Vladimir Putin and his campaign team the night after the presidential election at Alexander House, March 27, 2000 // Archive of Gleb Pavlovski

Vladimir Putin and his campaign team the night after the presidential election at Alexander House, March 27, 2000 // Archive of Gleb Pavlovski


Vladimir Putin was not alone in designing and building Putinism. Historian Cécile Vaissié offers Desk Russie a new episode of her series “They made Putinism”. One of the main “builders” of Putinism, and of Putin’s public image, is Russia’s most famous “polit-technologist”, Gleb Pavlovsky (1951-2023), whose deeds are explored in this essay. In particular, he worked with the Presidential Administration and Vladislav Surkov to get Putin elected and to create the “vertical of power”, he had invented. Here is the second part.

A president like Stirlitz

After the success of the 1996 presidential campaign, the FEP (Fund for Effective Politics, see previous episode) continued to work for “the Kremlin” or, to be more precise, with the Presidential Administration where, as early as 1996, people close to Yeltsin were preparing for the 2000 election1. According to Gleb Pavlovsky, this team included Valentin Yumashev, Mikhail Lesin, Igor Malashenko and Anatoly Chubais, who had initiated the project. They did not talk (yet) about a “successor”, but about “strengthening power”: “How, after Yeltsin, can we re-establish a strong, reasonable power?”2 Between 1996 and 1999, the FEP and Alexander Oslon’s “Public Opinion Fund” formed a kind of tandem “with the mission of creating a strong power”3. Pavlovsky had already defined as one of his major goals the “vertical of power” — the concept that Putin would promote even before his first election — and the “political-technologist” would therefore claim, that “Putinism was beginning”, even though Putin was not yet in the game4.

In 1998, the FEP was occupying a few floors in a huge building on Moscow’s Zubovsky Boulevard, where the press agency Novosti had been in Soviet times and where Putin’s propaganda agency, Russia Today, is now located. Every Friday, Pavlovsky attended a meeting at the Presidential Administration, where he and Oslon usually presented an update on the evolution of public opinion over the past week. Putin, who was briefly appointed number two in the Presidential Administration in May 1998, before taking over the FSB, attended some of these meetings, and it was then that Pavlovsky actually met him.

Pavlovsky will recall that the new Prime Minister, Sergey Kirienko, “had achieved 20% of the voting intentions for the presidential elections within six months”: “This meant that, if we added another 30% with a strong pre-election campaign, we’d have the President of Russia!” Such was the level of political thinking. Marketing, devoid of any debate on ideas, to launch a president like a washing powder. Pavlovsky will confirm:

“This is how we saw the pattern of future elections: the president appoints a Prime Minister [presented as his] successor, this successor attracts 20-25% of the electorate, those who like people in power, and a brilliant media campaign adds the rest.”

But Yevgeny Primakov, who was not “their” candidate, was appointed Prime Minister in September 1998, decided to use this scheme and quickly achieved a significant percentage of voting intentions. However, after the financial crisis of August 1998, Yeltsin decided that the next candidate would be a “strong man in uniform” or, more accurately, a “man in uniform, close to the intelligentsia (intelligentnyï silovik)”. Evgeny Primakov fitted the bill, and his case was “often analyzed during brain-storming sessions”. In January 1999, two models of potential candidates remained on the table: a “young reformer” like Boris Nemtsov or a “man in uniform, close to the intelligentsia”5.

Pavlovsky, as he explained, was ready to lead the campaign of anyone chosen by Yeltsin and his inner circle. He was convinced he could get anyone elected, in particular by playing on people’s fears. He was ready to justify almost anything, and admitted, that he even suggested imposing a kind of state of war, that would give the government dictatorial powers. Pavlovsky was not a democrat. And, in the spring of 1999, a poll showed which audiovisual hero Russian citizens would like to see in the presidential chair: Stirlitz, a Soviet secret agent who had infiltrated the Nazi high command6. It was then, it seems, that Putin was definitively chosen as Yeltsin’s successor7, from among twenty candidates whom Yeltsin said he interviewed8 during a kind of “casting” — this very word was used.

