Trust the Tale, Not the Teller?: Art and Propaganda in Contemporary Russia
By Adam KellyMarch 12, 2023
In the first part of the story, before we learn the full details of the boy’s situation, we learn about the war itself. Here is the most telling passage (in the English translation by Bill Bowler):
This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.
And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state—took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.
The goals of those in conflict were quite varied. Each had his own, so to speak: the seizing of disputed pieces of territory; the forced establishment of a new religion; higher ratings or rates; the testing of new military rays and airships; the final ban on separating people into male and female, since sexual differentiation undermines the unity of the nation; and so forth.
The simple-hearted commanders of the past strove for victory. Now they did not act so stupidly. That is, some, of course, still clung to the old habits and tried to exhume from the archives old slogans of the type: victory will be ours. It worked in some places, but basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.
The description goes on like this for a few more paragraphs, but before commenting on the passage, it is important to know who wrote these words. The author of “Without Sky” is Natan Dubovitsky, the alleged pseudonym of one Vladislav Surkov.
Nicknamed in Kremlin circles the Gray Cardinal, Putin’s Rasputin, and the Puppet Master, Surkov was the foremost “political technologist” of Vladimir Putin’s regime for two decades, serving as one of the president’s closest advisors in a shifting number of roles. With a background in theater directing in the 1980s and public relations in the 1990s (including work for the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky), Surkov was brought into Boris Yeltsin’s government in the late 1990s, before joining the administration of Yeltsin’s successor. Surkov is widely credited as being the chief architect of Russia’s “managed democracy” in the 2000s: he helped Putin to consolidate power by co-opting opposing forces, whether that meant funding youth groups of various political persuasions and then revealing the sources of their funding, or creating a new political party for Putin and then a loyal opposition for that party in parliament. During part of Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008–12 interim presidency, Surkov served as deputy prime minister. It was around this time that his name began to circulate in the West as the driving force of what journalist Peter Pomerantsev has dubbed “a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the 20th-century strains.”
After a brief period out in the cold following Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, Surkov was brought back into the administration as Putin’s special advisor with responsibility for Georgia and Ukraine. In addition to the seizure of Crimea in 2014, he is generally held responsible for the provocation and management of the years-long conflict in the Donbas and Lugansk regions in Eastern Ukraine, a conflict that provided a large part of the Russian regime’s official justification for the major escalation of February 24, 2022, and the ongoing war. By now, however, Surkov is no longer attached to the regime, having been let go in February 2020 for the official reason that the administration wanted to take a different line on Ukraine. At the time, his departure was cautiously welcomed in Ukraine, which had come to see Surkov as a malign and threatening presence. Many commentators even suggested that his removal was an indication that Putin was looking to de-escalate the Ukrainian war and stabilize relations with the West. We now know how horribly misguided such ideas were.
Since Pomerantsev’s 2011 article in the London Review of Books brought Surkov’s name to wider attention outside Russia, Putin’s former right-hand man has been the subject of numerous news reports, profiles, and podcast series. He played a leading role in the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis’s popular 2016 BBC film HyperNormalisation, which argued for Surkov’s centrality to the age of post-truth and disinformation, an age in which Russia itself has come to play an outsized role in world affairs. Seeking to explain the origins of his success as a spin doctor, profiles of Surkov rarely fail to mention his background in theater, his love of art, and his own status as a writer of fictions. It is this aspect of Surkov that most interests me here, because I take him to offer a somewhat extreme—but nonetheless telling—case study for a complex set of questions about the contemporary relationships linking the categories of art, literature, propaganda, and trust. I want to trace these relationships in the reception of Surkov’s “Without Sky,” before moving to a broader consideration of the meaning of his example for our conception of post–Cold War art and politics.
Given the timing of its publication in March 2014, it is difficult not to read “Without Sky” as an allegorical commentary on the seizure of Crimea and the emerging Russo-Ukrainian war. This is, indeed, the reading offered by the story’s translator, Bill Bowler, for the web-based science fiction magazine Bewildering Stories, where “Without Sky” first appeared in English in July 2014. “This description of ‘non-linear war,’” Bowler writes of the above passage, “parallels the current situation in Ukraine as seen from a Russian point of view, with individual regions like Crimea, and cities within regions, like Donetsk and Lugansk, splitting into opposing factions.” Yet while Bowler argues that “[t]he story portrays, in fictional form, Surkov’s view of Russia’s current place in the world,” and thus “can be construed as a work of propaganda accompanying the current shooting in Ukraine and elsewhere,” he also observes that the story draws on fairy tale and dystopian sci-fi elements, and acknowledges the multiple levels on which it works. He concludes his essay by observing that “the author’s use of satire, irony, humor and especially ambiguity bring added dimensions to the narrative, and lift it into the richer and more entertaining realm of art.”
