Surkism - How Russia 'Weaponized' PR & Communications

Remember that one morning last October when we woke up to the news that a massive 30-foot banner with Putin's face on it was hanging from the Manhattan Bridge? 

And the FBI was never able to find out who pulled it off? ...Weird, right? 

The unsolved case of the Putin 'Peacemaker' Banner appearing on the Manhattan Bridge in October 2016.

The unsolved case of the Putin 'Peacemaker' Banner appearing on the Manhattan Bridge in October 2016.

Enter the weird world of Surkism - the Russian government's brand of 'weaponized communications' that's proven itself to be incredibly effective and is drawing admiration from corporations who seek to replicate it. 

In Russia, they use a term that's unfamiliar to us called 'political technician.' That's because the leading political thinkers in Russia believe that consumer behavior is something that can be engineered - just like a bridge or a building. The most notable Russian political technician Vladislav Surkov, rumored to be Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologist, has pioneered a new genre of communications that mixes elements of branding, media and art theory, and postmodernism into a highly weaponized form of influence. Surkov is one of the most interesting figures in Russia today - he's a performance artist, a huge Tupac Shakur fan, and he writes lyrics for rock bands. He also happens to be the most powerful political puppet-master in Russia and you haven't heard of him because that's exactly how he wants it.   

Surkov, considered to be the third-most influential man in Russia, “has gained notoriety as the architect of Russia’s ‘sovereign’ or ‘managed’ version of democracy – a term that critics say described a system of rule with only the trappings of democratic political process,” (Balmforth). ‘Surkism’ is as creative and unprecedented as it is effective and pragmatic. The premise of this strategy is to confront opposition and criticism by embracing and sponsoring its own proliferation.

Peter Pomerantsev cites examples of this strategy, explaining that,” One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGO’s of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kemlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls,” (Pomerantsev). In Surkov’s Russia, the controversies, issues, and opposing parties of the day are created and funded by the same source. By manufacturing the parties and setting the agenda for their beliefs, and cutting off Kremlin resources from any one party that happens to gain too much real grassroots support, Surkov oversees a spectacle that creates the appearance of a thriving democratic society where citizens have ideological free-will. Russian citizens are distracted by the myriad of parties that occupy all extremes of the ideological spectrum, giving them the illusion that they have ideological free-will whereas in reality, their selection only includes options presented by Surkov’s Kremlin. Since access to communications media is controlled by the Kremlin, only the government can grant a party the resources necessary to organize, communicate, and participate in mass discourse. Russian media channels adapt the same strategy to target the international audience abroad by giving air-time to commentators that peddle vastly contradictory theories and false information from both sides of the debate – effectively creating mass confusion and obscuring the real narrative by giving credence to an array of false narratives.

In short, think of it like this - Surkov creates and funds a LOT of different political factions. Then he pins them all against each other. Any one faction that becomes too strong is cut off. The people become distracted by this crazy spectacle and behind the scenes, Putin is able to execute his real agenda without anyone really talking about it. Because they're too caught up with the fighting between factions that are controlled by Surkov. It's a genius tag-team duo.

The Kremlin exported this strategy and proved its effectiveness during the invasion of Ukraine. Surkov funded television and online media channels that spun up crazy narratives and conspiracies that focused on obscure topics which gave rise to puppet factions that rallied around debates held in the news. Pomerantsev points out that,” Surkov helped organize the annexation, with his whole theater of Night Wolves, Cossacks, staged referendums, scripted puppet politicians, and men with guns,” (Pomerantsev). Factions like the Night Wolves and Cossacks were given favored representation in media communications channels in debates about obscure and irrelevant issues like a regional law about the official language used in government paperwork. Topics like these were blown up into seemingly-credible racial conspiracies and accusations of ethnic cleansing, inciting fear and confusion that concealed the interests of the Kremlin in building a military presence in the geopolitically critical and trade-rich Black Sea area.

Surkov understands that by introducing new actors and parties with feigned interests into a traditional one-on-one conflict, he diverts attention from the original source of conflict, manufactures confusing alliance networks, and reduces the headcount of the original opposition by dispersing constituents among different groups. Surkov’s Kremlin uses the power of communications media to prop up a multitude of parties in a conflict with interests that don’t threaten the original interest of the aggressor in initiating the conflict.

In From Nation Branding to Information Warfare: The Management of Informaiton in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict, Goran Bolin, Paul Jordan, and Per Stahlberg’s analysis indicates that,” the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has engaged an entirely new set of actors in the information war and in the management of information, most notably from the PR business but also from journalism and corporate finance,” (Bolin, Jordan, Stahlberg 5). They argue that the increasingly complicated, multi-faceted, and untamable emergence of digital media has created a communication landscape in which communications technologies are weaponized in warfare, creating what is termed ‘the postmodern war’ or ‘diffused war.’ In response to this new type of warfare, counter-propaganda organization like StopFake and the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre have been created by Ukrainian nationals who attempt to organize the mess of contradictory and competing narratives being peddled by the Russian media. Yevhen Fedchenko, a professor of journalism at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy and member of the StopFake organization, explains that StopFake’s mission is to fight the,” Russian narrative,” which he describes as a series of ‘myths’ perpetuated by Russian-owned media channels.