Aleksandr Voloshin, the new head of the Presidential Administration, received the task to subdue Primakov, and was helped by Vladislav Surkov: they convinced the Duma to appoint Sergey Stepashin Prime Minister in May 1999. The Presidential Administration had already asked Gleb Pavlovsky to assist in building a new pro-government party and designing a campaign that would blacken the Kremlin’s opponents. Pavlovsky suggested, among other ideas, that Yeltsin should leave before the end of his term of office, and this decision too was taken, according to him, in the spring of 1999: Yeltsin’s resignation would be “a highlight in the scenario”, Pavlovsky recalled9. The term is significant: it’s all about writing scenarios, narratives. A form of sub-literature.

Still elaborating narratives, Pavlovsky decided to use Stirlitz’s model to create Putin’s image as a presidential candidate. This was made all the easier by the fact that, as the academic Karen Dawisha revealed, Putin had, as early as 1992, influenced a documentary made about him by Igor Shadkhan, so that this film would associate the (ex-)chekist with Stirlitz: the two agents were supposed to have sacrificed their personal lives to protect the fatherland10.

Get Vladimir Putin elected as president

Putin was appointed Prime Minister on August 9, 1999, and his poll rating was then 2%: nobody knew him. Pavlovsky admitted to having initially considered him “only as the central figure in the scenario” and having thought that the new Prime Minister “didn’t seem the best choice for the lead role”11. Here again, this communicator spoke as a scriptwriter. The Prime Minister’s popularity began to rise on September 9, when a building exploded in Moscow, leading — it was the Kremlin’s decision — to the resumption of the war in Chechnya. At the same time, Pavlovsky stepped up the number of meetings between Putin and “opinion leaders”: from Internet entrepreneurs, to win over the new generation, to members of the PEN Club, to seduce intellectuals. As a result, by the end of November 1999, everyone in the Presidential Administration was convinced that Putin would be elected President. However, they had doubts about the success that the new “power party”, Unity (Edinstvo), created by Surkov with Pavlovsky’s help, could obtain in the parliamentary elections12.

Gleb Pavlovsky in 2007. Photo : Dmitry Borko

Gleb Pavlovsky in 2007. Photo : Dmitry Borko

For these December 19 parliamentary elections, Pavlovsky remained faithful to some of his 1996 methods, notably the defamation of opponents. Thus, Primakov and his ally Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, created an electoral bloc Fatherland - All Russia (Отечество - Вся Россия) whose initials are OVR. So, before the parliamentary elections, the FEP set up a website with the name OVG, which sounded a lot like OVR, and published “suspicions” about Luzhkov: that he was involved in murders and corruption, and had links with the criminal underworld. Duped, the media use this site as a source. Pavlovsky also had the idea of circumventing the law prohibiting the announcement of exit poll results on election day, a law that did not explicitly cover the Internet. He set up a website to publish the results in real time, so that Unity’s victory was announced even before the polls closed, with “victory hysteria” spreading across the country in a matter of hours.

Putin’s popularity rating was already 45%.

Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999, which, according to Pavlovsky, had the effect of destabilizing his rivals and creating a “feeling of victory before the elections” among Russians. A complete renewal seemed possible.

Putin’s presidential campaign was run by two parallel staffs. Officially, it was led by Dmitri Medvedev, who had been based for several months in the luxurious Alexander House on Bolshaïa Yakimanka Street. But another team took the main decisions: based in the Kremlin, it met four evenings a week. Vladislav Surkov, number two in the Presidential Administration, took part in these meetings, as did Yeltsin’s daughter Tatiana Diachenko, Igor Sechin, who had worked closely with Putin in the Leningrad Town office, Djakhan Pollyïeva, the head of the “speechwriters” team, and Gleb Pavlovsky, now considered as the Kremlin’s “image maker”. According to Pavlovsky, his own concepts — the “dictatorship of law” and the “vertical of power” — were then incorporated into Putin’s speeches.

Pavlovsky admitted that he then felt a kind of nostalgia for the USSR, a feeling he shared with Putin, albeit for slightly different reasons, as Krastev noted. Both men felt the same “indignation at the country’s weakness”, dreamed of “revenge” and considered that Russia’s development could not be reduced to “imitating the West”13. Beyond personal ambitions, their ties were also ideological.