Before considering the relationship between “a work of propaganda” and “the richer and more entertaining realm of art” in more detail, I’ll mention another noteworthy reading of the story published four years later. The critic in question is Brian L. Steed, an associate professor of military history at the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as well as a retired lieutenant colonel with more than 32 years of military experience. Steed, who has written multiple books with titles such as ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016) and Iraq War: The Essential Reference Guide (2019), is a senior fellow at Narrative Strategies, whose website (before it became password-protected in recent months) described the organization as follows:
We are a coalition of scholars and military professionals focused on the narrative foundation of large-scale conflict. We specialize in Narrative Warfare—from undermining weaponized narratives launched by adversaries, to designing comprehensive strategies to achieve dominance in the human domain.
Steed approaches Surkov’s story from a certain perspective, then, shaped by this idea of “narrative warfare.” It is no surprise that his interpretation of “Without Sky”—which he presents as the summary of a collective reading, having taught the story to American soldiers for two years—is less literary than Bowler’s, less attentive to fairy-tale motifs or satirical qualities. Steed reads the story as a direct allegory of Russia’s relationship with the West. “I believe that the author is making a statement about the Russians’ being ‘without sky,’” he writes, “the simple people who are being kept out, and the West being the city—the civilization to which those without sky are being denied entry.” Steed reads the story’s reference to “non-linear war” as providing “insight into the emphasis of the Russian information apparatus to weaken trust in institutions across the West.” He compares the narrator’s observation that armed conflict is simply a stage in something more encompassing to the official US doctrine that “the acute phase of war is only a particular part of the process of contemporary war.” While emphasizing the didactic qualities of the story’s content, Steed is also willing to acknowledge (even if he doesn’t exactly analyze or describe its effects) what he calls “the poetry of this story.” Given his earlier eagerness to read the story as barely concealed ideology, he concludes his reading on a surprisingly undecided note:
I am uncertain how much this short story reflects the thinking and intentions of Russian leadership. It may simply be fiction. However, the references to actions and means of behavior that are observable in the present give one pause for consideration. I strongly encourage everyone to read and consider the meaning and possible ramifications for the present and future of conflict.
While I certainly agree that we should be interested in what a story like “Without Sky” can tell us about the thinking and intentions of the Russian leadership, I am also interested in what it is about the story that resists such a transparent message, and what significance this resistance holds.  If it might risk accusations of bad taste from the vantage point of 2023 to read Surkov’s story as an instance of what Bowler calls “the richer and more entertaining realm of art,” then it remains the case that the story insists on its own artfulness and fictionality, on its distance from any purely referential reality.
Yet what particularly interests me is how that artfulness, that distance from reality, paradoxically encourages us to look to the story for a certain kind of truth unavailable in more official forms. When there is significant evidence that a majority of Surkov’s public statements, and the public statements of the Putin regime, are themselves fictions, lies, or propaganda, we find ourselves turning to an overtly fictional story as a means to understand “the thinking and intentions of the Russian leadership.” In doing so, we seem to be following D. H. Lawrence’s famous advice, paraphrased in my essay’s title: “Never trust the [teller]. Trust the tale.” And yet, as the question mark my title appends to the phrase indicates, I think there are questions as to how this advice might apply to the contemporary Russian regime, and to the role of art and literature within it. If we can’t trust the teller, can we nevertheless trust the tale?
“Without Sky” is not the first text by Surkov to be read as a key to his thinking and that of the political regime he served. In 2009, writing under the same pseudonym, Natan Dubovitsky—a name very similar to that of his wife, Natalya Dubovitskaya—Surkov published a novella with a title, Okolonolya, that its English translators render as Almost Zero. A self-described work of “gangsta fiction” set in the corrupt underworld of Russian literary publishing, Almost Zero tells the story of Yegor, a contemporary underground man. Yegor is a former avant-garde poet turned PR operative, a “lonely and alienated” character whose “whole world, he felt, was contained within a shell,” and who feels himself to be “only imitating a connection with the agents of the outside world beyond his boundaries.”
