Has Surkov Given Away the Game in a Novel?

VedomostiVladislav Surkov leafing through a book in 2006. A Kremlin spokesman denied that Surkov wrote “Close to Zero.”
“Close to Zero” is the tale of a Russian publisher operating in a murky political system featuring paid-off media, corrupt officials, dubious politicians and law enforcement agencies on the take.

The short novel was published last month and passed unnoticed until Thursday, when Vedomosti reported that its author was none other than the Kremlin’s powerful first deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, writing under a pseudonym.

In the novel, which advertised itself as “gangsta fiction,” the main character Yegor Samokhodov orders a poet to write verse in the name of the regional governor to make the official look clever and win an award.

Samokhodov, a publisher who does a sideline in political public relations, then tries to bribe a female journalist at an opposition newspaper to “correct” stories about damage to children’s health from a toxic chemical factory owned by the governor’s relative.

A source at the Russky Pioner magazine, which published the novella, confirmed that the story was Surkov’s work.

“Yes, it was him,” the source said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Kremlin denied that Surkov had authored the novel. “He definitely didn’t write it,” said a spokesman.

But the pseudonym used — Natan Dubovitsky — is almost identical to the name of Surkov’s second wife, Natalya Dubovitskaya.

The author of Russia’s doctrine of “sovereign democracy,” which touts a strong, organized state at the center of the political machine guarding against chaos and foreign meddling, Surkov often rails against Western “lies” in portraying Russia.

“Our partners … tell us about democracy while thinking about our hydrocarbons,” he told foreign journalists in his last news conference with them in 2006.

Andrei Kolesnikov, the editor-in-chief of Russky Pioner, said he had decided to publish the work because of its artistic quality, despite not knowing who wrote it.

“I received the text by e-mail with a request from the author that he was interested in my opinion,” Kolesnikov said. “I really liked the novel. I am convinced it is a work of quality … for the author, it was an act of self-discovery.”

Kolesnikov said the author had told him he had previously contributed to the magazine. In December, the magazine published an article by Surkov about Spanish painter Joan Miro.

In one revealing part of the story, the opposition journalist Nikita Mariyevna tells Samokhodov she hates those in power — a “greasy crowd” of governors, deputies, ministers, security service officials and police.

But the book’s hero replies: “It’s not those in power that you hate, but life.” He goes on to explain that unfairness, the use of force and stagnation are just part of life and urges her to live with this rather than try to destroy it.

The novel has received mixed reviews by Russky Pioner readers, from “boring [expletive]” and “trash with pretensions” to “talented writing” and “really cool.”

Analysts speculated that Surkov might have written the book as a signal to United Russia that times could be changing and they might face greater political competition in future.

Surkov worked as a public relations and advertising consultant in the 1990s before joining the Kremlin. He has written several songs for the rock band Agata Kristi.

Among Russky Pioner’s other columnists are Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and presidential economic adviser Arkady Dvorkovich.

Kolesnikov, who is also Kommersant’s Kremlin pool reporter, has compiled two books based on articles he wrote during Putin’s first presidential term in 2000 to 2004. The books, titled “I Saw Putin” and “Putin Saw Me” were published in late 2004.

In 2000, Kolesnikov co-authored a book titled, “In the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin.”