On March 26, 2000, Vladimir Putin was elected President of Russia in the first round, with 52.9% of the vote. Vitali Mansky’s film, Putin’s Witnesses, shows images of this victory. That evening, they were all present at the campaign headquarters: the candidate and his wife, Dmitri Medvedev, Vladislav Surkov, Anatoly Chubais, Gleb Pavlovsky in his apple-green jacket — he was then, commented Mansky, “the country’s leading political consultant” —, Valentin Yumachev, Mikhail Kasyanov, who would become Prime Minister during Putin’s first term and has since emigrated, Mikhail Lesin, etc. Each of them pronounced a toast, as the crowd gathered around a table. Surkov’s toast was “For the sacralization of power”, and Pavlovsky admitted he was a little embarrassed by this, even though, he added, he shared this “cult of power”14. In fact, he recognized that the aim of his campaign was to revive among the Russian people “the habit of worshipping their national leaders”, a habit lost since the late 1980s15.

Mansky’s film also shows Boris Nemtsov. Interviewed on television, Nemtsov pointed out that no one knew Vladimir Putin’s program: “We voted with our hearts, without knowing what will happen to us tomorrow.” The politician was assassinated at the foot of the Kremlin on February 27, 2015, while opposing the war against Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin’s first term (2000-2004)

As Pavlovsky recalled, he was, after the presidential election, “a well-known media figure”, but also a model of success and “an icon of style”: cab drivers refused to charge him and young elites awaited his analyses. He was seen — by strange comparisons — “either as the Clausewitz or the James Bond of the new regime”16. He remained director of the FEP and political marketing advisor to the Presidential Administration, with Surkov overseeing all such experts. In 2018, Pavlovsky still considered that “the beginning of the Putin presidency was excellent”: there had been many reforms — which is not untrue —, Russia has regained its place on the world stage, and the risks of a “second Yugoslavia” had faded17.

Among other things, Pavlovsky helped create the Doctrine of Informational Security, which, drawn up by the Security Council under the direction of KGB General Sergei Ivanov, defined the “indispensable limitations” that had, supposedly, to be placed on the circulation of certain information. Signed by Putin on September 9, 2000, it provided for the strengthening of government media and for an increased state involvement in television and radio strategy. The bill was implemented, and Pavlovsky even justified the attacks on the media after the election:

“It’s unpleasant to remember, but at the time, I was convinced that Putin was obliged to sacrifice certain members of the old elites, in order to free the new power from the sins committed in the 1990s. I felt that the Kremlin needed its ‘XXth Congress’: to punish a few sinners and mark a clear separation between the old State and the new one.”

Gleb Pavlovsky in 2021

Gleb Pavlovsky in 2021 // His Facebook page

He even suggested that this separation between the two eras be marked by attacks “on one or two oligarchs”. And, he admitted, everyone understood that the people to be “sacrificed” were “Gusinsky and, after him, Berezovsky”, the owners of the country’s main media18, even though Berezovsky’s had played a major role in bringing Putin to the presidency.

Ten days after the signing of this doctrine, Putin paid a visit to the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and François Bonnet noted in Le Monde that Gleb Pavlovsky, the new president’s “image advisor”, had organized “this fine public relations operation”. According to the “polit-technologist”, “the fact that [Putin] belonged to the KGB, while he was a dissident, [was] not an obstacle: they don’t live in the past and have subjects to discuss”. The pictures are actually terrible, painful. At 82, the man who made the world aware of Soviet repression was physically very diminished, emaciated, sitting in a wheelchair. With what appeared to be an admiring expression, he looked up to the standing President, who, surrounded by his bodyguards, seemed all the more youthful and athletic. Putin seemed to beneficiate from an image of a reconciliation that could not be real without a serious debate on the past. Especially since, according to rumors reported by former minister Alfred Kokh, the writer actually received Putin “rather curtly” and “practically refused to speak with him”: “They discussed general themes on camera, and that was that.” And Solzhenitsyn was said “not to have reacted to the proposal of visiting Putin himself”19.

This visit was a propaganda/communication operation, and pictures can be misleading. But Pavlovsky seemed to be closing one of his personal circle: he betrayed some of his friends to the KGB, after the seizure of a samizdat copy of The Gulag Archipelago; in 2000, he appeared to be handing the very author of this text over to a KGB officer.