Yet unlike Dostoevsky’s underground man, Yegor’s personal pathologies lead not to failure but to great success. It turns out that everyone is for sale at the right price in the outside world, and Yegor possesses a canny ability to project deceptive realities for his various employers, just as the real life Surkov did for his boss Vladimir Putin. Almost Zero became a bestseller in Russia, and has been described by Pomerantsev as “the key confession of the era, the closest we might ever come to seeing inside the mind of the system.” When the novella was adapted for the Moscow stage in 2011, as “the most exclusive play this deeply theatrical city has ever seen”—with official tickets starting at $500 and black-market tickets going for four figures—other viewers had a similar reaction. In an award-winning 2019 BBC Radio 4 series about Surkov, presenter Gabriel Gatehouse remarks of the play: “This isn’t fantasy; this is confession.”
Responses like these accord to literary texts a significant truth function, seeing the work of fiction as expressing a consciousness and perception of the world that is truthfully revealed in no other form. This recalls the role ascribed to much Russian literature translated in the West during the Cold War, which—as Duncan White’s 2019 book Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War reminds us—was often hailed by Western liberals as expressing a dissident consciousness that undermined Soviet deceptions. Yet, where it is traditional to see literary texts of this kind as speaking truth to power, or at least exposing for the reader how power works, we need to ask what happens when the author is himself a figure who represents and wields that power, and who is known, moreover, to be a master of disinformation and an architect of post-truth rather than truth. In Surkov’s case, the publication of Almost Zero and the staging of the play based upon it—which was attended by the very elites being satirized—seem to have done nothing to undermine the regime they were ostensibly exposing. If Almost Zero had undermined the regime in this way, and thus threatened his own place within it, Surkov presumably would not have published it, and would also not have added a later preface in his own real name, claiming not to have written the book while calling it simultaneously the degraded work of “a Hamlet-obsessed hack” and “the best book I have ever read.”
Such theatrical and self-reflexive gestures capture in microcosm the postmodern tactics employed by Surkov in order to play both sides in Russian politics, thereby neutering the effectiveness of dissent. But such gestures also embody, I want to suggest, a conception of artistic freedom that underpins Surkov’s political vision and the texture of the modern Russia he aimed to build. As Richard Sakwa, a leading scholar of Russian politics, has noted when reviewing a collection of Surkov’s nonfiction writings and speeches,
Surkov’s philosophy from the first was that there is no real freedom in the world, and that all democracies are managed democracies, so the key to success is to influence people, to give them the illusion that they are free whereas in fact they are managed. The only freedom in his view is “artistic freedom.”
There is an ambiguity in Sakwa’s formulation, in that it is not entirely clear whether he thinks Surkov believes that all freedom is an illusion or that it is only political freedom (“real freedom in the world”) that is the illusion, whereas “artistic freedom” is indeed real. This is, I think, a productive ambiguity, and what I want to add to Sakwa’s identification of this dimension in Surkov’s thinking is an analysis of where it comes from. My argument is that Surkov’s view of political freedom and artistic freedom—how they conjoin and are sometimes opposed—derives from a particular reading of the lessons of the Cold War, and how the Americans vanquished Soviet Russia in that war.
Journalistic profiles of Surkov often quote his memorable response to becoming the target of Western sanctions following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, sanctions that, among other things, prevented him traveling to the United States. “The only things that interest me in the US,” Surkov is quoted as saying, “are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.” Here, Surkov names three icons of postwar and contemporary American art, artists who, in their different spheres, have come to represent the importance of individual freedom during that period. Their art—music, poetry, and painting—could never be confused for propaganda, not only because it was created without the intention to put forward a message on behalf of official state power but also because it was so clearly singular, personal, and freely expressed. (Some of this singularity is captured in Surkov’s own reading of a Ginsberg poem, available online.)
