Last Friday I caught the Omnibus edition of The Puppet Master on BBC Radio 4. This show’s five episodes were originally broadcast on the station in March, when they were also released as a podcast series. During the documentary we meet the Puppet Master himself, the BBC reporter Gabriel Gatehouse, who spins and fabulates on behalf of the Kremlin’s Vladislav Surkov. Gatehouse weaves such an artful postmodern phantasmagoria that we can soon no longer tell what is real and what is exaggeration. Meanwhile, the supremely powerful Surkov stands all the time mutely behind him.
Surkov is a practising postmodernist as well and behind him stands another mute Russian strongman, President Vladimir Putin. Perhaps if my own review was to inflate or distort Surkov out of all human proportions, then I would become the fourth in this nest of Russian dolls. But I wish to break the chain and offset the prevailing escalation of Surkov with a little cold common sense.
If Kremlinology was a university then Surkovology would by now have its own senior professorial chair. Yet there is something a little spicier going on here than the usual “expert” guesswork about a secretive government. When Surkov is called “Putin’s Rasputin,” this is not to deal in today’s customary reading of Rasputin as a playboy and a parasite, who had served to only illustrate Tsardom’s drift. No, we are back to the old, beefed-up Rasputin of the Boney M historical school, with his glowing red eyes and diabolical sorcery. There might be no similar supernaturalism to Gatehouse’s account of Surkov, but if we continue to mythologise him as Gatehouse does then it is surely just a matter of time.
Surkov is not exactly, as this podcast claims, “the most powerful man you’ve never heard of.” You might have previously encountered him courtesy of the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. In 2014, Curtis had profiled Surkov on Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe, where he had described the Kremlin hotshot as “a Hero Of Our Time” and identified him as a kind of unseen lynchpin of all modern consciousness. “His aim,” Curtis explained, “is to undermine people’s perception of the world, so they never know what is really happening.” The spooky result was “a ceaseless shapeshifting that is unstoppable because it is indefinable.”
The last line is actually a quote from the journalist Peter Pomerantsev, who had written about Surkov for the LRB in 2011, under the now-familiar headline “Putin’s Rasputin.” Pomerantsev’s article is a foundational text for Surkovology and Curtis and Gatehouse both set out to preach its ideas within their respective media. In that of visuals, Curtis has fun with the curious physical likeness between Surkov and the former British chancellor George Osborne. Both men are faintly impish figures with slippery, smirking faces. And both are, Curtis implies, sources of the same postmodern confusion.
In 2016, however, Curtis’ full-length documentary HyperNormalisation had dispensed with Osborne and it was now none other than Donald Trump who was Surkov’s protégé in the West. Osborne’s ham-fisted attempts to menace voters and his consequent fall from power had presumably disqualified him as a plausible practitioner of sinister, manipulative, postmodern, etcetera. Trump would be far more of a goer. By constantly telling lies, Trump had awesomely “defeated journalism.”
Clearly, this is a statement so sweeping as to be all but meaningless. Over an eerily benumbing Pop Art collage, Curtis’ analysis gets as far as any can that tries to account for entire cultures in barely a couple of hundred words. But with Gatehouse we head hot foot to Russia to pursue Surkov through unprecedented rounds of genuine detail. Gatehouse is a globe-trotting investigative journalist in the classic mode and his documentary is pacy, exciting, and thought-provoking. He is fluent in Russian, an explorer of Russian culture and, what’s more, he has access to a hacked cache of emails from Surkov’s office. His podcast basks in local colour. In one titbit, Gatehouse relates how the young Surkov had once succeeded in surprising all of Russia by planting an actual advertisement for his boss’ company on Communist television. Quirky details such as this make the series reliably enjoyable and interesting.
Nonetheless, Gatehouse’s investigation registers the same flaw that riddles the whole dazzling crystal of Surkovology. This is that it begins with its theory of the postmodern arch-manipulator rather than in any way building up to it. Gatehouse is soon labouring to make all sorts of random trivia suggestively adhere to the initial theory. And a lot of it ends up inevitably dropping off.
Gatehouse had been in Ukraine in 2014 when Surkov’s mysterious “unknown snipers” had apparently fired on protesters and loyalists alike. To me these attempts to destabilise Ukraine look about as new and as postmodern as the Manchurian Incident. They had indeed ended with a traditional annexation. Rather than regarding the sniper fire as an anomalous or chaotic event, though, Gatehouse burbles misty-eyed about theatre-making and string-pulling.