Natalie Nougayrède published a portrait in Le Monde on December 2, 2001, and the title speaks for itself: “Gleb Pavlovsky, the great manipulator”. She noted that the FEP was now based at the Alexander House, a luxurious mansion where, in the entrance, “a gilded plaque reads, as if it were a historical monument: ‘This was the headquarters of Vladimir Putin’s election campaign in 2000’“. Pavlovsky, “pudgy”, “wearing a heavy sweater, with professor’s glasses perched on the tip of his nose”, was “said to be Vladimir Putin’s great image manipulator, the man who [designed] the new power’s communication campaigns”. He was getting ready to give a series of lectures at Oxford and had just organized “a kind of forum at the Kremlin for representatives of several hundred Russian associations”, with the aim of “consolidating the ‘dialogue between power and society’“: “In fact, for Gleb Pavlovsky, Russian society is a kind of malleable material that needs to be worked on to bring about ‘a democratic and national Russia, in the civic sense of the term, which is Putin’s great task’”.

Already, the journalist spotted the main problem: “Democracy, but steered from above?” She was not fooled:

“In a way, this laid-back character, not devoid of charm, embodies, paradoxically, the coldest, most analytical approach there can be to politics in Russia, ten years after the great historical upheavals: not a debate on values after emerging from totalitarianism, but a technique for ‘achieving goals’.”

She also noted that he loved “conspiracy theories” and had used smear campaigns, “scandalous revelations” and kompromats. The fact that Russia was now “run by a Chekist” didn’t “bother him in the least”: “This is not the time to dig into the past, to demand accountability.” He even admitted having “always been in favor […] of establishing contact with the KGB”, and having considered that “the KGB was the most informed structure, the most able to influence things”. Another circle had been completed: the KGB was in power, including thanks to Gleb Pavlovsky, who had negotiated with this structure as early as the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the changes in political communication did not please everyone, and Marat Gelman, one of the founders of the FEP, left the organization in April 2002, complaining that the Kremlin was now the sole political player: “Candidates will no longer fight for voters in public, but, for example, in Vladislav Surkov’s office.”20 Another reason could also explain this departure: a conflict with Pavlovsky following the failed campaign for the Ukrainian parliamentary elections held on March 31, 2002. Yes, the FEP also worked on Ukrainian events. In this case, it collaborated with the party of Victor Medvedchuk, a close associate of Putin and the former KGB, but, because his Ukrainian partners didn’t follow Moscow’s recommendations, Pavlovsky left and it was Gelman, based in Kiev, who ran the campaign “alone, without Gleb”. The campaign was a failure, and Medvedchuk’s party’s poor results were said to have irritated the Russian Presidential Administration, the “main sponsor” of this collaboration21.

Putin’s second term (2004-2008)

New parliamentary elections were held in Russia at the end of 2003, “the last ones to be partly free, but with television already under control”, admitted Pavlovsky. The main objective was to break up “the last ‘non-Putinist’ force” — Zyuganov’s Communist Party — and win back its electorate for United Russia. The goal was achieved, and since then the Russian Communist Party has been “serving the Kremlin’s objectives”22. However, Pavlovsky would later regret having contributed to the destruction of an independent Communist Party, and admitted that “there was no need for it”, since “nothing threatened Putin”23.

Unsurprisingly, Putin was re-elected president in March 2004. His victory was so certain that he never even visited his headquarters during the campaign.

September began with Beslan and continued with the liberticidal reforms announced by Putin on September 13. Three days later, “analysts close to the Kremlin” — including Gleb Pavlovsky, of course — held a press conference to respond to Western criticism of Russia’s authoritarian drift. Alongside Pavlovsky, Sergei Markov, also close to the Kremlin, assured that “everything [was] happening within the framework of the Constitution”, but conceded that “Russia [was] not a total democracy”. Le Monde noted, however, that in Russia “few voices [were] raised to criticize the political measures taken by Mr. Putin” and that a demonstration organized in Moscow had “mobilized only about forty people”.

Some Russians will regret bitterly this passivity after February 24, 2022.