Why would Surkov be attracted to this kind of art, grounded in a Romantic philosophy of unalloyed creative expression? Perhaps the answer lies in the question. What rap music, Beat poetry, and action painting all have in common is a commitment to presentness and spontaneity, a brand of freedom that pairs the aesthetic with the existential, connecting the freedom of artistic creation to the freedom of being itself. In his 2021 book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand is only among the latest to argue that the United States’ cultural victory in the Cold War was in large part a victory for this image of artistic and existential freedom over the perceived artistic and existential constraints of Soviet communism. And the wider importance of this victory in the sphere of cultural messaging should not be underestimated. As Kenneth Osgood observes in his book Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (2006), the possession of nuclear weapons by both the Americans and the Soviets, and the resultant risks of direct combat, meant that “the Cold War, more than any other conflict in human history, was channeled into nonmilitary modes of combat, particularly ideological and symbolic ones.” The presentation of American artists as free and Soviet artists as constrained was a vital element in winning this ideological and symbolic battle.
Another way to put this would be to say that the United States won the cultural Cold War—as it came to be called—because the US’s core message of freedom was carried not by the content of the art produced by various writers, painters, and musicians, many of whom in fact held left-wing beliefs and saw themselves as critical of American capitalism, racism, and imperialism; instead, it was a message carried by the form of that art, by its emphasis on spontaneity of creation, which suggested that these writers, painters, and musicians were doing exactly what they wanted to do and were being permitted to do so without interference from the US state. Perhaps the most famous endorsement of this position is the speech given by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, to mark the 25th anniversary celebration of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “[F]reedom of the arts is a basic freedom,” Eisenhower proclaimed. “My friends, how different it is in tyranny. When artists are made the slaves and tools of the state; when artists become chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed.”
And yet, as this imprimatur by the holder of the highest office of the American state might obliquely suggest, it would later turn out that state power was not actually absent from the scene of creation after all. As decades of scholars have by now established, the CIA and other operational wings of the American state were funding a substantial swath of American art in the period after World War II, through the medium of front organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Radio Free Europe, and the Free European Press. Note the prominence of the words “free” and “freedom” in the titles of these organizations. “Freedomism,” a term coined by Paul Eke in 1956, could be said to be the official ideology of the American Cold War state. But despite what this official ideology expounded in theory, in practice the question of artistic freedom was never entirely autonomous from the state.
Indeed, Jackson Pollock, the painter beloved by Surkov, was perhaps the central figure in this revisionist narrative about Cold War art. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, Pollock’s spontaneous action paintings were placed at the heart of the official critical story of abstract expressionism, which understood that movement not only as the leading edge of modern painting but also as a key symbol of the American commitment to individual freedom. While in the 1970s and ’80s this story began to be challenged, the associations between Americanness, freedom, and artistic expression forged during the earlier period still remain with us in a powerful way. One of the most telling paradoxes of the period in which this ideology was forged is that it was avant-garde art, rather than the commercial art and entertainment accessed by the vast majority of Americans, that served as proof of the freedom narrative. In other words, the cultural Cold War saw high-modernist aesthetics move from the margins to the center, with the political valence of that aesthetics being subtly altered in the process. As Greg Barnhisel has noted, in a range of Cold War conferences and publications, many of them state-sponsored, “the oppositional, even revolutionary impulses that underpinned so much modernist art would be redefined as being aimed not against bourgeois society, capitalism, and liberal individualism but against middlebrowism, mass culture, and Stalinoid instrumentality.”
At least since the British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders published her crossover hit Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999), debate has raged as to what this covert state funding and promotion should mean for our assessment of the achievements of American artists during the Cold War. Pithily summarizing the two sides of the debate, Mark Greif has commented that “[y]ou can view this as a troubling warning of how reputations are made by power or take it as a sunnier lesson on propaganda: sometimes propaganda need only be art.” The latter, I think, is the key lesson that Vladislav Surkov has drawn from the cultural Cold War—that art can successfully function as propaganda, not because of its content but simply through its very existence as art. In Surkov’s post-Soviet Russia, as in the Cold War United States, art could be free, and could even express its freedom by being critical of state power, without having any impact on the operations of that power. 
I find it telling in this context that, in his BBC radio documentary about Surkov, journalist Gatehouse compares his subject to perhaps the most celebrated Russian modernist artist, Kazimir Malevich, and to his most notorious creation, the 1915 painting Black Square. This, it turns out, is an apt comparison, albeit not quite for the reasons Gatehouse intends. For Gatehouse, what connects Surkov to Malevich is that both have “thrown a bomb” into their contemporary worlds; for one, this was an artistic world, for the other a political world. “This isn’t a story about art,” Gatehouse observes at the beginning of his first episode, “this is a story of how one Russian turned reality inside out.”
