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The Third Act: How the Russian Avant-Garde ruptured the Heart of Politics

Updated: Jan 12, 2020

Writing: Sarah Phelan

Illustration: Sarah Phelan

On October 5th, the Old Vic closed the doors to A Very Expensive Poison, Lucy Prebble’s dramatisation of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, based on Luke Harding’s novel of the same name. Litvinenko, a former detective with the Russian FSB secret service (a successor to the KGB), died in a London Hospital on November 23rd 2006, of radioactive poisoning from an element known as Polonium-210. His crime was to have exposed Russia as a Mafia state, revealing the links between government and organized crime gangs. The day after his death, Putin publicly declared: ‘Mr Litvinenko, is, unfortunately not Lazarus.’ In Prebble’s play, Putin, known to the audience simply as ‘The President’ becomes the unreliable narrator, hounding the audience with conspiracies and post-truths as he manipulates the narrative from the safety of an off-stage opera box. But in reality Putin is not even pulling the strings of his own administration.

At the end of 2011, just before Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev were to switch roles in an expert scenario of ‘managed democracy’, with Putin moving from Prime Minister to President and vice-versa for Medvedev; Peter Pomerantsev wrote an essay [1] on the man he identified to be the real genius behind Putin’s second-coming, a man called Vladislav Surkov. To understand Surkov, Pomerantsev claimed, was to understand “not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than 20th century strains.” Eight years on, this new type of politics has manifested itself fully in the West, in the form of Surkov’s ‘sovereign democracy’: where democratic institutions are maintained without any democratic freedoms. Sound familiar?

Before his appointment to Putin’s cabinet, Surkov worked for the Foundation for Effective Politics, a Public Relations company set up by Gleb Pavlovsky and Marat Guelman. Two men who at the end of the last Century, with no prior political experience, directed two successful presidential campaigns; the 1996 reelection of Boris Yeltsin and the 2000 election of Putin. Surkov worked on both. Pavlovsky and Guelman came from the Russian art world, and Surkov originally trained as a theatre director - together they took concepts from the Russian Avant-Garde and deployed them as political tactics. In order to understand the rise of Surkov, how a man kicked out of drama school for fighting, became Russia’s leading spin doctor and Putin’s right-hand man, we have to go back to the summer of 1996, when President Yeltsin was preparing for the next election. Yeltsin’s public approval ratings were polling lower than ever, the economy he had presided over for the last five years was failing and it was all but guaranteed that he was going to lose- and lose big. But he didn’t. In June his majority was returned and by August he was reinstated in office, and for this remarkable victory he had to thank the ingenious interferences of the Foundation for Effective Politics, masterminded by Gleb Pavlovsky.

Pavlovsky was the first to realise that any ideological framing of Yeltsin’s campaign was bound to fail, as the people of post-Soviet Russia had no intentions to vote along clear party-lines. Now the electorate was made up of generations of people who had witnessed the collapse of a communist government quickly followed by the economic failings of a democratic one. The political identity of any targeted individual could no longer be broken down to a simple voting profile, it was now a complex assortment of conflicting and contradictory micro-political beliefs. Pavlovsky set about uniting these disparate voting identities behind a singular but emotive narrative, a story of survival driven by fear. The fear of a communist comeback, the fear of what Yeltsin himself might do if he did not win, and as Pavlovsky revealed in a 2011 interview [2], the fear that, ‘the next Yeltsin might turn out to be even more dangerous. This fear that there was no alternative to him.’ The strategy of alternativelessness was delivered through pre-internet forms of disinformation and fear-mongering; a tactic he perfected for his next candidate, Putin.

Boris Groys, a Russian Art Historian, traces Pavlovsky’s subtle manipulation of reality back to a group of artists, who are now spoken of as the Russian Avant-Garde, but were then known as the Futurists, and then the Suprematists and Constructivists. David Burliuk, the father of Russian Futurism was especially good at manipulating the media, orchestrating scandalous pieces of theatre intended to antagonize the public and attract the press, he then began to brief the press before the performances took place, and crucially continued to brief the press even when the performances had stopped altogether - the events ceased but the reports continued, an illusion of provocation. In a way, every work of Russian Futurism is to be understood as an illusion, participating in a non-sensical, shapeless reality where nothing is real and everything can be questioned.

