I’m always on the lookout for successful propagandists because they’re often at the vanguard of PR. That’s how I discovered Vladislav Surkov, the maestro behind the rise of Vladimir Putin and the propaganda campaign behind Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine.
This article summarizes key propaganda techniques that Surkov invented or perfected. I’m not advocating these tactics. Indeed, many require absolute control possible only in a totalitarian state. But I believe it’s possible to learn valuable lessons from any master of his craft, even if that person’s goals and intentions are terrible.
Create your own reality
Similar to the “big lie” technique pioneered by another master propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, Surkov advocates inventing a reality that suits your ends and imposing it on the population. An example is Surkov’s creation of Novorossiya, the name he gave to a wedge of southeastern Ukraine. Novorossiya means literally “New Russia,” telegraphing Surkov’s and Putin’s feelings regarding where they think this region belongs.
As the Atlantic noted in a September 2014 article about Surkov, “The term is plucked from tsarist history, when it represented a different geographical space. Nobody who lives in that part of the world today ever thought of themselves as living in Novorossiya and bearing allegiance to it—at least until several months ago. Now, Novorossiya is being imagined into being: Russian media are showing maps of its ‘geography,’ while Kremlin-backed politicians are writing its ‘history’ into school textbooks. There’s a flag and even a news agency (in English and Russian). There are several Twitter feeds.”
Set the stage and stage the interactions—and the desired script will play out
Surkov spent time in the theater, which likely shaped his penchant for letting the reality you want “create itself”—similar to the self-directed story of a reality show. (And Surkov admits he learned a lot from American reality shows.) Though he certainly has told journalists exactly what to write, to him, the most effective political theater requires setting the stage—establishing the Big Lie that guides the public conversation—and then setting up the right conflicts from which will flow the results you want. Then the results feedback into the system, and it continues without much intervention from the puppetmaster.
Financial Times quoted Surkov as saying, “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.”
And in Almost Zero, a novel about a propagandist that Surkov wrote under a pseudonym, Surkov says of the protagonist: “His shadows, his puppets, his imagination, were all controlled by the audience, not his own self.” That is, once the stage is set and the plot has begun, the actors and the audience unknowingly create the script and act it out.
Create and manage your own opposition
In Surkov’s world, creating realities shouldn’t be limited to spreading sweetness and light. In fact, the most important reality to create is your opposition—because you can control what you create, while still giving the perception that people are autonomously vigorously debating the issues of the day. Conflict is essential to move the play forward. A talented propagandist doesn’t attempt to quash opposition; he creates it and manages it.
Surkov told the Financial Times, “When I started my work in 2000, I suggested a very simple system to bring law and order. We split the opposition into systemic and non-systemic. And what is systemic opposition? That is one that obeys the rules, laws and customs.”
And the Atlantic noted in November 2014: “Surkov would sit behind a desk with phones bearing the names of all the ‘independent’ party leaders, calling and directing them at any moment, day or night. The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.”
Maintain appearances while changing everything
The real secret to Surkov’s technique is casting a blanket of normality over the entire Hieronymus Bosch landscape he’s creating. In this way, he mimics a ruler who may have been the first and greatest propagandist of all time: Caesar Augustus, AKA Octavian.
“Octavian came to power when the nation, the people, were wary of fighting. He created a different type of state. It was not a republic anymore … he preserved the formal institutions of the republic—there was a senate, there was a tribune. But everyone reported to one person and obeyed him. Thus he married the wishes of the republicans who killed Caesar, and those of the common people who wanted a direct dictatorship.
“Putin did the same with democracy. He did not abolish it. He married it with the monarchical archetype of Russian governance. This archetype is working. It is not going anywhere ... It has enough freedom and enough order,” Surkov said.
Lessons from a master (monster)
So, what lessons can we mere capitalists learn from this totalitarian master propagandist? I think we learn that an effective communication strategy should clearly state the reality it believes in and seek to bring it into existence. That we name this reality, give it life, imbue it with emotional significance and insist that it exists.
We also learn that indirection can be more effective than directed action. It’s often best to choose the main players, set the stage, outline the parameters of what matters and why, and then let the action play out to generate the result you seek without obviously changing anything. Effecting change without creating the perception that anything has changed is the epitome of successful propaganda.
Jeff Bradford is President of the Dalton Agency in Nashville.