But, I would suggest, perhaps this is, at least in part, a story about art. The most famous statement Malevich ever made—in words, at least, rather than on canvas—was the following: “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins.” Surkov’s Almost Zero thus reads as a direct allusion to Malevich’s statement, indicating that he sees himself in a lineage with the pre-Soviet avant-garde. In his 1988 book The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, Boris Groys has offered an influential account of this avant-garde as demonstrating “a direct connection between the will to power and the artistic will to master the material and organize it according to laws dictated by the artists themselves.” Soviet (and particularly Stalinist) culture was simultaneously defined by the political ambitions of its artists and the artistic ambitions of its politicians. In this sense, while Malevich’s abstraction can in some ways be seen as the Russian equivalent of Pollock’s action painting, the former’s expression of freedom could never be nonideological or nonpolitical in the way that Pollock’s was imagined to be. “Malevich is hard to stop writing about,” T. J. Clark has remarked, “mainly, I think, because of his work’s authority.” The attraction of that authority to a figure like Surkov is that it is aesthetic and political all at once, possessing the ability, we might say, to effect a compromise between chaos and order.
In an interview with The Financial Times in June 2021, more than a year after he had been sacked by Putin for a second time, Surkov set forth in brief his theory of art, politics, and Russian history:
In the Soviet Union, there was a lot of homogeneity. And that homogeneity ruined the Soviet Union, because people need diversity. But in the 1990s, we had diversity. And that diversity was ruining Russia even faster. […] For a while I was a student at the institute of culture. I studied the Commedia dell’arte. […] People need to see themselves on stage. In this masked comedy, there is a director, there is a plot. And this is when I understood what needed to be done. We had to give diversity to people. But that diversity had to be under control. And then everyone would be satisfied. And at the same time, the unity of the society would be preserved … It works, this model works. It is a good compromise between chaos and order.
Although this reads as a more transparent statement of Surkov’s views than one will find in most of his writings or speeches, I don’t ultimately know whether to trust the teller or his tale. But whatever Surkov really believes, if we turn back, in conclusion, to the war in Ukraine that escalated so horrifically a year ago, I think we can say that any compromise between chaos and order has broken down.
If we ask what the lessons of Surkov’s aesthetic philosophy are for understanding Russia’s war in Ukraine—its origins, methods, and consequences—it is obviously difficult to say, not least since Surkov has been out of office for three years now. But what does seem evident is that Surkov’s methods while in office—which relied on creating at least the impression of freedom and plurality in Russian society, foremost in the realm of artistic expression, and on achieving political aims through the promotion of “satire, irony, humor and especially ambiguity”—these methods no longer seem to be the methods of Putin’s regime. Launching a full-scale invasion of an independent country, while cracking down on free media and artistic and political expression at home, are much more redolent of the 20th-century authoritarianisms and totalitarianisms that Surkov once appeared keen to update for a new era. This war seems, in so many ways, like a return to a dark past. We can only hope, in solidarity with Ukrainians everywhere, that this dark return is doomed to fail.
Adam Kelly is an associate professor of English at University College Dublin. He is the author of American Fiction in Transition: Observer-Hero Narrative, the 1990s, and Postmodernism (2013), and is currently completing a book about the aesthetics and politics of sincerity in American fiction during the period 1989–2008.
Featured image: Franz Marc. The Bewitched Mill, 1913. The Art Institute of Chicago, Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection. artic.edu, CC0. Accessed February 22, 2023.
 Adam Curtis, who also offers a reading of “Without Sky” in a 2014 short film, is less patient with the story’s ambiguities. Commenting on the concept of nonlinear war, Curtis says, “The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.” Although this may well be what Surkov believes and has put into practice in places like Ukraine, this is not actually what the story says, or at least not unless you merge together a number of its artfully distinguished parts.
 This interpretation is not meant to deny the influence on Surkov’s aesthetic philosophy of sources indigenous to Russian culture. As my colleague Katerina Pavlidi has pointed out to me, the shifting relationship between art and propaganda could also be traced through the relationship between Orthodox icons and believers, from the medieval period right up to Malevich’s Black Square, discussed in this essay. The notion of artistic freedom, meanwhile, is closely connected to the relationship between storytelling and madness, a key topos of Russian literature that is alluded to in “Without Sky” by the narrator’s status as a kind of “holy fool.”
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