At the end of 2004, Pavlovsky was working on the Ukrainian presidential election, heading a team that included Sergei Markov: their task was to get Yanukovych elected against Yushchenko. Pavlovsky would later claim that he had not been Yanukovych’s advisor, but had merely been tasked with ensuring that a “dogma” would be respected: “Putin’s support is the condition for the candidate’s victory in the Ukrainian presidential election.”24 And Putin supported Yanukovych. Boris Nemtsov, on the other hand, was advising Yushchenko pro bono.

The battle between the two candidates was a knife fight. Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, and even Pavlovsky later admitted that after this poisoning attempt, fear set in: this was no longer a game between “political-technologists”, but a fight in which one could kill25. And yet, in the midst of the Orange Revolution, Pavlovsky mocked Yushchenko’s “paranoia” and claimed that the candidate only had a “very severe form of herpes”26. During the campaign, Pavlovsky also disseminated “in the Russian media - very popular in the Eastern regions of Ukraine […] — the image of an opposition ready to sow chaos in the country”. In an interview with Vladimir Solovyov, he even implicitly compared Yushchenko to Hitler and refered to “a rather repulsive ideology, which is really frightening”. He also claimed that an attack by the West on Russia was happening in Ukraine, and that it was a sign of the West’s desire to test “revolutionary technologies” destined for Russia27. In short, as early as 2004, Pavlovsky formulated some of the arguments with which the Kremlin, eighteen years later, would attempt to justify its military attack on Ukraine. So it did not matter if some people accused him — and still do, but without proof — of having misappropriated part of the budget allocated to his team’s work in Ukraine…

Gleb Pavlovsky in 2021 // Sa page Facebook

Gleb Pavlovsky in 2021 // His Facebook page

Yushchenko was elected, thanks to the support of thousands of Ukrainians who took to the streets to contest the election falsifications. Pavlovsky later claimed to have had disagreements with Putin over this Orange Revolution: “I considered that we had lost and that we had come up against a revolt of the apparatus and the cities, an unidentified revolution of a new type. He felt that we had allowed an American plot to take place in Kiev.” But the former Odessite also thought that Russia was next on the list, and that it was therefore necessary to “build a bloc of opposition to revolutions”28. Indeed, as soon as he returned from Ukraine, Pavlovsky was “all over the Russian media, warning of the risk of contagion of the Ukrainian scenario”, and calling on the authorities to “take ‘preventive measures’” against opponents who were trying to unite. But here again, noted Le Monde, Russian opinion remained “largely apathetic to the measures implemented by President Putin”.

On the other hand, when President George Bush met Putin in Bratislava in February 2005, he expressed concern about Russia’s authoritarian evolution. Putin defended himself, but at the same time, in Moscow, his former Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, also denounced violations of democratic values in Russia. Who was the first to speak out? Gleb Pavlovsky. On Russia’s public television channel Rossia, he claimed that Mr. Kasyanov’s statements were “part of an American maneuver to weaken Mr. Putin”. How convenient.

FEP at its peak

Gleb Pavlovsky continued to proclaim “the need to fight the revolutionary virus with strong methods”, and the FEP became, as Zygar wrote, Surkov’s “main think-tank” for combating social unrest. In particular, Pavlovsky helped create the Nashi [a pro-Kremlin youth movement], and in July 2005 he told these young people gathered on the shores of Lake Seliguer:

“European civilization is so constructed that it continually needs an enemy […]. Objectively speaking, the Russians are today the main pariahs for the West, even if we behave very well. The Russians are the Jews of the 21st century, and we have to take that into account.”29

Here again, such arguments will be of great use during the Russian attack on Ukraine. As have been the affirmation that Russia is surrounded by enemies.

Between autumn 2005 and spring 2008, Pavlovsky even had his own political program: “Real Politics” (or “Realpolitik”), scheduled on NTV channel every Sunday in prime time. In Zygar’s words, he was “Surkov’s main full-time propagandist”, something Pavlovsky claimed to regret. Many have not forgotten, however, and in August 2022, in the midst of the war, a Ukrainian FB-user reminded him:

“I remember your speech on Russian television in 2005. You said that Putin was ‘the way’ (Путин, это путь.). I was visiting Moscow at the time and was very impressed. Since then, you should have kept your mouth shut forever. And even more so when it comes to Ukraine after 2004 and the activities you had there.”

