How the martyred king of gangsta rap, a bisexual LSD-touting beat poet, and a reclusive alcoholic painter inspire a Moscow apparatchik.
- By Whitney KasselWhitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm.
When Putin’s senior advisor Vladislav Surkov learned of the U.S. sanctions being levied against him in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he responded: "The U.S. I am interested in is Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. So I lose nothing."
A Kremlin veteran and possibly a chief architect of Russia’s Ukraine policy, Surkov made the comment as a snarky dismissal of the American reaction to Russia’s bold land grab. But it was also a striking list of cultural references for a Kremlin apparatchik: the martyred king of gangsta rap; a bisexual, anti-war, LSD-touting beat poet; and a reclusive alcoholic painter known for upending the mores of mid-century art through the advent of abstract expressionism.
It’s certainly possible that these figures — some of the dearest and most progressive in American history — simply reflect Surkov’s eccentric (and in my book, excellent) tastes. He is known to have written lyrics for a Russian rock band and is believed to be the pseudonymous author of a satirical novel. His penchant for Tupac has also been widely reported by past visitors to his Kremlin office, which is graced with the dead rapper’s portrait. Off-handed or not, however, Surkov’s three Americans each represents a strong counter-cultural thread in 20th-century American society, and provides ample clues about Russia’s self-perception as the aggrieved anti-hero of the post-Cold War order.
Tupac. Surkov’s affinity for Tupac Shakur, the California rapper killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996, is perhaps the easiest to understand, given Tupac’s unvarnished disdain for the rules of society, in addition to almost everything outside of guns, marijuana, and women. With Tupac songs such as "F*ck the World" and "Me Against the World," it’s not hard to see how Surkov’s — and in turn, President Putin’s — recent affronts to the international order might align with the dead rapper’s ethos. But those of us who grew up in the golden age of hip hop — and especially those who did so on the West Coast — know that Tupac was far from an angry and ignorant thug.
The son of Black Panthers and a talented poet and lyricist, Tupac channeled his frustration with police brutality and racism into music that moved generations and challenged the status quo in the early 1990s, an era that saw both the L.A. riots and the fall of the Soviet Union. As one of the architects of the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy under Putin, one might surmise that Surkov fancies today’s Russia to be something similar: a misunderstood rebel who sees that the emperor has no clothes; a speaker of truth to power; and a savior for those left behind by the power structure, namely, today’s U.S.-dominated world.
Ginsberg. Along with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg is one of the most celebrated beat poets and is a whole other kind of rebel — though similarly thoughtful and incendiary in his critiques of mainstream America. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War and Vietnam — not to mention McCarthyism and the American cultural revolution — Ginsberg was a strong voice for the anti-war and pro-drug movements, as well as for gay rights. (The latter, of course, is rather incongruous given the Kremlin’s continued attacks on gay rights in Russia; my guess is the contradiction is not lost on Surkov, though likely conveniently overlooked.)
Ginsberg flirted with communism but stated he wasn’t a party member. His work did, however, focus largely on what he perceived as the absurdities of American politics and culture. His 1956 epic poem, America, talks specifically of the Cold War, mocking the anti-Russian rhetoric of the day:
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages …
Like Tupac, Ginsberg was no cut-and-dry soapbox critic of the U.S. government or mainstream American culture. He often wrote of mental illness, homosexuality, and drug use, resulting in his most famous poem, Howl, being nearly banned for obscenity. Each of these topics, I might add, was by any account more scandalous than anything even considered by the banned Russian feminist punk outfit, Pussy Riot. Ginsberg also wrote often of those who had been seemingly left behind, painting disenfranchisement as a quiet source of strength.
Pollack. Perhaps Jackson Pollack is the most difficult reference to decipher, since his mode of expression was not only visual, but completely abstract. This made him an anti-hero of the art world, of course, but a tinge more opaque as an influence on Russian foreign policy. But looking closely at what Pollock represents does draw a clear line back to the subversive natures of Tupac and Ginsberg. Pollock abandoned form — then the dominant, if not only, acceptable mode of artistic expression — in order to more clearly convey an emotional state or moment. The results were explosive, complex, and mystifying to many; apt words, in fact, for Russia’s recent behavior, at least on the surface.
Pollock’s historical significance is also a good parallel, and perhaps even more concrete than Ginsberg’s brushes with communism and critiques of Cold War paranoia. According to a series of revelations made in the early 1990s, the CIA actually sponsored and promoted the work of abstract expressionist artists, including Pollock, as part of the agency’s covert cultural war against the Soviet Union. Its aim was to demonstrate that the United States was a bastion of creative expression, unlike the rigid USSR, where Soviet realism was the only acceptable form of artistic work.
According to those who worked for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA front for this type of promotion, the agency was acutely aware that the artists whom they were promoting were often quite left wing and anti-government. In fact, the CIA deliberately harnessed the avant-garde’s association with the left to make even more clearly their point about American artistic liberty.
This may in fact be the most subtle, and yet most telling message to be found in Surkov’s admission. That is to say, the best part of America is its own counter-culture. The sense of rebellion, the anger at being left behind by an all-powerful but corrupt system, has had its greatest expressions in American artists, musicians, and poets. We may not always realize it, but, as seen through Surkov’s eyes, America is the original avant-garde.
As absurd as it may seem to us, today Surkov is claiming this rebellious anger for Russia, co-opting the need to buck the system, go for broke, get rich, or die trying. We see it in the bold annexation of Crimea, in Putin’s defiant address, and in Russia’s continued defense of rogue states like Syria and North Korea. Fortunately, Vladimir Surkov is far from the only one whispering in Putin’s ear, and more cautious strains of Russian thinking also have their place. But we would be wise to take note of Surkov’s clear influence on the president — and our own cultural anti-heroes’ influence on him.