The rise and fall of a Russian political technologist

Włodzimierz Marciniak and Gleb Pavlovsky (right) during the debate "Russia: Return of the Empire?" in Warsaw in February 2007. Photo: Krzysztof Kuczyk / Forum

Gleb Pavlovsky believed that “the condition for Russia's future strategic stability in a diverse Europe is to contain Poland – if possible with the help of the European Union,” said Prof. Włodzimierz Marciniak, a political scientist, expert on Russian affairs, and former Polish ambassador in Moscow, discussing the pro-Kremlin political scientist who died in late February.

TVP WEEKLY: The well-known Russian political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky died on Monday, 27 February. He was once one of the masterminds of Vladimir Putin's electoral successes, his spin doctor. In recent years, however, he became a critic of the Kremlin. Why did this change come about?

The Kremlin lost confidence in him. Pavlovsky was already a prominent figure during Boris Yeltsin's election campaign in 1996. He was a big part of Vladimir Putin's first campaign for office, and he later led campaigns against people in the media, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He played the media like a puppeteer.

He never worked full-time in the presidential administration. On the other hand, he was on very good terms with the Kremlin. He ran the Foundation for Effective Politics, which received contracts from the Kremlin.

Over time, his importance started to slowly decline, and in 2011, he stopped working with them. Against this backdrop, his criticism of the Kremlin evolved, but it was subdued. Pavlovsky tended to assume the pose of a distant intellectual, speaking in generalities. However, he participated in the protests against the rigging of the 2012 elections.

But what was the reason for the break in this relationship? Personal interests, or perhaps a difference of opinion?

A fundamental difference of opinion. Pavlovsky was an opponent of Putin's return to the presidency in 2012, and a supporter of Dmitry Medvedev's remaining in office. In addition, his foundation had previously run the election campaign of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine. Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin's lackey, came first on the ballot. This campaign collapsed. Medvedchuk did not enter parliament. But this was an additional factor. The key one was to support Medvedev, while proclaiming that ‘it is high time to end enlightened authoritarianism’, that ‘the rule of law and legal guarantees for business are needed’, and 'Putin's return would disrupt this process'.

So he was trying to downplay Vladimir Putin’s subjectivity, in a way?

Yes, it turned out that the machine of authoritarianism he was involved in unleashing could not be stopped. It simply swept Pavlovsky away.

He originally hailed from Odessa, where he was already a dissident during his days as a history undergraduate. What do we know about his early activities?

He was not part of a large group. It was primarily involved in publishing and distributing samizdat [a form of dissident publishing activity across the Eastern Bloc - ed]. The main role was played by Vyacheslav Igrunov. But the group was detained [by the KGB] because they passed out copies of The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

During interrogation, Pavlovsky gave testimony incriminating Igrunov. Although he later recanted them, so they could not be included in the case file, the investigators nevertheless obtained some information from him. Igrunov was convicted, and Pavlovsky came out defending him. However, over time, they forged a relationship.

How would you characterise Pavlovsky's views at the time?

He belonged to the 1968 generation – obviously not the Paris edition. At the time, he referred to himself as a ‘Zen Marxist’. He had a left-liberal worldview. Anyway, this system of seeing the world did not completely change.

He is referred to as a ‘political technologist’, or ‘politechnologist’ for short. What exactly is a ‘politechnologist’?

The term may seem bizarre. Rather, this acronym is only used in the post-Soviet area. In Poland [it is used] to refer to Russian political technologists. It seems that what distinguishes people – who consider themselves to be such – from ordinary advisors, and political consultants is that they seek not only to advise but also to actively participate in the political process. For Yeltsin's presidential campaign in the mid-1990s, Pavlovsky founded the aforementioned Effective Politics Foundation. His participation in the campaign did not consist of making proposals or developing roadmaps. The foundation received money to implement specific projects.

What kind of projects?

It dealt with black PR. Scaring the public, showing political opponents as worse than they really were. Among other things, they wrote and distributed the election programme of Yeltsin's main rival, Gennady Zyuganov, the communist leader, who had to later explain himself to the press.

On the walls of houses, Pavlovsky’s people hung red banners with the words: “This house will be nationalised after 1996” [i.e., after the elections, if Zyuganov were to win - ed.]. They created fear among voters. They said, for example, that if Zyuganov won, he would bring back parts of the socialist economy.

Political technology is therefore a way of doing politics. A very dishonest one. But Pavlovsky and his ilk elegantly called this kind of activity ‘technological’.

The very name, ‘Foundation for Effective Politics,’ is eye-catching.

The following message goes behind it: any policy is possible if it is effective. When Pavlovsky started working for Vladimir Putin, he repeatedly said that Putin's ideology was that of an effective president. He also said that ‘technologicality' is a value.

Underlying such a mentality is the belief that Russians are infantile, and therefore an appropriate approach – precisely ‘technological’ – must be adopted to get to them.

Pavlovsky used very colourful language. He was fond of intricate verbal constructions, often laced with various bon mots or phrases that were well grounded in this kind of spin politics. In the 1990s, even before his cooperation with Yeltsin and later with Putin, he introduced such a concept as the “people of Belovezha”.

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–interview by Łukasz Lubański
–translated by Roberto Galea