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View of the Kremlin from the Moscow River. (Photo: Минеева Ю. (Julmin)/Wikimedia Commons)

Can the Kremlin’s Bizarre Sci-Fi Stories Tell Us What Russia Really Wants?

• April 15, 2014 • 10:00 AM

View of the Kremlin from the Moscow River. (Photo: Минеева Ю. (Julmin)/Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past five years, Vladimir Putin’s presidential aide has been publishing fiction under an alias. Desperate for answers, commentators are trying hard to find some meaning in all of the madness.

You might recognize Vladislav Surkov—Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s one-time PR manager, Vladimir Putin’s presidential aide, and mentor to the Commonwealth of Independent States’ young diplomatic corps—as a proud recipient of “a political Oscar award from U.S. for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.” This is how he described the recent American sanctions against him and other top Russian officials. But mind you, Surkov could be lining up for further accolades soon—how about the Russian Booker Prize or maybe even the Nobel Prize for Literature? For lack of serious competition, he is the hottest writer in the Kremlin’s closest circles. And not only on Twitter, where he shares some steamy thoughts on “laughter and sex—the most beautiful things in our lives.”

Alas, his actual oeuvre—since 2009, Surkov has published two novels and a story under the alias Natan Dubovitsky (his wife’s last name)—does not have a ring of a Milan Kundera title. Dubovitsky’s fiction is as terse as his interviews: He shies away from clauses as if they had claws. Instead, we get tweet-length sentences that would have made Leo Tolstoy break out in hives. The pithy “And so forth” or “And in general” round off his paragraphs. It looks like Dubovitsky’s Twitter feed (@VSurkov), silent since April 2011, has morphed into longer works.

Despite this telegram style (or, perhaps, because of it), it is tempting to read Surkov’s words as a cipher for what Russia really wants and how it is going to get it. Alas, looking into Putin’s soul has become infinitely more difficult since George W. Bush’s days. In the last month, political and historical speculations have not gotten us very far. Commentators have recently resorted to the “novel approach“—literature. If it fails, voodoo and spiritualist séances are all we have left.

“A fool, looking in a mirror, might imagine himself a wise man, but that will be … an ‘optical illusion’…. Literature is a skewed mirror, always a little distorted.”

Sadly, a look through the prism of literary classics (Nikolai Gogol is Nina Khrushcheva’s recommendation) often renders Russia arrested in time. An entire country shrivels down to iron-fist rulers and axe-carrying madmen—fast. So, could a contemporary like Dubovitsky help us date the century that Putin currently inhabits with greater precision? Is Dubovitsky, as Peter Pomerantsev suggests, indeed “quietly massaging in the underlying mindset that makes the Kremlin’s war effort possible”—or is he just fooling around with words? Is he a prophet in his own land—or merely a politician one step ahead of the newspaper headlines? Certainly, his writing takes us beyond the stereotypes. But to attribute Brobdingnagian insights to Dubovitsky’s Lilliputian sentences would be unwise.

His latest short story, “Without a Sky,” seemingly begs for the “novel approach.” Three pages of this science fiction potpourri deliver the whole package: The indefinitely remote future, technology, robotization, warfare, underworlds, mutants, and even a piece of sky smashed like a window—in one place only and with no detriment to the planet.

On the eve of the Crimean referendum (on March 12, to be precise), the story appeared, like Dubovitsky’s other works, in the online magazine Russky Pioner (Russian Pioneer). We hear an interrupted reminiscence of a 36-year-old “two-dimensional” citizen of a rural dystopia—the Society—that is about to revolt against the shapely urbanites around it. Thirty years earlier, the Society’s current residents—about 100—ended up as casualties of the “non-linear” World War V, a conflict of “everyone against everyone” fought in the air predominantly by drones. After the destruction of their bucolic village, chosen as the four warring coalitions’ battlefield for its once-immaculate sky, these people grew up to be a disaffected minority, gaping nothingness above them.

