THE VERY STRANGE WRITINGS OF PUTIN’S NEW CHIEF OF STAFF

For a country where politics has long been monopolized by the state, Russia has seen a lot of news in the past few weeks. It has been the sort of news that autocracies produce: resignations and appointments, the reshuffling of opaque men and often obscure names. High-level officials have been removed, some have been accused of embezzling and jailed, and last week Vladimir Putin changed his chief of staff, replacing an old K.G.B. colleague, Sergei Ivanov, with Anton Vayno, a younger, little-known bureaucrat who has been serving as deputy chief of staff.

What does all this mean? The possibilities are endless, and Russian journalists and analysts have been sifting through them in scores of articles and blog posts in the past few days. Putin might be tired of the old guard. Putin might want to replace his old friends with men who owe their entire careers to him (a fine distinction). Putin might be planning to crack down in advance of the parliamentary election (of sorts) scheduled for September, or the 2018 Presidential election. Putin might be getting ready for an all-out war in Ukraine or elsewhere.

Each of these interpretations is roughly as believable as any other one. Though most Russians have never heard of Vayno, who is forty-four, he is not a surprising choice. He has been a member of the Putin clan for years, and, for at least the past four, has often played the role of the President’s personal assistant, managing Putin’s appointment schedule. Like most of the men who run Russia, he has left few traces in the public space—except that he has written several articles and at least one book. These are bizarre and, now that their author is one of the most powerful men in Russia, frightening.

Back in 2012, Vayno published an article in a Russian academic journal, and in the past few days hundreds if not thousands of Russians have struggled to deduce meaning from its twenty-nine pages. The article is called “The Capitalization of the Future”; the pages that follow do little to shed light on the meaning of the title or, really, much else. The text seems to propose a new term for the time-space continuum. The term is “protocol.” Vayno’s first job in Putin’s administration, between 2002 and 2007, happens to have been in the protocol service. One suspects that this was where he got one of the ideas for this article, expressed in a complicated table called “A Model Protocol for Shaping the Time-Space Relationship.” The table, which resembles a maze, contains a number of dead ends and a few circular paths that proceed from “Concept of the World” through “Thought and Expectations” to “The Future.” (“Knowledge” and “Uncertainty” appear to be optional.) The article also contains a dense description of a device called the Nooscope, which Vayno has apparently patented. The Nooscope, which “consists of a network of space scanners,” scopes out the noosphere. Or, as the article puts it, “The nooscope’s sensor network gives clear readings of co-occurrences in time and space, beginning with latest-generation bank cards and ending with smartdust.”

Vayno has also co-authored a book put out by an academic publisher in 2012. Called “The Image of Victory,” it begins with a quotation by Putin, which reads, in full, “Winning trust is key.”

Though fewer than a hundred and forty pages, the book appears to offer nothing less than a recipe for global domination. Written as a theory of everything, the book covers all of history and all of human nature, which makes it difficult to summarize. The basic idea, though, seems to be absolute triumph through the use of tactics from sambo—Soviet martial arts—in everything, especially in economics. That is, if one assumes that there is a basic idea in the book. The text spans centuries of history and leaps across disciplines. This, for example, is how the book analyzes the Russian Army’s battle against Napoleon, in 1812: “If you are at Point A and you need to strike at Point B, then you will be forced to make a one-two strike, from A to B by way of Zero. That is too long a strike. But if you place yourself at Point Zero, then your strike will be short and merciless.” Sambo happens to be the sport in which the young Putin excelled before he took up judo and excelled in that. The sambo principle that Vayno seems to like is striking when the opponent least expects it.

What else is there to know about Vayno? His grandfather was the Communist Party chief in Estonia, who wanted to suppress the pro-independence movement there in the late nineteen-eighties. He was denied permission to do so, and moved his family to Moscow in 1988, when Anton Vayno was sixteen. Estonia, which is now a member of both nato and the European Union, happens to be Russia’s most nervous neighbor, in no small part because, back in 2007, it was subjected to a Russian cyber attack that effectively shut down the Estonian state. The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi later claimed credit.

A final fact about Vayno is that the letters of his last name can spell voyna, the Russian word for war. Is this the message that Putin is sending? Will there be war? articles and blog posts have asked. This would not ordinarily warrant mention, but in the era of the nooscope all things seem to take on meaning, and hundreds of Russian bloggers have become preoccupied with the anagram.

In fact, there already is a war. While what’s left of the Russian media is preoccupied with personnel reshuffling, and the rest of the world is transfixed by the spectacle of the Trump campaign, Russia has been ratcheting up tension and fighting in Ukraine. Last week, Putin said that he would not be taking part in proposed peace negotiations with Ukraine. The decision to mount new attacks in Ukraine seems to have little to do with what passes for Russian politics and even less to do with events in Ukraine itself, because, as with most things in Russia, Putin acts unilaterally.

Why, then, does Putin need to reshuffle his men at all, and why does his doing so unfailingly attract attention? As with more and more aspects of contemporary Russia, the best explanation was offered more than half a century ago by Hannah Arendt, when she defined the true role of Stalin’s party purges: they were “an instrument of permanent instability.” The state of permanent instability, in turn, was the ultimate instrument of control, which sapped the energies and attention of all. The best way to insure being able to strike when it is least expected is to scramble all expectations. Perhaps that’s why Vayno’s “Protocol” turns the time-space continuum into a maze. Then again, maybe that’s what the nooscope is for.

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