In the cerebral documentary HyperNormalisation [3], Adam Curtis explores how Vladislav Surkov has pushed Pavlovsky’s distortions further into the heart of Russian politics, and used Avant-Garde concepts to turn Russia into a ‘bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre’, where it is no longer just political reality that’s at risk of manipulation but our entire perception of the world. Surkov does this by creating a nonsensical, self-contradictory political landscape, where the Kremlin publicly backs Anti-Fascist leagues one moment, and funds Neo-Nazi groups the next. The interesting part was that Surkov then let it be known that this is what he was doing, so the public was never sure of what was really real. It is a type of non-linear warfare that prohibits progress because it ensures that the opposition never really knows what is going on. In May 2016 in Houston, Texas, two online groups, Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America clashed outside the Islamic Da’Wah center. In Robert Mueller’s Russia indictment, it was revealed that these sparring sides, the protesters and the counter protesters had been coaxed there by the same source, the Internet Research Agency. A Russian firm, with links to the Kremlin, that specializes in the spread of online disinformation - the groups in Houston were just two out of 130 they had been encouraging. The Agency employs hundreds of Russians, who at 8:55 am enter an anonymous building in St. Petersburg where over the next twelve hours they set to work posting streams of disinformation under fake avatars on Twitter, Facebook and VKontakte, (a homegrown Russian social media site). The Agency has industrialized the art of disinformation for the information age.

Richard Stengel first came across the Internet Research Agency in his investigations into the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, the southernmost peninsula of Ukraine. Stengel, who at the time was serving in Obama’s administration, believed that the Russian state, in a mirroring of the Futurist David Burliuk, had unlawfully orchestrated false Neo-Nazi rallies, which were then broadcasted by pro-Kremlin TV channels in Ukraine to create the illusion of civil unrest - which saw Crimean’s asking for intervention to save them from a potent, imminent threat- which in reality was a Russian creation. The Kremlin then leaked emails to let it be known this was happening, to ensure constant confusion. Stengel concluded that this was just the beginning of Russian interference with the outside world, and in early 2016 President Obama signed off on an Executive Order, creating the Global Engagement Center which was tasked with countering the rising threat of disinformation emanating from Russia in the lead up to the 2016 election. It didn’t work - Stengel’s task force failed to hold the line against the incoming chaos, and the fragmentation of truth pervaded the West. Russia was simply better at this new type of politics because they had been playing the game for longer, they knew how to ensure that their invented reality was the only one that made sense amongst the deafening chaos of disinformation.

Surkov’s greatest tactic is his own transparency: he makes the thinking behind his maneuvers explicitly known so that the Russian public can never know whether something is real or not. Peter Pomerantsev called it a ‘radical relativism’ that prevents dissidence because ‘it implies truth is unknowable’ and therefore no matter how ridiculous the government gets, people continue to follow it because they don’t believe there is an alternative truth. Boris Groys in conversation with Claire Bishop for Tate Modern [4], explained that ‘the Futurists didn’t have any fear of looking laughable’, and for all their pretentious extremities, the Avant-Garde artists were also very clown-like, ‘they painted themselves in different colours, shouted unintelligible words.’ Politicians of the past would attempt to deny their foolish missteps, to feign ignorance or perform embarrassment but now the absurdity, the incoherency is the point. It is present in the clownish, rage-fueled ramblings of Donald Trump. A man who is often accused of gaslighting the nation he is meant to serve, of lying, leering and sewing seeds of self-doubt in the American people. But it isn’t really gaslighting because there is no aspect of denial; in fact Trump is audaciously transparent and this is a tactic learnt from Russia. Putin openly jokes that Moscow plans to interfere in the 2020 US elections, but he isn’t really joking and he knows that we know he isn’t really joking. It is a type of cynical, mocking performance of pretending to be something that everyone knows you’re not. Roman Dobrokhotov, writes [5] that this humour is just another form of disinformation, ‘they cannot respond in a serious fashion and to the point, so they start to play-act. This is an attempt to mock, to reduce everything to nothing.’

