Around the time Vladimir Putin started his first term as Russia’s president in 2000, a man named Gleb Pavlovsky appeared on the Moscow scene. Pavlovsky was a former dissident in Soviet times who called himself a “political technologist”, a highfalutin term for spin doctor. That isn’t to diminish him: Spin doctors in different administrations all over the world are among the most interesting political figures of contemporary times, because their job is to give a narrative about the government and the leaders they serve.
In doing so, they help give the narrative to the leaders themselves, who may not have worked out quite what they were going to do with power, since they were too busy getting and keeping it. They are the necessary middlemen between political power and the media. The media need a big story, and the spin doctors, or political technologists, are there to provide it.
Vladimir Putin, the man chosen by former President Boris Yeltsin to succeed him, didn’t know what to do when he arrived. At the time Pavlovsky moved into the Kremlin as his aide, the new president was – as Pavlovsky later said – consumed with anxiety that he would not succeed in imposing his will on a Kremlin still full of aides who were not his choice. Putin, remember, was still less than a decade away from being a middle-ranking, surplus-to-requirements KGB officer.
I spoke to Pavlovsky several times early in his tenure, and the narrative he gave was a persuasive one. It was that Putin, after the roller coaster that was Yeltsin’s Russia, would give security, stability and a chance for the society to recover both from Yeltsin and from Communism, to develop a middle class, to discover the joys of consumption. “It was,” he told the charismatic Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev last May, “about stability as a social construct, as a way of organizing society”. He was valuable enough to be kept on after Putin’s two terms, as an aide to Dmitry Medvedev in his one-term presidency. But then he went too far, saying openly that it would be “absurd” for Putin to return – and he was out.
Being out may account for the sharpness of a recent remark, reported by the New York Times. Pavlovsky believes that the third Putin presidency is now “selecting the harshest” choices in dealing with dissent, and in doing so, “the system is informing us that it is changing the rules”.