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An elderly man with glasses in a tracksuit toip surrounded by people waving flaga dn holding banners.
Pavlovsky as dissident at a rally to commemorate the murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant/Sipa USA

Gleb Pavlovsky obituary: the man who turned Vladimir Putin into Russia’s action man

Vladimir Putin’s former adviser and spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, who has died aged 71, was once described as “Putin’s Karl Rove”. He was the man who got things done in the Kremlin, like Rove did for his political master, George W. Bush.

Pavlovsky – a dissident turned apparatchik turned dissident again – was at the heart of Russian political thinking, whether on the inside or the outside, for the best part of five decades. He is credited as one of the key architects of Russia’s post-Soviet political system, which has become known as the “super-presidency” and was instrumental in orchestrating the cult of personality which surrounds the current Russian president.

Many years later, as an outsider and prominent Kremlin critic after falling out with Putin in 2011, Pavlovsky reflected on his work in building the “myth” of Putin:

This myth that Putin decides everything, that there is no alternative to Putin, we worked on constantly throughout his first two terms. Just as everyone knew the Soviet Union was Lenin’s state, for the majority of Russians today Russia is Putin’s state.

Pavlovsky first rose to prominence as a dissident student from Odesa, now a heavily contested and key port city in Ukraine. He edited the dissident journal Poiski, for which he was arrested for false fabrications and exiled internally for three years in the Soviet Union’s far-north Komi Republic in 1982.

Returning to Moscow in 1985, Pavlovsky became an enthusiastic supporter of the reforms of the then Soviet general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev. Quickly establishing himself as a shrewd political operator, in 1995 he founded a political consultancy, the Effective Policy Fund, which Yeltsin hired to work on his 1996 presidential campaign. Pavlovsky went on to work on the 2000 campaign of Yeltsin’s heir apparent Putin, and in all spent 16 years at the heart of Kremlin strategy and image-building.

He quickly made a name for himself as a “political technologist” (his own term, apparently) and was front-and-centre of this new approach under both Yeltsin and Putin. Political technology is simply another way of saying political manipulation, by which a figure like Pavlovsky used all the organs of power at his disposal to help ensure the regime could remain in power.

His effectiveness is amply demonstrated in the way he helped Yeltsin win reelection to the presidency in 1996, just months after the incumbent’s appproval had hit a low of 8% and a year after Yeltsin’s bloc of allied parties lost to the Communist-Nationalist bloc in the 1995 parliamentary elections. Pavlovsky helped devise an electoral strategy of “no alternative to Yeltsin”, which played on the idea that if Yeltsin lost, the Soviet Union would return.

Putin as ‘Stirlitz’ – Russia’s favourite macho man

At the end of the 1990s, Russians craved stability above all and were looking for a strong figure to sort out the chaos created under Yeltsin. Pavlovsky and his team of spin doctors held focus groups which offered a range of strong figures from Russian history including Lenin, Stalin and Peter the Great.

A topless Vladimir Putin riding horseback
Old-fashioned hero: Putin likes to portray himself as a man of action. Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

They also threw in a character from a popular Soviet-era drama, Seventeen Moments of Spring, in which a Russian spy, Maxim Isaev, infiltrates the Nazi party under the name of Max Otto von Stirlitz. As Pavlovsky was to recall many years later:

We even did an experiment in one magazine. They did a cover: “President Year 2000”. This magazine was extremely popular. It pictured this Stirlitz character wearing [the] SS uniform. We realised that we needed a young, strong, powerful intelligence officer.

Pavlovsky gave them Putin as Russia’s modern-day Stirlitz. One of the selling points was that you could hardly get someone more different to the hapless and unpopular Yeltsin.

Managed democracy through ‘permanent referendum’

Pavlovsky played a crucial role in this campaign and in the “permanent referendum” that followed. The term referred to the way in which all key decisions were presented publicly with the message that it was Putin’s way or a return to the bad old days.

With a series of what came to be referred to as “colour revolutions” breaking out in former Soviet bloc countries – including neighbouring Ukraine – the Kremlin was concerned that such popular dissent would prove contagious for Russia. Pavlovsky’s strategies of political technology were mobilised, from creating “opposition” parties that competed with each other to the manipulation of electoral systems to ensure the right result, the ending of gubernatorial elections, and the development of dramaturgiya (scripted election themes) to present one’s candidate leader as a safeguard against an invented threat – such as all-powerful oligarchs, for example.

While the concept of “sovereign democracy” was developed by another senior Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov, it was eagerly taken up by Pavlovsky. He helped develop the idea, which essentially means executive power with elected representatives whose sole function is to rubber-stamp decisions.

Putinist to dissident

In 2008, Putin – having served the two four-year terms allowed by the Russian constitution – relinquished the presidency to his faithful lieutenant, the prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. As we know, Putin intended to resume the presidency in 2012 – but in 2011, Pavlovsky broke with Putin and declared his backing for a second Medvedev term.

After this, the former Putin apparatchik was a constant thorn in his side, giving interviews and penning books and articles criticising his former patron. Of the decision to invade Ukraine, Pavlovsky told RFE/RL in April 2022 that the Russian president had “stepped into a trap”:

Ukraine was supposed to be a lever for pressuring the west into discussion over security issues – it’s a game of strategy. I was flabbergasted to see him throw away all negotiating opportunities over the genuine security of Russia, and instead opt for this strange pogrom that he calls a “special military operation”.

In 2016 Pavlovsky predicted that, while Putin has embedded himself firmly into the system so that nothing happens without his say-so, he has also embedded his sistema so deeply into Russian politics that it will outlast him, however his regime ends.

“In all likelihood, it will not matter who climbs to the top; the only way he will be able to rule is through sistema,” Pavlovsky explained – having played such a key role in creating this sistema for his then master.

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