But the fight against possible Orange revolutions was a career gas pedal, as Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev noted in an article in November 2005: “The ‘loss of Kiev’ propelled men like Gleb Pavlovsky, for example, into the upper echelons where Russian foreign policy is shaped”. Although “Pavlovsky and his colleagues are hated and mocked by liberal circles in Moscow”, their ideas “are at the heart of the ‘post-orange’ consensus currently at work in Russia”. Krastev called on the West to take these men seriously:

“They are anti-Western Westernized, former liberals, anti-communists, imperialists. They sincerely believe in the virtues and future of ‘managed democracy’, a subtle blend of soft repression and hard manipulation. Most of them know the West well and draw inspiration from it. Their vision of politics is totally elitist: it’s a strange combination of French postmodernism, dissident mannerism, KGB-style dirty tricks and post-Soviet cynicism, all mixed up with very business-like efficiency and traditional Russian grandiloquence. They embody the new generation of empire builders.”

It could not be better said.

With this in mind, Gleb Pavlovsky founded Evropa (Europe) Publishing House in 2005, along with two of his colleagues, the “polit-technologist” Modest Kolerov and the architect Vyacheslav Glazytchev. In June 2007, this publishing house published The Plan of President Putin, a collection of the eight annual speeches Putin had adressed to the Federal Assembly, with an introduction by United Russia’s number one. Another book, also in 2007, entitled Putin’s Enemies, focused on Russia’s seven “internal enemies”: the three oligarchs Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and four political opponents — Garry Kasparov, Eduard Limonov, Mikhail Kasyanov and Andrey Illarionov. They were “absolute nobodies, compared to the one they’re taking a stand against. Compared to Vladimir Putin”30. Yet Pavlovsky knew most of them personally, in some cases since the 1980s. An appendix added names to the previous seven: Leonid Nevzlin, dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, politicians Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky and journalist Evgenia Albats.

This kind of book revived the image of the enemy, both internal and external, divided society, fed the cult of personality and spread the idea that some people rejoiced in Russia’s failures. It thus implicitly justified political repression.

Other books — history textbooks, in fact — were launched in 2007 and caused a scandal because, de facto, they rehabilitated Stalin and justified the purges. The first book, signed by a certain Alexander Filippov, was aimed at teachers and entitled Russia’s contemporary History. 1945-2006. It was quickly adapted for other periods of the 20th century and other audiences. However, Alexander Filippov had a specific profile: although he had completed history studies in 1984, he had joined in 2001 Gleb Pavlovsky’s FEP and had become deputy director of a pro-Kremlin Moscow think tank, linked to the FEP and headed by Nikita Ivanov: the son of KGB general Ivanov. What’s more, at least one of the six authors, thanked by Alexander Filippov, Pavel Danilin, also collaborated with the FEP and was the editor of the Kremlin.org website and one of the authors of the book Putin’s Enemies. According to numerous sources, Filippov’s manual had been “commissioned directly by the Russian Presidential Administration”, which gave precise instructions on the content to be developed. Surkov’s influence is very much in evidence: the manual repeats, almost word for word, some of his public statements.

An “opponent” after his dismissal from the Kremlin?

Still an “ultra-Putinist” in his own words, Pavlovsky claimed in 2008 that he was opposed to the idea of Putin leaving power. He admitted that he could not imagine “the Putin regime without Putin”31. When the decision was taken to elect Medvedev president, Pavlovsky still suggested that Putin should be Prime Minister, defense minister and foreign minister all at the same time. “All of them”, according to him, were then convinced by what Vyacheslav Volodin, Duma chairman since 2016, would formulate in 2014 and again in 2017: “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”

Pavlovsky was astonished by Medvedev’s easy election. He was then decorated for his “services to the Fatherland”, but was no longer considered by the Kremlin as its main “polit-technologist”32. Nonetheless, he remained one of the presidential administration’s consultants and — oops, a jacket turned inside out! — he said he had understood by 2009 that “Putinism is not just Putin”33. During the winter of 2010-2011, he also noticed that Putin and Medvedev were no longer talking to each other. Intrigues multiplied and rumors spread. Pavlovsky now publicly maintained that Putin’s return to the presidency would be a bad idea.