Their two-dimensional thinking and vision, we learn, is the traumatic legacy of World War V. Flattened by the shot-down drone debris, the would-be members of the Society survived in frozen sand burrows to see the world as a set of simple binaries: “We understood only ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Only ‘black’ and ‘white’. No ambiguities. No half-tones. No equivocations. We could not lie.” Unemployed and marginalized by the city folk, they get ready to rise for death or victory.

This last set of goals contrasts with the emphatic lack thereof in World War V—a standoff in which conventional war wisdom mattered little. In contrast to their counterparts from bygone eras, the Marshals of the battling coalitions were unconcerned with winning. Some, inspired by “the boom years of Germany and France” after World War II, craved defeat. Besides, the conflicting parties’ ambitions had no intersections whatsoever, ranging from control over shale gas to ban against gender and sex division to improved popularity ratings. War as a process outweighed the outcome. A few impressions of this process are worth quoting:

We remember how four great Armadas flocked to our skies from four sides. These were not the roaring, whistling, and fighting aircraft of olden days… For the first time, the newest, perfectly noiseless technology was used. With some unprecedented soundproofing systems. Hundreds of thousands of planes, helicopters, and missiles annihilated each other all day long. In deathly silence. They were silent even while falling. Sometimes the pilots cried out. But rarely. Because almost all machines were automated. Generally, at the time all things automated became fashionable fast. And not only transportation means. Hotels without managers sprung up, stores without salespeople, homes without owners.

So, what can we glean from all this? Pomerantsev believes that Dubovitsky walks on the cutting edge of politics and technology—a sure sign that “it’s naive to assume the Kremlin is simply stuck in a Cold War (or 19th-century) mindset.” The unheard-of non-linear war is then the most telling proof of Russia’s steely focus on the future. The same goes for Dubovitsky’s propagation of “perpetual mobilization” and relentless scapegoating of dissenters: the Kremlin’s “new political model.” To an extent, Pomerantsev is right. On April 12, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced Russia’s preparations for “no-contact” warfare. Its revamped military should wield “smart,” “high-precision, long-range weapons” by 2020.

But Dubovitsky’s World War V and the oppositional camps that it breeds are not as modern as that. His future borrows a lot from the past. Coalitions built by provinces rather than countries? So Thirty Years’ War. Commanders choosing a battlefield? So War and Peace. Drones? By the time World War V breaks out, they will be retired. War in the black heavens? A Cold War trope for winning the “battle for the minds” on radio frequencies (and a title of a book about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for which Pomerantsev’s father has worked). Unjust war? So of-the-moment: Polls show that Russians are increasingly skeptical about just wars. Everyone fighting against everyone? A frequent sci-fi stand-in for the fear of not knowing the enemy. The story’s sci-fi elements could also use an update—by the genre’s standards, they are light years behind. Here we should recall that Dubovitsky is Surkov, whose Twitter name, Сурковъ, comes with a pre-Revolutionary touch: the Bolsheviks dropped the final mute “ъ” (“yer”) in 1918. Novel? Not particularly.

But above all, taking sides in the story is more difficult than should be allowed. The opposition is not marked as clearly as we would expect in a fictional mirror of real-life Russia. In an interview, Surkov once declared: “They say that the opposition is useful. But what use are stupidity and lies?” Confusingly, the story’s two-dimensional dissenters are incapable of lying. And anyway, should our sympathies lie with the nuanced but cold-hearted urbanites or with the undifferentiated but long-suffering members of the Society? Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? Is the revolt laudable or deplorable? Honestly, Surkov would be an even worse writer were he to spell out the answers.

Is literature an accurate mirror of life, a glimpse into Putin’s soul? Not even the founder of socialist realism, Maxim Gorky, thought so. Way back in 1935, he warned that “a fool, looking in a mirror, might imagine himself a wise man, but that will be … an ‘optical illusion’…. Literature is a skewed mirror, always a little distorted.” Let us keep that in mind whenever the “novel approach” tempts us and follow the news instead.

Yuliya Komska
Yuliya Komska is an assistant professor of German at Dartmouth and a native of Ukraine. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border. Her research focuses on interdisciplinary approaches to Cold War cultures across the blocs.

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