konni, in common with much that transpires in Le Mage du Kremlin (The Wizard of the Kremlin), really took place (during a Putin-Merkel summit at Sochi in 2007). Giuliano da Empoli affirms that, although his debut novel lends “a private life and imaginary words” to living people, nonetheless it’s about “real Russian history”. That history, of the rise of the “Tsar” (Vladimir Putin) to dictatorial power and the tangled ruses of the courtiers who enabled him, runs across a quarter-century from the collapse of the Soviet empire to the dress-rehearsal incursions into Crimea and Donbas in 2014. At that moment, when the Tsar’s intrigues crossed the line from the domestic arena onto the global screen, his ideologist-in-chief has to remind a patriotic biker chief that “war is a process, and its goals go much further than military success”. In Ukraine, “our objective isn’t conquest. It’s chaos.” The world now frets daily in the shadow of that chaos.

Empoli, a political analyst of Swiss-Italian background, finished Le Mage du Kremlin early in 2021. With scarily good timing, it came out in Paris in April 2022. It takes the form of a confessional monologue delivered to a mesmerised French expat over a decanter of Scotch by “Vadim Baranov”: a barely disguised version of Putin’s legendary strategist and in-house thinker, Vladislav Surkov. A former avant-garde theatre director who served as deputy chief of staff and later deputy prime minister, Surkov seems to have quit the stage of state power in 2020. Last April, reports told of his house arrest during a post-invasion purge of security officials. For UnHerd, Maximilian Hess cogently argued that Surkov’s star had fallen and that the great ideological string-puller had proved to be “no puppet-master, just another puppet”. But with Putin and his cronies — as Empoli makes plain — you can never be sure. The treacherous fogs and feints that fill his novel bring to mind Metternich’s apocryphal response when told of the death of Talleyrand, his rival diplomatic virtuoso in post-Napoleonic Europe: “I wonder what he meant by that.”

Empoli’s accomplishment is to dramatise the Putinist system of intermingled force and fraud as a malign work of art executed first on a national, then a planetary, scale. Baranov-Surkov transfers the stunts, coups and illusions of his art from theatre auditorium to public square, spotlit by TV and internet channels as Russia’s media free-for-all “pushed back the frontiers of trash”. Any masterpiece requires a signature, though the novel deliberately equivocates as to whether the manipulative “wizardry” belongs mainly to Surkov, or to Putin himself. From the crushing of the oligarchs to the conjuring of nationalist frenzy among the victims of free-market kleptocracy in Russia, Empoli’s Baranov likes to wrap the Tsar’s basic instincts and drastic actions in dainty theoretical packages. It’s Putin himself who warns his court intellectual that conspiracy-prone deep thinkers “systematically underestimate the power of stupidity, forgetfulness and chance” in great events.

The novel rode high in the French bestseller lists after the Ukraine invasion, and won the Grand Prix du Roman of the AcadĂ©mie Française. That august accolade fits the bill, for Empoli turns Baranov-Surkov into a wry, sly epigrammatic raconteur of a distinctively French kind. He strews his discourse with French quotations and alludes familiarly to the court of the Sun King — where his polished aphorisms and paradoxes would have shone. Some critics wondered whether Empoli — who had previously scrutinised the careers of populist spin-doctors in his book The Engineers of Chaos — was giving the devil his most seductive tunes. Did Baranov-Surkov’s worldly, ironic and elegant confession slide from admission into apologia? Only in the sense that Shakespeare’s Richard III (with whom he compares Putin) invites us to sympathise with late-medieval tyranny. Empoli’s Tsar begins and continues as an inscrutable monster, albeit one with a strikingly lucid mind and strong will, as he sets out to reverse the abject humiliations of the Yeltsin era and make Russian power speak once more in “the language of life, death, honour and fatherland”.

Empoli, though, makes us ask whether his Surkov figure might be a dead-souled ogre of another rank entirely. We even side with the thuggish ultra-nationalist biker Zaldostanov (who really exists) when, in one of the book’s strongest scenes, he rounds on Baranov. Amid the debris of shelled Luhansk, it dawns on the leather-clad militia capo that his blood-stained patriotic crusade to reunite Mother Russia is, to the cynical strategist, just another page on the playbook of spin. Zaldostanov finds a mutilated doll in the rubble of an apartment block. He thrusts it into the abashed Baranov’s face. “This little broken, dirty thing must once have had a name. And a little girl played with it for whole afternoons.”