The reaction was swift: on April 21, 2011, when the political scientist arrived as usual at one of the Kremlin gates, his pass no longer worked. The FEP was closed in May 2011 and its staff dismissed: the Presidential Administration had broken its contract. Pavlovsky was a little disoriented to find himself suddenly without a job. Especially since, as Marat Gelman would say: “There’s nothing to be proud of. […] In fact, nothing worked.”34 Pavlovsky maintained that he and his “friends” aspired to the “resurrection of a great State”: “Not a totalitarian State, of course, but a State that could be respected.”35 The war against Ukraine demonstrates, if proofs were needed, that the current Russian state cannot be.

After his dismissal, Pavlovsky continued to work as a consultant, notably for Mikhail Prokhorov, who ran for president in 2012. A spectacular, and double, evolution was taking place. Not only Pavlovsky was becoming increasingly critical of Russian authorities — and he knew what obscure formulations to use, so as to claim that, even if he was wrong in the past, he wasn’t really wrong — but he was also increasingly seen in Russia as an opponent. As a result, he was regularly interviewed on non-governmental channels. As if the recent past didn’t exist. As if it didn’t matter. As if reputation didn’t exist “as an institution”, a phrase often repeated in Russia. As if successive betrayals and compromises weren’t of the slightest importance. Which is a little chilling.

Certainly, in March 2014, Pavlovsky criticized Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Ukraine, and he noted that the Russian president had “violated several international status quos”. He already understood that this would lead “to war, even if war [was] not in the plans”. Indeed, he understood that the Kremlin’s attitude was worrying several of its allies, starting with Kazakhstan and Belarus, and that Russia had just destroyed “all [its] communication and image progress of the last fifteen years”. Nevertheless, he too spoke out against Western sanctions, and called on Europe to intensify “political dialogue” between leaders.

In November 2018, interviewed by Zhanna Nemtsova on Deutsche Welle, Pavlovsky admitted to having been “politically in love with Putin”, ever since the 2000 election: “I became someone who wanted to strengthen his revered president ever more.” In this interview, he stated that he was “not sorry” to have been “one of the builders of Putinism” — although he apparently said the opposite earlier — and that he believed that this system would survive Putin and several perestroikas. The former “polit-technologist” was therefore “on the whole satisfied”, even if he had “committed some very bad deeds”, and he deplored the fact that “a group of self-interested bastards” had taken over the state system. In his view, Putin did not “run the country”, but delegated “his powers as president to a small group of people”:

“When we say ‘Putin did this’, we’re talking about Sechin, the Kovalchuk brothers, Rotenberg, the cook Prigozhin. Of course, the heads of the presidential administration, Vaino and Kirienko. They are destroying my state. That it still supports their policies is proof of the quality of our past work, but it’s hard for it to bear.”

Blindness, real or feigned, remained total.


From then on, Pavlovsky multiplied texts and interviews, denouncing misinterpretations, his own and some of others. Bingeing on long sentences and ill-defined concepts, he pretended to explain Putin’s perceptions. But journalists continued to interview him, as if he were particularly capable of understanding and explaining this “system” he had helped to create, and that seemed to have escaped him. And it wasn’t until 2021 that his discourse again became of real interest: in June, in an interview with Evgenia Albats — whom he had listed among Russia’s “enemies” in 2007 — he declared that he could no longer see “any scenario that would not end in a major war”, even if it wouldn’t be “World War III”. He had no doubt: “We’re heading for war, and this war will break out before the new presidential elections.”

Was it a hunch? Tips from on high? Excellent political acumen combined with an intimate understanding of the logic of the “system”? Or, more pragmatically, an attempt to influence Western countries?

Pavlovsky repeated it again, and again: Russia had reached an impasse, and there would be another war. This one, a “death trap for Russia”, would initially be “indistinguishable from an ordinary special operation”: “It will be a decision to protect something nobody needs — either trampled values, or the Donbass.” In fact, this is what happened from February 2022 onwards. Pavlovsky was the only one, it seems, to warn against a full-scale war, although for years he had cultivated this image of the “enemy”, which, as he finally admitted, was a constitutive element of the logic leading to war.