The documentary continues to wobble flakily between fact and irrelevance. Ostensibly unremarkable incidents, such as a time when Surkov didn’t appear in a photograph where he was expected to, or one in which a politician opposed to Putin was offered money by Surkov (in what in any other context would be straightforwardly classed as a bribe), become rich with unaccountable meaning. So naturally fluid is Surkovology that the details come and go as they are required. Gatehouse does not, for example, accord any importance to the influence of Soviet science-fiction, whilst Curtis had made the Strugatsky brothers the starting-point of his analysis. Of course, the theory of Surkov’s magnificence comes first and everything else has to fit afterwards.
Even a period of powerlessness in 2011, when Surkov had conspicuously misread the political mood, is sweetened with mysticism. “To what end?… No-one could figure it out,” Gatehouse muses theatrically about Surkov’s inability to take action. Although one of his interviewees here speaks of a “flavour of postmodernism that nothing is true, there is no truth,” the flat truth is that Surkov was ingloriously sacked. His luckless bumps down the Kremlin’s hierarchy are still respun as unreadable moves in a complex waiting game. Almost as though he is relinquishing control of a system so sinisterly powerful that it can be left to operate unattended. Gatehouse’s hoary conclusion is that, “the Puppet Master has become just another cog in a machine that he invented.”
It seems unfair to dismiss The Puppet Master as a conspiracy theory. It is such a dainty dish that it is perhaps no more a conspiracy theory than one of Damien Hirst’s masterpieces can be construed as taxidermy. Even so, if a teenager told you this story while you were smoking outside a nightclub (“there’s a guy in Russia behind the scenes who is manipulating everything and controlling what we think”), you would promptly dump it in the same bin as those ones in which the CIA authors JFK’s assassination and 9/11.
There is nothing that is excitable or insistent to Gatehouse’s narration. One suspects that various discreet pressures within BBC Sounds have instead led to a purely aesthetic disabling of his common sense. The likelihood is that this podcast’s commissioners were really after a luxurious butterfly trail of postmodern whimsy. The reveries of a far-flung adventurer combined with a pleasant tinge of the marvellous. Hence Surkov, a soft-focus trickster who seems to have danced from out of the magic realism of César Aira or Téa Obreht.
“Mr Black Square” is Gatehouse’s own pet nickname for Surkov. The comparison here is between the post-truth Surkov and the avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich, who had in 1915 dumbfounded humanity with his apocalyptic painting of a black square. Gatehouse playfully punctuates his narrative with an abrasively hooting sound effect, like an audible emoji, that denotes the ghastly artwork. But Malevich’s “Black Square” wasn’t just a jump scare and this maneouvre of likening a backroom political strategist to an artist of such historical renown grows only ever crasser and more philistine. What next? – is Alastair Campbell a modern-day Edvard Munch? Is Lynton Crosby Duchamp’s urinal?
The truth is that Surkovology is neither a theory of art nor a science. Putin is consistently popular in Russia not because he employs a magical avant-garde theatre-maker to warp reality, but because all of his predecessors were fools or thieves. I don’t know enough about Russia to say why the opposition aren’t making any headway, but democratic liberals the world over are currently not doing much better.
None of this basic context is ever divulged in The Puppet Master. Nor does Gatehouse reflect that in international politics Surkov might not be a totally one-off force. For instance, James Graham’s docu-drama Brexit: The Uncivil War had pivoted on the critical ambiguity of whether the “guru” Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) was the grand architect of Brexit or simply a self-aggrandising quack who was always marginal to power-politics. Thank goodness that Cummings had never dabbled in theatre in his youth. Had Brexit’s own Rasputin ever starred in a student production of Waiting for Godot, we would never hear the end of this from people like Curtis and Gatehouse. They would immediately theorise that Cummings had audaciously “imported” Samuel Beckett’s absurdist landscapes into the Brexit negotiations.
Interestingly, in a Guardian article to promote his series, Gatehouse strikes a different and possibly more conciliatory note. You feel that he might be almost apologising for the excesses of Surkovology:
In reality, most of these peddlers of influence remain in the margins. Moscow’s role in shaping our politics is not nearly as powerful as some imagine. But that is not the point… We’re doing the work for him: fostering suspicions and manipulating the facts to suit our agendas. The power of Surkov is mostly in our heads.
Speak for yourself!