For once, Baranov fails to fire back with a killer quip. If Le Mage du Kremlin dissects the figure of the intellectual in the corridors of power, it draws back from saluting that role. This ambivalence has a French as well as a Russian face. The original eminence grise, the elusive strategist at the ruler’s side, was Capuchin friar François Leclerc du Tremblay, adviser to Louis XIII’s minister Cardinal Richelieu. Since then, in literature and politics, the backstairs thinker-fixer has transfixed the French imagination, and sometimes adopted human form: for instance, in the shape of Charles de Gaulle’s resilient culture minister, AndrĂ© Malraux.

Intellectuals love, and hate, to see one of their own atop the greasy pole; in France, many have dared to climb it. In a more knockabout vein, the recent acrobatic leaps and falls of what the French would call “Anglo-Saxon” spin-masters — notably Steve Bannon and Dominic Cummings — have seen those Atlanticist figures pay their own sort of tribute to a very French tradition. For sure, Russian literature and statecraft has its own tradition of scheming, amoral artists of mind-control. None is more creepily compelling than Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Devils, or (in history) more notorious than the mystic monk Grigori Rasputin. Yet Empoli’s cerebral courtier, “a poet fallen among wolves”, often sounds as if he belongs beside the Seine rather than the Neva or Moskva.

That said, his ideas do retain a sinister allure. Empoli’s voicing of Surkov’s postmodern politics of spectacle, contradiction and disinformation may not be that original. Peter Pomerantsev has drilled down into the Surkov method in his exemplary books (This Is Not Propaganda; Nothing is True and Everything is Possible). Meanwhile, the documentary wizard of the BBC archives, Adam Curtis, seems spellbound by the Kremlin sorcerer. Surkov’s theory and practice haunts his 2016 series Hyper-Normalisation and the later Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. The theatrical stand-offs Empoli invents with the disgraced tycoons Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, and with restaurateur-turned-Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, could almost appear in a Peter Morgan screenplay. Indeed, Morgan’s most recent drama, Patriots, tracks Berezovsky’s rise.

Empoli, however, lends the Surkov code and its art of lies a glinting, lapidary clarity. Don’t be afraid of chaos, but provoke and channel it. Forget labels such as “government” or “opposition”, “liberal” or “conservative”. Sow doubt and anxiety by backing, then thwarting, every competing social movement: “bikers and hooligans, anarchists and skinheads, communists and religious fanatics, the extreme right, the extreme left
” Foster the war of all against all, turn reality inside out, and in the wake of furious unrest restore “vertical” power with the almighty state and its leader-saviour in sole charge. As Empoli’s Baranov puts it in his suave but sulphurous credo:

“Anger remains the primordial drive you must take into account. You, right-thinking Westerners, think it can be absorbed. That economic growth, technological progress and — I don’t know — home deliveries and mass tourism will make the rage of the people disappear
 It’s not true: there will always be the disappointed, the frustrated, the losers, in every age and under every regime. Stalin understood that rage is a structural element
 To repress dissent is crude. To manage the flow of rage, to stop it building up, is more complicated, but much more effective. Over many years my work, at root, has been none other than that.”

Le Mage du Kremlin shows us Baranov-Surkov in placid, domestic retirement. He’s happy to cherish his daughter and his library while posting pseudonymous tweets about the prophetic genius of the writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of the classic dystopia We (also, incidentally, a major influence on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). Reading the novel in 2023, one inevitably wonders whether the absence of Surkov from Putin’s nocturnal brooding contributed to the catastrophic blunders of the Ukraine invasion.

For Empoli portrays a ringmaster of steady-state disorder and permanent crisis — at home and abroad — who knows how to dodge final showdowns and settlements. The aim, remember, is “not conquest but chaos”. Chaos in the service of the spellbinding Tsar, a world-wide digital hubbub fed by Putin’s adversaries more than his allies, spreads “the myth of our power”. All-out war, on the other hand, drives events back from post-truth flux, blurring them back towards the old world in which binary alternatives of victory and defeat come into play again.

Without a Surkov-style counsellor, the Tsar seems to have broken his wand and retreated into an antique, analogue landscape of visible battle-lines, measurable advances and retreats. If Le Mage du Kremlin raises ethical questions, it does so not because it excuses the Tsar and his adviser’s stunts and frauds, but because it endorses their effectiveness. “I couldn’t bear the idea of losing,” Baranov reflects. But “indefatigable labour” ensured that “I was lucky; I nearly always won.” Will the real Surkov survive to re-emerge amid the ruins of the Tsar’s epoch? It would make a tasty sequel.