On February 22, 2022, he spoke on Ekho Moskvy radio, and his interview was announced on social networks as follows: “Prepare yourselves to lose the war”. The Russian attack on Ukraine took place less than 48 hours later. On April 5, 2022, Pavlovsky told RFE/RL’s Georgian service that the decision to invade Ukraine made “no political sense” and could only have been taken by Putin: “We underestimated the extent of decay of the Russian government.” Recalling his time working for the Presidential Administration, he expressed certain regrets:

What I regret is that I switched off my brain as an analyst during that time and, in a way, donated my brain to ‘Kremlin and Putin franchising,’” he explained. “Now I realize that I should have had a wider perspective of things, that I should have recognized the features of the system that we were building.

The price of this blindness can now be counted in tens of thousands of human lives.

To be followed…

  1. EIDMAN Igor, Das System Putin. Wohin steuert das neue russische Reich?, München, Ludwig, 2016, p. 66. 

  2. KRASTEV Ivan, Eksperimentalnaïa rodina. Razgovor s Glebom Pavlovskym, Moskva, Evropa Publishing, 2018. Bookmate, p. 65 / 222. 

  3. Ibid., p. 183 / 222. 

  4. Ibid., p. 188 / 222. 

  5. Ibid. p. 70-71 / 222. 

  6. See : VAISSIÉ Cécile, “False Nazis and True Chekists, Treacherous Allies and Close Enemies: The Soviet Series Seventeen Moments of Spring”, MAGUIRE Lori (ed), The Cold War and Entertainment Television, Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, p.107-120. 

  7. In fact, this confirms what was observed in the case of Nikita Mikhalkov. It was towards the end of May 1999 that he understood that he would not be a candidate in the Russian presidential elections. See : VAISSIÉ Cécile, Le Clan Mikhalkov. Culture et pouvoirs en Russie (1917-2017), Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2019, chapter 8. 

  8. Film by Vitali Mansky, Putin’s Witnesses, 2018. 

  9. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p. 68-69 / 222. 

  10. DAWISHA Karen, Putin’s Kleptocracy. Who owns Russia?, New York, etc., Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014, p. 203-204. 

  11. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p. 74 / 222. 

  12. See the 1999 campaign clip

  13. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p. 9-10/222. 

  14. Ibid., p. 84 / 222. 

  15. DAWISHA Karen, op. cit. p. 261. 

  16. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p. 195 / 222. 

  17. Ibid., p. 84 / 222. 

  18. Ibid., p.85 / 222. BEKBOULATOVA Taisiïa, “Dissident, kotoryï stal ideologom Poutina”, Meduza, July 9, 2018. 

  19. Kokh Alfred & SVINARENKO Igor, Iachtchik vodki, Tom 3, Moskva, Eksmo, 2004, p.155. 

  20. BEKBOULATOVA Taisiïa, op. cit. 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p. 88 / 222. 

  23. BEKBOULATOVA Taisiïa, op. cit. 

  24. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p. 200-201 / 222. 

  25. ZYGAR Mikhail, Vsia Kremlevskaïa rat’. Kratkaïa istoriïa sovremennoï Rossii, Moskva, OOO Intellektual’naïa literatoura, 2016, p. 114. 

  26. (Interview with Gleb Pavlovskyj), SOLOVIEV Vladimir, Russkaïa ruletka. Zametki na polakh noveïcheï istorii, Moskva, Eksmo, 2006, p. 510-511. 

  27. SOLOVIEV Vladimir, op. cit. p. 511, p. 513, p. 516. 

  28. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p. 88-89 / 222. 

  29. ZYGAR Mikhail, op. cit. p. 123-124. 

  30. DANILIN Pavel, KRYCHTAL’ Natalia, POLJAKOV Dmitri, Vragui Poutina, Moskva, Evropa, 2007, p. 11. 

  31. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p. 90-91 / 222. 

  32. BEKBOULATOVA Taisiïa, op. cit. 

  33. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p.91 / 222. 

  34. BEKBOULATOVA Taisiïa, op. cit. 

  35. DAWISHA Karen, op. cit. p. 34. 

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