It doesn’t matter whether Putin is openly joking or directly admitting to Russian interference in US electoral procedures because as Pomerantsev puts it, we are in a time when “we have never had more evidence, more facts, to prove that atrocities are taking place. And never has it mattered less”. These men are not foolhardy or fearless - they operate irrespective of consequence because they believe they have constructed a reality in which there are no consequences - or for us resolutions, that there will be no third act. Our perception of the world has been distorted to the extent that we now have no bearing on the present and no sense of a legitimate future because we believe it will only be more of the same - this is Pavlovsky’s strategy of alternativelessness. Politics stagnates and the people in power remain in power because no matter how bad or bizarre it gets, the fear that there is no alternative or that the alternative will be worse remains greater. It is why although Boris Johnson’s approval rating has plummeted to an abysmal minus eighteen, he is still 42 points above Jeremy Corbyn.

In an art criticism column [6] published in Russkiy Pioner, Vladislav Surkov wrote: ‘To be understood is simple human happiness. To be misunderstood is the privilege of genius,’ and being misunderstood is the current privilege of Russia. Surkov has used concepts from the Avant-Garde to turn Russia into a bewildering piece of theatre, where politics has been purged of any legal or moral standards, swapped out for nonsensical spectacle. This is worsened by the fact that the West is no longer even attempting to understand contemporary Russia, instead we historicize it, we diminish its advancements and render it a Soviet hangover. The Russia we understand is a Russia of the past and so we keep it there because this means we don’t have to acknowledge the fact that Russia has arrived at the future first. In order to progress past the current, motionless point of politics in the West we need to be able to conceive of an alternate reality that is not just more of the same, we need to believe in a viable future and to do this we have to be realistic about what type of future this might be, and right now the future is being played out in Russia.

The theatre of politics in Russia is epic theatre, and epic theatre is distinguished by ‘montage’, ‘curves’, ‘breaks’ and by the fact that ‘each scene is for itself’. This is not the sort of dramatic theatre we are used to, distinguished by ‘growth’, ‘linear development’ and by the fact that ‘one scene makes another’. Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison cuts across the two, moving seamlessly from the epic to the dramatic and touching everything in-between on the way. If this makes the play sound complicated it is not meant to - in fact the play is marked out by the incredibly clarity in which it unpacks a narrative as complex and twisting as this one. It is a play that wants to be understood and works hard to do so, as it employs a variety of storytelling devices in order to make us understand as clearly as possible, (the discovery of Plutonium-210 is played out in shadow-puppetry). Prebble operates in the whole continuum of theatre in order to make Russian politics comprehensible, in a time when Russia is using theatre to make politics incomprehensible. Walter Benjamin reasoned that the only way to combat the fascist aestheticisation of politics was through the politicisation of aesthetic. Sometimes art is elevated and sometimes it elevates. In the case of Prebble’s play it is the latter; theatre is used to make us understand the world and once we understand our situation we might finally be able to progress on from it, and enter into our third act.

‘but as soon as you start to understand what’s what, it’s time to leave.’ - Lev Rubinstein.


[1] P. Pomerantsev, ‘Putin’s Rasputin’, London Review of Books, Vol. 33, No. 20 (Oct, 2011)

[2] I. Krastev | T. Zhurzhenko, ‘Gleb Pavlovsky: the final act’, (May, 2011)

[3] A. Curtis, ‘HyperNormalisation’ (YouTube excerpt)

[4] C. Bishop | B. Groys, ‘Bring the Noise’, Tate Etc. Iss.16 (Summer, 2009)

[5] O. Robinson, ‘How Putin’s Russia turned humour into a weapon’, BBC (Dec, 2018)

[6] Z. Svetova | Y. Mostovshchikov, ‘Spin Doctor of All Russia’, The New Times (March, 2011)

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