***

Le Mage du Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli is published by Gallimard; translations by Boyd Tonkin


Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.

BoydTonkin

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Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago

Russia has had the worst form of monarchy, followed by the worst form of communism, followed by the worst form of capitalism. Lots to write about, though often at great cost to the writer.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago

Russia has had the worst form of monarchy, followed by the worst form of communism, followed by the worst form of capitalism. Lots to write about, though often at great cost to the writer.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“The Tsar loves this gigantic black beast”

Really, he looks like a chocolate lab’ in the caption photograph?

Andy E
Andy E
1 year ago

Everything must be exaggerated to outline the “us versus them” idea, subtly mirroring “good vs evil” of course.
A lab (one of the friendliest dogs on the planet) becomes a huge scary beast;
An occasional shot of vodka becomes a habit of heavy drinking;
A criminal not-paying-taxes tycoon becomes a freedom beacon;
An aged and retired assistant becomes a victim;
And good relationships with neighboring countries become a desire to reinstate the USSR.
this list is endless. White is grey and the grey is black.

Andy E
Andy E
1 year ago

Everything must be exaggerated to outline the “us versus them” idea, subtly mirroring “good vs evil” of course.
A lab (one of the friendliest dogs on the planet) becomes a huge scary beast;
An occasional shot of vodka becomes a habit of heavy drinking;
A criminal not-paying-taxes tycoon becomes a freedom beacon;
An aged and retired assistant becomes a victim;
And good relationships with neighboring countries become a desire to reinstate the USSR.
this list is endless. White is grey and the grey is black.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“The Tsar loves this gigantic black beast”

Really, he looks like a chocolate lab’ in the caption photograph?

Penny Mcwilliams
Penny Mcwilliams
1 year ago

But it’s a novel…..

Lewis Dragisic
Lewis Dragisic
1 year ago

Fiction can often tell harder truths about life and the world than anything else.

Lewis Dragisic
Lewis Dragisic
1 year ago

Fiction can often tell harder truths about life and the world than anything else.

Penny Mcwilliams
Penny Mcwilliams
1 year ago

But it’s a novel…..

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
1 year ago

“our objective isn’t conquest. It’s chaos.” A tried and true method used throughout history by schemers in pursuit of power, best applied by distracting attention away from the end game. This brings to mind the current deconstruction of societal and biological norms by wokists who have infiltrated every institution. Once confusion reigns, autocracy will follow.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
1 year ago

“our objective isn’t conquest. It’s chaos.” A tried and true method used throughout history by schemers in pursuit of power, best applied by distracting attention away from the end game. This brings to mind the current deconstruction of societal and biological norms by wokists who have infiltrated every institution. Once confusion reigns, autocracy will follow.

Sean Henderson
Sean Henderson
1 year ago

While I agree with much of your piece and Unherd along with Substack are such excellent sources of independent opinion and journalists. The neoconservative West is much to blame with the current situation in Ukraine.(Not to mention Yelstin and Obamas machinations to get Putin into power). As John Mearsheimer had eloquently predicted and we’re seeing the inevitable fruition of now. You could of easily wrote an article titled “The White House’s /Downing Streets worst schemers still make for stunning political art. But it’s easier to go after other countries “boogeymen”. When you see the left and right unite on something(albeit for different reasons) it’s because they are not buying the mainstream media narrative. We can despise Putin but place the blame of the current situation squarely where it belongs; NATO, US and UK unipolar imperialism. Putin is just more distraction. Like the silly balloons America is using million dollar missiles to shoot down. But I digress.

Sean Henderson
Sean Henderson
1 year ago

While I agree with much of your piece and Unherd along with Substack are such excellent sources of independent opinion and journalists. The neoconservative West is much to blame with the current situation in Ukraine.(Not to mention Yelstin and Obamas machinations to get Putin into power). As John Mearsheimer had eloquently predicted and we’re seeing the inevitable fruition of now. You could of easily wrote an article titled “The White House’s /Downing Streets worst schemers still make for stunning political art. But it’s easier to go after other countries “boogeymen”. When you see the left and right unite on something(albeit for different reasons) it’s because they are not buying the mainstream media narrative. We can despise Putin but place the blame of the current situation squarely where it belongs; NATO, US and UK unipolar imperialism. Putin is just more distraction. Like the silly balloons America is using million dollar missiles to shoot down. But I digress.